Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New Life in an Old House

I don't really know what made me do it. I'm too old for this. It's not even in my town of choice.

On the other hand, the old house spoke to me. A modified Queen Anne in the Uptown neighborhood of Kingston, NY, a small city I've grown to like after my year in New Paltz, getting the lay of the land. My daughter liked the house, although she looked askance at my recurring tendency to kick over the traces and buy houses that would challenge, conflict, and possibly confound me as I slide not all that gracefully into old age.

The inspector looked it over. He's also a pushover for old homes, but his report contained warnings and a little verbal finger-wagging about the things that could be lurking in the walls and corners he wasn't allowed to uncover. His prose got to me: "There is no such thing as a perfect home or an inspector who discovers every defect during a one-time visit to a property. Nonetheless this historic home is considered a masterpiece of architecture and construction that should serve you well. With some work this home could be brought back to its original glory."

Can any amongst you resist that siren call? I have bought and sold many houses, and have an affinity to older ones that embrace and beg for attention. Working on them adds a dimension to life, and my life is sadly void of dimensions these days. I'm thinking about appropriate colors, arrangement of my furniture in the rooms--and the long-term challenge of bringing the kitchen and bathroom up to date while maintaining the character of the house.

I'll start as slowly as I can, repairing the porch as the inspector suggested, and engaging a contractor to advise and price out the various repairs that are needed and the outset of the journey. I can keep the exterior colors while I decide over time if I want to change them. I never cared for the "Painted Lady" style, but I know it's appropriate to the period of this house (built 1890) and it's crazy popular in this area. Where I grew up such houses were solid white and that always feels more comfortable for me. But there are some things I'll have to concede to the house from the start.

The dining room
There is the matter of the dining room chandelier, clearly a recent purchase and not entirely to my taste. It's out of scale for the room, overly ornate, but it's there and for now I don't mind it. When I have some money to spare I'll provide the house with a gentler and less pretentious ornament. But that's a minor matter in the great scheme of things, about which you are going to learn more and more (or should I say blow-by-blow) as I move forward. For now, I'm starting to pack.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Houses and Homes

The house in Montrose, Alabama, where I grew up.

I've been thinking about houses a lot lately. I'm renting a condo and quite comfortable here, but I planned to use the money I had left from the sale of my condo in Hoboken to buy another dwelling of some kind. I didn't think it would be a house. I've lived in a lot of houses, owned many myself, and I thought I pretty much would live the rest of my days in a downsized, compact space. Since my move from Alabama in 2007, I've divested myself of much stuff--but the closets here are still bursting, and I still miss certain pieces of furniture, certain books and objects. I love New Paltz, but I haven't quite made myself at home.

The first house I owned looks a lot like the house I grew up in. It's the Southern style called a Creole Cottage, which dot the landscape of Lower Alabama and always spell home to me, in capital letters. Creole cottages have been redesigned from the original center hall, equal sized rooms on the side, high ceilings, comfy ambiance. I think this house was built somewhat later than the old family place, and it did not have the classical floor plan. I loved living in the house and might have stayed on indefinitely had not life changed in ways that made that impossible. We sold this one at a handsome profit and I went on to buy and remodel a 1950s bungalow for myself, then sell that and build a modified creole on a piece of land behind the house above where my mother still lived. It was exciting to add my own details to the design, buying a huge front door from a nearby architectural salvage barn, and choosing all the cabinet hardware, counter top surfaces, wallpaper--I insisted on yellow wallpaper with magnolias on it for that front hall, as that had been the choice in the house I grew up in. Yellow was my father's favorite color, and now that I think of it, I realize it's quite likely he chose that paper.

This was before stainless steel appliances--I still dislike them--and granite countertops. I did quite well without them, although I did have one piece of granite on a kitchen counter and broke one of my favorite pitchers on it, which still upsets me.
The house I built, in 1999
The house was scene to many parties and a couple of Thanksgivings, but for some reason I decided to sell it and buy a Craftsman bungalow where I spent several happy years. By then Mama was in the assisted living facility which was just a few blocks away.

I can't say I love moving, but I do love being in houses new to me that I can put a personal stamp on. I write all this to sort out the houses in my head, and reconcile myself to the reality that I've put in an offer in a charming Victorian in Kingston, NY. If all goes well, before the end of June I won't be in New Paltz anymore, but fixing up another beautiful old place, replacing the furniture I discarded in my moves, and gearing up for yet another phase as I face another birthday.
"The Captain's House" An airplane bungalow built in 1914 by a bay boat captain

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Anita Hill, Unsung Heroine

Anita Hill, testifying to Senate committee in 1991.

She's been hiding in plain sight, a law school professor whose name is a magnet to enterprising neophytes eager to learn the ropes and, if possible, to hear her story first-hand. Anita Hill reveals it all simply and tastily in a new documentary, Anita: Speaking Truth To Power.

The film covers her life, before, during, and after the Senate confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas in 1991, without looking sycophantic or sentimental. Interviews not only with Hill, but with some of the people who worked with her at the time of the hearings and some who know her now. It presents her in a positive light, but I hardly see how anything could be produced that would do otherwise.

The youngest of 13 children, Hill was raised on a farm in Lone Tree, OK, after her parents had relocated the family from Arkansas, where her father had been subtly warned he was soon to be lynched by some local hell-raisers. How the Hills prevailed is remarkable, and how their youngest daughter would turn out so brilliantly, so balanced, so wise, is practically a miracle. Both parents, especially the mother, shine through the story.

An idealistic young lawyer, Anita Hill went to work in a office where her superior (Thomas) made unwelcome advances. Footage of her at this age reveal an extremely beautiful woman, smiling and looking to be lit from within. (Peripheral to the tale is how well dressed she seems to have been all her life, how casually she can look elegant, what an tasteful and attractive wardrobe she had and still has. I only mention this because the blue suit she wore at the hearings became iconic just because it was what she wore at that time; the suit itself is simply perfect.)

Hill had to endure this man's insensitive, suggestive comments, because he was her boss. Although Hill is far too articulate to put it this way, it seems he gave her the creeps--so much so that she remembered the lascivious things he said for seven years, long after they had both gone on to other jobs and had no contact with each other. When she heard he was being nominated to the Supreme Court, she felt she ought to speak up. Her interviews with the FBI led the Senate to reconvene confirmation hearings in order to hear what she had to say.

Anita Hill didn't know that those white men had already made up their minds. She didn't think she'd have to explain how his comments made her feel, or that they planned, for the most part, to dismiss her as a crazy slut, talking nonsense. The documentary reveals her sincerity, her simply honesty, and the intellect and poise that kept her focused through a grueling seven hours. No one could have predicted that Thomas would turn the spotlight back on himself with righteous indignation at "being lynched." Apparently he was indignant about being caught out at behavior he considered inconsequential. He denied it with such vehemence that at best one could assume he has a very subjective memory. He was not asked to explain how anything Hill had said amounted to a lynching, or even to defend any of his bad behavior in the workplace.

When it happened, it was the first time I heard the expression "playing the race card." The white men he faced apparently felt way more guilty about race than about sex. His testimony worked so immediately that it erased the whole seven hours that preceded it. Thomas was in like Flynn.

In the meantime, Anita Hill went back to work at the University of Oklahoma, where she had tenure. Asked to comment from time to time, she always declined, but her story haunted her and after a few years she took a job teaching at Brandeis.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power takes up the rest of her life, and it's full of good news. She's at last gotten some credit for defining sexual harassment for years to come. It's a stunning trip. It could change a lot of lives.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power is playing locally at the Rosendale, the little indie theater in the next town over. If you're anywhere near Rosendale, NY, I recommend you take it in tonight--or at the matinee on Wednesday or Thursday night at 7:15.  Plenty of chances to see a movie that you'll never forget about a woman who should always be remembered.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Biography of a Book

In many ways New Paltz reminds me of the town I grew up in, Fairhope, Alabama, as it was in the 1950s and not as it is today. Fairhope was founded as a utopian colony by followers of Henry George (a prominent citizen of New York State in the 19th century). They moved to the shores of Mobile Bay to found a community they felt would prove George's economic theory of a single-tax and change the country. They bought land in a pleasant setting and rented parcels of it to settlers at a low yearly amount, using the tax collected for civic maintenance and improvement.

Fairhope in its early days, the turn of the 20th century, attracted reformers and nonconformists of every stripe--writers, Socialists,  raw foodists, artists, and even a few nudists. By the time I was growing up in the 1950s, the single tax element was on the wane in Fairhope, but it still was home to more than a few oddballs, most of whom were solid citizens of the town and all of whom added to the bohemian flavor that still existed. There is a bit of that in New Paltz, but not a shred in Fairhope any more. It is still in its efficacious location, with spectacular views of the sunset into Mobile Bay, but has become a tourist and retirement destination and the population is enchanted by a civic emphasis on horticulture and a borrowed cachet of artiness.

I resisted attempting to write fiction all my life, thinking maybe one day I would write a book in the way Grandma Moses painted pictures—word pictures of a bygone time and place, my place being old Fairhope in its infancy, when the oddballs and intellectuals gathered there to discuss the ways they would change the world.

That Was Tomorrow is my attempt to do that. It is also a way to flush Fairhope out of my system. My villain is loosely based on a real person with whom I had had struggles. I made him more ignorant, more deranged than he actually was, but I did enjoy doing that. My protagonist is idealistic and innocent--I wanted her to represent the kind of "New Woman" of the 1920s who struck off on her own. Swirling around her is the circus that was Fairhope in 1921—with some of the names of real people who founded the settlement and thrived there. I included unknowns and forgotten artists and travelers who came through the place in that period, cavorting nude in the bay, arguing Bolshevik politics, teaching the Negroes to paint, and hatching books of their own. There are a number of real people in the book, but none whose names are known outside Fairhope, and few inside.

It is very real to me, and of course compelling, although long ago I learned that there is a very small market for this particular segment of the things that I find compelling. Unable to find a publisher for my last work of non-fiction about Fairhope, I vowed that if this one does not find a publisher then it will go unpublished—so be it.

I wrote the whole book in about 10 months. Then I began rewriting. I sent it to three readers, one of whom (Jonathan Odell) is a published author and he was the most helpful. He zeroed in on my problems writing in this fiction format—I had not created tension in my story or even really let the reader know who my protagonist was. I was telling the reader about the story and not telling the story. He also knew that I was going to have to edit out a lot of unneeded backstory. He said this in a positive, constructive way, assuring me that I had created an interesting book that might go somewhere after I polished it up.

The polishing period was the most difficult. I could not find an agent to represent me to a publisher, and after submitting it to about 50 of them I tried Alabama publishers but they all either said they didn't publish books "about Fairhope" or they just didn't respond at all. When I heard from the University of Alabama Press that they no longer considered historical novels, I gave up on that and set up my own imprint, Sibley Oak Press, and published That Was Tomorrow, both in electronic format and as a paperback.

It's a modest little book, but the response of those who do read it is generally good. So far I've gotten 32 reviews on, and only a few found minor things to carp about. One said it was not of interest to the general reader, which may be true--but others have claimed that they never read books like this and were delighted to have found this one. It is for sale at three indie bookstores that I know of--Page and Palette in Fairhope, Inquiring Minds in New Paltz, and the Book Mart and Café in Starkville, MS. Yes, it's on amazon as an eBook and in paperback. Sales are on a plateau at this point, but That Was Tomorrow is still alive, and as long as people are reading it, old Fairhope is too.