Monday, July 30, 2007

High drama, 1928

A hazard of selling books is that you want to keep so many of them. I can't sell this! It was one of those delightful junk-shop finds: a 1928 book of sample letters to help you write your way through absolutely any personal or professional crisis.

Sure, it tells you all the proper forms. And some situations are awkward, so guidance in what to say is nice to have. For example, how do you offer condolences to a friend who's suffered catastrophic monetary loss?

Although the blow has been a severe one, there is the great consolation in knowing that your conduct has gained the ungrudging praise of everyone.
But it goes much further. The book must have been a boon to people who just have no clue how to express themselves: what to say in a love letter to your fiancée overseas enclosing a Christmas present; what to say in a casual chatty letter to your daughter who's away at boarding school:

My dearest Mabel,
....I was so glad to get your letter yesterday and to hear that you are quite well. Aunt Jane was here yesterday and asked after you very kindly. She says they are all going to Montreal for August. How is Elsie Fielding? Her mother says she is thinking of going to Vassar when she leaves. I suppose she is very clever. Do you find your clothes lasting well?

You get full-text examples, with various possible replies from yes to no to maybe, and they add up to series of wonderful little soap operae: I find myself getting involved with these people. I'm very happy for Robert J. Smith, who passed his exam with flying colors. His friend Edward Green congratulates him, Robert writes Ed back to say thanks and mention how nervous he was, and Robert's mother is very proud.

There's something for everybody on every side of a transaction: How to solicit for a charity:

Dear Mrs. Mandell,
....As you are no doubt aware, the distress in this neighborhood is becoming very intense, and I have determined to make a special appeal to my parishioners in order to raise a fund to buy blankets and coal and food for the poorest of the poor. I should feel most thankful for any contribution, either of money or of the articles themselves. You can have no idea of the terrible state of poverty that I find on all hands. Many men are out of work and all this falls bitterly hard on the wives and children.

How to say yes:
Dear Mr. Fairchild,
....I enclose herewith a check for $5.00 which I earnestly hope may be of some help. It is indeed a distressing state of affairs. I hear on all hands the great need of the laboring people due to the lack of work and I am glad to do my bit.

How to beg off - man, this is a bit chilly:
Dear Mr. Fairchild,
....I have read your letter with great pain. It is indeed a terrible state of affairs, but it is my firm conviction that indiscriminate giving is the worst possible thing for the poor. The only real cure is to make certain of the continuity of employment. I would gladly subscribe to any scheme to bring that about. In the present condition of the labor market I feel sure that it would be useless to do anything that will merely temporarily alleviate and not definitely eradicate poverty.
...............Yours very truly
.....................Marion Mandell

Now here's a situation where proper wording is vital: "Letter of proposal from a gentleman to a young lady he has met on only a few occasions."
(I worry about Paul and Mabel. Really, I do):

Dear Miss Lucey,
....I fear this letter will surprise you very much but I trust that the genuineness of my feelings will excuse me in your eyes. I first met you at Viola's dance in April and since then I have seen and talked to you on three separate occasions only. But the impression you first created in my mind was so powerful that I have thought of nothing else since then. Each time I have seen you since I have been more and more assured that you, and you alone, are able to give me that happiness which is every man's goal. I will not beat around the bush any more but will ask you straight out--will you marry me?
.....I implore you to think it over well. I cannot explain in writing how passionately I love you and with what joy I would dedicate my whole life to you.
....Although not rich I am comfortable situated and quite in a position to support a wife. I want to come in person and urge my suit and await therefore with profoundest anxiety an answer to this letter.
................Yours devotedly,
.....................Paul Carlson

This sample answer is purportedly a "yes":

Dear Mr. Carlson,
....I hardly know how to answer your letter. It is quite true that we have met very seldom but I already feel as if I had known you for years. I will not say any more now but come around at eight o'clock tonight and you shall have your answer.
...............In haste,
.................Mabel Lucey

Here's how to nix the idea but leave some hope:

Dear Mr. Carlson,
....I need hardly mention that your letter came as a complete surprise to me. Al though I realize the genuineness of your sentiments and feel flattered that they should be directed toward me, I must tell you at once, both for your sake and mine, that all such ideas are quite out of the question. I do not believe in love at first sight and certainly would not trust my happiness to one whom I know so slightly. Forgive me if I appear to speak too plainly but I am convinced that it is the right thing to do. Such an acquaintance as I have with you has been a pleasure to me and I hope we may see more of one another. As for love it is really idle to talk about it.
....Please let us remain friends.
...........Yours always sincerely,
................Mabel Lucey

Then again, despite telling him how to propose, the author of Supreme Letter Writer is also fine with telling the lady how to write an "Angry reply":

....I have read your letter with the utmost astonishment. I consider it a gross impertinence. Please do not address me again either in public or by correspondence. You have greatly misjudged me if you consider I will tolerate such liberties. I would have handed your letter to my father to answer if it had not been for the trouble and annoyance it would have caused but if you address me in any way again I shall not hesitate to lay the matter before my parents.
.......Yours truly,
..........M. Lucey

And don't forget that you guys out there must make a lifetime commitment to a woman before you seek permission from her father to "pay her attentions" at all:
Dear Mr. Shaw,
....I am writing about a delicate matter because I feel it is the honorable course to pursue. It is this: I want your permission to pay attentions to your daughter Peggy. I have known your family now for over six months and from the very first I felt sure that Miss Shaw was the only girl I could ever love.

Favorable reply from dad:

Dear Mr. Bently,
....I am in receipt of your letter of the twenty-first, for which I thank you. I consider that you have behaved in an honourable and straightforward manner. Could you come round to my office in Ross Street at five o'clock tomorrow and talk this matter over. If, as I have no doubt will be the case, you can supply me with satisfactory information about your position and prospects, my wife and I shall have no objections to your paying suit to our daughter.

(Just wait everybody! 1929 is coming!)

And if you don't know how you feel about a man's proposal - have Mom tell you!

Dearest Mother,
.......I told him that I could not give him any definite answer then and that I must think it over. I have known him only a short time, and yet I seem to know him so intimately. You will ask me, what are my feelings toward him. Well, that is just what I find it so hard to know. I think I care for him very much but he is so different from anyone else I have ever seen that I sometimes mistrust myself and imagine it may be only the effect of his delightful manner. Dearest mother, what answer should I give him? I resolved I would lay it all before you.
........With fond love
...........from your affectionate daughter

Mom actually seems to be OK with this, though she diplomatically throws in a caution:
My darling Sally,
....Take a few days to think it over but if you are certain that it will be for your happiness do not hesitate to accept him. Remember, dear little daughter, that marriage is either the greatest blessing or the greatest curse on earth.
.......Ever your devoted mother
............Mabel Hill

Then again, if the kid has to ask, she shouldn't do it:
.....I am convinced that you will be doing the wisest thing if you refuse him. If he is still resolved to win you, this will not definitely retard him and with a further knowledge of one another you will understand your own hearts better.
............With deepest love
................Your devoted mother

Middle-aged people, of course, are not troubled by such passions. Or they aren't supposed to let on, even when proposing:

Dear Mrs. Ryder,
....I venture to address myself to you in the following manner because I know you will not misunderstand what I am going to say.
....You and I have both known the joys and sorrows of matrimony. We have both known many years of happiness and we have both lost the partners of our lives. And now in our middle age we are both living lonely lives, with nothing to look forward to but lonely old age. Is it not possible that this may be remedied?
.........Believe me, dear Mrs. Ryder,
.............Your sincere friend
....................Martin Chenney

Hey, if you can't get her interested by other means - depress her!

And in this sample acceptance, is there the subtle subtext of "OK, I'll darn your socks but you're not gonna get any"?

Dear Mr. Chenney,
....I will answer your letter quite frankly. I believe that it would be for our mutual happiness to marry. It would be absurd to pretend that we can look upon it with the same rapture as young people do but I sincerely think that we could be a help and comfort to one another.
........Yours very cordially,
..............Olive Ryder

Last but not least, the kind of letter I'm so very glad my boss can't send me, because I'm self-employed:

Dear Mr. Mason:
....Although I have spoken to you several times about your lax attention to your duties, I have been unable to notice any improvement in your conduct. I have therefore come to the conclusion that I must ask you to leave my service.

Well then, I guess I should get back to work...

Sunday, July 22, 2007


A mimosa tree stands right outside my office window. I get the totally cool experience of having hummingbirds hover 2-3 times a day, a few inches from my foot, with 3 layers of window -- glass, screen, shutter -- between us.

Considering the frequency of these visits, you would think a picture would be easy to get. But mimosa doesn't turn them on enough for them to linger and allow me to turn on the camera,

persuade a cat to get his head outta the blasted way (a much better hummer shot got blocked here by dear Downy),

and snap. So getting that top shot at all was a joy!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A problem

Awhile ago my friend Dann posted a blog entry, which in turn referred us to this blog by Michael Yon. It's a long entry and has some interesting stuff and some great photos. But what Dann was understandably disturbed by -- as was I -- was this quote:
The official reported that on a couple of occasions in Baqubah, al Qaeda invited to lunch families they wanted to convert to their way of thinking. In each instance, the family had a boy, he said, who was about 11 years old. As LT David Wallach interpreted the man’s words, I saw Wallach go blank and silent. He stopped interpreting for a moment. I asked Wallach, “What did he say?” Wallach said that at these luncheons, the families were sat down to eat. And then their boy was brought in with his mouth stuffed. The boy had been baked. Al Qaeda served the boy to his family.

This kind of thing is enough to send a cold chill down anyone's back. And from what we all know of al Qaeda, they're twisted enough in their thinking to use any means to achieve an end.
But it didn't quite make sense to me. Everything I read about any militant Islamist organization shows them using much more logical tools to gain the trust and participation of the people. They hand out money. They move in where there's war or disaster and turn people against the West with acts of charity that make them beloved and protected as they spread their tentacles through the populus. Do they intimidate or do they recruit? Probably both.

You can't prove a negative. Did it happen? Does it happen? I asked my Israeli friend.

This is a woman who is very politically active. She's a political writer, steeped in news and blog sources, reads all sides. And she deeply loves her country. Like all Israeli citizens, she served in the INF, and her son does now. During last summer's war with Lebanon, she was near the border helping the citrus harvest in the kibbutz in which she was raised. Her husband was reactivated to INF duty and she spent the war in a bomb shelter wondering if he and their son would come home. Neither she, nor any Israeli, will have any liking for militant anti-Israel Islam. She says this and I offer it to you:

Yes, this is a very common regional rumour, and appears from time to time. I personally heard it first about the Syrians back in 1968. Here is an account of it from a right wing [emphasis mine] newspaper: It's obviously apocryphal, there is no substantiation of it and it is a very common rumour, as I said. It has appeared from time to time in many situations, from the Inquisition onwards and probably before that. There is a sociological issue, or button, that is pushed whenever cannabalism is mentioned and it is very common to accuse one's enemies of it to demonise them. It's done by most cultures who want to de-humanise their opposition. It has a parallel in the "Jews use the blood of Christian Children to make matzoh" slander common in Poland and other eastern european nations in the 16-20th centuries, also.

It is not true - the story your friend and World Net Daily quoted - and you will notice there is no sourcing, no direct witnesses, etc., so it has all the earmarks of an urban legend. You will not find this story sourced in any legitimate press (and if there was a shred of evidence of it's veracity, believe me, there are a million Fox reporters who would be slavering to report it, as well as Murdoch rags).

Monday, July 16, 2007

One of the tough writing days

I started writing stories as a little kid. Poems too. People asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. "A writer!" I'd pipe, like a true naif who had no idea what she was getting into.

I should be struggling with Chapter Three right now, but after a few hours of the misery (Some days suck), I'm going to knock off for the day and instead write about a mentor.

I owe a lot of people who've inspired my writing efforts. But this is going to be about my babysitter and my friend. Barbara.

That's her, the 18-year-old babe taking care of me and my brother, circa 1962. I'm the 8-year-old Charm School valedictorian there in the foreground.

My dad was an orthopedic surgeon, and performed knee surgery on Barbara when she was 16. My folks wanted a Mother's Helper to keep us watched and un-drowned at the beach, and Barbara came into our lives. Often through the years she babysat us.

God how I wanted to be Barbara! She was pretty and funny and smart. She had a boyfriend, and smoked, and wore Tabu talcum powder. And she could talk me through any pre-teen, or teenage, bout of angst. Social crap. Anxiety about what a new school would demand from me. When my parents sensed something bothering me, they'd invite Barbara over for the evening. Some dinner ingredient was always missing. She'd volunteer to make a grocery store run, ask me along and, as we drove to the A&P, casually bring up whatever my parents had surmised that I was worried about.
She married the longtime boyfriend when I was in ninth grade and their first child was born a year later. Then she and her husband moved, and we saw them infrequently. It was some time before we had another long talk. In fact, it was 2005.

Meantime she fought, and beat, breast cancer in around 1994. Her husband left. She returned to school and became a psychologist. In summer 2004 we got word that she had advanced ovarian cancer and had five months to live.

So I was amazed when the phone rang about a year later and Barbara was on the other end of the line, a voice I recognized instantly, even after 15 years. No, she didn't make it. M.D. Anderson cancer center in Houston, which she praised to the skies, gave her an extra year, and a quality one, a year of nature hikes and gardening. And one last talk with me.

We stayed on the phone for over an hour. She asked me if I still wrote.

"Bleah, yeah, I started a novel years ago. I got about half of it written, but I dropped it."


I had to laugh at myself: "Because I wrote all the fun easy parts and now the only thing left is dreary work!"

"You can't look at it that way. You come to it with this negative feeling about it, of course you'll never do it. Instead just sit down and start writing. Don't think of it as the dull hard work, just see what flows."

I know it was because she was so sick that I wanted to do it, more for her than for myself. I gave it a couple more fits of attention.

In winter, it became my own again. A new idea occurred to me and it engaged me as much as the old plot points I'd put in place years before. I planted myself in the chair and made it a daily task.

Barbara got to meet and spend time with her first grandchild. She talked to my parents on the phone too, told them a funny anecdote about hiking in a wild area around Houston and a nice dog following her home. She could laugh and get joy out of any day God gave her. The time came though, when she made the decision to quit chemo. She entered a hospice after Christmas 2005, and died in January 2006.

I'm still not past it. It was stupid and wrong. By the time I talked with her she was past the anger over her original doctor's negligence. I'm not. But there it is.

I finished my first draft in April 2007. It bites in a lot of ways, and my rewrite journey makes me grind my teeth, but completing a draft was a milestone. Eventually it will be what I want it to be. OK, probably never, but eventually I'll feel ready to send it out there to sink or swim. Don't hold your breath.

But there will be 3 dedicatees, and Barbara will be one.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Graymatter Chronicle now up

Man, that turned out a lot longer than I meant for it to -- but Graymatter is not a cat who can be described briefly!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Charles Lane has died at ...102!

So Larry and I have just finished dinner, a dvd and a discussion of the rare moments in TV that blew our minds, and I log on and see that Charles Lane has died.


Here he is in It's a Wonderful Life.

He played Homer Bedloe as a semi-regular on Petticoat Junction. He had regular roles in 5 TV series between 1954 and 1975, including the 1962-3 mutation of The Lucy Show. On Bewitched he guested 5 times as 5 different characters within about a 2-year period. Don't be impressed, I didn't recall all this. I checked imdb and Brooks & Martin's Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. Librarians don't really store a lot of information, they just know where to find it.
This is the resume of a good reliable portrayer of stock characters. But he was also talented as all get-out, and sometimes got to show what he could really do. I'm not the only one who noticed. Here's somebody else's homage to another of his performances, a small role that made a big impression.
It was in an episode of St. Elsewhere, in 1987, that he gave a performance that took my breath away..

It's in the imdb. It's called "Weigh In, Way Out." What imdb doesn't tell you was that this was one of the show's unconventional artsy episodes, and one of the best.

In three subplots. the episode takes on three stages of life. There's a maternity ward story, a mid-life story and an old man's death. But the episode didn't use normal short scenes, constantly shifting among them. It gave each subplot long long stretches on camera. And, particularly effective in Lane's segment, it gave actors lengthy real-time scenes, all in one take.

Lane, age 82 at the time, played a man having a "good death" full of years and scrolling in his mind through his life. Lane had to memorize and speak a long passage, increasingly incoherent, moving out of this life and slipping into the next. Such a stream-of-consciousness is extremely hard to memorize, to me anyway, much less to perform with heartaching plausibility. I still remember sitting there as the credits rolled, feeling an excitement that came from having a not-so-common glimpse of true excellence. Lane wasn't all that was good about it. The writing, the direction, it all came together to say something beautiful about the human experience. Maybe I was unduly impressed with Lane's performance merely because of his age-- but no, it was that good.
One of the commenters in a TV site (I think it was Jump the Shark) said she checked after she watched it, to see if Lane had really died.

Not even close! 8~)

That performance has stayed with me for 20 years, and goes into my "unforgettable" file. Great fictional TV doesn't change the world, but it gave me a glimpse of what's good about humanity. I need that sometimes.
Bon voyage Mr. Lane.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Meanwhile - a beautiful song

During a YouTube binge I ran across this tribute to Barbara Stanwyck, set to a Cowboy Junkies song I never heard before. It amazed me. This describes exquisitely the kind of mountain sanctuary Larry and I dream to have someday.

Conquering technology

Another in my list of things other people have probably known for years, but that I just figured out is: some players won't play a translucent CD. Specifically, this computer's disc drive can't see the thing.


Presumably the light beam goes through instead of being properly blocked.
And another demonstration that I'm not very observant has taken place because I've owned this disc for at least a decade and never noticed. You gotta hold it up to the light, like this, and by Jove, the problem becomes, uh, clear:

So I grabbed the first piece of scrap paper at hand, cut a circle in it, Scotch[TM] taped it to the top of the disc:

... and the drive finally recognized it and let me pull off two tracks for a homemade compilation.
I can color in the lines too. Mostly.

Between houseguests (one batch leaves tomorrow. The next, for whom this disc is intended, arrives Wednesday) I'm assembling a nice photo essay on Graymatter. It'll go on the cat blog. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

History gets heavier

What better day to pay homage to the histories of both the U.S. and this blog, than July 4th?

In August 2006, a brief discussion in r.a.c.s. about the increasing textbook weight that kids haul inspired me to raid my slightly weird collection of old schoolbooks and weigh the books to see if they really were getting heavier. I mean, why let a relatively boring topic fade away when it was such a great opportunity for a book collector to be pedantic?
As I said in that usenet post, US history may not the be the best choice for proving the point. A high percentage of a 400-year-old settlement/200-year-old nation's history will really not have existed in the books of 100 years ago.
We're a young country. Long may we live to learn from our mistakes and make it a better and better place.
Anyway, I picked US history for my book weigh-in for the dumbest reason of all: I had the books. I have an eclectic bunch of old textbooks, but only on this topic could I assemble a relatively well-spaced-out timeline of books all geared to a single school level. There are a couple of substantial time gaps, but it provided one of the staples of internet discussion -- anecdotal evidence! And it stacked up:
1872 - 1 lb, 1 oz. .......7.5 x 5 inches
1941 - 2 lbs, 7 oz. ... 8.25 x 6.25 inches
1960 - 3 lbs, 3 oz. .... 9.5 x 8.5 inches
1991 - 5 lbs, 11 oz. ... 10.25 x 8.25 inches
1998 - 6 lbs, 6 oz. .... 11 x 8.75 inches.
Why I was also moved to take a picture of them at the same time, I couldn't tell you but there it is. I dimly recall thinking somebody might scoff that I had made up my figures. I mean, what normal person would clog up their home with this stuff and have it on hand? But this at least proved that the books existed. Then I thought, as I had a few times before: "I should start a website or a blog or something, where I could both post pictures and rant."

And a couple weeks later, I took a deep breath and plunged into the weblog world.

Happy Fourth, everybody. It's 9PM, the pyrotechnics have begun, and Downyflake, The Fireworks-Challenged Cat, has just jumped up to inform me that a Comforting Session will be expected.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Don't cross the Goddess

be very