Friday, September 19, 2014

Posting About Nothing

I'm at a loss for something to write about today.

Can't write about politics, because I have taken a sacred oath not to. Anyway I have no views on politics right now, other than, "Eeuch." That won't fill a column.

Can't write about family stuff because I just don't write about family stuff. If I did, I would tell you that Harold and I drove to a charming beach house in Harvey Cedars last Sunday to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of my eldest son. Outside, the surf was crashing and the sea grass newly planted on the dunes was waving in the breeze. My daughter-in-law put on a wonderful spread, baked ziti, roasted sausage and peppers, crispy rolls. One of my granddaughters brought two of the most deliciously decadent cakes I've ever tasted. I saw relatives I hadn't seen in years. I met family connections I hadn't ever met. There was a baby running around. Everyone seemed prosperous and healthy. It was great.

One of my son's half-brothers made me a very pretty speech about how thankful he was that we—his adoptive mother and I, as well as the adoptive mothers of the other twenty or so half-siblings—had given them homes when their birth mothers couldn't take care of them, and I treasure his remarks. I've always seen myself as something of a failure where my adopted boys are concerned. I'll take all the compliments I can get.

If it were a novel there would have been undercurrents at the party, perhaps simmering feuds that might have led to hurt feelings or outbursts of violence. Fortunately for all of us it was real life. Which I hardly ever write about.

And so I have nothing to write about today, nor am I starting to write my memoirs. In fact, I'm not writing much of anything these days. What I'm about to do is go down to Rojo's and have a coffee with Harold. Maybe I'll write about Lambertville later on. Or murders. Something.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Travel Journal: August/September 2014

Perhaps it is because writing is such an all-encompassing activity for me.  Or maybe when I am traveling, I am too busy taking in everything to find the energy to write it down as it happens.  Whatever the reason, I am a dismal failure at keeping a comprehensive travel journal.  My intentions are good.  I never travel without a journal to write in.  But what gets into it are just snippets.

On my recent trip, I brought along the safari journal that has gone with me to Africa three times now.  Here is a lot of what made it into the book this time around.

20 August 2014
On the way to JFK.  The Carmel Car driver is Chinese and listens to a radio station that plays only songs by BeyoncĂ© or Chinese groups that imitate her style.  We get through the Midtown Tunnel in fine time, but the traffic is thick on the Queens side.  The driver takes Queens Boulevard as the quickest way to airport—certainly more scenic than the Long Island Expressway.  Along our route, we pass the Boca Juniors Restaurant, named for a Buenos Aires soccer team.  One of the killers in my 1945 mystery set in Argentina—Blood Tango—was a fan.  A couple of miles later, we pass the Argentine Tango restaurant.  In between there was the King David Sushi Bar.  A little further on is a storefront that houses a combination pharmacy and psychic reader’s parlor.

I know little of the borough of Queens other than the airports, but I brag about it all time.  150 languages are spoken here, a fact that speaks volumes about the diversity of my peaceable city.

21 August 2014

The trip from New York was long and with many delays.  Arrival at Nairobi Airport just before midnight of day two.  It’s a madhouse, with two off-schedule jumbo jets arriving at the same time and disgorging their polyglot passengers and several tons of motley luggage.  I had reserved a hotel for the night of the 21st , but it is the wee hours of the 22nd before I get there.  The driver who picks me up at the airport is named Edgar.  It is close to 2:30 AM before I get to bed.  I have no idea what time it is back in New York.  And I don’t want to know.

22 August 2014

After a few hours’ sleep and a buffet breakfast, the driver I reserved—Patrick—picks me up and takes me to the Karen Blixen Museum.  Young, delightful Lucy is my enthusiastic and well-informed guide.  A high point for me is seeing Karen’s beautiful portraits of her African friends.  I never knew she was a painter as well as a writer.

Lunch at a nearby historic building, now the restaurant and guesthouse, Tamambo.  In the garden under a blooming jacaranda tree.  The food is good, but not great, and I am not used to eating alone in such places.

Very amused to find there are many Italians here.  One family of six, including two children whose sweet voices speaking la lingua float over to me on the soft Kenyan highland breeze.  Then, a couple in their fifties with their perfect chic in safari colors could not have been anything but Italian—a judgment confirmed when they spoke while passing my table.  Three couples arrive—very casual, not so beautifully turned out—but something in their way of walking—nonchalant, tinged generously with confidence just short of arrogance—tells me who they are.  And, yes, the first word I hear one of the say is “Allora.”  Untranslatable—“well, well” sort of, but not only that.  “So?” when it is pronounced as two syllables.

The chicken dish was okay.  The bread pudding scrumptious and mirabile dictu! REALLY good espresso.

Ah, that’s why there are so many Italians here.  They heard the place has good coffee.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Enduring Fascination with Sherlock Holmes

I was sitting around the other night, smoking cocaine and playing my violin and, finally, after those got boring, watching Benedict Cumberbatch portraying the great detective Sherlock Holmes on my computer. Few fictional characters have managed to exert such a hold on the public imagination as the eccentric detective. Well more than a century later, we have Holmes’s progeny running around all over the TV screen, descendants as different in their quirks as Monk and House, but who still share the monomaniacal desire to solve the puzzle of man, for “the proper study of man is man,” as Holmes himself says in A Study in Scarlet. From just before the turn of the 20th century until past the turn of the 21st the great Holmes has loomed large in the imagination. Why?

Great fictional characters are supposed to be both timeless and universal. Holmes has been translated into every language on earth, practically, and has been portrayed by everyone from Christopher Plummer to Basil Rathbone, even Robert Downey Jr., Holmes’s brother Mycroft has had his own movie (Mel Brooks’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother).

It is inarguable that the man with the deerstalker hat, pipe and magnifying glass has endured (even his customary accoutrements have displayed a staying power in the public imagination). So why has his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, been condemned to the status of second-rate writer, a scribbler of sensational tales, a genre writer, a boys’ adventure writer (a condemnation Jack London and Joseph Conrad get sometimes, too), someone who transformed the Victorian Penny Dreadful , which as literature was surely dreadful, into mass literature as literarily tasty as cotton candy, and about as nourishing?

And so, the two-headed question I ask in this piece—why has Holmes endured, and does Doyle deserve more credit for the creation of the famous detective? Indeed, if the reason he has endured is because Holmes is excellent literature, then Doyle does indeed deserve that credit.

Part of the backlash, I am sure, comes from the very fact of Holmes’s popularity. Stephen King has suffered from the same treatment—to a critical elite, anyone that popular can’t be good, which is a kind of oblique swipe at the average Joe, who would rather read a ripping good yarn than some postmodern meditation, or rather rumination, about the life of the mind, in a self-reflective stream of consciousness that contemplates literature more than it is literature.

Everyone loves plot, mystery, murder and puzzles, action, mayhem, intrigue, and danger. So why is it
seen as an over-indulgence to indulge in these things at all? Does real literature have to be character-driven and, for that matter, are not Holmes and Watson fully realized characters? They are not cardboard or two dimensional, not to me. And not to an adoring public. Holmes’s utter uniqueness, and Watson’s capable Everyman, are drawn vividly enough to have stayed popular down all the ladder of years.

Ironically, although Holmes is drawn with depth, it is his shallowness that is so fully depicted. As Watson says in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes has no knowledge of Philosophy, Literature, Astronomy or Politics (apparently the curriculum for a learned man in those days, a gentleman), but has an immense knowledge of sensational literature, Anatomy, chemistry, and knows “every detail of every horror perpetrated in this century.”

Watson exists as the Everyman, a good and capable and ordinary fellow, but one who is damaged by war and sickness and loneliness, and who sits by the proverbial fire with Holmes in their little outpost just beyond the community of man. Holmes can’t make himself part of that community, or does not care to, and Watson no longer knows how to.

And so we have our two heroes, each one perfectly suited to the other, down to the not inconsiderable detail that Watson plays Boswell to Holmes’s Johnson. We can be fascinated along with Watson at the sheer megalomania of the man, and long for Watson to achieve the real affection from him that Watson hopelessly yearns for (even after getting married, Watson is forever dropping by to see Holmes and getting happily tangled up in another case).

If Holmes were around today, he would be diagnosed as anti-social, or at least asocial, possibly as autistic, and Watson as having PTSD and depression. Holmes forms no other close ties than with Watson, and Watson tells the reader he has no one in London. When the plot is not thickening, when the game is not afoot, Watson morosely examines what he considers his failed life, and Holmes seeks solace in the violin and cocaine. It is the thrill of the hunt that brings these two disaffected souls back to life.

Doyle lived in a time of great upheaval. In his lifetime he witnessed industrialization and urbanization, the rise of modernism in the arts, jazz, the Great War, the criminalization of drugs and homosexuality, the rise of the Police Force, the Union Movement, the passage of Queen Victoria into history, the gradual destruction of the peerage’s control of England and, on the Continent, political violence and the explosion of printed material in the form of periodicals, newspapers and books.

It was an exciting but frightening time, and Doyle manages to play on people’s fears about change. Xenophobia, the city as a place filled with barbaric, godless foreigners, and also as a place of conmen and organized crime, prostitution, swarthy anarchists, grifters and hucksters and flim-flam men, pimps, opium dens and, most frightening of all, secret societies—all these are portrayed as great threats to the good old British Gentleman’s Code that had supposedly built the empire. Man was no longer connected to the land, he was a wage slave, women turned to prostitution to survive in the metropolis, no one’s word was good anymore, and the city was a place of anomie, of alienation, of danger and despair. Like Chandler’s Los Angeles, London is a night-time place even in the day, physically and morally polluted, and the danger is all the more frightening for lurking in that darkness.

The city is a place of deception, of disguise, of the excesses of civilization, of man as far away from the Garden as one could possibly get. It is no coincidence that Doyle has Holmes continually wearing disguises, for in the city there is always something malevolent lurking under a thin and cheap veneer of goodness.

And who is there to save us from all this, who will keep the Empire safe for patriots and gentlemen, but Sherlock Holmes? Holmes is, luckily for us, on the side of good, although that is not his motivation for solving crimes. It is ego and the need to solve puzzles that drives him. One shudders to think what Holmes would become had he turned his mind to crime, but we have our dear Watson to save us from that. He and Holmes are saved from themselves by one another, and they live a life of grim fairy tale adventure in the evil city, always equal to the Moriarty’s of the world, and we live vicariously through them and are glad to not be them.

If some of Doyle’s characters are less than fully realized, that can’t be said about the duo. And what author is above using stock characters? The storytelling power of the buddy tale is not lost on Doyle, either, as he follows in a lineage that includes King Arthur and Lancelot, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, and many more.

If Doyle is heavy on plot, if his villains are one-dimensional, if he is sentimental, so what? Aristotle himself privileged plot over character, and Doyle knew that character was best revealed in action, through plot. And he knew both what scares us and thrills us (anyone who has ever ridden a rollercoaster knows how closely related these two things are). So what if his prose was purple? Someone said that the purpose of literature is to entertain and instruct. Well, Doyle goes heavy on the entertainment, and light on the educating. Again, so what? There is literature in a well-articulated vision, in the skillful rendering of the famous friendship, in the believable eccentricity of Holmes. If the plots are somewhat outlandish, if Holmes deductions are far-fetched and fanciful, I don’t mind. If Middlemarch and Proust are heavy literary nourishment, weighty and serious, some of what is called literature is just self-important and starchy, not real sustenance. While Holmes is lighter fare, it has an appeal and an art all its own, and Doyle, in creating timeless characters we still love, is a genuine literary talent.

Mike Welch

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Life with The Sound of Music

I was raised on Broadway musicals. I remember my parents buying original cast recordings of My Fair Lady and Camelot before we owned a stereo. Once we got that stereo I listened to those records endlessly. In no time I could do all of Rex Harrison’s patter songs.

When the movie version of The Sound of Music was released, my mom bought the recording and pretty soon I could lip synch all those lyrics too. At the end of my 7th grade year, I auditioned for The Confederettes, the 8th grade girl’s chorus at Jefferson Davis Junior High School. (Did I mention I lived in the South?) I don’t remember what I sang, but I was delighted when one of my classmates told me that the director of the chorus said I had, “a clear, strong soprano voice.”

A clear, strong soprano voice. Many comments have been made about my singing since, but I would never hear praise like that again.

The chorus performed many concerts. The scariest part of the class was singing a solo at the of the school year. The Sound of Music was very popular and I would estimate that 35 of my 40 fellow chorus members sang “My Favorite Things.”

“Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”

“Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”

“Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens…” over and over again.

I would have welcomed a dirge. What I heard were many versions of the song done just as Julie Andrews did it. I’ve heard Julie Andrews. I love Julie Andrews. Not one of those girls sounded like Julie Andrews.

When it was finally my turn to perform, I felt elated. Maybe I didn’t have the best voice, but at least it wouldn’t be singing you-know-what. I opened my mouth and out came “Puff the magic dragon/lived by the sea…” I didn’t sound like Mary Travers but the performance was good enough to get me an A. I may have gotten that grade based solely on what I didn’t choose to sing, but I didn’t care.

Many decades and a full embrace of Steven Sondheim musicals later, I met up with The Sound of Music again. I worked at a family service organization which kept clients entertained in the waiting area with videos. My favorite was the “What’s Opera, Doc?” Loony Tune that featured Bugs Bunny, outfitted in long blonde braids and a horned helmet, as Brunhilde. Elmer Fudd sang “Kill the Wabbit” to the tune of “The Ride of the Valkyries.”

Alas, that only took up a few minutes. What played over and over again was—you guessed it—The Sound of Music.

I was in despair. My office was very close to the T.V. My pleas that something else be played fell on sympathetic ears. Unfortunately, those people with sympathetic ears also had hands that didn’t want to be changing a VCR multiple times a day.

“Look, Stephanie, it’s a godsend. It runs for 3 hours.”

So once more it was “Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens” over and over again.

I sighed a lot. I endured.

I left the agency and gradually fell out of touch with my co-workers but about 18 months after I left, I came home to find the following message on my answering machine:

“Stephanie, we thought of you the minute it happened. The Sound of Music tape finally broke.”

And that voice mail became one of my favorite things.

Stephanie Patterson

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Mississippi Gulf Coast

Last week Harold and I went down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to celebrate my mother-in-law's 98th birthday. It was a mighty time. Everyone in town offered her sweets and birthday cakes, even the McDonald's where she plays Bingo every Tuesday, sticking a candle in a box of cinnamon thingies and getting her to blow it out. Neither of us won at Bingo. Another lady kept winning.

I took some pictures while we were down there. The pictures of my mother-in-law's birthday party didn't work out. I was pushing the little camera's ability to photograph things in low light too far beyond its capacity and they all turned out blurry. Other pictures I took last week were sort of charming. I wanted you to see this shot of Harold standing in the entrance to Sharkheads, an iconic palace of souvenir ticky-tacky looking out over the water.

The old Sharkheads, the one that blew away in Katrina, also had a huge plastic shark head as a front entrance. Some fisherman came upon it out in the Gulf, a yawning cavern of teeth. It must have given him quite a thrill. The old Sharkheads wasn't up on stilts. Most of the new construction in Biloxi is up on stilts, in hopes that the next big one won't generate a storm surge high enough to destroy it all this time.

 If you have that kind of optimism, and you don't mind paying a fortune in flood insurance, there are many empty lots facing across Route 90 to the beach, bare slabs surrounded by ancient live oak trees, begging you to come down and build on them. You'll have to put your mansion up on stilts, but hey. It's a small price to pay to live in one of the most beautiful places in the country.

© 2014 Kate Gallison