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.

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.