The eve of Saint Blaise

The eve of Saint Blaise


Today is Candlemas, when the Catholic Church blesses the candles to be used during its liturgy. Tomorrow is the feast-day of Saint Blaise, patron of ailments of the throat. Some churches still do the Blessing of the Throat, in which the priest uses the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of congregants.

 

 

Saints become patrons in peculiar ways. Clare had a vision on the wall in front of her and became the patroness of television. Joseph of Cupertino levitated helplessly, yelping and crying, and became the patron of aviators. Blaise miraculously made a child cough up a fishbone, thus making him Mister Throat.

 

 

 

The Church asks and answers the question: Why doesn’t God always cure ailments of the throat, even if you pray for it? Why doesn’t he cure everything, while he’s at it? It’s a mystery.

 

 

 

Mystery schmystery. It’s still a pretty good question.

 

 

 

Disclosure: Partner gave a Saint Blaise medal last year, which I carry with me religiously, you should pardon the expression.

 

 

 

What could it hurt?


Grandma Lottie

grandma lottie


Years ago I came to terms with looking like my father’s mother, Grandma Minnie. I have her pallor and her blue eyes, as well as (naturally) her inner sweetness.

 

Now the page has turned.
 

 

I posted a photo of myself on Facebook not long ago, posing in a pink knit hat, as follows:

 

 

ljw pink

 

 

Very nice, everyone said. Then my cousin Linda piped up with: “Did you know that, with that scowl, you look just like Grandma Lottie?”
 

 

When I peeled myself off the ceiling, I wrote back to her immediately to acknowledge that she was right. I even dug out an ancient photo of me in 1970, posing with Grandma Lottie in front of her house, which further proved the point:
 

LorenLottie

Grandma Lottie was my mother’s mother. She was consistently dour and seldom wore her teeth unless absolutely necessary, which makes two of us. Despite her forbidding look, however, she was always sweet and kind to me; I remember the smell of food cooking in her little kitchen, and I remember walking with her in her garden (where she often gave me plants and cuttings). The photo at the head of this piece, probably taken in the 1920s, is nice: she’s almost smiling in a Mona Lisa way.
 

 

Grandma Lottie married three times, which is enough to make anyone look dour and forbidding. My grandfather was her second husband; he died in a mine cave-in around 1926, so I never got to meet him. My mother, who was only six or so when he died, always said he was a very nice man; I wish I could have known him.
 

 

Anyway, back to Grandma Lottie. It’s plain that she wasn’t a smiler. But what’s wrong with that? I think smiling is overrated. It’s supposed to make you feel good, right? It’s supposed to make other people feel kindly toward you? I wonder. Greeting a stranger with a wintry glare can be a very bracing experience, and it’s strangely productive: it sets people back on their heels and makes them wonder what they’ve done wrong.

 

 

 

It gives you the advantage.
 

 

As I told cousin Linda: I’m proud to carry Grandma Lottie’s scowl and black-framed glasses into the new generation.
 

 

Somebody’s gotta do it.


 

Gunnera

gunnera new


A friend recently posted a picture on Facebook of her Washington-state yard. Like most Washington-state yards at this time of year, it was mostly under two inches of water. Off to one side, however, was the most spectacularly huge-leaved plant:

 

gunnera manicata

I mistook it for a Philodendron selloum, which was unlikely, even in warm wet Washington, but my friend quickly corrected me. It is, in fact, a Gunnera manicata.

Gunnera’s glory is its foliage. The leaves, as you can see, are comically gigantic. It’s sometimes called “wild rhubarb,” as the leaves very much resemble those of rhubarb, and some gardeners call it “dinosaur plant,” for obvious reasons. Can’t you just picture a brontosaurus peacefully chomping on it?

 

The more I studied the picture, the more I knew I’d seen it before. I went through some old photos and found it in Adare, a picturesque Irish village Partner and I visited in 2007; it was growing at the boggy end of a public park, and its leaves were so spectacular that I had to take a picture of it. I discovered online that it’s a moderately common garden plant in Ireland; locals sometimes pick the leaves and use them as umbrellas.

 

gunnera ireland 2007

Gardens should always be a mix of old and new, common and unexpected, big and small. We love to see a hundred daffodils in bloom, but we need the darkness of tall ominous pine trees behind them to make them shine. We cherish our one-blossom-at-a-time borders, but we need something big and splashy to give them drama.
 

 

Gunnera, with its rich green tablecloth-sized leaves, will give your garden all the drama it needs.

 

Just don’t blame me if you start attracting dinosaurs.


 

Attention whore

attention whore


Way back in the 1990s, my mother had her own adventure with cancer. Along the way, she managed to get herself dehydrated, and ended up in the hospital. To my surprise and that of my siblings, she seemed to love the experience. “I call the nurses ‘the girls,'”she told me over the phone. “They are so sweet to me. They know I’m not supposed to have coffee, but oh, I wanted it so much, and one of them brought me a little cup of coffee, and – oh, Loren! – it was so good! And I asked her for one more little cup, and she brought it for me, and – oh, Loren! – it was so good!”

 

I listened to this story with a thin-lipped expression. Later I repeated it to my sister Susan, who grimaced. “I know,” she said. “The nurses fell for it. Mom can be so damned cute when she wants to be. But you just wait: once the nurses catch on, it won’t be so much fun for Mom any longer.”

 

Which, in fact, happened a day or two later. “I don’t know what happened all of a sudden,” my mother groused on the phone. “The nurses don’t seem to pay attention anymore. Sometimes I press the call switch and it’s a couple of minutes before anyone shows up. It’s like a whole new staff. I can’t wait to go home.”

 

This whole thing seemed very strange to me. Mom was normally the soul of staunch individualism; she lived all by herself at the end of a dead-end road, and most days she didn’t see a living soul. Why should it be so much fun for her to be the center of attention all of a sudden –
Aha.

 

She finally had center stage with a whole retinue dancing around her, and she was loving it.

 

She had become an attention whore.

 

Flash forward to the other day. I’m in recovery, which means I spend days at home alone watching TCM and waiting for the mail. So then I have a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor says, “You could use some fluids. We can give them to you today, in the chemo ward – ”

 

I nearly knocked her down, I was so eager to get to that chemo ward.

 

“Chemo ward” doesn’t sound appealing, but it’s nicer and more comfortable than you think. The chairs are all recliners. There’s a TV in every little nook. There are chairs for visitors. The nurses are funny and make light conversation as they poke and prod you and stick needles into you. Snacks and beverages and warm blankets are available upon demand. In short, the staff waits on you hand and foot.

 

Does this sound familiar?

 

Ah, but I learned from my mother’s experience. Her mistake was that she overdid it.

 

I will not overdo it.

 

I have another fluids day soon, back in the chemo ward with those nice kind attentive nurses. I hope I can maintain my composure.

 

I don’t want the girls to know what an attention whore I am.


 

Guitar

guitar


I was pillaging through my stacks of books at home when I found a neat little collection of folk songs edited by Tom Glazer. It’s got all the classics – “Crawdad” (which I know as “Froggy Went a-Courting” and also (because of a 1940s MGM cartoon) as “Crambone,” as well as “Barbara Allen,” and “Shenandoah” – as well as some I’d never heard of, like “The Dodger” (with lyrics like “The lover is a dodger / he’ll hug you and he’ll kiss you / but look out girls, he’s a-telling you a lie”).

These are great tunes, simple and straightforward. Some are no doubt European (as “I Know Where I’m Going,” which I only knew before as the Scottish-flavored theme song of a movie of the same name starring Deborah Kerr and Roger Livesey); others are more Americanish (is that a word? If not, it is now), as in “The Midnight Special.” And there are some others, weirdly cheerful, that might have come from anywhere, like “The Sow’s Got The Measles (And She Died Last Spring).”

But, best of all, this book has an appendix called “The Beginner Folk-Guitarist.”

If you are as old as me, you will remember that there was a time in the late 1950s / early 1960s during which folk songs and folk singing were Hot Stuff. Groups like the Kingston Trio were all over the radio, singing sweet harmony to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars. Everyone played and sang in those days. A lot of early rock-and-roll singers and guitarists came out of that era. (Donovan, anyone?)

But I never learned to play the guitar.

Tom Glazer, in fifteen short pages, makes it look easy. He gives you the fingering for sixteen chords, and describes three ways to strum. And that’s it.

Me for that!

I just saw a commercial for the Guitar Center in which they show a $29 ukulele, and similarly low-priced acoustic guitars. Can you imagine how very irritating I might become if I could strum a few silly chords?

Let’s go for it.

All together now:

 

 

Oh, Froggy went a-courtin’, and he did ride, crambone . . . .


 

Helene Hanff and “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”

helene hanff


I had a big stack of books all set to read once I reached this point of my treatment / recovery: textbooks, novels, history, Latin, et bleeding cetera.

 
Yes, let’s have a good big laugh at my planning.
 

I am not much in the mood for new books. The idea of cracking “De bello gallico,” or Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, or the pre-calc book my student assistant very thoughtfully provided for me, makes me utterly apathetic. I managed to read a science-fiction novel, and the first half of “Little Dorrit,” and I am afraid that’s about it.

 
But rereading  – !

 
I was fumbling around the shelves the other week and my hand fell upon Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road.” I devoured it, for the thirty-fifth time. It’s a charming little epistolary (!) novel in which Helene enters into correspondence with a little London bookstore back in the early 1950s. Her style is chatty and wise-guyish, and the bookseller’s letters are starchy and informational. They get to know one another. She gets to know everyone in the bookstore. She sends gifts of food (rationing was a grim fact of life in England in those days), and talks about Isaak Walton and John Donne as if she knows them personally, and the bookstore staff send her snapshots and tablecloths and – upon occasion – the books she orders.

 
If you haven’t read it – well, it’s a gem.

 
In the sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,”  Helene finally goes to London (in 1971) and stays for about six weeks, and keeps a detailed travel diary. This book was never so much a favorite of mine as “84 Charing Cross”; it seemed perfunctory, tacked-on.

 
Now I have read it twice more, and I have changed my mind.

 
This book is a minor masterpiece of travel literature. It works under one simple premise: if you dream of visiting a place for long enough, the place you dream of will be there waiting for you when you finally get there. There will be all kinds of U-turns and surprises, but at the end of the day, you will have discovered your dream.

 
Helene’s descriptions of London are peachy. Her observations are wry. She is unexpectedly wise. (She notes, for example, that you could take any block of a London suburb and plop it down into Queens or Brooklyn, and no one would be the wiser. You could never, however, get away with substituting a block of downtown London with a block of downtown New York.) Her descriptions of her traveling companions are poifect. She is irascible and sometimes unhappy and disappointed. It’s one of the truest travel books I’ve ever read.

Put this on your reading list, kids.


Westerns

westerns


I was born into a shit-kickin’ family. My father’s parents were Eastern Washington farmers, and my sister Susan married into a local dairy family, and – well, what more do you need?

Evidently it’s in our DNA. My brother Leonard worked in grocery stores his whole life, and yet he talks like Walter Brennan. He was, for a fact, born on my parents’ farm, during a brief period in their early married life during which they were farming, but still!
Anyway, everyone in my family loves Westerns, and the whole Old West folklore thing. (When Leonard found out I was doing our family history, he drawled: “Are we descended from any horse thieves?” Evidently that would have been perfectly delicious. The reality – some Polish peasants, some Italian peasants, some English hooligans and riffraff – just isn’t colorful enough, in a six-guns-and-Randolph-Scott way.)

Every once in a while I try to reassociate myself with my Boot Hill roots and watch a few Westerns on TMC. Sometimes they’re harmless enough that they sort of wash over me. But – you know? – a lot of them – most of them – just aren’t very good.

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know that there are some classics, like “Cimarron” and “Stagecoach” and “Red River.” I have seen at least ten minutes of each of these – more of “Cimarron,” because it has Irene Dunne in it – and they are all lovely. I stick by my original point, however. Read on:)

  • Westerns are all depressingly similar. I will spare you a recitation of plot points, cliches, situations, etc. I will only say that I recently fell asleep during a Jimmy Stewart western, woke up about ninety minutes later during another Jimmy Stewart Western, and was uncertain for a few minutes if it was the same movie.
  • They certainly save money on costumes and sets. I’m sure there was a kind of Studio Western Kit, containing things like 1) one chuck wagon 2) three dance hall girl dresses 3) two fancy saddles 4) one fancy lamp with a fringed shade, for indoor / city-slicker  / bawdy house scenes.
  • Scenery. Magnificent, right? HDTV has killed that illusion. In Movie #2 the other day, J. Stewart and company were riding along a dangerous mountain ridge with all kinds of mountains and forests and valleys in the distance, except that, um, no they weren’t. The foreground was perfectly clear and in focus; the scenic background looked like Jackson Pollock’s hick cousin Vernton Pollock had blooped and blopped together some green and blue and white paint to produce Western Background #14.

And so forth.

I am sure, as we say, that for people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like. I like all kinds of silly / stupid / sub-par things, especially in the movie category. (Next time you hear me warbling on about how wonderful “Shack Out On 101” is, give me a real hard whack on the back of my head.) But, bafflingly, I was born without the mental toolkit required to make sense of these verkakte Westerns, even though genetically I should be right in there with my relatives.

Sigh.

Okay. Now: anybody want to see “Shack Out On 101” one more time?


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