Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Snow in Silence: My Solitary Cat

I never had a pet before. One day a friend, who lived in the country and who had a house overrun with cats and other critters, called and told me he had one for me.

"She's very pretty," he said. "She's all white and has one brown eye and one blue eye. I have to tell you something, though; she's deaf."

I once wanted a cat, when I was a child. My sister had Persians, several of them, and my brother had a dog and a duck. I asked for a pet cat and was told no, there were too many animals around the place as it was. I was disappointed, but had long since learned I would probably not get what I asked for in situations like this. A few days later Mama relented and said I could regard one of my sister's cats as mine--feed him and look after him and see how that went.

It didn't go particularly well, because, although I tried--I did feed him--he was already a full-grown cat. He never knew he was mine and he went on his with his life as usual. Pretty soon I did too.

Years later, like 40 years later, I had moved back to my hometown and wished for a cat again. My husband didn't want to be bothered, and Mama sided with him for some reason. She told me over and over I shouldn't want a cat, and one day she gave me a stuffed animal and said, "Here's your cat." I was nearly 50 years old. I really don't know why she was so opposed to my having a pet. But clearly she was.

Now here was a cat being dropped on my doorstep. She had literally been left on my friend's doorstep and he said he thought I needed her. She was very beautiful--and the first night she walked through my house, every corner, and nodded her approval. That night she settled on the lower right corner of my bed, near my feet. She slept there every night that we lived in that house. I named her Snow. I loved her immediately.

She was a delicate creature, but I built a cat door so she could go outside at night if she wanted, and she learned how to use it. She came back with fleas, of course, and I was bothered by them all the time. She was young, probably about six months. I loved seeing her romp and chase her tail. At last I understood the joy cat owners felt. I loved coming home to her, and got used to the early-morning wakeups and nighttime prowls.  At one point a feral cat found her in the night and bit her pretty badly. I took her to the vet for her regular innoculations and flea treatments, and found a kennel to keep her when I had to travel. It was a wrench to leave her in one of those cages for a week, but I was always glad to see her when I returned.

She was a troublesome cat, really. Being deaf she didn't respond to my voice, and she seemed to live in a world of her own. I moved from the house where she had fit so well, and my new house was infested with rats. That was most disturbing. I put out glue traps but was much more afraid that Snow would get caught in one than I was reassured that the rats would. She couldn't hear them scratching so she didn't chase them, which might have scared them out of the house. That certainly would have been preferable to glue traps.

She didn't seem to have the usual stomach meter that I thought cats had; she overate and in time got very heavy and logy looking. Everything about her made me feel guilty.

I knew when I decided to move to a different part of the country that I couldn't take her. I'd be in a city; I'd be in small quarters; and I was likely to move again several times. (It turned out that I moved three times in five years.) I found a family who wanted her, but I felt very insecure about how they'd take to her. They were a single mom and two little girls. When I left her with them she was very agitated and scared, and, never having had a cat before, the children closed in on her and made matters worse. The hope I clung to was that the mother told me they had a close friend who was a cat lover; I could only pray that he would help them all with the transition.

I missed her enormously but dared not call them about her. I didn't want to hear. I had to let her go. I did notice that the itchy eyes and runny nose I'd been thinking was a pollen allergy disappeared shortly after I gave her away. I had been allergic to cats all along and never knew it.

There is something unearthly about a cat. The ancient Egyptians knew this, and every cat owner knows it too. Cats are self-contained, elegant, mystical even. Snow was all these things, more unreachable because of the deafness, and more magical because of the two-colored eyes. She was quirky, temperamental, challenging. There is still a nagging doubt that creeps in my mind in the night, when I think of that cat. She had my number, and still does; when I remember her, I can't help wondering if I was worthy. She still has a piece of my heart.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Life Strategy in Reverse

Nowadays we strategize every upcoming event--or even possible event--before it arrives. To hear people talk, every day has a strategy, and every project is mapped out to the smallest detail in advance, in order, I suppose, to circumvent the annoying possibility of something getting in the way of the strategy.

I grew up pretty much letting things happen to me. My parents didn't have a strategy--they wuz too poor. They grew up in Alabama in the 1920s, were married at a tender age in 1931, and never had the luxury of planning much of anything. They hoped things would work out and used their brains to augment their good luck. I would say they were moderately successful, quite possibly because they never set the bar very high.

My father, Preston (son of the photog) my sister, my brother, and me.
Three children, a comfortable house on three and a half acres of beautiful land, enough money for food and the necessities. Not exactly the American dream, but as good a life as they could muster with the tools they had. Daddy was a self-made businessman who would loved to have made it big and Mama was a housewife who felt she had to make the most of her lot in life. Her children absorbed most of her time and energy, and she had the disposition to be pleasant about it. We all enjoyed making each other laugh; I think a good sense of humor gets one through a lot more than a good strategy probably does.

People didn't think of making memories then. They tried instead to find projects that they enjoyed, and share them with their families. That is, of course, where memories come from. It strikes me as the wrong image when I hear young couples today saying things like "This is a house where we can make memories--" because memories are not to be controlled. I suppose you could have a strategy to provide memories, but has it not occurred to them that the memories will come whether they are the ones you want or not? Assuming you can make them is like teaching an infant to roll over in the crib; he is going to do it one way or another and you might as well accept it.

I am at an age where memories haunt me all day long. I was cursed with Superior Autobiographical Memory and whole incidents are repeated in my brain without my trying to call them up. My memory is not the sort that can be accessed in the way some of us with SAM say: If you throw a date at me, I cannot say what I was wearing and at what I did at 9 A.M. on that particular morning. But I could probably give a pretty complete version of almost any year of my life, the details of which would astound even me. In my case the problem is to tamp down the onslaught of memories, for some of them I really don't enjoy reliving. On the other hand, some are quite gratifying and fulfilling just to think about.

It is time to shape those memories, to re-strategize them into some meaningful form. A book is what I'm thinking about, going back to early childhood and assessing the themes of my own memories, of my own life. I've started, but the opening of old wounds and the balancing of the good times with the bad times, the novelization of my many highs and lows--gives me pause and challenges my ability. I hope I can do it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Unsociable Media

My daughter tells me I'm bored. I think she gets this because she knows I spend an inordinate amount of time browsing Facebook, for some reason unknown to any but God. Maybe she's right.

When I first heard about Facebook I thought it sounded like the silliest exercise in futility I could imagine. This was in 2008, when the game was new and all the rage. It supplanted something called MySpace, which I'd never tried. But I had a few friends on Facebook and went online to see what it was all about. I was put off by the terms. "Status" is the place to post your latest idea, mood, or swiped meme. I didn't know what a meme was and had no interest in revealing any innermost or outermost thought. But I began to catch on. I could scroll down and see what the people I knew were up to, and if somebody interesting posted a snappy comment more than once, I just might ask them to become my Facebook friend.

A real-life friend had just joined, and I noted that he already had 50 FB friends while I only had 12. He said one of his friends had just hooked him up with about 40 of them. I began scrounging around, gathering names, and commenting on their posts. Soon I had a hundred and had actually met a few of them in person. Now I'm up to over 300, but I seldom add a new name these days.

The thing is, on these sites I lose my filter. Early on, a Facebook-friend-of-a-Facebook-friend said of me, "I don't know what you like about her"--meaning me--"she's just an attack dog!" I never thought of myself as an attack dog and didn't realize my critical and/or sarcastic comments cause me to come across that way. Basically an introvert who covers her ass in sassy comebacks, I found a freedom on the faceless network of social media. For some reason I was annoyed if somebody posted too obvious or Pollyanna-ish remarks on her status, I tended to shoot them all down with my handy peashooter of unwelcome wisecracks. This lost me a few followers along the way, and, even though I thought I'd learned to tone it down, I still indulge in the uncalled-for slapdown from time to time. When I'm unfriended I seldom think I deserve it.

I found Facebook to be a dandy place to notify friends about my self-published novel. I published pictures of the cover, time and again, and all but begged for people to post reviews on amazon. I created a page just for the book and sent requests all around for people to click on "Like." After I reached a hundred likes and 20-something reviews on amazon, interest tapered off in both places, yet I kept after it. A friend sent me a personal message to stop the relentless plugging of my novel and all but threatened to unfriend me if I didn't. It brought me up short; again I was learning that often I don't come across on Facebook the way I think I do.

I began posting pictures of long gone movie stars and obscure celebrities on their birthdays. I began posting art works from the great masters. Got lots of good responses from those.
I have tried to learn how to refrain from commenting when someone I know is nice posts something I think is pointless. Who named me the boss of everything? I do like to indulge in a critique of awards ceremonies like the Golden Globes, and the Oscars--see my post below--and made the mistake of writing some rather nasty things on an astrology post a few days ago, causing a dear lady I've been following for a couple of years to send me a personal message that I was an asshole. Now, that stung. I apologized for the uncalled for insult, but I felt insulted too. I have to check every day to see if she's unfriended me.

It's all wearing a bit thin. I don't know how much longer I'll enjoy this free-for-all of blather and backslapping (or backstabbing). I don't think I'm doing it because I'm bored, but I wonder if I would be bored if I quit.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Geneva, Me, and the Berners-Lees

That's me in red at the goodbye party for The Little Theater of Geneva. Reg Bird is on my right; I could remember all the names if you gave me time. It was a very special place and time.
In the early 1980s I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where my husband was Director of Public Affairs and Advertising for Du Pont Europe. It was a dream gig, and I found many projects for my own time. First off, I became very active in Geneva's American Women's Club, and, through them I started a little American theatre project that swelled to become a full-fledged production company presenting American plays to the people of Geneva and Switzerland.

There was a large expat-American group in Geneva and some of us, although we loved being in Switzerland and having access to all of Europe, missed the kind of American activities we had grown to love. We started modestly enough, reading American plays in the AWC clubrooms on Monday evenings, and at the end of two years we had produced several full-length plays in assorted venues from school auditoriums to actual theaters. There was an English amateur group in town that boasted a sizable audience and some longevity. The trouble was, the Brits didn't know all that much about the American theatre, and most were not all that impressed with what they did know.

In American tradition we were the brash new kids with a separate agenda and mission. My background had been in journalism and public relations, but what I had originally wanted to be was an actress. My skills at writing and working with journalists and printers served our company well. Most of the Little Theatre members had little or no experience in theatre, even on an amateur level, so part of my work was to teach them the basics and find people who could do the technical tasks about which I knew nothing.

It was a little miracle that the group was as successful as it was. It attracted a large number of Swiss and people from the International organizations that flesh out Geneva's busy life, both in the audience and working with us. I was the center of the universe for a time, and my obsession with my project paid off handsomely. Everything fell into place. I felt I had found my calling.

Basically we did three comedies a year and one more serious piece. We started with the old chestnut, Kaufman and Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner, with a slightly updated script and a cast which included most of the well-known Americans in Geneva. We followed that with The Little Foxes and Forty Carats. It was a bit helter-skelter, but we were having a good time and over the four years we did some good theatre and more than a few lives were changed forever.

My swansong was the role of Evy in Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, directed by Reg Bird,

Evy in The Gingerbread Lady
abetted by our mutual buddy Julian Finn. As I was leaving Geneva, the group threw a big going-away event (pictured above) in the hall of the American Church. The Little Theater of Geneva continued for some ten years, absorbing more and more from the English group as time went by and no longer defining itself as an American Community Theatre, but as an
avant-garde, or at least offbeat, off-Broadway type company.
A few years after I left, however, Reg sent me a copy of a letter from the new Chairman of the Board, an American named Nancy Berners-Lee, written to the membership. She was very respectful of me, and mentioned my name in her exhortation to members to stay true to my original mission of presenting American plays of the highest caliber. I had left tons of documents defining the group and expressing my own obsession with its American-ness and its commitment to continue to draw from the American community and provide them with happy, familiar (and family-oriented) material. I sent a letter of thanks to Nancy Berners-Lee, but I never received a response.

Her husband was, of course, Tim Berners-Lee, employed at CERN and preoccupied with other things. But he must have had some participation with the Little Theater of Geneva, even while he was inventing the World Wide Web, which would soon change life on this planet. I've read that they are divorced now, and I never met either one of them, but as I write this blog I owe a great deal to them both. To Nancy, thanks for taking the reins of my hobby horse for a while, and to Tim for giving me a place to shout my thoughts and memories to the world.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Late Nights

I remember how comforting Johnny Carson's monologues were. He was a sophisticated version of my image of Mr. Nice guy, somebody who could sum up the events of the day and make me smile about it all. I felt all of America was watching, allowing him into our bedrooms as we wound up our day by giving us his insights and humor, and helping us focus on the events of our time. Not particularly political, but fair--with a bright, critical mind and a wry perspective that led us to believe there was sanity in the world. That was a different era, all right.

Not particularly plagued with insomnia, and relocated from the Central Time Zone that placed "late night" television at 10 P.M., I seldom watched the comedy shows that followed Carson's. Jay Leno didn't have the zip, the pertinence or the impertinence, that Carson had. David Letterman never moved me. I did enjoy Conan O'Brien--what happened to him anyway?--and adore Craig Ferguson's antic Scottishness when I do happen to find myself jolted from sleep in the wee hours.

Now I have a new love in my late nights. Jimmy Fallon has been on a while, and his talent has long intrigued me. I liked him on Saturday Night Live and often switched from Ferguson to him, back and forth, in my surfing in the night. He's got the big spot now, taking over Johnny's show after Leno left, and the reviews are good. Fallon is a comic actor who uses the television medium superbly, often just changing the look in his eyes to get laughter. He can do imitations, funny voices, and he knows what he wants to say, always coming across as the sassy kid from the neighborhood who is going to do well when he figures out what he wants to do in life.

He's followed by Seth Myers, also a Saturday Night Live alum, a smart comedian with a good attitude and a bit of an edge. Myers did the "news" spot on SNL, and I had thought of him as a natural to work on The Daily Show, as he has that savvy touch with the topical and the instincts of a writer as well a knack with a laugh line. He was the perfect emcee at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a dubious gig at best, and I was looking forward to seeing how he would be with his own talk show. I have since caught it and I agree that he's a worthy addition to the late-night lineup. Affable, intelligent, he brings a cerbral skill set to an interview, and he makes the viewer feel comfortable in the eternally cool medium of television.
I'm still not going to stay up to watch these guys. But now there is this thing on my television that records a show so I can watch it when I want to, and can even fast-forward through annoying commercials or segments that I don't care for. I've been employing that for Jon Stewart's (The Daily Show) for years, watching it at the hour I once reserved for network news.

Now I'm watching the late night comedians at the time of my choice, and I must say these two new entries are very encouraging about the state of the world. When the reality is oppressing and terrifying, society creates great comedians to help us through. They are here, folks. And I'm watching again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Return to Winter

It just doesn't seem right, this time of year. We had unbearable cold beginning in December, followed by an onslaught of storms right up until the end of February. I chickened out and escaped to balmy Fairhope (Alabama) for the month of February, only to return March 1 between barrages of sleet and snow. Luckily the storm predicted for March 2 missed this part of the state, and it's been thawing pretty steadily even since. It almost reached 70° yesterday and the pavements are wet with melted snow.

The warmth and sunshine prompted me to look at real estate ads on Craig's List. Moving house is one of my favorite change-of-season activities, particularly in the shift from winter to spring. And that's when the inventory increases. Should I rent or buy? Or just dream? I'm perfectly content where I live, but it is a rental and I have a nest egg I could apply to a mortgage for a home of my own I could modify to my taste. This place doesn't have access to outdoor space or a dishwasher. I found pictures of a few darling possibilities, and house hunting is more fun in person live than watching on television.

But the forecast is for a drop in temperature to the 20s and single digits over the next 48 hours, with rain and probably snow. I must lay in supplies so I don't have to go out the door tomorrow.  It's grey and grim outside and will not go above 40° today. There is time to do what I must before the cold sets in again--and the good news is that it will be seasonable next week, which is still cold but not brutally so, and every week thereafter it will continue to be warmer.

It's not predictable, as it once was. Due to the global climate change, which scientists tell us is irreversible, freakish weather is now the norm, and we must find ways to adapt to it. I know that with all my griping, I am one of the lucky ones, as I have a place to go to if it gets too cold for me--and, whatever I say, there are plenty of places in which the weather has become more of an enemy than it is in the Hudson Valley of New York. We can be pretty certain there will be a glorious spring, and summer (although early predictions are that it will be the hottest on record everywhere) is much more pleasant here than in the deep South. I like to say I love the seasons, but I admit too much of any one of them makes life pretty difficult.  

Monday, March 3, 2014


Thanks to Stephen Hultgren for inviting me to the party!

A lot of people I know despise the Academy Award Presentation for its phoniness, its pretension, its just-this-side-of-good-taste glitz and the self-absorption of Hollywood, the community responsible. I'm well aware of the negatives, but for several years I have observed the events from the comfort of my living room usually in my pajamas and often with a glass or two of champagne--and with my laptop tuned to Facebook where I offer a running commentary of what I see. I am more than irreverent; usually I'm downright insulting. I think these guys are asking for it, and it's very easy to be obnoxious when I'm nowhere near the potentially injured parties.

This year I was thrilled to learn, upon alighting in New Paltz after a month of warmer weather in my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, that my friends in the Rosendale Theatre Collective were gathering at the 1850 House (an upscale hostelry in Rosendale) for an Oscar party. I wouldn't go, but was happy to learn that there was such a celebration. I had to consider the fact that I couldn't go in my PJ's in this weather, that I would have to drive the 8 miles, and would probably not be in condition to drive back, plus I'd feel funny about leaving before the party was over, and I can't often tolerate the Oscar ceremonies after about 11 P.M.

Every group needs congratulatory celebrations throughout the year. The world needs harvest festivals, spring festivals, sports festivals, and times to get goofy in crowds. Such events are safety valves for pent-up frustrations. They are the fuel of community engines. We attend them over and over for that connection to like minds and hearts--and people involved in the endeavors we cherish.

I don't like sports; I don't like competitions; I don't like mindless drunken parties. I have learned that I am primarily an introvert, and that that's not so bad. I cringe in crowds, unless the party is for me, and then I play the role of somebody who loves being there until at last I do love it. I like to give parties, and I enjoy going to them, but when there I generally hang in a corner and talk to the same person the whole evening.

The Oscar Ceremonies are based on a competition, so, I ask myself, why do I enjoy them? The answer is simple.

It's my tribe. Those people at the 1850 House, cheering the winners, have a connection to actors, the theatre, and movies. They--we--can identify with the winners and the losers, and those who got all dressed up and don't even quite know why they're there. To me, the awards are not the point at all. It's getting to see everybody in their best looks (donated by designers, of course, and styled by any number of people), and it's my job to call them out if they look godawful and to comment to all who will listen that they are stunningly beautiful, which they sometimes are. Some are clearly not having fun, but most clearly are, and that's a great thing to watch.

So there I sit at my laptop, snarking and kibbitzing, and having a high old time speaking my mind if a speech goes on a second too long or a song isn't worthy of even being sung (as a matter of fact I think the "Best Song" category should have been abolished years ago), or if somebody comes in a hideous dress or a boring tuxedo. Some of my Facebook friends are shocked--taking my one-liners seriously--and some join in and take the comment(s) to the next level. It's all in fun, but I mean every word of it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Back to the Library, One More Time

The Fairhope Library is a source of conflict for others, as this email I received from a friend who grew up in Fairhope and experienced it much as other children of the 1950s did reveals:

Thank you for memorializing the Marie Howland/Anna Braune library (as I fondly regard it). It was dear to my memory, and to my sister's memory as well. I regret there wasn't a better photo available. It doesn't show what a lovely place it became after the huge oaks and magnolias grew up around it -- and it still is lovely, thanks to the University of South Alabama, which now occupies and preserves it.

What makes a library? The collection. That means books. Walking into the new one, I was shocked to see a cathedral ceiling in the place where the upstairs stacks should be. The waste of space and money made me heartsick. It seems to have been so costly that the City is unable to keep it open full-time. (This is not the fault of the supervisors or staff; they make every effort to assist their patrons and make the ambiance welcoming and warm. The reference staff deserves special praise for their thorough investigations of the smallest inquiry.)

However, at the entrance I slipped and almost fell on the inclined slate walkway to the front entrance. It's slippery when wet, and I'm careful to avoid it now. I admit to being happy that a room for lectures and films was included, but I remain deeply troubled by other expenditures, omissions, and the cost of future upkeep. The slate walkway is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and it illustrates, along with that ceiling, the fact that concern with a grand outward appearance is antithetical to real human needs.

And wasn't the absence of that kind of concern one of the main things that made Fairhope so valuable to us as children, and so treasured by us in memory?

This last paragraph is the really tricky part to explain to those who didn’t grow up in Fairhope in the same time frame. It was before parents were afraid to allow their children to go outside alone, before the day when lawsuits were commonplace, before esthetics required ostentation. A simple, functional structure had its own elegance, and bigger wasn’t necessarily better. In Fairhope, with its egalitarian heritage, ornament was eschewed and the result was a village with a personality all its own, reflected in architecture of plain, solid buildings with the coherent design theme of purpose-without-pretense.

It was not a typical small town, and it isn’t now—but the upscale glamor it now exudes is jarring to those of us who thrived in the comfort of Fairhope’s eccentricity and complexity in past years. The world has changed and what we took for granted is only a memory now. This is life in 21st century America—it’s just that some of us have more trouble accepting it than others. On that note, I am getting on an airplane back to New Paltz, having made contact with many old friends and having made a few new ones, all of us trying to reconcile our thoughts about Fairhope with the reality of the place as it is today.