gall and gumption

Saturday, May 30, 2009

buckner: Cavalcata

I’m in Sardinia again this year, teaching Book Arts classes to kids in the cities of Sassari and Thiesi. This year I had the insight to bring a copy of Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia with me, which I haven’t read in many years. In it, Lawrence and Frieda (he refers to her as the q-b throughout) sail by boat, in the early 1920s, from Sicily to Cagliari on the southern tip of Sardinia, and then travel by train and bus into the mountainous central region. Lawrence spends a good deal of time in this book describing the traditional peasant costumes of the men and women they meet (mostly the women—as MM pointed out long ago, he describes women’s clothes and men’s ‘turgid loins’). Here are some examples:

…slowly chanting in the near distance, curving slowly up to us on the white road between the grass, came the procession. The high morning was still. We stood all on this ridge above the world, with the deeps of silence below on the right. And in a strange, brief, staccato monody chanted the men, and in quick, light rustle of women’s voices came the responses. Again the men’s voices! The white was mostly men, not women. The priest in his robes, his boys near him, was leading the chanting. Immediately behind him came a small cluster of bare-headed, tall, sunburnt men all in golden-velveteen corduroy, mountain peasants, bowing beneath a great life-size seated image of Saint Anthony of Padua. After these a number of men in the costume, but with the white linen breeches hanging wide and loose almost to the ankles, instead of being tucked into the black gaiters. So they seemed very white beneath the black kilt frill. The black frieze body-vest was cut low, like an evening suit, and the stocking caps were variously perched. The men chanted in low, hollow, melodic tones. Then came the rustling chime of the women. And the procession crept slowly, aimlessly forward in time with the chant. The great image rode, rigid, and rather foolish.

After the men was a little gap—and then the brilliant wedge of the women. They were packed two by two, close to each other’s heels, chanting inadvertently when their turn came, and all in brilliant, beautiful costume. In front were the little girl-children, two by two, immediately following the tall men in peasant black-and-white. Children demure and conventional, in vermillion, white and green—little girl-children with long skirts of scarlet cloth down to their feet, green-banded near the bottom: with white aprons bordered with vivid green and mingled colour: having little scarlet, purple-bound, open bolero over the full white skirts: and black head-cloths folded across their little chins, just leaving the lips clear, the face framed in black. Wonderful little girl-children, perfect and demure in the stiffish, brilliant costume, with black headdress! Stiff as Velasquez princesses! The bigger girls followed, and then the mature women, a close procession. The long vermilion skirts with their green bands at the bottom flashed a solid moving mass of colour, softly swinging, and the white aprons with their bands of brilliant mingled green seemed to gleam. At the throat the full-bosomed white skirts were fastened with big studs of gold filigree, two linked filigree globes: and the great white sleeves billowed from the scarlet, purplish-and-green-edged boleros. The faces came nearer to us, framed all around with black cloths. All the lips sang responses, but all the eyes watched us. So the softly-swaying coloured body of the procession came up to us. The poppy-scarlet smooth cloth rocked in fusion, the bands and the bars of emerald green seemed to burn across the red and the showy white, the dark eyes peered and stared at us from under the black snood, gazed back at us with raging curiosity, while the lips moved automatically in chant.

Here is another interesting bit:

The long stocking cap they wear as a sort of crest, as a lizard wears his crest at mating time. They are always moving them, settling them on their heads. One fat fellow, young, with sly brown eyes and a young beard round his face, folds his stocking-foot in threes, so that it rises over his brow martial and handsome. The old boy brings his stocking-foot over the left ear. A handsome fellow with a jaw of massive teeth pushes his cap back and lets it hang a long way down his back. Then he shifts it forward over his nose, and makes it have two sticking out points, like fox-ears, above his temples. It is marvelous how much expression these caps can take on. They say that only those born to them can wear them. They seem to be just long bags, nearly a yard long, of black stockinette stuff.

Over this past weekend I was able to attend a festival in Sassari called the Cavalcata. People come from all over Sardinia to march in a parade in traditional costumes and participate in horse riding events. I took these photos of the spectacularly beautiful costumes. Also note how handsome the people are!

Friday, May 29, 2009


Jeff, in Sardinia, is having trouble posting photos. This is just to see if it's a Sardinia problem or a blogger problem.

Some of you might be able to pick out your author from the crowd. People were always telling me not to squint in photographs, but somehow I always found myself looking into the sun. Consequently I look like a savage--which I mostly was in fourth grade. You may just make out that I have my hair in two braids and parted at the side. If my mother didn't comb my hair this way there was hell to pay. I probably hated whatever clothes I was wearing. That I was scowling and also barely visible seemed just exactly fitting at the time, a perfect expression of how much of a misfit I already felt myself to be. I spent a lot of time daydreaming. I was not a teacher's pet. But I somehow found myself at the top of the class the end of the school year, and had no recollection of making any effort to put myself there.

Friday, May 22, 2009

...and then your face will freeze that way.

Laura Shapiro, a writer at Slate, had 1400 words to write about Helen Gurley Brown. Here are, roughly, the first 100.

Sprawled across the cover of Jennifer Scanlon's new biography of Helen Gurley Brown is Brown herself, leaning back awkwardly on a heap of pillows in a tight, leopard-skin blouse and gold chains. Her blond hair is slightly tousled, and her face is immobile behind a pink-and-white mask of makeup. Brown is 87 now but looks ageless. Or, rather, she looks determined to look ageless. Or, rather—oh, never mind, the truth is she looks like Geriatric Barbie, and somebody should have told her so. But truth has never been Brown's favorite accessory, and, as this book makes clear, she chooses her accessories with great care.

Tell me something: Are there editors at Slate?

This is going to sound very nitpicky but it speaks to a larger point so bear with me. That lede is an absolute disaster. Helen Gurley Brown herself is not sprawled across the cover of the book. For that to happen it would have to be a very large book, or Brown would have to be considerably smaller than she is. But the author of the piece has taken some pains, even risked accuracy of language, to achieve a rhetorical point. When you read that first sentence you are being introduced to the first of many judgments about Helen Gurley Brown and you haven't even opened the book. You don't even know if the reviewer has either.

1. 87-year-old women are not supposed to sprawl. Why? I do not know.

2. 87-year-old women should not wear tight-fitting leopard skin blouses. Why? I do not know.

3. It is possible to determine from a still, i.e., immobile photograph, that the subject of the photograph has an "immobile" face. How? I don't know.

4. If Helen Gurley Brown only looks determined to look ageless does that mean that there are 87-year-olds out in the world somewhere who succeed in looking ageless where Brown has tried and failed? How does one tell the difference? I don't know.

5. Who should tell Helen Gurley Brown that she looks like Geriatric Barbie? Is there some sort of Volunteer Ill-Natured Ill-Bred Shit-Talking Lout Service available somewhere that I'm not aware of?

6. Why should someone tell Helen Gurley Brown that she looks like Geriatric Barbie? Is it her fault that the writer of this piece is so stupid that she thinks she can score some kind of moral points by slagging off an 87-year-old woman?

If there is a Volunteer Ill-Natured Ill-Bred Shit-Talking Lout Service, I need to call them and ask them to tell Laura Shapiro that it is extremely likely (and I don't even know what Laura Shapiro looks like) that long before she gets to Helen Gurley Brown's age, she will look like the Dog's Dinner, and if this specimen of her wit and charm is anything to go by, well, she'll be ugly in more ways than one or even two. She's got a running start on the ugly, I'd say.

I won't bore you with the rest of the piece. The ratio of stupid to word count sustains itself right to the end.

I will only observe that there are people, many people in the world, who are able to recognize injustice and the need for change when it involves some contingency remote from their personal situation. Thus, lots of people who think and talk and act like racists or sexists flatter themselves that they are as liberal-minded as anyone can possibly be. The real racists live two hills over, down in Gopher Hollow or over in the trailer park; the real sexist is the imaginary brutal evil guy in those dreadful female victim novels (it is a former teacher of fiction writing who speaks from all too frequent experience). They have paid their debt to moral feeling by excoriating these imaginary persons--it's so easy, it must be right. These same reasonable people will become incredibly nasty when they discover that the demand to reconsider morals, manners, and yes, language, extends even to their own practices. Then all of a sudden there are limits. They can always tell you the exact outer boundary of common sense, and that boundary, remarkably, is co-extensive with the bounds of their self-complacency. Beyond that, they will assure you, all inquiry is futile and probably improper. There's nothing out there but monsters!

But people who perform this maneuver are not usually numbered among the smart, perceptive, judicious, kind, generous and brave of the earth. Someone needs to tell Laura Shapiro that.

Monday, May 11, 2009


A couple of weeks ago Leslie came to DC for the wedding of the daughter of a friend of hers. She invited me and I agreed to go, though I would not say that I graciously agreed to go. Well, after I agreed to go I discovered via a survey of my wardrobe that I didn't really have anything to wear. So the day before the wedding Leslie and I went on a sort of ramble around downtown that included a few stops in shops. Yes, we could have gone to a mall out in the burbs somewhere but I didn't see what pleasure there would be in that for Leslie, not to mention that it adds an extra helping of loathsomeness to the shopping experience for me. Downtown would have to do. We ended up, mostly by happenstance and cluelessness, at Macy's. By then, possibly thinking about the prospect of more shopping, I had decided to wear this one skirt I have that I rather like, but I needed a top to go with it. If I happened across a nice dress, then fine. But if not, then all I'd need was some simple little top and I was sure I could find that.

You see, I am sort of passive about clothes. I mean, my clothes consist of me repeating myself over and over again, like when I was 10 years old and insisted on wearing my hair exactly the same way every single day, to my mother's exasperation. I would have worn the same clothes too if I could have gotten away with it. But on the clothes she was fierce. Now all my clothes sort of look the same, and then, of course, I wear my hair pretty much the same way every day too. Oh. My. God.

It was the usual misery, much relieved by Leslie, who kept things interesting by picking up various items, examining them for a moment, and saying, "You know what this says? This says 'I never want to have sex ever again.'"

Eventually we found a little blouse that, well, left it on the table so to speak. And you see, I might have framed the whole issue in those terms, sort of theoretically, but would not have actually done anything about it had Leslie not come shopping with me.

So this past Friday I stopped at the Target in Columbia Heights to pick up some dog treats and a collar for Sweetie. (I bought her a new one a few weeks ago, and it fit, but then I had to throw it away because she rolled in something Very Very Nasty.) I popped into the discount store downstairs--Marhsall's?--that's kind of like TJ Maxx or Filene's or those kind of places. It looked like they had just put a new shipment of clothes on the racks, but I didn't stop there. Instead I went to the housewares in the back to look for kitchen gadgets and interesting dishes. I didn't need anything, but I go there looking for something to sort of perk up the kitchen. I'm more likely to cook if I like the dishes I eat off of. It's like total foraging going there, because you never know what you'll find. Which is sort of relaxing.

This time, though, I stopped and asked myself why I was really there. And I realized that I was -- there is a certain element of fantasy when you go shopping not under compulsion. I mean, it's a form of daydreaming. You look around and imagine roasting things in that ovenproof dish from Le Creuset; or you imagine how the nice blue Portugese glasses would look on the table; or maybe this week there will be some curtains that you'll like. It's aimless browsing, and mentally you're trying things on just as you do with clothes except with clothes you actually have to try things on.

And there's a certain amount of fantasy in shopping for clothes. I observed years ago that the artful expression of the intent to be beautiful can sort of create beauty. That is, a woman's attractiveness (which is a social asset) owes a lot to art, and by art I don't mean "getting herself to look like a 21-year-old fashion model." Women who are skilled at this art of transformation look interesting no matter what sort of features they were born with.

Now, for the past four years my shopping for clothes has just been completely functional. When I need something for a job interview I go get it; otherwise I don't think about that sort of wear at all. I like sweaters, so I look for sweaters, and I like skirts. I'll pick something out because I like the design, or the texture of the fabric, or because it goes with other things that I have. Or I just go to Target and buy maybe five T-shirts. I buy clothes because they look nice, not because I think I look nice in them. Then I wear them to death.

That's what I realized in that store on Friday, and it came to me with something of a jolt. I don't really know what it means, but it seems to suggest that I haven't even been trying. I choose and wear clothes to be invisible, and any other effect is probably an accident. It's like I've stopped seeing myself. That's why I was in the cookwares. I'll tell you, it took the fun out of looking at kitchen gadgets. Which is probably a good thing.

I'm back working onsite 40 hours a week at the Big Scientific Institution. I think I'm still getting used to it. I just finished editing a book for a publisher in California. And maybe I'm a little drained by all of this. I'm sort of in a rut with Tbe Notebooks. I probably need to spread everything out and see again where I am. It's not that I haven't been writing, it's just that I haven't been doing the kind of writing that goes anywhere. It's all a little too spread out and diffuse.

So on Sunday night, tired and grumpy after a weekend of socializing I went on an iTunes binge. Mainly because I had a craving for some Engelbert Humperdinck songs. I know. I know. But here's the reason: after I got attacked in St. Kitts I spent weekends at the house of my friend Margaret, who was about 84 and lived in a lovely house near the beach. She had read the story in the paper and we ran into each other at the supermarket. When she saw me she took me in her arms and said, "Oh, my dear. Come and stay with me." So I did. She was a widow. Her husband had built them this house on the hill overlooking the sea and then he had died. She had a tenant downstairs, a student at the offshore veterinary school, but the tenant went away for a short break of about a month or six weeks in the summer and Margaret didn't like to be alone. My weekend turned into a longish month. So we helped each other out that way, and she pretty much left me to my own devices. Three weeks after the attack I got fired by the psychopath who owned the paper. So then I was there in St. Kitts not knowing what I would do next. I considered going to Antigua and working for the Stanford-owned paper there; someone on the staff had expressed some interest in hiring me but I was supposed to talk to this Trinidadian man who never had any information about anything when you could reach him at all and after a while I realized that that was the point. I did not want to go to Antigua or to work for Stanford (I deeply mistrusted his whole way of doing business in the Eastern Caribbean), but at the moment I didn't see any other possibility if I wanted to stay in the islands and do journalism. Plus there were other things, personal, fallings-out with people I had thought were friends and people who had never been friends suddenly turning extra nasty because I didn't seem very lucky right then and didn't have anything they could use. This had never happened to me before, but then, I had lived a sheltered life. Anyway Margaret's house was shelter, and we were good company for each other, because she was kind and funny and not a lot of people knew that about her; she appeared to them to be just this old plantocrat lady you'd see about, mostly alone and hardly speaking when she was with friends.

In the mornings she would put an Englebert Humperdinck cassette on the stereo and waltz about the house in a blue caftan, singing along. On the days when the cleaning lady, Agatha, arrived, Agatha would sing too. On a couple of mornings I even felt sufficiently free of my own worries to join in, waltzing around that room that was so full of light and so open to the sun and the sea breeze and the view of the hills to the south and Nevis, its one peak ringed by clouds, rising behind them. Margaret had other favorites too. She really liked Rudy Vallee, a taste that was utterly beyond me. But one day she paused, as if struck by a thought, in the middle of her dancing and singing with Rudy, and she said to me: "When I was young we used to listen to these songs about the moon and holding hands and getting married and living in a little cottage, and we'd think 'Oh, Yes! That's what I want.' And then you get it and you find out that it's all a lot of nonsense!

She came from a plantocrat family and had married another plantocrat. Because of course that's what you did. She had never had a job. All her concerns and interests centered around family and friends and her solitary domestic pleasures. She was afraid of a lot of things: of stairs, of being alone in her house at night, of driving alone on the Southeast Peninsula's winding roads. But one night we were sitting in the living room doing needlepoint and watching a movie on TV and I still didn't know what I would do and I found myself quietly in tears. "Now then," she said, "You stop that." And I did. This was a woman who could not put her foot on an escalator, but she knew what courage was.

A few weeks later I was asked to run a paper in Nevis, which is how I ended up there. I was, again, rather visible. But I remember the afternoon after my last day on that paper, when I had made up my mind to leave at last, I went to this beach hotel which I will not name, and sat on a lawn chair and looked out at the sea and felt free and I liked the feeling. I really wanted a quiet life. Well, I did at that moment. If you've hung around this blog for any length of time you know that I do get a yearning from time to time to go back to the islands and write news.

Why am I telling you all this? You are probably wondering. Well, my domestic and working routine has just undergone a big change and that routine, my quiet life, keeps me from having to think about some things. And now that it's busted open all sorts of odd things are sort of leaking into my consciousness, memories, old fears, habits I hadn't thought about, self-doubt. Especially self-doubt. The routine takes care of that; so much time per day to write, so much time to think about whether it is of any use or interest to anyone but me, so much time to editing, and so much time to dogwalking and dogdriving which is what we do after dogwalking now. And until I figure out how to get my writing projects back in purposeful motion I get to contemplate what my life feels like when I'm in slack time (Let it not be too long, Lord...). Interesting things happen, but it feels as if I dreamed them.

The Dripping

Several days into the rains of last week (9 straight days, and it's been pouring since just before sunset tonight) I started feeling like a character in one of those Victorian ghost stories: you know, someone wakes up in the middle of the night and there's a dripping presence in the room, '"Harriet," it said, in a damp, unearthly voice, "I promised I'd come back, Harriet..."' Next morning there is no trace of the apparition except some seaweed--even though the house is miles from the sea--and Harriet's hair has turned completely white! I feel more like the apparition than Harriet, though.

Victorian ghost stories are a guilty pleasure of mine that I only occasionally indulge in. They are like one of those tastes that stick with you even when you know you ought to have outgrown them. Kind of like my taste for powdered custard. My stepdad, genius of all things dessert-related, was scandalized years ago when I told him this, and promptly set about teaching me how to make real custard, with eggs and a double boiler and everything. And of making "proper custard" as he would call it is infinitely better, but I still like the powdered kind, hot, poured over a warm strawberry-rhubarb or berry crumble that isn't too sweet, the way they served it at boarding school.

Reading ghost stories is a similar return to adolescence. Basically, I read them when I visit my mother's house. These visits are my reading binges. Within a couple hours of arriving I have raided the bookshelves and pulled down everything that looks the least bit readable, and stacked them up next to the bed. That's just the first pass. There will be several more. And among them will be one or another collection of ghost stories that seems to find its way into my hands (woooo-ooooo!) and I read them and frighten myself. After I have indulged myself in say a whole volume of these stories I am likely to feel a bit ashamed of myself, the way you might feel if you sat down and ate three pizzas all by yourself. But I don't feel ashamed of myself when I read these two.

I'd put the ghost stories I like best in a time span that starts at about Dickens and ends somewhere with Saki and Edith Wharton. There are some later imitators who have sort of kept up the style, and I have no objection to the imitators--I am not invested enough in it to be a purist in that way. Probably the best of the modern imitators that I know of is a writer named Susan Hill whose novel, The Woman in Black is one of the creepiest things I have ever read and true to the Victorian spirit of ghost-story telling. I saw a dramatization of it in London years ago and despite the fact that the only furniture or scenery on the set was a big traveling trunk, and the action consisted of two characters mostly narrating or acting out their recollections of events, there were at least two moments when the entire audience screamed with fright. I can tell you that that has never happened to me in a theater before or since.

Some of the big names don't give me the charge I seek. I don't like Saki, because I suspect he's kidding a lot of the time. And I am altogether unable to take Poe seriously any more; it's pure camp and it was camp from Day One with him. In addition to the big names there were all sorts of people you've probably never heard of, and you can find them in anthologies. My favorite writers in the genre, though, are fairly big names: Edith Wharton and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

There's one by Le Fanu, "Mr. Justice Harbottle," about this house that is haunted by the ghost of the hanging judge who had lived in it, and there's one, I don't even remember the author or the title but it's about this guy who unearths this strange looking whistle with an inscription on it, something like "Whistle and I'll come to you." He blows the whistle and nothing happens. Some hours later he's alone and this ghastly creature, this sort of ghostly insane evil pathetic monster is sort of surging towards him. He manages just barely to escape from it but he's a shattered wreck of himself for the remainder of his days. Now, the way I just described it sounds more funny than anything, but I had trouble sleeping after that one. And then of course there are the first two books of Dracula, just delicious. I remember only the title of one, if it wasn't an actual Victorian short story it was a good imitation of one, it was called "Mr. Ottermole's Hands." I can't tell you what it was about but with a title like that... Then there was one of those "Adventurer goes and messes with primitive people's idol to steal jewel and idol's curse follows him back to England and makes a mess of his life" stories. Except what the evil thing did in this one was just give him the sensation that these sort of squishy squooshy slimy things were continually crawling around under his clothes and in his shoes. Edith Wharton's "Afterward" is one of my favorites, because like so many of hers it is set in the same world as her non-ghost stories. An American couple, the husband having made his fortune in mining, buys a grand old house in England that is rumored to be haunted. It is haunted, but not at all in the way they expect and much much more frightening. It's not an old ghost that haunts the house but a very new one, one that, in effect, they summoned there themselves. It's striking because it's unusual.

More typically, as you see in Dickens's fiction, the Victorian world of these stories is cluttered with all sorts of detritus from other periods, sort of moldering away in the midst of things: the little corner of London where Mrs. Todgers's boarding house is in Martin Chuzzlewit, which has, as so many London neighborhoods, these abandoned forgotten churchyards. The Circumlocution Office. Miss Havisham. In the Victorian ghost story, doubt and anxiety and fear, deep-rooted grudges and resentments, obsessions and perversities, old shabby embarrassing selves (like Mrs. Gamp's old gowns hanging above her bed and looking like a suicide)--all the things we were supposed to be enlightened out of, things that people can't acknowledge about themselves, are uneasily entombed in such places. Or not entombed in the ghost stories, I guess.

Unlike the Gothic-romantic literature from which it is descended the Victorian ghost story often has as its setting the ordinary world of trains and waiters and clerks on vacation in seaside hotels. It's the unexpected persistence of the past in this world that makes all the spookiness. Here comes Mr. Typical Modern Office Clerk or Hypochondriac Gentleman of Modest But Comfortable Means; arriving at the village of B-- with his Gladstone bag and umbrella, he steps off the train and into a world of ancient horrors, of things that progress has overlooked or hasn't taken account of. Yes, there is the old house untenanted since the Bad Thing happened; Mr. Typical finds there not the sort of violence that fills American "horror" movies but usually just emotion--anger, obsession, sadness, vindictiveness, or guilt--of such force and persistence that it threatens everything around it. The supernatural is intensity of feeling. These angry, sorrowing, leering ghosts can't move on; they have to keep retelling the story, they have to keep re-enacting it and drawing hapless tourists into it. If they could forget they would fade away. But they can't forget, or they won't forget, and they won't let themselves be forgotten. They get inside the narrator's head, too, which is more interesting than the cheesy horror genre in which the protagonists are always the same intrepid bunch of cartoon characters.

I don't know if they will yield anything more than that. I mean, basically they are still gimmicky, slight little stories. And the rain, when there's a lot of rain, makes me think of them.