Mental Scrap--book: December 2004 Archives

Sleight of mind

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We set a record for this fine, sunny day, 65 at 3:30 p.m., while Jacksonville, Florida, had a mere 63. That's what we call shirt-sleeve weather: I changed from hot sweatshirt during late-morning errands to a short-sleeved pullover and opened windows before going off to mail a gift to my newest third cousin--we use ordinal numbers rather than degree--Raney Krause born at home the way I was, albeit not her parents' intention; to stop finally and buy some bread, Kalamara olive and tomato basil, at a French emigre's place in Dundee hard hit by the childish superpatriot tantrum that wouldn't even allow French fries (he wants to become an American citizen ultimately, for heaven's sake); and to re-visit one of Joslyn Art Museum's best shows, "Renaissance to Rococo: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art," this time to check out details I hadn't noticed before when I read placards and took in the whole paintings. This time I saw details: the nine other paintings with dogs besides the one with five I had noted; the very sturdy hoe Jesus has inexplicably in his right hand I'd missed under the cumulonimbus mammatus sky I hadn't missed--the kind we fear as ominous eggcrate wind-storm clouds--in Orsi's Noli me tangere; the clumsy wooden saddle in the lower left corner of Cardi's Adoration of the Shepherds; the many variations of angels, those creatures stolen, along with the Devil, the Magi, and several aspects of the cult of Mithra--virgin birth, 12 disciples, etc.--by Christianity from the Zoroastrians (Zoroaster/Zarathustra, better known by Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra theme for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Curiously many of those angels had halos much like the one on our Christmas-treetop angel, invisible glass with incandescent rim, halos the end result of the auras mediums still claim to see emanating around people or ghosts. I studied the plants the way I did hiking, palm trees wildly different from very stylized like Bob Ross' to some kind of punk haystack haircut, but I looked especially hard at the painted illusions of fabrics like the richly embroidered brocades, the satin sheens, the wondrous velour quality of Joseph's and Mary's clothes in four pastels in one favorite, Halle's The Holy Family with its robust red-headed Christchild. Still the most startling illusion was the checkers rolling off their board out of the bottom of the painting in Traversi's A Quarrel over a Board Game. My longtime favorite painted illusions remain glass and gems, the little daubs of white, gray, sometimes colors that resolve, as you back away, into realistically glistening goblets and goldfish bowls and the omnipresent baroque pearl earrings and necklaces--baroque means "irregularly shaped [pearl]." Of course, I know the joke of Magritte's This Is Not a Pipe painting portraying a pipe, bluntly mocking people who demand realism in art, for naturally it isn't a pipe but a painting of one on a flat surface. The illusion. Which is what art's usually about.
I'd been thinking about illusion anyway, having tuned into an unusual documentary this morning on the Sundance channel with its independent/foreign films. A 2003 French film, Investigations into the Invisible World, is a straightforward documentary of Icelanders discussing seeing elves, gnomes, fairies, trolls, ghosts, water monsters from years like 1970 and 1993, usually standing in front of the relevant sites: a policeman talking about a rock his friendly gnome lived in; a medium describing the ghostly inhabitants of a haunted hotel, their spectral surroundings, and what they were saying at the very moment the camera showed nothing but her, with closed eyes, in several rooms; several schoolchildren describing a water monster, followed by a bulletin board of their so-inspired drawings; a tourist map drawn for locating sites of fairies and gnomes, described by a national tourism official; a Druid priest castigating Christians for oversimplifying the world of gods and performing a marriage in the Norse names of Friga (hence our Friday) and Thor (hence our Thursday). Thor, "Thunder," used lightning as a weapon; Santa's reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, are literally Thunder and Lightning. Further, if you've not known about Druids, some still having their celebrations at Stonehenge, you can watch Heath Ledger's first TV serial, Roar, occasionally rerun on the SciFi Channel--preceding his popular Ten Things I Hate About You--in which he's the young chief, Conor, of a Celtic tribe combatting the Romans in early Britain, the Druids their spiritual guides. I knew about the sensational Icelandic biotech DNA studies, the most comprehensive anywhere, from that nation's meticulous medical records now mapped out genetically, so I was actually most interested in the identifying names under each witness, all daughters and sons, Margarita Jonsdottir, Selma Eriksdottir, Thomas Emilsson, Matthew Guntersson.
As a child I virtually memorized Hans Christian Anderson's and the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales and knew the Old Testament back-to-front from a thick comic-book version, and ever since mythology has been one of my major interests up through Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell and graduate study in the area. Unlike a cousin who ignorantly pooh-poohed mythology, knowing nothing about it, I believe in its scholarship bolstered by historical records and archaeology, such as the National Geographic's coverage of an ancient Black Sea flood now thought to have inspired the several Near East flood stories, of which Noah's Ark was a latecomer (all efforts to find his unlikely ark on Ararat failing, which ark wouldn't even hold pairs of all the mammals, certainly not insect duos, given the 8,000-9,000 ant species alone). Like Campbell, a born-and-bred Roman Catholic who strode away from his religion as he learned more and more about world religions and their multiform mythologies, I haven't much interest in rigidly institutionalized religion of the closed-mind variety except as I need to protect myself against its rabid followers who refuse to let nonbelievers alone, which remark hints how I reacted to this strange Icelandic world like a pocket from ancient civilization, a living museum of mythology. I react similarly to my sisters, for we have an informational-intelligence wall between us more like the Rocky Mountains, craggy stone, often impenetrable, beautiful but highly dangerous in various ways, as opposed to my Grand Canyon Generation Gap of different moral values, cultural tastes, and child-rearing notions. My sisters undoubtedly consider it informational-overkill bullying, as exasperating to them as they sometimes are to me, not so much a wall as an annoying pothole to drive around or over. (I had toyed with using the Pacific but find the ocean boringly flat, besides which I doubt I could even manage my self-taught backstroke with my fake knee.) I've been up and down the Rockies, including over the deceptively simple South Pass our pioneers used for crossing, as well as being traumatized by Wolf Creek Pass.
Which is to say, I view many of my sisters' beliefs as superstitious ignorance, such as asking a psychic for love advice or believing Ghost, with Patrick Swayze as one and Whoopi Goldberg as his medium, is valid beyond merely an entertaining story. I snort, they snarl. It is personal history, naturally, that's really walled us apart here. I started reading at 3 and have never stopped, happiest as books pile up around me, usually with two to four going at once, in teaching years having about 5,000 (most of those since given away, books far too difficult to move around), along with 17 magazines and seven book clubs when I taught in Illinois. I lived for several years on those rarefied reservations I disdain today called college campuses, hoping I taught my 15,000 students and learning from I-couldn't-guess-how-many themes or essay examinations or informative term papers. I have 30 hours of A toward a Ph.D. that includes a mythology class which gave me a lasting interest in twins. Neither of my sisters has a college degree, though some education beyond high school; both are highly trusted professionals far superior in their areas than I could be, gregariously popular, leading very full lives, loving and much loved. One doesn't even take a newspaper, declaring herself too busy to read, at one time listening to audio books but now usually a TV victim. The other does read newspapers, not many books; she also works crossword puzzles. So this Rocky Mountain wall of disparity looms between us, formed by our own colliding tectonic plates of personal background. I feel toward the illusions of the "ignorantly superstitious" as I do toward magicians' illusions, which gave me my title. And isn't it engrossing to watch the TV documentaries explaining how magicians perform their illusionary tricks of disappearing tigers and women sawn in half? Reminds me that I bought a book of magic tricks at a Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey sideshow back when bigtop tent units traveled even to places like Norfolk in the 1940s, but I lacked the chemicals or special devices or dexterity to do many of them.
However, let me see if I can, with words, float up a vision of farms for you. I have an ulterior reason, which you'll have to wait for. The Bloomfield farm first, the one I'm most familiar with. Scraggly tall trees, ash and cottonwood, lined the mail route on the south side--then State 84 to Bloomfield from Center's main intersection--and the county road on the west running north to other farms. These were not the triple rows of the government-sponsored shelterbelts with certain varieties, like the line of silvery grey Russian olives nearest to roads, just single rows. From the graveled mail route and the mail box--we relished getting the mail for Grandma--the dirt lane took about a block north to reach the large bare yard centered on the windmill we clambered up and its livestock water tank we "swam" in, later a new chicken house by it for the boxes of baby chicks Grandma got by mail. Stupid infants easily frightened into panic-crowd suffocation from piling up in corners but Eastertime cute. I guess. (I've always considered chickens symbols of supreme stupidity more than cowardice, albeit amused by a story Mom told, with sound effects, of staggering chickens drunk on fermented apples at the Old Brick House.) Along the west side of the lane was the apple orchard including plenty of the tart green apples Mom liked and Grandma made many American-symbol pies from. I think Grandma also had a couple of peach trees. (I was reminded of that orchard when I visited Old Jules' apple orchards south of Gordon made famous by his daughter, Mari Sandoz, buried nearby, one of our three notable Nebraskan women authors, along with Willa Cather and Bess Streeter Aldrich.) Also on the west at the north end of the orchard was the two-story white wood-frame house with porch making it an L in a square/rectangle of trees, those tree squares/rectangles still the way to spot no-longer-existing farm places. Two front doors led to either the large living room on the south or the dining room on the north, with a small kitchen west of the dining room and its tiny, lower enclosed back porch, a kind of mud room, and the back door. The stairwell was at the northwest dining room corner, its landing turn with, then, my favorite picture of Mom at 3 in a Prince Valiant hairdo, straight bottom with bangs--like Louise Brooks' bob--and a big hair ribbon in a large oval ornate tin frame. (I have that too.) Three bedrooms upstairs included the largest, my grandparents', at the south end, usually forbidden for play, the two smaller ones connected by closets so that we could circle around chasing one another just like me and Santa in the Center church, crawling over the clothes baskets under the hanging clothes: hallway-bedroom-bedroom-hallway.
I can even furnish the rooms. In the southwest corner of the living room sat the heavy old upright piano with its battered keys, next, some extra chair(s), then Grandma's curved-front desk in the northwest corner. The dark blue velvet sofa lined the southeast corner, then the door to the porch, then Grandpa's wooden rocker (?) with its smoking stand, from which today I watch my TV. The dark blue velvet chair matching the sofa was between the piano and the sofa, a magazine stand at its side. A coffee table fronted the sofa. The oil stove stood in the north center on its fireproof metal-asbestos mat. There must've been a smaller one in the dining room, because in cold weather the living room stove wasn't started unless someone was going to be in there and the kitchen range wouldn't have heated the dining room that well. The buffet on the east dining room wall was by the main entrance door, the door facing south onto the porch (because of the house's L-shape, the porch subtracting residential space). The all-important dining table lined parallel to the north wall with assorted chairs around it. The small, narrow kitchen with its central aisle had the big corncob-kindling range on the east wall, the sink and counter on the west, overhead cabinets. Upstairs my grandparents' room had a "new" Arte-Moderne/Art-Deco-hangover bed and dresser of wooden streamlined veneer and my great grandparents' small dresser, with marble inset top between two small, long raised drawers below a mirror set in a heavy frame with crenelated (think castle wall) top, two symmetrical little shelves above some birdseye-veneer decoration, the three regular dresser drawers below veneered in thick birdseye maple with tear-drop pulls. The other bedrooms had in contrast plain bedroom furniture, beds and dressers, though I discovered later that the two bureaus I have, one low and wide, the other high and narrower, have golden-oak-veneer fronts for the wavy-curved drawers, revealed when, after many paint disguises over the years, Mom stripped them down to the original wood to varnish them, ruining the wide one's top by too much sanding. I'm sure Uncle L. or cousins D. and M., who often stayed with my grandparents over the summers, can make "any necessary additions/deletions/corrections," as we said in court.
Back of the house were black walnuts. The other trees were mostly ash--box elder--I think. A rubber-tire swing on a rope hung from one of those in the front, the only sidewalk from porch to gate, the "lawn" grass and weeds, mowed but unlike the pampered, neatly mown bluegrass my father forever fussed over in town. The outhouse was at the northwest corner out the small back porch off the kitchen. It seems stepping-stone slabs flush with the dirt led to the privy and the garden. The house and clothesline and large garden north of it were fenced off by galvanized large wire mesh (2" x 4" rectangles). Dogs came out of the gate barking, the most memorable one a mongrel version of a dachshund we called Low Wheel Base.
North of that house-garden area, by the opening in the trees for the back way out to the county road, was a metal grain silo, for oats mainly, fun to jump into when low and Grandpa wasn't around. Beyond it were storage sheds on one side of a roofed passage, the other side a hog shed and corn crib. I learned about natural birth in Grandpa's hog houses, awed by the baby pigs plopping out of the sows. The tractor and/or truck could be parked in the central passage. East of the farm house up the gentle, bare slope of the low hill were the red chicken coops (above the aforementioned storm/canning cellar dug into the hillside) where my cousins and I vied to collect the eggs, preferably gathering them from the nesting rows while the hens were elsewhere because I could never work up the nerve to reach under sitting hens who rudely pecked anyone rudely reaching under them. These chickens provided not only a breakfast staple, boiled eggs for potato salad and other dishes, fried picnic lunches, but also extra money for Grandma, storing their eggs in slatted wooden box crates to take to town to sell along with the milk and cream separated on the front porch. I have to digress to tell about my visit last year to ex-teacher friends living in St. Louis. When I walked into one room, I exclaimed, "What the hell are you doing with a separator, Ron!?" A St. Louis city kid like his wife, he said, "You're the first one who's ever recognized what it was." He'd bought it at an auction and shined it all up. We loved cranking Grandma's, besides which Up West it could mean we'd make fresh ice cream.
Back to the tour. North of the chicken houses, at the northeast corner of the large yard, was the big red barn, where the cattle for milking and the horse were. Grandpa always had horses, teams of them in early photos that he and Dad used for plowing and harvesting, a single one called Peggy Ann at Bloomfield I didn't like because she kicked me once. The cattle rarely--besides their milk/cream--and mostly the hogs were for butchering, meat for the table, some to be canned by Grandma, some to be frozen in the locker plants in town, the only artificial freezers then. (My brother-in-law, once trained as a butcher, still helps his farming brothers when they butcher, getting meat the same way.) I could never get the hang of milking, whereas Mama could squirt milk from the teat into my face. I did like the little three-legged milking stools Grandpa used. And overhead was the hay mow, a fine play space. The pasture ran from the barn east, over the low hills where we played Doctor beyond adult eyes; the fields were north for corn and grain.
Let me skip to their first Knox County farm, which I knew only by sight when I was small and have avoided mentioning till here. I'm wondering if Uncle L. was born here. Still known as the Old Brick House, painted a few times by Mom in her later years because its ultimate fate broke her heart but not her memory, about which cousin Linda has written a poem, it was a big two-story brick house at the end of a long lane lined on both sides by eastern red cedars, now to be seen only in photos. On the west side of the road facing east, it had a large front porch, a garden and clothesline northeast and chicken house south of the house, and other buildings I can't tell you, but I know it's where Mom spent most of her growing-up years--she was born on the Niobrara River north of Mariaville Up West--where she lived while she was in school. (When in Bloomfield High School, a cheerleader who gave an arrowhead collection to the school I never saw and so never forgave her for, during the school year she boarded in town as many rural youths did, going home weekends.) The Old Brick House is where Dad lay in bed upstairs for months after a packing-house injury in Omaha when a drillhammer fell on him off a scaffold injuring his spinal cord; the doctor would come out regularly to puncture the swollen spinal cord, the fluid geysering to the ceiling. Dad claimed the injury made his hearing so acute that he could hear a fly crossing the ceiling, and Mom and Grandma swore it was true. It was also when he made a prescient drawing of a future auto, which I have. It's where Dad and Mom were living, of course, when, as mentioned, one October day too windy to pick corn, they, with Grandpa's youngest brother, Uncle Joe, and Ella Larson, drove to Yankton to marry in the courthouse (now razed), the wedding breakfast a loaf of bread and a ring of bologna bought to eat on the way back home, as Mom always laughed about. She was 18, just out of high school; he was 27, the hired man. His family farm was farther west, which he had had to leave at 13 when his mother died, quitting school at the eighth grade to hire out and so survive.
That Old Brick House had a crack from a lightning strike down one side which later owners used as an excuse to have it condemned and torn down. If you drive from Center two miles south to the "new" pavement to Bloomfield, go six miles east where there's a picnic bench at the end of a shelterbelt on the north side of the road, turn south for about a mile and a half, you will see the site on the west but nothing else. Everything is gone, not even any trees left.
That, I was horrified to discover, is what happened to the Bloomfield farm. Nothing is left, no trees, no buildings, nothing but a bare, flattened grain field sweeping from the road north. If you didn't remember how to get there, you'd miss it entirely. I was helped by having it imprinted, my inner magnetic version of the sensory feat of a migrating bird or salmon able to find its way back to the home nesting grounds. Fisk's hill just to the west, a short steep one for the road, helped. That's where I was picked up by an old man in a Model A who recognized me trudging the gravel's edge with my little cardboard suitcase and took me on back to town, dropping me off at Dad's station. I was somewhere like 5 or 6, starting my way back to Center without telling my grandparents, when I was supposed to stay over because Mom was going to be gone a few days (?), but I couldn't stand the farm or being away from home any longer than one weepy night. As you've anticipated, I was roundly rebuked, ears scalded, about getting into a car with somebody I didn't know--they knew him, but I didn't, which was the point--sneaking off, categorized with lying, stealing, murdering; disobeying Mom, hurting Grandma's feelings, much else, I'm sure. I wish today, as Mom did with the Brick House, the Bloomfield farm I fled from still stood. A whole scrapbook has disappeared for me, as it has for hundreds of others with family-farm memories. But, if I've done my sleight of mind well enough here, maybe you can see it anyway.

"Hello, Wisconsin!"

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Hangin' out/Down the street/The same old thing/We did last week./
Not a thing to do/But talk to you/Whoa . . . yeah/
Hello, Wisconsin!

My youngest nephew and I share two PopCult areas, one in punchlines and laughing together over Red, Fez (arbitrary acronym for foreign exchange student), and the others of That 70s Show, whose theme song I've opened with, ending in the title, shouted the first season by Hyde (Danny Masterson), the second season by the lead singer Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, whose song it is. I'm also inclined to be a Packers-Favre fan to the extent that I deliberately drove through Green Bay past Lambeau Field on one of my trips years ago. Jared and I don't often agree on pro football teams and quarterbacks, though this year we've both liked the resurrected Steelers. The other area we share is movie addiction so that I ask him when I can't remember who played a certain role, for he's blessed with his father's good memory and apparently loves movies, albeit not duplicating my once-upon-a-time planning my Saturdays so I could go to at least three, if not four or five, movies in a row during my teaching years. With my dented, bent-up memory chips from too many years of court reporting overload of too many names-places-events-things, I need his help. All of which means a few helicopter flights still fly between the more popular southern rim and my favored less-visited-but-more-scenic northern rim of the Grand Canyon Generation Gap.
He is also the youngest of the family to grow up in my hometown, going to school, however, in Bloomfield, my parents' hometown, east of Center. So we're at two ends of sharply changed times, his Center retaining almost nothing of mine, little of my December 10th entry's business catalog left, a huge disappointment to centennial celebrants who hadn't been back in years. Which is why, in the bright glowing arc of the annual good-cheer comet from Christmas through New Year's, I'd also like to re-create a bit of town Christmas to balance Christmas on the farm, centering on Freddie's Store, kind of Christmas Central for my childhood. All our stores were what city people call mom-and-pop stores, and I have already said in the December 10th entry that two of our three grocery stores were precursors of the supermarkets we shop in now. They were the middle generation in the lineage from country stores to our lavish present versions with their restaurants, floral shops, delicatessens circled around the excess of groceries and necessary amenities.
No one sees a country store now unless it's at some tourist town, a kind of museum piece for the Amana Colonies or the fine collection of crafts at the Ozark Folk Center State Park, Mountain View, Arkansas. Grandma's sister and brother-in-law, [Great] Aunt Nellie and Uncle John Feddersen, ran briefly the one at the corner of the Peters homestead Up West, across the road from the rural schoolhouse used also for holiday programs, card parties, community picnics, the two together called Mariaville. I have only a wispy memory of being in their store--I think they went bankrupt--and recall much better the ones in Knox County extant to my adulthood, isolated store buildings run by couples living in the back, usually with one or two gas pumps in front, at rural spots like Venus, Middlebranch, Pischelville, and the six-mile corner east of Bloomfield. These are the kind in period movies, like Horace Vandergelder's early Yonkers version in Hello, Dolly!, several westerns, any New England movie where old geezers like me sit around the cracker barrel.
More specifically, Freddie's was our most popular, the best-stocked, and in direct eyesight a half block from our house, on the north end of the main block of businesses on the west side of Main Street, Mary's Cafe next door. In fact, before the superintendent's house was moved in and blocked the view, Mom could look out her kitchen window to see if Freddie was still open when we needed something for supper. Down where the post office is now, Ellingson's big white cavernous room became the Holmses' and had a different set-up and character entirely, including a large section for bolts of cloth, many sewing supplies, and patterns. Weaver's, a half block south of Freddie's, was about a third the size of these two supermarkets and had only groceries, also catering to Indians to make up for the trade lost to the other two.
I do remember when Freddie's was actually two earlier stores with a dividing wall in the long building, but I recall from very early boyhood only the northern room run by Holsts, a hardware, I think, not the southern half, said to be the town's earliest grocery store run by Floyd Weaver's grandfather. This original division left two main doors to Freddie's when that wall was taken out, the north door with, just inside, fresh produce by the large northeast corner windows, upon entry a long shelf island running the width of the room, wall shelves running along both ends and the back of the big store. The ceiling was floridly stamped tin, later painted, the creaking wooden floors stained dark by sweeping compound, the kind Dad also used, an oiled sawdust in small barrels. The southern door had next to it by its windows school supplies and then a number of counters with mostly nonfood items such as overalls, nylons, handkerchiefs, gifts, gloves, caps. Also by the southern door later were deep freezes for ice cream and frozen products, as well as a bench where the elderly or farm women nursing infants would sit. Huge awnings rolled down every morning, up every night, shaded the windowed east front. Near the north door were the small service counters, with the cash register, candy bars, and cigarettes secure behind whoever waited on you, Freddie, his wife, the hired girl, later one of their sons. Under the front counter was a fascinating big metal contraption like an oversized book of heavy tin pages opening from the top, with mousetrap holders for the accumulating credit slips for the different accounts. Freddie's wife, Lois, the town's record nonstop talker, would write down what Mom sent me uptown for--yeah, uptown--give me the carbon copy, and put the original in our trap, most accounts like ours to be paid monthly. At least for what I wasn't given the money to pay directly.
In front of this service-counter area was a large open floor space with a big furnace grate, like a very small dance floor when one came in the north door. On its west side was the meat case, behind which Freddie stood, grinding his own hamburger, cutting off steaks or chops as you requested, slicing up the cylinders of lunch meat such as minced ham or summer sausage, ladling out liver or, at Christmas, fresh oysters. That was also where the large roll of butcher paper for wrapping and his desk for business paperwork were, behind the meat case.
The store had two back rooms, the main one on the northwest corner behind the meat case, with its own outside door, where Freddie had a big scales, weighed and tested milk and cream, and candled the eggs that farmers brought in. We ate fresh for sure then. (Center had Mathine's dairy farm on the north edge of town which delivered milk in glass bottles, but that was only in my very earliest years, up to the age of 3 or 4. Cooks lived there in my years, Kettelsens now.) I was fascinated with the egg candler, a device like a tin lantern nailed to a door frame, the side toward Freddie with an egg-sized hole against which he would hold an egg and could tell its freshness by the illuminated yolk. The other back room on the south was a storeroom we were not allowed in. That was where the kerosene for our lamps was, in the other clutter.
I can still tell you where different items were. The breakfast food was on the northern wall shelves with most of the canned vegetables. The sugar, Jello, and spices were on the shelf island running west of the north door. Crisco was low on the wall shelf by the northern back room door. The boxes of kitchen matches, the big wooden kind for our bottle-gas stove, were on the wall shelf by the southern back room door. Kotex was hidden, already wrapped discreetly in brown butcher paper by Lois, behind the gift counters running west from the south door. (Mom had no compunction about my errands.) Big Chief tablets and No. 2 pencils were in the school supplies by the south door. You get the idea.
Incidentally, when a big truck unloading at the north door blocked my view, as I tried to peek around the truck, a speeding car hit my front bicycle wheel, which catapulted me off its side to spin me abrasively on the asphalt. With no flashing lights or honking horn in warning, the driver was roaring through to a Creighton doctor with his brother, who'd been kicked in the head by a horse. My slip-on was found a half block away by the bank door. My front wheel was irreparably bent. Besides being whomped off the side of the car and spun over the asphalt, I had uncharacteristic luck with nothing but abrasions, gravel-asphalt "burns." Dad's filling station-garage on the east side of Main Street directly fronted Freddie's, so he saw it happen, came running with everyone else who saw or heard it, and sharply refused to let M.K. take me along to Creighton. Who didn't see the accident heard the brakes screaming. The long black reminders on the pavement lasted several weeks. That's about as exciting as life got for me.
Now my goal. The Christmas season began officially when Freddie got in the fresh balsams stacked along the front of the store, in those years merely two or three weeks before Christmas. That day, that hour, I was worse than a puppy yapping at Mom to get a tree, get a tree, puh-leeze, can we get a tree. The other stores had trees too, and once or twice, when Freddie didn't get a good lot, we bought one in Bloomfield, but usually it was one of his. Our tree was always tall, to the living room ceiling with the top ornament a cardboard angel in a satin robe with a glass halo lit by a gold Christmas bulb. To me the tree was a whole fragrant magic woods in itself, strung with softly glowing colors, hung with shiny ornaments, under which I would regularly poke presents, checking daily for new ones, deceived by Mom's including marbles and other rattling objects to foil my snooping, and also under which I would regularly go to sleep to Christmas programs and music on the radio, my arm around my dog. Regularly. But first we had to buy that magic tree, have Dad trim it if need be, take it down in the basement at least overnight to put in a pail of water over my protests so that its branches could come down from the heat. My apartment house has an annual warning posted against any live Christmas tree, and a poll this year claimed 51% of Americans bought artificial trees. I know the real ones six feet tall have scary prices. I'd recommend you cut your own if Christmas tree farms are available, which I learned while teaching in Illinois.
Back in Center's Decembers, the Ellingson/Holmes store had only one feature competing with Freddie's, a miniature village of several small lit-up heavy-cardboard pieces, unlike today's much larger porcelain collectibles, set out on a white-cotton-batting layer of "snow" with a mirror lake, occupying at least two of the front window bays, the artificial snow we bought back then, like chopped-up mica in detergent-like boxes, sprinkled and glittering over the batting drifts. (Because I'm winter-crazy, I've always found artificial snows fascinating, from the Ivory flakes early TV used to the surprisingly effective foam snow of Truffaut's classic on movie-making, Day for Night. For home decorations we whipped up some kind of soap, probably shaved bar Ivory, with eggbeaters, the manual forerunner of mixers. Today artifical movie snow is so skillfully made that it can melt with actors' body temperatures or when they enter warm rooms.)
Though Freddie had the usual Christmas decorations in the windows and around the store, red-and-green crepe paper streamers, strung-up Christmas lights, artificial wreaths, the absolutely unforgettable Christmas feature at Freddie's equal in every way to the bundled trees leaning outside were the many large boxes of candies set spaced out at waist height in the large open area between the sales counters and the meat case. Three held mixed nuts, walnuts, and peanuts, all in the shell. He had a regular candy section, of course, on the shelf island between the columns where the dividing wall had been. That section had the Brach's chocolate-covered cherries we used for gifts for the unexpected, as well as bagged caramels, licorice, candy corn, the usual. But no other store in no other town at that time had his variety of candies in those Christmas boxes. Across the erosion-ravaged ravines of my mindscape, I see chocolate-covered malted milk balls, chocolate-covered creme drops of vanilla and maple, crunchy flat peanut brittle, foil-wrapped chocolate coins, big beautiful wavy ribbon candy of various colors and flavorings, root beer barrels, licorice Scotties, orange slices, nougats, peppermints, French creams of various flavors, goldish candy peanuts with hidden meltaway interiors, long satiny colored cylinders of holiday "straws," chocolate-covered peanuts and--yuk--raisins, maple sugar leaves, chewy wrapped taffy with peanut-butter interiors, cellophane-wrapped red cinnamon balls, assorted filled chocolates as in candy boxes now, cinnamon bears, molded solid little chocolate Santa Clauses, assorted toffees in bright color-coded foils, small hard candy disks like colored wheels around white fields with variously designed centers such as tiny green Christmas trees and red bells. Delirious children and bemused adults. I know I can now go to mall candy stores or trade up to Russell Stover's on to high-end Godiva outlets, but then, oh, then, it was one-stop shopping at Freddie's, Willy Wonka in little where-is-that? Center! Christmas Central to a little boy. You should've been there, Jared.

Boxing Day

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I have a hard time with holidays now. I miss the folks too much, having declared I would never spend Christmas anywhere but with them, one of my protective barriers against marriage (never found an orphan I was fond of). Key among the adjectives I would use for Mom is ebullient, a $5 word, "having or showing liveliness and enthusiasm," as forever exasperated, a 25-cent word, works for me. Christmas was her family-first absolutely favorite holiday, which automatically meant a manic dreamy enchantment for me, however much I knew I would never really get the toys I wanted such as a Lionel train or a Schwinn bike. I could dream, and I loved the season anyway, transformed by her magic ebullience.
So I write today from having stopped at the cemetery with some flowers on Christmas Eve afternoon on the way to my older sister's for a few hours with her family and my younger sister's family and then retreating because I've been too stupid not to have my own children and Christmas really is for children. My sisters try to maintain "tradition," about as ragged now as some of the sheet music I inherited, and I discourage it, not only because their children aren't really interested in the dead they didn't know or barely knew but because having oyster stew, when only my brother-in-law and I will eat it, is expensive silliness, and I'm sure my nephews and nieces would just as soon eat pizza. Nor do children now participate as we joyfully did, again the store-bought preference to the homemade.
We couldn't go to Grandma and Grandpa's until after my Sunday school's Christmas Eve program, annoying but mandated by our steel-corseted superintendent, a tiny lady with a lovely name, Rose, Grandma Clark, who declared that, e.g.--a space-saving Latin abbreviation for "for example"--anyone who danced past Saturday midnight was going to hell, which dictum may still be the law in next-door Creighton but never fazed us. Well, digressing, I did worry and ask Mom about it because midnight was a half-hour intermission time, then back for another hour--or more--of dancing, if people threw enough money into a passed hat to persuade the band, now fairly drunk, to keep playing.
Anyway, after the church program we took Grandpa L. down to Dad's favorite sister having her family gathering, a remarkably energetic longtime widow who reared--you raise crops, you rear children, another schoolteacher reprimand--her four pretty daughters and livestock, especially horses, alone. Back on the road then to the Bloomfield farm, bouncing on the back seat with the presents. This was one of the few occasions Dad went along, extra special, but then, as mentioned, Grandma was his matchmaker in marrying Mom. He owed her a few showups. If we were really lucky, it was a white Christmas, not the brown Christmas my nephew groused about this past Friday, as anyone does above the Sun Belt. "White Christmas" (Berlin, 1942) and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (1943), both huge Bing Crosby hits, the latter requested by the returning Gemini 7 astronauts, were new sheet music in the piano bench, and Mama knew all the words. Also, we all dressed up back then for such special occasions, none of the jeans-and-sweatshirt casual slobbiness such as I wore frigid Friday.
The tree was a small balsam from town, Up West sometimes what's now called an eastern red cedar, not really a cedar but a juniper, curiously turned into a pasture tree weed that's making the Knox County hills blackish green as it spreads. The tree was in the living room with few glittery ornaments because my cousins and I were happily privileged to provide the main decorations, colored construction-paper chains carefully cut out and linked with white paste as at school, threaded strings of popcorn and cranberries to be post-holiday bird banquets. No electricity meant that briefly, very briefly, given the potential fire hazard, the twisted red candles in tin clamp holders were lit for our open-mouthed delight. "Just a little longer, Grandma?"
The oyster stew preceded present-opening and the evening-long buffet set out on the dining room table, but we generally stuffed our mouths with the penuche, divinity, and fudge Grandma always made in quantity, along with some assorted store candies now found only at places like The Vermont Country Store catalog and assorted nuts like walnuts, peach-pit-like almonds, and Brazil nuts, which we called "nigger toes," the racist name for the odd slipper shape, in a turned wooden bowl we discovered after his death Dad had squirreled away in the garage; and so I have that handmade bowl, with its center column the holder for the nutcracker and nut picks. Cheap, hence more plentiful, peanuts were in a separate bowl, all nuts in the shell, of course. The sugar high must've added immeasurably to our barely contained anticipation. The only sugary fudge Grandma made--I really should use "Grama" the way the comic strip Pickles does--I wouldn't touch was with the bitter black walnuts, favored by Mom, from the trees around the Bloomfield farmhouse, those being definitely an acquired taste.
Opening presents--somehow we all received gifts from everyone before economically drawing names years later--was the evening's explosive highlight, but we also had music, Grandma playing, Mom leading singing, and, if we were really lucky, Grandpa's playing his fiddle in lively music such as at the Old Fiddlers meets and competitions still held in this area. I can't recall what because he didn't often get out his violin case, actually seemed bashful about it, but his music was like jigs and reels, whirling bright tunes around our heads. I passed along his fiddle to cousin L., who had it refurbished for her niece and nephew, R's children. I hope someone plays it just to honor Grandpa, for I never got beyond the piano and the trombone.
Sometime during the evening a special bottle of liquor was passed around for the men, not Dad, of course, and the women would giggle and taste, and sometimes we children were allowed tiny sips, interesting mainly because it was daring, being otherwise sternly forbidden (should've been apple brandy for Christmas Eve--but wasn't).
By the time they lived Up West on the Peters homestead, I had a different Sunday school superintendent with more program elasticity so we could make the trip in time to be there for Christmas Eve. Up West we all stayed for the few celebratory days. From the Bloomfield farm we went home very late, sated with cheer, to return for Christmas Day's huge meal to stuff ourselves with food and family. What joy! No need then for TV. Truly Merry Christmas.

Yikes! It's Santa Claus! Run!

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Mama's boy, yes; sissy, no. Villages don't allow much leeway for contrarian nonconformists, despite T.R. Pearson's endearing eccentrics in his masterfully comic A Short History of a Small Place. It's much more like one of my favorite musicals, The Music Man, with the pickin' anda talkin' old hens clucking over Marian the Librarian's classic authors and her elderly benefactor. Growing up in a small town is how I learned the best disguise is to look and act like everyone else, short hair, shaven, neat, clean. Then your head can quietly go where it wants to. But I was a perfectly normal little boy going to Sunday school, climbing trees, sailing homemade boats and squishing in the mud after torrential thunderstorms flooded the saucer-flat lot in front of the town hall and flooded the streetside ditches. The other boys and I had slingshots and Daisy BB guns, my boundaries for when and what I could shoot at far stricter than theirs. We mainly played racist Cowboys and Indians with our cap-gun pistols, taught by our western movies (nobody wanted to be the Indians), despite the northern edge of town being technically the southern boundary of the Santee Sioux Reservation, despite my always going to school with Indians, Santee Sioux and Ponca, and getting along just fine with them. The other town boys, particularly Jim M. and Stan E. who lived nearest, and I also played noisy vroom-vroom cars in the dirt, performed Aztec sacrifices on earthworms--guess who was the only one widely read enough to know about those--and put firecrackers in anthills. We skinnydipped in the Bazile Creek, far deeper then than it is now after farmers' dams have depleted it, and rode our bikes everywhere. (I had a paper route, like the U.S.P.O., "Neither rain nor sleet . . . .") I was Whittier's "Barefoot boy with cheek of tan" in the summer despite the hazards of nasty nails and resentful bees, and I always had a dog, my best buddy and my bedmate, like a Rockwell cover. Mom made me empty my pockets of rocks when we boys came back from tramping around the high hills encircling the town before they could clatter in the washing machine. I loved winter more than summer and spent as much time outside as weather permitted, enough to be tanned before I ever knew about fashionable ski resorts for that look, sleigh-riding down the Schoolhouse Hill, ice-skating on the Coulee Creek or the ice rink Dad made by flooding that flat-saucer lot in front of the town hall, playing fox and geese. I even got a pair of cheap skis one Christmas and learned to be stoic about burning frostbite.
So my Santa terror must have been some quirk to go along with my fear of the dark, the nyctophobia that led me to write an A+ term paper on phobias for junior college Psych class that led the teacher, a psychiatrist out at the Norfolk State [Mental] Hospital, to ask me in a marginal note if I wanted to talk about it, for free. On the other hand, I have seen other children, kindred spirits, scream at the sight of jolly old Saint Nicholas. Exactly. I'm still not sure if I didn't like Santa because of the beard or I don't like beards because of Santa, and I'm not going to chicken-egg it. But that man sent me into quivering hiding the way Jason and Michael Myers and other horror film maniacs do their victims.
Now the United Church of Christ, the Center Congregational Church's foyer has two doors, the one to the right leading to the back room, the one ahead leading into the nave. When Santa made his visit to pass out bags of candy to all the children at our Christmas Eve--usually--programs, Marilynn P., my surrogate sister--more to keep me company, I suspect--and I fled and circled ahead of him, back room-foyer-nave, as he tried to chase us down, reversing when necessary. Another option was scrambling under the pews. No amount of adult coaxing ever got me within ten feet of Ol' blustery Merry Christmas-Ho-Ho-Ho.
On the Bloomfield farm Grandma usually arranged for a surprise visit from Santa as a Special Treat. This was well before the disgusting days of contemptibly profiteering consumerism that starts selling Christmas before Halloween. It's merchants' best season because it's their longest, for pete's sake, two and a half months. Digression: I was familiar with this before it became the SOP, Standard Operating Procedure, of Greed, Inc. Working at Tom's Music Store, I knew we had to have Christmas music in before the teachers' conventions in October for them to order in preparation for their Christmas concerts and programs. The length of carol exposure was toxic the year between my junior and senior college years--I had to drop out twice working my way through college and have very mixed feelings about that building character--especially since I had to work right up to 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve. It was the only year I spent a mere hour or two with the whole family at our grandparents' in Crofton and sullenly went home to Center to watch TV and go to bed early. So I really resent what merchants do in forcing children to deal with dozens of Santas from October forward, as well as maliciously teaching them to be proper little future consumers.
Back to Grandma's. Her buffet, a standard fixture in dining rooms then, was by the main entry. We seldom used the side door into the living room, the dining room the social focus anyway. The nanosecond I heard those damned bells and "Ho-ho-ho," I was under the buffet, hiding in the darkness, though sobbing doesn't help much for that. Mama in her placating soothing peacemaker role didn't help either, and Uncle L. finally had to take off his fake beard so that I could see, gee, it wasn't Santa Claus after all. It was Uncle L.! I should've kicked him hard in the shins, but I was a good little boy.
Ironically, decades later I was considered a very good Santa Claus for the prep school where I practice taught on Wayne's campus (the students unable to identify me because I refused to talk), for my old hometown church (the children's not knowing me by then), for a faculty party, etc. I hated Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa, not even vulgarly funny, with an excess of That Word, but I'm still betting that some cash-hungry producer makes a horror film with Santa as the mad slasher. Poor Santa.


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I've never dealt with the front-page comment that angered me on the same day as the Weird-Horrid's first editorial on Judge R.: "There is a revival taking place in our nation that is causing Christian and right-minded people to say, 'Wait a minute. We've gone too far.' " Yeah, but not the way you meant it, you brain-dead bigot, but I will deal with your ilk in aptly dreary January.
And yesterday's paper offered up many streets to wander off on. Renata Tebaldi, Toscanini's "voice of an angel," died at 82. I heard her as Tosca in Minneapolis when the Metropolitan Opera toured, and Toscanini was right, though it's also what I thought of my mother's powerful contralto. Mentioning Tosca, as anyone who's a crossword puzzle addict knows, her major aria, "Vissi d'arte," pops up regularly, especially in The New York Times crosswords. And Puccini is really the secular patron saint of soundtracks, movie scores. Another Later.
A photo was shown of the record-breaking oldest-copy Scarlet Letter, $545,100. In my devotion to creative imagination, for my master's I wanted to write an opera libretto of Hawthorne's most famous work, but the old-bat biddy who was my thesis advisor and later sabotaged my Kazantzakis thesis also had a closed-door mind.
The first cel of Gil Thorp was labeled "In Omaha" and dealt with a pro basketball star complaining, "Why do I have to go to Milford?" and his manager (?) explaining, "Marketing, Babe. Tronix Shoes wants to sell you in the sticks, too." Which had my little reference gnomes running around my upstairs finding all those obnoxious sneers like Denzel Washington's in The Siege dealing with terrorists, "For all of those just in from Nebraska," or The New York Times trashing Alexander Payne's hometown, but that too must give way to the Feel-Good Season.
My option is Oliver's "Food, glorious food." One major change I find funny is the shift from store-bought Ford assembly-line (Henry F. invented this commercial conformist necessity) to home-baked. Store-bought bread, one of the key items in Price Index history, and tinned goods--I'll use the English term because I'll be writing about canning--were expensive Back Then. We townies bought bread, but Grandma baked hers almost daily, as many did, one of the key scents in my aroma closet upstairs, like her later White Shoulders perfume, the cheap Radio Girl perfume I could afford to buy Mom, Jergens Lotion, burnt painted wood from the arson ruining Dad's business, cardamom-scented candy pellets, apple pie, and balsam fir, our Christmas tree. Grandpa was the meat-and-potatoes sort along with most hard-working men in those days when we didn't have to be so health-conscious diet-aware. (It's heartening to learn that our closest British family cousins, the Australians, are fatter than we are, Americans now so heavyweight that airplane fuel costs have risen accordingly and theaters have to replace seats.) Bread is the most essential food internationally, historically, of course. Dad teased Grandma that hers always tasted of kerosene, a joke from the days he was their hired hand who would marry their daughter on a day too windy to pick corn. I preferred then the uniformity and softness of store bread, not appreciating the crusty solidity I crunched into in Greece now popular at Panera's and Great American Harvest, though Mom baked more than I am telling. And during the great blizzardy winter of 1948-49 when Center had no traffic in or out for two weeks, Freddie's Store (and the other two) ran out of bread and milk early, and Mom and the other women kept starter and hoarded milk perforce. My bread machine would've been handy, but the electricity was also off--just like at Grandma's--most of those two weeks.
An occasional (cheap) treat at Grandma's I recall fondly was bread pudding with raisins. (It wasn't until adulthood that I realized how poor we all were coming off the depressed Thirties and headed into World War II rationing.) Grandma also baked rolls regularly, my first introduction to cinnamon rolls and kolaches. The latter are a famous Czech sweet roll with a central dimple filled with prunes, apricots, cottage cheese, a poppy seed concoction, or cherries. My cousins and I fought over the first, apricots too tart, the next two unthinkable (but very Czech), the last rare in her house. To this day if I stop at a bakery in a Bohemian town--Nebraska has several, like Verdigre or Clarkson--I will buy the prune kolaces. That's also the kind I generally bake. Had to change the spelling because I just realized the food co-op my older sister does the ordering for and I and my other sister belong to, headquartered at Verdigre, insists on the authentic spelling, the pronunciation still with the ch.
I grew up helping Grandma and Mom can. That's why we had huge gardens and Grandpa butchered. Grandma's food cellar on the Bloomfield farm was down a rickety stairs into the hillside near the henhouses (Mom's was in our basement). Everything got canned, from peas and carrots to meat. I never liked Grandma's canned beef, too lardy and slimy slick like avocadoes (which I don't like for that reason, though guacamole sauce is OK). Mom loved it. When Grandma needed carrots or beets, tomatoes or even asparagus for dinner, the noon meal, or supper, the six-o'clock meal, we fetched the Mason/Atlas jars full of summer labor. Potatoes, onions, and apples were also down in the cool dimness beyond the ground-level doors. (Years later I warmed from seeing Annie Pavelka's--My Antonia--storm cellar on their farm north of Fairbury.) Such cellars were also for tornado and other storm protection, but we had none of those in our Knox County hills back then, and Grandma's wasn't all that big, the dugout lined with crude wooden shelves, just a walking space down the middle. Oddly, I don't remember the one Up West, but I think it was similar.
Just because we lived in town didn't mean we were entirely store-spoiled. I mentioned our big garden, which Dad would plant and I was expected to take care of, even belonging to a town 4-H gardening group in its short life. Shelling peas was such a nuisance that Mom tried a supposed shortcut using our washing machine. Then it was the wringer type. (Grandma's had a gas motor; ours was electric, our graduating up from washtubs and a scrubboard I still have, the kind hillbilly and cajun bands use.) On our big front porch I was delegated to stand under a sheet feeding blanched pea pods into the wringers while peas zinged all around me like the bad guys' bullets in a western, the sheet corraling them into the big tub. It didn't really work, a nutty inefficiency contrasted to hand-shelling but novel fun.
And Mom began her love affair with pressure cookers, which I distrusted ever after one blew its plug and splattered whatever was inside all over the stove and the ceiling and one exploded alarmingly. I can use one but prefer the simpler way of vacuum-pack submersion. As part of my growing-up regimen whereby Mom determined I was to be totally self-sufficient from knowing how to sew on a button or iron a shirt or put a new end on an extension cord or cook and bake my own meals, I learned much about vegetables from helping Mom and Grandma can, such as never taking the tops and roots off beets before boiling them (their maroon beetjuice bleeds out). When we got to freezers a decade or two later, I learned what was necessary to freeze corn and peaches, which is why I bought a large upright for my apartment's back room and why recently I had to deal with a carpet soaked in thawed sugary peach juice that also ruined the bottoms of several cardboard boxes sitting around.
In the Forties home canning also meant extra money for us children, who spent hours picking chokecherries, wild plums, and wild grapes to sell in Karo Syrup tin pails to the townswomen for their jellies and jams. With the early Fifties, those were the decades not many women worked outside the home, which World War II changed irrevocably, as the movie Swing Shift shows, and food was dealt with on the time-consuming preparatory basis the processing still is, if you start from scratch with produce from the supermarket, as I do, especially in retirement. Ironically it is often more costly to buy the raw shrimp and strawberries and toil them into eatability than to buy them frozen. Same with canned goods. (Nutritionists will tell you frozen is ordinarily preferable to canned: more nutrients.) Now the soccer mom and the working mom have their priorities elsewhere, preferring to buy their expensive, ersatz homemade; and our fast-food franchises circle the globe, McDonald's Golden Arches everywhere despite nationalistic protests. My nephews and nieces are lovin' it, but I'm not. I'd rather make it, bake it myself, thank you anyway.

From various websites:

Abraham Lincoln: "It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expressed! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"

I was delighted yesterday to discover comic-strip kin I had forgotten about. As I've said, my favorite comic strip currently is the award-winning Zits with its minimalist drawing--such economical changes of facial expression with so little--and its brilliantly surreal imagination, as when Connie Duncan, the mother, is nag-nag-nagging the 15-year-old Jeremy about household chores, she is turned into this yappy little dog; when Jeremy has his head figuratively taken off, the strip makes it literal, his head on the ground or being carried. Yesterday had only three cels/frames: the first, Mom Connie holding Jeremy's oversized shoes: "Jeremy, how many times do I have to tell you not to leave your shoes in the middle of the living room??" Second cel: sitting up on the floor, Jeremy: "That's sort of up to you, isn't it?" Third frame: his dad, Walt, sitting on the other cushion reading a newspaper, terrified Jeremy sticking his head up from the couch, holding the cushion like a lid as if he were in a foxhole: "Never answer one of Mom's rhetorical questions with an existential answer." Obviously, as I remembered from past strips, Connie had used her [verbal] flamethrower--and that's how it's drawn, like an angry dragon's burst, though unnecessary to show this particular day.
For that matter, the hot temper is considered a family trait. I can attest to that from holidays crammed into our grandparents' house. Two days' pressure-cooking of "Play Nice: It's Easter-Thanksgiving-Christmas"; then Mom's younger sister and brother let each other have it like cat and dog, hissing, clawing, barking, biting, like many other siblings in many other families. Grandpa cussed and stomped outside, Grandma cried, and Mom became peacemaker, the temporary wreckage to be mended and patched over and over again with TLC because we were always a very close family in those days before geographically sprawling out the American way, all of us still big-time huggers. I immediately began campaigning to go home (off the farm, yes!) back to the peace and quiet of an only child that I have reverted to today in reclusion after too many courtroom years of scalded babies and raped old ladies.

William Wordsworth: "The world is too much with us: late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;/Little we see in nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!/......../For this, for everything we are out of tune . . . ."

For that matter, in a milder degree, so that I play fair and not just pick on relatives, my younger sister and I have our heated differences. She's a very efficient businesswoman whom her partners give all the dirty work in taking care of affairs, so she's also a Control Queen (and I assure you the whole family was and is topheavy with strong women from Grandma and her sisters forward: all would've managed the Oregon Trail with no problems); but I am never a willing "Your Highness" subject for anyone, 16 years older, and clearly on the other, north side of the Grand Canyon generation gap, having my grandmother's and mother's values--and song tastes--and likes and dislikes. (Grandma and I loved cemeteries together, not scary places such as fatuous horror films show but historical with family trees and contemplative. Mom didn't.)
For that matter, the only person to stand nose-to-nose and scream back at Mom was my older sister, growing up. I was shocked when I walked into one of those fights because nobody dared talk back to Mom, as our cousins have told me. They might not pay any attention to their mother, but if Aunt V. said it--well . . . . But then I've often complained that my sisters got away with all kinds of behavior I didn't. When is that news? And happy irony: my older sister, a tomboy Daddy's Girl as I was a Mama's Boy, turned into her own nice version of Mom. I'll simply say we all share handsomely in the family heritage. Don't poke the bear. The bear bites.
The trait does give me pause. Mom didn't get it all repressed. My sisters when young had a cleaning job for my old piano teacher, one of the town institutions, the forever pianist/organist and choir director for our little church, who made me take my shoes off and wash my hands before a lesson in her immaculate home (plastic over the piano bench). I don't remember what she did, but my young sisters came home crying. At that time I was an excessively protective brother--now that they're 50 and over, I figure they can take care of themselves--and I still remember an instantaneous red fury, like that sudden, mysteriously startling hot flush nurses warn you about in certain medical procedures. (I'd say PM, but male menopause doesn't duplicate females'.) If Mom hadn't blocked me, I would've stormed down and slapped that lady silly. The physical totality of that anger shocked me, later helping me understand at least vaguely some aspects of criminality. So I've continued to work at restraint my whole life, out-of-control anger pointedly not one of my options.
The K. temper also makes me an impatient driver with very bad language. Mama was always appalled at my driving language, enough to gasp I was another person, the Mr. Hyde side, I guess, not Dr. Jekyll. She didn't know I admired her dad on that fine Czech accomplishment and wanted to model myself after him. She chided me whenever I lapsed into heated profanities: "A college English teacher can't find better words to express himself?! Really, G.D., you should be ashamed of yourself!" (Most children's mothers use first and middle names when upset; mine used both names all the time for all three of us.) By the way, Grandpa K. was more profane than obscene, as I have just said I am. Think of Bill Cosby's hilarious description of what he and his brother thought their names were from their dad's swearing at them. However, my last bailiff and our polluted language atmosphere have unfortunately infected me with the obscenity I love to hate, a word I once warned students was as brutal in sound as in meaning, the same word with its variants that makes a Colin Farrell interview an exemplary illustration of impoverished language shaming his native Ireland, the same word set that helps defile rap as the simplistic vulgarity it is. And, yes, I wrote "defile," not "define." Profanities, of course, deal with sacred names and matters, obscenities referring to bodily functions. A teacher, my mother almost always had clean language, though she was amused the way our next-door neighbor, Maxine P., turned "shit" into three drawled syllables, a mighty long diphthong, as I am amused by the same-word common French merde, roughly pronounced maired, translated in inocuous subtitles as "Egad," "Darn," "My heavens." And for those who like to be internationally obscene, the German is Scheiss, pronounced shice, which I heard some old farmers use Up Home (I've lived in Omaha for almost 30 years, the most anywhere, but one never loses his roots).
The title of this chapter refers to my mother's favorite bromide, verbal tranquilizer. She got it from Grandma. I didn't realize I could blame Lincoln for it until I looked it up today. Whenever I came home steamed from some stupider-than-usual college administrative shenenigans, was clacking my dentures like a disturbed bear over wanting to quit my job or assault a lawyer, from childhood till her death it was "This, too, shall pass away," which finally had as much effect as a placebo, i.e., none. In fact it annoyed the hell into me. My sisters laugh about Mom's "This, too," whereas I'm inclined to growl, hence my titular modification.
A final P.S.: I will go to my ashes an English teacher, training that really started in our grade schools where Uncle E.'s Grinchy Grimm Brothers stepmother, for one, would snap, "Kids are goats! Are you a goat?" Or "Bunches are grapes! Are you grapes?" or "People are hanged. Coats are hung." As a gradass--that's irreverence for "graduate assistant"--I had to learn well the part of teaching I detested because I took so much time at it, only to have students complain that I wrote more on their papers than they had, correcting papers according to strict handbook usage. While Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a bestseller as usage manuals have come back--signalling our illiteracy?--I used then and still consider the best to be the Harbrace College Handbook. Anyway, I'm the sort who insists on, e.g., "between" between two, "among" for three or more; not the choice many think sounds better, "between you and I," but the correct "between you and me"; "cannot help but" being a double negative no-no; distinguishing between my sisters as the older and younger; and--finally to my point here--capitalizing family pronouns when there is no possessive: Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma; but not when the possessive occurs: my mom, her dad, his grandpa, their grandma. (Actually, it's a simple matter of proper and common nouns. Never mind.) In case it was puzzling you. Mom is partially responsible, happily, because she insisted on teaching diagramming from Hoenshel's Grammar, and, believe me, knowing parts of speech and sentence syntax/structure is essential to clawing through the court-reporting language thicket. I had to just wing it once over those thorny briar bushes when a witness kept getting tangled up but wouldn't quit: I think the sentence ended up a page and a half before the period, with lots of commas, semicolons, and dashes. Shut up, G. OK.

Grandpa K. and Mom were explosive fireballs who charcoaled any never-innocent offender too slow or naive to flee to a cinder like Wile E. Coyote, confusing to a small boy because (1) his father pouted rather than volcanically erupting; (2) after the fierce thunder-and-lightning storm, his grandpa and mom a few minutes later were all blue sky, not a cloud in sight. I have inherited that spontaneous combustion--we do not suffer fools and laggards gladly--a useful parody out of II Corinthians 19. A quick wit with a quick temper are gas fumes and a match lurking to be lit, like that supercolossal volcano underlying Yellowstone N.P. whose bulges make geologists fret. My inheritance seems a good illustration of the cantankerous wedding of Nature and Nurture, sociopsycho babble for what one inherits and how one is brought up. Mom and I are Aries, and I think Grandpa should have been one; he's a Taurus, but the Bull's possible attributes of "tedious" and "boring" assuredly he never was. Maybe she and I got a double-barreled charge from his gruff, blustery full-blooded Czech (his parents from Praha/Prague, the capitol of Bohemia and the Czech Republic) wedded to the contentious, very garrulous Irishness of the red-headed Peters, who apparently preferred their Maher mother's nationality to their father's, the earliest family photo I have (from Grandma to Mom to me) being the Reverend George F. Twigg, born in Halifax, England, 19 August 1810, the grandfather of Edward LeRoy Peters: as Grandma often quoted, "Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined," Alexander Pope, Moral Essays I. Grandma was more a sharp-tongued scold; she and Grandpa wrangled like The Bickersons, which Mama considered a kind of endearing trait rather than cause for marriage counseling. Mama was ordinarily optimistic.
Technically, to anyone more familiar with science and astronomy than with superstition and astrology, the planetary motion governing the zodiac has changed enough so that everyone should move to the next sign. Believe me, Taurus may be a good car, but it fits me even less than Grandpa, "tedious" and "boring" tending to put me to sleep like the Seinfeld yada yada yada of church sermons, which I assiduously avoid for those reasons. Every alleged attribute of the Aries personality, from Ares/Mars, the hot-tempered god of war symbolized by red, seems fairly apt, confirmed by my Chinese zodiac sign of the Tiger and its alleged attributes. This is not boasting; "[to be] forewarned [is to be] forearmed" [Cervantes]. My Ares/Aries sign must explain why I have loved red since I was a baby, meaning Mom dressed me in red snowsuits when I was 2 or 3, the proof in untelling early black-and-white photos; and it certainly explains why I've been distressed by Nebraska's Big Red Cornhusker mania that my tomboy older sister has, because that's not why I wear red.
Anyway, Grandpa's temper scared the hell out of me, Mom having inculcated a kind of intimidated politeness in me to combat my temperamental heritage. His displays now seem as funny to me as they did then to her: angry with a cow, he would kick it and break his toe; furious with a beat-up old tractor he was trying to fix, he would throw the wrench as hard as he could and then have to go find it. Or send us. He was much more circumspect with me than with my cousins, who often stayed summers and worked for my grandparents. Example: In those decades every small town bigger than Center had a movie theater. Indeed, Mom and I and Grace P. and Marilynn, my surrogate sister growing up, went to movies weekly. The top ones were Sunday-Monday-Tuesday; the fairly good ones ran Wednesday-Thursday; the weekends of captive audiences when the farmers took their eggs and cream into town and did their weekly shopping had the B-on-down, like the shoot-'em-up-bangs of Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy or the Tarzan series, with the Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and then Lex Barker, the slapstick comedies of Abbott and Costello. We bought Screen Stories and Movie Story to read actual movie synopses and have the cast photos. I have an overfull box of them in this room. While Mom and Grandma went off shopping and visiting, Grandpa got stuck taking me to a Saturday-night animal tearjerker, Thunderhead, Son of Flicka, about a racehorse in, uhm, continuing bad situations. Grandpa and I were in the small overflow balcony of Bloomfield's Star Theater, and I would disappear down to the lobby whenever the horse was threatened or hurt, animal lover then as now. He warned me he'd never take me to a movie again if I didn't behave (on his terms), but I cringed again and thereby missed the ending forever because he could only brook so much. Nor did he ever take me to another movie. (I shouldn't even have had to write that last sentence.) That's what I meant by "circumspect." No whacking, no yelling. But The End. It took me until I was teaching at Western Illinois U. in Macomb and he surprisingly came for a week's visit to find out he was what Mama had always said he was: a big old softie under a deliberately gruff exterior. I had a grand time showing him the many regional historical and scenic sites, he bought me a new toaster in appreciative gratitude, and I loved him dearly, without fear, ever after.
It could be correctly assumed with Mom's spanking stick above my bedroom doorway and the carte blanche, a "white card," like a blank check, given to all the other mothers in town in those days to spank any child who misbehaved and teachers who soaped bad words out of naughty mouths and even slapped delinquents, I wasn't very temperamental. Aunt A. complained that Mom abused me, but we could go to Norfolk on a shopping trip where she would buy me three comic books, sit me down under a counter overhang in Hested's or Kresge's dime store, and know she could come back an hour later and I would still be there. Docile, right? Usually, but I swung a rake at Neal S. when Dad sent him over to do my lawn work.
All my reading and then my college education channeled that temper into the verbal arenas on those privileged campus enclaves where English faculty war with words witty or otherwise, a sort of esoteric verbal form of Basic Training. Court reporting shut my mouth, forcefully teaching me further disciplined restraint, but when my third and last bailiff found out what curmudgeon meant, she gleefully thought it fit me better than my clothes. Now being on the downhill side sliding toward the ultimate Black Hole, I have to use my Thumper principle a whole lot. I like cranks anyway, two of my top favorites being Kurtwood Smith's Red Forman on That 70s Show [Cop: "Your dad's Red Forman?" Eric: "Uh, yeah." Cop: "You poor bastard."] or the big acting change of Mark Harmon's thrice-divorced, exceedingly grumpy Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, gruff like Grandpa, on NCIS with its splendid ensemble acting, including the once-dashing Illya Kuryakin of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., now the elderly pathologist Disney-named Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, David McCallum. Oh, sorry, you're wondering what my Thumper principle is? You've seen Bambi, right? The most important line to me now of that animal tearjerker movie is when the lisping little rabbit--no, he is not gay; he's like Ron Howard's Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man-- has to apologize to Bambi at his stern mother's direction, "If you can't thay thomthin' nithe, don't thay nothin' at all."
OK, forewarned, forearmed. A social climber if there ever was one, my third and final judge in dull slang blew it big time this autumn. At the fall state bar association convention, in the state district judges' meeting, he was elected state president of that group. Celebrating or simply enjoying himself, he attended too many of the numerous cocktail parties and rolled his SUV several times at an Interstate curve, fortunately unhurt (drunks get lucky that way). The state legal blood-alcohol limit is .08; his was .20. (My second, long-time, favorite judge also got a DUI; I don't remember what his reading was, not as much, surely, but he lost his license so that the bailiff and I had to be temporary taxi service.) Judge R. is not an alcoholic, or certainly wasn't when I worked for him. And he made all the right moves. He immediately confessed guilt. After a prompt meeting with the executive committee, he resigned his prestigious position before he ever got to actually hold it. This was all covered at length in repetition in the local newspaper, one of my major news sources because I am a print person who despises TV news, the very worst kind but unfortunately the most popular--probably for the same reasons it's the worst, besides which the local TV and radio stations have a bad habit of cribbing their news headlines from the newspaper. I discovered how bad TV news was and other revelations when I did extensive reading that resulted in including Marshall McLuhan (The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, War and Peace in the Global Village, most famously The Medium Is the Massage, the book I used in class) in my World Literature courses. My Mass Media mesmerism then included my half-finished doctorate with a Mass Media orientation intended within English Department auspices, and I later taught Mass Media at Platte College. My credentials, so to speak.
Judge R. has just pled guilty, why in Sarpy County next door I don't know, though that alone does make the circumstances admittedly suspicious. The Omaha World-Herald, the state's major newspaper, went into an old-lady's tizzy resuming its former pompously moral posture--I had thought it more tolerant in recent years--with an editorial bitching about public and journalistic rights to an open courtroom while admitting, "This was not a closed court, but it might just as well have been one."

This is not to suggest that . . . Judge Gary R. entered a formally closed courtroom last week when he appeared before an out-of-town judge . . . . But the effect was the same. No spectators were present, no reporters, no cameras lining the hallways, no other DUI defendants, no courthouse gawkers or drunken-driving watchdogs. This is not surprising in view of the fact that the hearing was not announced in the customary fashion--by being scheduled and posted on a public-access computer site. How this all came about is very murky. Officials said R. did not ask for special treatment. But either someone or a series of accidents made it easier on the judge than would normally have been the case. . . . such lapses have a negative effect on the public's perceptions. They reinforce the suspicion that the big shots have one set of rules and the ordinary people have another.

I note the intrusion of the computer into every aspect of judicial action now. (I already know that court personnel are commanded to keep paperless records by the state supreme court.) I can add that the O W-H was at various hearings I reported with no spectators wherein my judge requested that the journalists present not report certain aspects, such requests courteously heeded. We never did cattle-call DUI pleas; in fact pleas were hectically scheduled, often last-minute, usually one-at-a-time, and handled as we could manage them. Unless it was a front-page case, all those people groups listed were ordinarily absent, even the courthouse addicts. (Sentencings were a different matter entirely.) MADD representatives might or might not show up; aside from them, I can't think of anyone interested in the ordinary DUI plea other than maybe the guy's family. The editorial admits that the courtroom was not closed, nor did the judge ask for preferential treatment. I guess the paper wants him to quit, for I find this a clearcut case of picking on the judge, who had done everything required through pleading guilty--none of this would even be broached on an ordinary DUI--so that,ironically, I sympathize with the judge who wore me into retiring, so that, unlike elections when I usually vote against many judges' retentions, here I resent the journalistic manipulation, the smarmy moral-superiority smugness that had also infected the front page (that I'll deal with later).
Worse, the W-H knows full well that their pious conclusion--Judge R. is not a "big shot" in this city of millionaires and billionaires, the home of Warren Buffett--that "big shots have one set of rules and the ordinary people have another" is the actual truth. It's late, and I'm tired, and I'm not as adrenalin-flooded as last night, but I can say for a fact that the rich have an entirely different set of players in the judicial system. Celebrities or corporate executives: Kobe Bryant, who had the shameless gall to complain that a friend was "hitting" on his wife after a notorious rape trial of huge expense with the outcome never in doubt, simply one instance when he got caught doing what he normally does; Ken Lay, former Bush buddy and biggest contributor, of Enron's scandal, one of the many corporate crooks who took their share of my pension plan stock holdings. How many dozens, hundreds of instances can you think of?? I could go through a variety of examples of what happened in our court, as when we handled a male palimony case discreetly over the noon hour, when courtroom doors are customarily locked for lunch, against one of the town's best-known philanthropists--married, with equally well-known sons--who enjoyed young men. Expensive lawyers expensively dressed manage such affairs. The courtroom taught me to loathe the rich as I never had before, so I have to appreciate the irony of the W-H' s highhorse moral jockeying. Big shots absolutely do live by different rules, whether here, in the Cesspool on the Potomac, Hollywood, or anywhere else in this nation about which Calvin Coolidge said, "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." Shucks, you're not surprised. I'm shocked.

Tilt! (As in pinball)

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While doing my dwindling list of Christmas cards down to mostly family, I was still muddling over whether to wander off on some side streets from my Main Street gridlock and went into a kind of panic, though the goat-footed Greek god Pan of woods and pastures wasn't exactly noisily frightening me. Before I explain, I must thank my cousin, Ryan K., for giving me this privileged challenge, creating the website for me, for it is a challenge to my restlessly impatient mind, which is like one of those rock tumblers used by rock hounds to smooth agates, e.g. Well, no, my mind is more like an attic full of crazed little gnomes running around opening drawers and slamming doors all over the place. I have the best curse I could suffer: relentless curiosity. Which is why I have always considered my brain the essential part of my body. The rest is pretty much the cheap dreck now estimated to be worth $4.50 in materials, probably because most of it is water: 70% of the muscles, 50% each of the fat and bones. Undoubtedly more in my case now that I have to take what Dad called pee pills. (How do I know those numbers? Courtesy of the most fabulous library in human history: the Internet. Reason enough for even the biggest scaredy-cat to buy a computer.)
My high esteem for the grey matter which turns into a very yukky lime jello when it's steamed, as a CSI episode graphically illustrated, also explains why I'm pretty much the teetotaler my parents always were and raised me to be, with the story of how some men tried to hold Dad down and make him drink beer and failed. As a result of merely two colossal college hangovers when my brain's chemical plant simply shut down and I had to roleplay the Headless Horseman, carrying my head around very, very gingerly, wincing at anything more than a whisper, I have only contempt for drunks, especially those macho sort who consider being hazards to the rest of us--as when they drive, brawl, or go home and beat up their wives and children--some weird signification of the size of their testicles, when it's the opposite. It takes bigger, better balls to stay sober and deal with the world. And, hey, I know what I'm talking about. Grandma L. took the children and hid them in the barn when my gambling, alcoholic grandfather came home in drunken rages from one of his toots in town; she likewise hid money in buried fruit jars so that Dad always wanted to take a metal detector out to the old home place, sure that he could find some of them. (Her attempt reminds me of the Air Force wives in Minot, ND, where I first taught college, who had to buy all the groceries at payday, 13 or 14 loaves of bread at a time, because their husbands drank and gambled away so much.) Dad's oldest brother had three or four wives--we're not sure because he apparently didn't marry one of them--and wrecked his career with booze, and I hated his and his third wife's visits when they not only usurped my bed but insisted on kissing me awake with their beery breaths. When I grew up, at those popular dances I mentioned, we had a major contingent from the Lindy area, two large families really, whom we identified as representing the standard stereotypical drunks: one grew progressively happier and sillier, the Good Drunks, but the other grew broodingly surly and dangerous, the Bad Drunks. At a wedding dance in our new h.s. gymn my junior or senior year, the latter beat up, among others, their brother-in-law, dragging him out from under a car to break his jaw. We had circled the car earlier, the much-decorated groom's car secretly put up on cottonwood blocks so they wouldn't be able to drive off, probably why the brother-in-law rolled under there after escaping from the gymn attack. I saw the whole sequence. (I can't remember what other damage his doctor treated, but I found his shoe knocked off in the gymn.)
I briefly had a cafe job as a very broke graduate assistant, the only cafe in Wayne after the bars closed, so I can describe very accurately what slobs drunks can be. No one else managed to get egg yolk, which is so gluey artists use it as paint binder, on everything on the table, napkin dispenser, salt and pepper, sugar. The waitresses made me serve the worst of the lot, who behaved better for me, of course. No butt pinching, suggestive come-ons for me.
The court system has a large business in alcoholic parents, murderous drunk drivers who leave other people maimed or dead, stupid bar brawlers who "accidentally" kill the guys they're fighting with, wife and child abusers, the guys who lost their jobs and can't pay child support because they drank up their paychecks, on and on and, I do mean, on. Also, I worked for alcoholic judges. They could probably have a local AA chapter of nothing but judges, several of nothing but lawyers. My first judge, by the time I worked for him in his last nine months before retiring, was a popular, courtly--gosh, I didn't mean to pun--raconteur (Dad was one of those too, a really good storyteller), kind of a legal stereotype, Democratic, Irish [Roman] Catholic, tall, hawk-nosed, with wonderfully wavy white hair beauticians must have envied. He flirtingly flattered women and tended toward Victorian flourishes in speech and letters, which I learned to duplicate so well that he quit dictating the many little letters and cards that earned him PR points and just told me who and why to get me going. I will not catalog all his faults, but I knew the much-abused bailiff, who had to fetch that judge and take him home daily, had had to deal in earlier times with the judge's wife calling him and begging him to go fetch the very drunk judge out of some bar night after night.
The judge I loved, the one I worked 24 years for, had a sad period of alcoholism that was one of the most bizarre, embarrassing, humiliating episodes in my working life. He would leave home and disappear with his drinking cronies before he got to the Hall of Justice (a/k/a the old courthouse), and his wife would call us, the bailiff and me, to find out where he was. Or else she would call and say he was "sick today," code for hangover smashed. When we used our spies to find out what bar he was frequenting so we could try calling him there, he'd take his buddies and move elsewhere. Despite signs to the contrary, the omnipresent "hurry-up-and-wait" syndrome attorneys and especially judges create, the long times between court appearances, the court system is dependent upon relatively tight scheduling, given the overload of litigation. The bailiff kept her appointment book meticulously. When the judge went off on a binge, she would actually weep in frustrated despair from having to call up both sides in every scheduled case and having to fictionalize yet another delay. Because I helped her, I not only dealt with that but actually didn't want him there when he was in a drinking frenzy, when he slurred his speech, threw a temper tantrum, constantly lost his place even--the worst possible times--in solemn sentencings, or was soap-opera maudlin, to the extent of turning weepy. Actually more prominent in the Democratic R.C. politicolegal world here in Omaha than his predecessor and just as good a raconteur, he had many people interested in discreetly covering up his lapses--the Good Ol' Boy system power structures use--while I wanted to hide under my Stenograph and actually blushed in shame for him, though a few attorneys and one perpetual litigant (one of our Crazy Ladies, a very special difficult-no-impossible-to-deal-with group) did file complaints that we somehow slid past. Luckily, thanks finally to some quiet ultimatums and his courage in entering AA and sticking with it, because of his tolerance and humaneness, he became one of the most respected judges in the the history of the local judiciary and in the state. (He's also the one who taught me terseness, though you'd never believe it at the moment.)
That's one of the ways the system works that the Public is probably better off not knowing, given the final happy result definitively in its favor. I have to footnote that he was all for the Public's knowing, ordinarily, a staunch believer in freedom of the press who told me that my notes amounted to public records to which anyone should have the right (provided I was paid for the work, of course), the same applying to exhibits. Except--There are always exceptions, as with prominent attorneys' divorces when the evidence of their wealth as it comes from their corporate legal relationships and terms of divorce were sealed, which also happened with some mental health records of an attorney who had a nervous breakdown, that sort of reason. "Sealed" means just that: by court order I taped shut the evidence envelopes with written warnings and kept them separately; if they were filed, they required a court order to open--not likely.
So how did I arrive on this detour away from the farm? I had already been stonewalling from what I call surfeit paralysis. My chemically overstimulated brain--you know, with all those maddened little gnomes running around--has so many people, places, and things I could play word games with that I end up in Inertia Land, stuck, struck dumb, which is why my ex-students have never seen any of the writing they expected me to do. At least before this blogging site. Decisions, decisions. Should I mention how fascinated I am with the drawing shorthand of comic strips, the weird Egyptian-Picasso way Drabble puts both eyes on one side of Ralph's face or the staggering minimalist accomplishment of my favorite, Zits (since Calvin and Hobbes are consigned to memory books), about our wireless technology as it comically affects teenagers and parents. Perhaps I should mention Grandpa K.'s 103-year-old cousin who uses the original spelling of the name. I was playing my digital piano to mull it all over and calm down--Mom considered what and how I played a barometer of my moods, as arthritis later became our trio's barometer of weather--when the local newspaper enraged me.
Which leads to the horoscope and my third and last judge's DUI plea. Unlike John Updike, who insists every good writer should put in six hours a day on his craftsmanship, I follow my jazz inclinations and improvise right here right now at the keyboard just as I play the piano by my B+ sight-reading ability. I'm also aware that attention spans nowadays do not differ among 3-year-olds and 30-year-olds and 60-year-olds: a minute at tops. Besides which I have actually calmed down to merely simmering and have all the rest of my life left. (It is significant that one of my major Changes retiring from court reporting was removing my wristwatch. I'm dependent now on my cell phone, when I remember to take it with me, or the pickup's clock or my appliance clocks, no stress in them.) So my tilted-out pinball machine a/k/a brain has a break.

Lots of Manure

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I mentioned the way the media muddles our notions of time and false personality. (Celebrities surely aren't their Images/acting roles: Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones off camera? I think not.) Since the beginnings of human consciousness, we have used our media out of the arts to conquer time, making visual--painting, sculpture--or verbal pictures--literature, history--to remember what we think is important, whether it's the wondrous Cro-Magnon animals inexplicably hidden away in deep caves in the extraordinarily beautiful art of Lascaux and Chauvet or the awesomely awful new movie version of the first and probably greatest world conquerer, Alexander , or the currently most popular TV CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with its engrossing forensic detection or any of Shakespeare, including his best-known Hamlet, or the bicentennial book celebration of Lewis & Clark's reconnaissance, though we still don't know if Meriwether Lewis committed suicide or was murdered on the Natchez Trace. All of these are subjective, edited by their makers, and consequently untrue. In case any fool tries to say a TV show, a book, a movie is the truth of the matter, I refer you to the simplest version of what I'm BSing about, Kurosawa's brilliant film Rashomon (1950), redone as a mediocre Paul Newman movie, The Outrage (1964), with its tale of a bandit and a traveling couple, an alleged rape and murder, told in four versions, all given equal weight. Ex-court reporter that I am, I know most people will recognize that witnesses present the same fractured, personalized versions in court testimony. A long-time mystery fan, I love puzzles and ambiguities and the brainwork to solve or understand them, though constipated mentalities don't. They want totalitarian security, artery-hardened tradition. Those people do not have more than a very elementary understanding of how our media are divided between defeating time in memory and entertaining the audience or how either is manipulatively accomplished. My aim here is not particularly to commemorate my grandparents nor even to present My True Version of the Past, albeit it is My Version; but, again, I am exploring how I got to where I am today, why, with whom. That's all. And to end this introduction, I quote Henning Mankell's Sidetracked with his detective, Kurt Wallander, first explaining to his daughter his father's surprise announcement of encroaching Alzheimer's:

No-one knows how fast it will progress. But he will be leaving us. Sort of like a ship sailing farther and farther out towards the horizon. We'll still be able to see him clearly, but for him we'll seem more and more like shapes in the fog. Our faces, our words, our common memories, everything will become indistinct and finally disappear altogether. He might be cruel without realizing he's doing it. He could turn into a totally different person.
[P. 157 of the 1999 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition.] And then Wallander's dealing with a retired police officer:
Wallander couldn't believe that this vigorous man was over 80, that Sandin and his own father were almost the same age. 'I don't get many visitors,' said Sandin. 'All my friends are gone. I have one colleague from the old homicide squad who's still alive. But now he's in a home outside Stockholm and can't remember anything that happened after 1960. Old age really is shitty.'
[P. 180 of the same book.]
Actually, I'm not writing much (yet) about my grandparents as about their farms, before REA. And I took my chapter title not only from the intro above but my response to my longest pen pal (from 1952), as our correspondence has evolved from lengthy letters to packets of clippings, programs, brochures accompanied by short notes. Bill had included an article about city people (he's from Philadelphia) taking farm vacations, and I laughed that, if these were to be reality trips, they didn't know what they were getting into, which, as I remembered the farm, was lots and lots of manure. All kinds. Chicken, hog, cattle, horse. All very messy and smelly.
Judging from a much later response when our favored cousins generously came to help reshingle my parents' house--my birthplace in the front bedroom--for their 50th anniversary, Mom raised me to be a fastidious little boy. They all hooted, claiming it was the first time they'd really seen me dirty--at that late date. I'd protest, but it's certainly true I was a townie who viewed the farm as equivalent to exile in a foreign territory. My town was technically, legally, a village on either side of 150 population but the county seat because--as everyone knows--the larger towns couldn't agree who would have that political power and thus put it in the Center of Knox County. We had a thriving town in the 1940s and 1950s, three grocery stores, two precursors of today's supermarkets, a hardware, a hotel, a barbershop, briefly a haberdashery, a very popular cafe run by my "second mother," two garages and a tavern all three with gas pumps, a bank, a pool hall, a post office, a big town hall converted from a former hotel, a blacksmith, a church, a K-12 school, two abstract offices, a garage for the big-wheeled fire hose cart and later an old fire truck, and, of course, the courthouse. We had Saturday-night summertime outdoor movies before drive-ins became the fad, indoor movies in the wintertime in that old hall where we also played basketball, held banquets and carnivals, gave plays, and had very popular dances. The movies, the stores, the dances drew large crowds from the area, including the bigger towns. Furthermore, while we didn't have black-and-white television until I was in high school, we had a coal furnace, electricity, and indoor plumbing; and my parents and I were all avid readers so that we took newspapers and several magazines of the time and even bought the two Chicago Sunday newspapers at the hardware store's small magazine area. (My two sisters weren't born until 1952 and 1954.)
My grandparents lived on two different farms, one my maternal great grandparents' homestead Up West, north of Newport in Rock County, roughly 100 miles away, the other between Center and Bloomfield 11+ miles east. Both were heated by a coal oil stove in the living room and Grandma's kitchen range, fueled by cobs and kindling, no heat at night, no heat upstairs in the bedrooms. Years later I would go camping under such conditions but had a down sleeping bag. What we had were quilts, lots of quilts, heavy enough to prevent tossing and turning, and blanket sheets, not like the smooth flannel we have now. On both farms we had china pots for the nighttime toilet and the outhouse for daytime, the toilet paper preferably magazines and catalogs, not flimsy newspapers (besides which my grandparents took weeklies, not dailies, back then). Montgomery Wards and Sears catalogs. Again, hikers and campers have a vague acquaintance but much nicer facilities than a little two-holer wooden hut the same temperature as the outdoors, with stacked catalogs and flies (and, we always worried, snakes). I was hardly a stranger to outhouses because my mom taught country school, with the same accomodations though gendered, unlike my grandparents' unisex toilet; but, except for pre-school and the sixth grade, I went to town school. Yes, indoor plumbing.
Lighting on the farm was not by overhead chandeliers or lamps but first by kerosene lanterns and then, great improvement, Aladdin lamps using white glowing mesh "stockings," fragile mantles, lit by hissing gas that you pumped up first. Lots of spooky corners for someone with nyctophobia, fear of the dark, and shadowy hell for a reader when the adults monopolized the light sources for their card games, sewing, visiting, cooking, and eating. Not that Grandma and Grandpa had that much to read, mostly farm magazines--not Colliers, Life, American, Redbook, Popular Mechanics, Saturday Evening Post, Sports Afield, Ladies Home Journal, and all the rest we subscribed to. Grandma K. had a few books, especially later, and the oversized family Bible, and Mom passed along our magazines--which I had already read--so I generally took books along and stoically discovered that other farm families were even less lending libraries at the card parties my grandparents went to, taking Mom and me along. (The cartoons about desperate bibliophiles reading even cereal cartons, just to have some reading, mean much to me.) Grandma did have an upright piano with sheet music and songbooks in the bench, songs from Oklahoma and "The White Cliffs of Dover" the newer ones, which I still have and mean more from memory of her playing "Surrey with the Fringe on the Top" or "People Will Say We're in Love" than the sheet music. But I didn't learn to play the piano until I was 9, on that same piano given to me to that end.
Dad had won a console radio-phonograph with good bass, the only prize any of us ever won, and we had smaller radios as in the kitchen to listen to serials while preparing meals or doing dishes. In those Radio Days, aside from the ubiquitous card games, such as the pitch and cribbage Dad and Grandpa L. played at the station, the pitch and pinochle parties of Grandma and Grandpa K.'s circle, Mom's bridge club of the town women who met monthly (I had all the Authors memorized, of course, but the only card game I ever truly loved was Canasta, a wildly popular '50s craze), aside from reading or making things, the most popular entertainment was the Golden Age of Radio, truly wonderful for the imagination to fill in from the sound effects, from Fibber McGee's noisy closet whenever he opened the door (a barrel of stones and scrap iron on a pivot to be seen in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry), to Inner Sanctum's really scary squeaking door opening to its weekly mysteries that kept me near an adult, to Lux Radio Theater--I think that might be where I heard the original radio version of The Birds, with its spooky ending of the survivors trapped in the house and the birds coming down the chimneys--to the William Tell Overture for The Lone Ranger and those coconut-shell hoofbeats to Amos and Andy's politically incorrect blackface comedy to Tallulah Bankhead's drawl on The Big Show, on and on. I was partial to musical shows like Monday night's The Railroad Hour with Gordon MacRae, doing Reader's Digest versions of famous operettas, later the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts while everyone else listened to a football game, or mysteries and comedies and resented greatly having to give up Friday nights to the boring Gillette Blue Blades boxing matches Grandpa L. favored, with one of the more memorable commercial tunes. Grandma and Grandpa K. had one radio, largely devoted to stock reports and the weather forecast, though we did listen to the popular shows in the evening--if the adults weren't visiting. Several inferences are obvious: TV had not yet killed socializing conversations or bred rude footnoting that has invaded movie theaters, and children were firmly in second place before too much disposable income, too few chores, and lots of media pandering made them rulers of our pop culture universe like that infuriating reversal on Dawson's Creek of delinquent, infantile adults and oh-so-wise teenagers having to set matters straight. (Again, my courtroom experience offers plenty of testimony otherwise.) Life was not sterile, plastic-wrapped, largely bureaucratic. Actually, it was far more creative than having Hobby Lobbies and Michaels doing most of the work or simply buying things and more things at craft shows or having to create Teen Centers for "something to do" or morphing into couch potatoes--in those days we grew and dug them--with TV-glazed eyes.
Well, that's a start, and I haven't even gotten to the manure, lots of manure--or have I? Before I leave today's episode, I should explain that all my grandparents and my parents were farmers before my folks moved to Center where Dad became a mechanic-welder running a small filling station-garage and Mom drove a Model A out to her rural schools to teach and I grew up a city sophisticate, as I have suggested. The grandparents I'm describing are maternal, Mom being their oldest and the closest to them when I was growing up. We spent our holidays and most family occasions at Grandma and Grandpa K.'s, though my paternal Grandpa L. lived with us while I grew up. After my folks, my favorite relatives were, of course, Grandma and Grandpa K., buried next to my parents. (I am one of those rarities who has two sets of great grandparents, two sets of grandparents, various aunts and uncles and cousins, and his own parents in the same cemetery. I don't know what that would be in poker terms.)

Tomorrow, and manana, and tomorrow slip by at panting pace from day to day till the end of time when yesterdays have lit our way to the infinite Fini. And so it goes, the muses not willing to help my musing on Change as creator of character as in the two major stereotypes: the conformist, insistently traditional, fearful of and enraged by change, or the nonconformist, insistently optional, impatient with and bored by tradition. How one confronts change defines his age and predominant traits. Which is more important: today or yesterday? Escher's lesson. Equal rights to interfacing, my title.
Anyway, I had mentioned the roads leading to my gridlock over change, forgetting one and since thinking of another. The one I forgot that affected my current thinking and subject choice was Kurt Wallander and his fellow police staff of Ystad, Sweden, constantly grousing about the cultural changes, especially toward more violence, occurring in an excellent detective series by Henning Mankell that I am pleasuring my way through. The books are set in the 1990s mostly, confronting several current issues: The White Lioness, e.g., deals with elaborate preparations to assassinate Nelson Mandela in South Africa; The Dogs of Riga deals with Soviet-bloc nations trying to leap into a democratic present still chained sadly by grim remnants of communist totalitarianism. All except these two novels stay in Sweden, the proudly progressive Scandinavian state whose prime minister, Olof Palme, was gunned down outside a cinema in Stockholm in 1986. In his 40s, a bit overweight and underexercised, recently divorced, with a difficult daughter and an even more difficult father, Mankell's detective, Kurt Wallander, thinks his way intuitively through very grim murders while philosophizing on social changes. His father is a real study in conservative traditionalism, a painter who paints only one landscape over and over, reminding me of my sister's boyfriend, a rigidly conformist carpenter who does beautiful work but who, in our first acquaintance, went into an irrational tirade about an award-winning, very creative building that was in response to an announced experiment to avoid all right angles or "the usual," putting us at odds from that event forward. Likewise, lacking Wallander's intuition, the other Ystad police complain as youth, technology, violence (social collision) flood into their formerly safe backwater.
The brand-new road that suddenly fed into my traffic jam was a cinematic result of our hugely irrational culture, one confounding time, producing poignance, reminiscent of children having to deal with multiple Santas. In our present celebrity-drunk religiosity, we have to deal with several media effects based on Image, unfortunately key to our politics as well as other social insanities or inanities (depending on perspective). What does one do as an aging American who can turn on his TV and see Jimmy Stewart as the bit player from the 1930s become the suave wealthy suitor meeting a wildly eccentric family in You Can't Take It With You (1938) become the seasonal Christmas hero of It's a Wonderful Life (1946) become the invisible rabbit's pal of Harvey (1950) to the wheelchair detective of Rear Window (1954) to a beloved white-headed, quivery voiced elderly spokesman in his dignified 80s, a long lesson in change and mortality. Or, worse, deal with June Allyson and Ernest Borgnine shilling embarrassing products in their last years or William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy playing cute for insurance or botox-blimped Elizabeth Taylor, whose beauty and violet eyes remain a prototype from The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). Sometimes it works as when Leslie Nielsen mocks his aging or Ron Howard (born in 1954) grows from Opie Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show (1960s) and the lisping Winthrop Paroo of The Music Man (1962) to a bald movie-directing genius . And it is exciting to discover Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) or in Boris Karloff's The Terror (1963), to work backwards, so to speak, and then to judge the distance he's come, to judge how he's dealt with aging, change. The examples are legion of celebrities arcing from unwrinkled youth and fame to plump, dewlapped elderly clinging on or disappearing. (Plastic surgery, incidentally, cannot do much with the chin or hands, if you want to accurately judge a person's age.) Our media cult of youthful beauty demands we fight the gravity of age sagging our excess flesh and arthritic limbs downward while we gain experiential knowledge to uncertain ends. What kind of cultural comment is that?
I was supposed to talk about my reunion with an ex-student of mine. Reunions are very risky: if familial, exposing one to relatives he may prefer distance to; if otherwise, dauntingly disappointing as my 40th college reunion was. Who the hell were all these smug, wrinkled old white-haired coots? How did the "most popular" cheerleader, as she brazenly reminded us, become such a homely old matronly bore? But, of course, I get my answer in the mirror every morning. My reunion with Forrest went very well, as I met his fiancee, his generously hospitable older sister and brother-in-law, his lively, petite mother (surely in her 80s) who has been back to the Swiss homeland many times. Forrest hasn't changed much, tall, slim, neither wrinkled nor very grey-haired, as thoughtful as ever. What I brought him in for here was not to deal with 1971, when we last saw each other, but as introduction to my grandparents on the farm, for, as I said, while his brother-in-law and I were discussing times past on farms not in Proustian style but pragmatically, Forrest asked innocently enough what life was like before REA, which re-wound my movie mentality to the 1940s and 1950s. My grandparents didn't get electricity until about the time I was in high school. I have to remember their two farms the next time. (I won't be a bright Annie, singing out "Tomorrow.")

Heraclitus Rains

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Often my head comes to a crossroads, dangerous in ancient times, a place to meet gods, spirits, the otherworldly, where Hecate and Hermes were special traffic cops and Oedipus killed his father in road rage. My mental gridlock, brain traffic jammed to a teeth-grinding halt, came from various directions: a cousin wanting me to remember growing up and also--in another context--reciting a mantra of "Change is good"; an ex-student whom I have not seen since 1971 asking what was before REA (the Rural Electifrication Administration that finally brought electricity to farms mainly in the 1940s and 1950s) on my grandparents' farm; my playing through a stack of old sheet music from the turn of the century, those 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 pages often containing ukelele chords above the treble clef, songs a sentimental light year from teen-dominated ego noise now or my Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs or Brian Wilson's Smile; and my continuing epic exploration of aging and "What's it all about, G.?" (not cinematic Alfie, too much a jerk to learn anything, whether acted by Michael Caine or Jude Law). The first philosopher, Heraclitus, of course, made Change ironically the Big Constant in the universe of mysterious Order; and nothing has really changed since, as nonlinear Chaos Theory insists on demonstrating. Our world is not the facile French "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose," roughly, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Nope. Heraclitus rains in a deluge of change. And, yes, that is a bad pun singing in the reign.
Let me explain by a quick personal reference. Once I was a very gregarious college English teacher, a frequent chaperone and group sponsor. Then I switched occupations to court reporter, that silent stressed-out stenographer who tries to keep up with the judge, the attorneys, the witnesses who more often than not overlap, i.e., talk at the same time. Well aware of contempt-of-court power, having spent over 25 years in the bitchy legal arena--people aren't in court because they're happy or law-abiding--I viewed our staff function as social garbage collectors, cleaning up the messes of divorce, crime, contractual feuding, whatever, in the most litiginous country in the world. And I grew so tired of trying to record faithfully all those words assailing my ears that now, in retirement, I refuse utterly TV legal shows, radio or TV talk shows, and now usually mute commercials and certainly sportscasters who refuse to shut up. Love that mute button along with my solitude away from the gritty reality of the courtroom and the everyday world that makes TV "reality" as silly as it is, cameramen, producers, directors, prop people, caterers all hovering out of lens leering.
If you really need a for instance about TV "reality," take a current Bravo series,Long Way Round, with that really good English actor, Ewan McGregor, and his buddy, Charley Boorman, and a cameraman motorcycling from the Ukraine across Asia down through Alaska and Canada, confronting cultural differences (changes) and various "hardships." But McGregor has a satellite phone and probably GPS, they carry tents and supplies not too different from my camping days, and there are two vans full of producers and staff traveling nearby just in case (and, I would imagine, interpreters for the bike repairs, etc.). Danny Liska from a town near my birthplace was a long-haired, leather-jacketed biker on a Harley Davidson when I was growing up--we're talking the 1940s and '50s--not one of Brando's Wild Ones but definitely not a '50s conformist. With just what he could stow in his saddlebags, certainly no cell phone, no GPS, no staff documenting his travel, just his camera, Danny went from Alaska down to the tip of Chile, nearly bogging down in Central American jungles. Later his wife and he went from Lapland at the northern tip of Scandinavia down through Europe and Africa to Capetown, with several near-death experiences in Africa. He supported his traveling with slide lectures and some books few people read. He always stopped to visit my dad, a popular mechanic-welder with a constant card game at the back of his shop, so I heard second-hand about a truly daring tourist, and you can understand why I snicker at the costly TV series.
So the subject is change, and I have other proof. The sheet music from my grandmother and others included, incidentally, two well-worn early Irving Berlin songs, "I Want to Go Back to Michigan Down on the Farm" (1914) and "The Ragtime Violin" (1911), and in fairly good condition George M. Cohan's "Father of the Land We Love (Written For The American People)" for Washington's 200th birthday anniversary (1931). For the young or those not so musical, Berlin's most famous songs were "God Bless America" (1938, my birth year), "White Christmas" (1942), "Easter Parade" (1948), and "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954, when I graduated from high school), among dozens of others; Cohan's "The Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway" are from 1904, "Over There" 1917, and "Grand Old Flag" 1906.
The songs include many waltzes left over from the Gay Nineties, romantic ballads in 3/4 time, filled with big treble arpeggios (piano chords rolled to sound harplike), "Wondering If You Care," "Pal of My Dreams," "I've Been Through the Mill" about Billy and Milly, "My Sweetheart Went Down with the Ship," "On the Banks of Lovelight Bay." Several are geographical, like the Berlin one on Michigan or "There's a Girl in the Heart of Maryland (With a Heart That Belongs to Me)," "In the Hills of Old Kentucky (My Mountain Rose)," "Beautiful Ohio," "Moonlight on the Colorado." The South was still popular, as in "I Want to Be in Dixie" (1912) "By Berlin & Snyder" though Irving is not specifically cited with Ted Snyder or "Down Where the Cotton Blossoms Grow" (1901) or--you want change? think Politically Correct Change now--"Mammy's Little Pumpkin Colored Coons (Plantation Slumber Song)" (1897)with the inside back page listing "Coon Songs That Are All the Rage in the Rage of Coon Songs" for 40 or 50 cents each. Of course, that's out of the Minstrel Show tradition but still not the kind of Blast from the Past we feel nostalgia for. And then there is "Don't Be So Rough Jim [sic], I Can't Play Tonight," in 3/4 time with arpeggios, little punctuation, worth quoting: Verse 1: "A poor little newsboy was standing alone/At the close of a winter day/He was hungry and cold dejected and sad,/Too heavy at heart to play/A big boy approach'd him unheeding his tears,/And pushing him roughly he cried/What yer mopin' about,/ why don't you move on?/And the poor little waif replied,"/Chorus: "Don't be so rough Jim,/I can't play tonight/My luck's turned I've troubles to spare/My mother is dead and I'm left alone/I'm broke and there's no one to care." Verse 2: "Jim's big heart was touched and his eyes filled with tears/I'm sorry I spoke so, he said/You will go home with me I've enough for us both,/I'll see that you're dress'd warm and fed/My luck is all right and my bus'ness is good,/There's a place for you Joe at my side/We'll be pardners us two, together we'll go,/I'm your friend whate'er may betide." Chorus: "Playing or working, thro' thick and thro' thin,/Life's changes we'll meet side by side/True comrades we are/each pleasure we'll share/We're staunch friends whate'er may betide."
Tomorrow my reunion with Forrest and REA down on the Nebraska farm.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Mental Scrap--book category from December 2004.

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