Saturday, October 27, 2012

viewing Trollope in 2012

The following is my submission to a Facebook challenge made by the Anthony Trollope Society. We were to write 300 words on "How I View Trollope in 2012."

In 2012 I view Trollope on my Kindle e-reader.

I know this is not the type of answer the Society expects, but I hope nobody finds it flippant. Buying a Kindle brought me back to Victorian literature after a hiatus of over 40 years.

When I saw that most classic ‘literary’ fiction was available in Kindle format for free, I started amassing it and inserting a Victorian title here and there in my usual regimen of contemporary best-sellers, self-help books, and detective fiction.

George Eliot turned out to be too ponderous, and Thomas Hardy too melodramatic, but, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, Anthony Trollope was “just right.”

Now I carry Trollope’s complete works with me almost everywhere I go. The e-reader simultaneously holds my place in all the books I’m reading, and thus while reading Trollope’s autobiography I was able to segue into novels he mentioned -- “The Way We Live Now,” “Orly Farm,” “The Vicar of Bullhampton” -- and seamlessly return to the autobiography.

Re-reading “Phineas Finn” in August during our ‘Take a Trollope on Holiday ‘activity, I used the Kindle’s search function to look up his references to Belgium. Then I scheduled a side-trip to Blankenberg Beach, where Phineas and Lord Chiltern fought their infamous duel.

Right now, I’m reading “The Claverings,” but when I‘m finished I intend to start researching Trollope’s use of seaside locations for significant events. This project was inspired by a thread in our Facebook discussion of “Marion Fay,” when a Society member posted an old sepia photo of Pegwell Bay.

So how do I view Trollope in the broader sense intended by the Society’s question? I view Trollope as a friend and companion who is always able to delight me with his insights into human character.

Friday, October 19, 2012

an embarrassment of freesias

Early last week, I thought I spotted a weed in our bulb bed, but closer inspection revealed it to be the first freesia of fring, a spring-like season triggered by Southern California's fall rains. The rainy season started very early in October of 2010 and 2011, but this year we're well into the second half of the month, with nothing but a couple of brief sprinkles.

Now that our front garden beds are virtually free of weeds, a single freesia sprout looks very lonely as it emerges from thick brown mulch at the foot of a lavender tree. The appearance of three more sprouts hasn't helped much, and, having reached a height of about six inches, they look even weedier. I hope someone doesn't decide to 'help' me by pulling them out!

The freesias will not bloom until March, and up to that time their grassy-looking foliage will continue to look out of place. As soon as they reach a height of about nine inches, they will start to flop over and lie along the ground. Blossom stalks will rise rather dejectedly from this mass of green, but when at last they begin to open and release their spectacular fragrance, all this early ugliness will be forgiven.

This year, I hope to mask the ugly-duckling phase of freesia development by planting buckwheat, which stands about a foot tall and bears clusters of tiny white flowers. It draws phosphorus from the earth and nitrogen from the air. Thus it is an ideal green manure crop and should be adaptable as a bulb cover for my freesias and hyacinths..

I had never thought of planting buckwheat until last spring's garden tour featured a nearby garden surrounded by a circle of blooming buckwheat. The plantings at this site (a lush mix of flowers, herbs, and veggies) were designed to draw bees and butterflies. Will 'my' bees welcome a change from their steady diet of lavender? Time will tell.

Unable to find buckwheat seeds in our local nurseries, I ordered a packet of 200 on line. Last week I probably jumped the gun by sowing about half of them. The rest will wait until "fall rains heal all.*"
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* Last line of a poem I wrote several years ago about Santa Ana winds.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

the importance of earnestness

Recently my friend Ruth left me a phone message recommending P.D. James' new novel, Death Comes to Pemberley (a sequel to Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, in James' signature genre, the crime novel).

I was not surprised by Ruth's recommending a book, but I was astounded to learn that P.D. James (aka Baroness James of Holland Park) is alive and productive at age 92 -- picking up the Jane Austen thread as so many novelists, filmmakers, fashion designers, and country dance enthusiasts have done in recent years.

I thought I had read all of P.D. James' works, but in looking up titles available for the Kindle, I found Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of an Autobiography and decided to read it right away. Pemberley could wait, I thought, until I caught up with P.D.James and re-read Pride and Prejudice.*

James began Time to Be in Earnest on her 77th birthday, taking the title from Samuel Johnson's observation (via Boswell, of course) that "at seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest." I give the context of this quotation to show that Johnson was being descriptive, not prescriptive, in describing a man who is "not infirm, with a look of venerable dignity excelling what I remember in any other man." Indeed, James herself exudes "venerable dignity."

Time to Be in Earnest is a memoir in motion. Events in the present evoke parallels in the past to show how a long life's themes evolve and overlap. Though James is justifiably famous, this is not a self-centered celebrity memoir.** Within a simple framework of life events, James includes a great deal of commentary on the history and politics of her times, plus some insightful literary analysis grounded in her own development as a reader and writer. For instance, we learn that James read and re-read Jane Austen's works starting in grammar school.

Thus it is not a surprise that Time to Be in Earnest closes with the transcript of a talk James had given to the Austen Society on July 18, 1998: "Emma Considered as a Detective Story." This was more than ten years before the publication of Death Comes to Pemberley, but we can be sure that James remained very much in earnest about Victorian fiction and myriad other topics in the interim.

I wouldn't be surprised if P.D.James is working on a sequel to Emma or Northanger Abbey.
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* Though I had seen Becoming Jane when it came out in 2007, I have not re-read any Austen novels since graduate school. Pride and Prejudice has been sitting on my Kindle for months, just waiting for a lull in the recent Trollope onslaught.

** I'm not going to name names here, but I recently started reading one of these and gave up after a second chapter of pure narcissism.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

the medium is the birthday song*

This morning I learned from a Facebook friend that Sheriff John had died Saturday morning in a Boise nursing home after turning 93 last Tuesday, October 2. Internet coverage of the loss has brought a wave of nostalgia to our global village, for 'Sheriff John' was a persona of John Rovick, who hosted Lunch Brigade on L.A.'s Channel 11 (KTTV) from 1952 to 1970.

Lunch Brigade was designed for children who could watch at noon -- preschoolers and kindergartners mostly. I was in sixth grade in 1952, so only saw it on the occasional 'sick day,' then and on into my junior high years. The show really stuck in my mind, though, and so the videos being shown on line today have been very familiar to me.

Seeing Sheriff John open the door and walk onto the set evokes a later icon of children's TV: Fred Rogers, whose Mister Rogers Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS . Of course Mister Rogers would never have shown cartoons, but it's the host's personality that seems so similar. These gentle men were laid-back, non-confrontational adults who treated young children with respect.

Sheriff John sang a special birthday song, Put Another Candle on the Birthday Cake, that is meaningful to many people. I never internalized it to the extent that I did Uncle Whoa-Bill's Happy Birthday Just for You (sung to the tune of the Franz Lehar's Merry Widow Waltz). That's the one I'll sing at the drop of a hat and tend to leave on friends' voicemail.

Unfortunately, Uncle Whoa-Bill is pretty well lost from the annals of media history. He had a radio show on L.A.'s classical station KFAC in the late 40's, and he really knew how to create media magic for children's birthdays. Besides the wonderful song, he would mention a child by name, and give a special message such as: "Follow the string tied to one of the dining room chairs" Sure enough! A special gift would be found at the end of the string.

My coverage of children's media ends with Captain Kangaroo. His show ran from 1955 to 1984 on various channels, and was a favorite of my youngest cousin, Jonathan. Jon asked his mother, my Aunt Isabelle, to write to the Captain and find out what he did with all the leftover birthday cakes from his shows. Like Fred Rogers, Isabelle took children's concerns seriously, and so she wrote the requested letter. Next time I see Jon, I'm going to ask him what the answer was.
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*Allusion to Marshall McLuhan, most famous for defining "the global village" and observing, "The medium is the message."

Friday, October 5, 2012

when the world gives you bandanas

Over two years ago, I had some fun disambiguating* myself from Martha Stewart (see 'marthette, moi?'), but since enrolling in some on-line workshops on getting organized, I've become a subscriber to Martha's Home Organizing Tip of the Day. Some days, the tip is well worth saving for future reference: making a mini-office out of a blanket chest (something I'd done years ago, but not so elegantly) or attaching a power strip to the underside of a desk so that computer cords do not make a tangled heap on the floor.

Today's tip came into my inbox under the title "Lasso Your Laundry," and, as a person whose laundry sometimes strays far afield, I thought this might be one of the good ones. Au contraire! It's all about how to make a cute laundry bag out of bandanas, with cable cord drawstrings.

This gave me a good laugh and reminded me of a bus-travel episode. I had received a bandana as part of the 'bling' at some sort of do-gooder meeting. Afterwards, I was waiting for the bus and wondering what I was going to do with the bandana, when a homeless man came along wearing a ragged pink bandana around his head. I said, "You look like you need a new bandana!" He took it with appropriate dignity and walked off wearing it.

Occasionally I will wear a bandana to keep my hair clean while gardening or cleaning, and when I put it on I always hum the old song "My Home's in Montana / I Wear a Bandana." Refreshing my memory of the tune via YouTube, I reflect that I wouldn't have had this pleasant experience if I hadn't received Martha's Tip of the Day.

Meanwhile, my best technique for dealing with laundry is to do one or two loads (max) per day. I have a hamper-within-the-hamper for the white stuff, and can choose either to wash it or divide the remainder into two or more loads based on color and/or texture. Putting any dirty clothes in a laundry bag of any description would just slow me down, but "whistling a merry old song of the trail" will lighten my load.

Thank you, Martha!
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* I describe my first encounter with this problematic word in the color lavender.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

friends removed

Not every noun makes a good verb. Like, friend. I remember the first time someone said to me: "Okay, so I'll friend you and then we'll get together . . . " The progression seemed totally backwards, of course, but this kind of friending occurs in the context of Facebook, where it's totally different from liking. But that may be another story.

I joined Facebook on May 20, 2008. I don't know this fact about myself because I remember it, but because Facebook maintains what it calls a 'timeline' of my activities, at least insofar as they're trackable with my security settings turned to the max. BTW, back in 2008 this 'timeline' was known as a 'wall,' and I liked that terminology much better.

I joined Facebook because I belonged to two organizations that simultaneously decided to try increasing their visibility and influence through social media. ONE group alone probably wouldn't have convinced me, but for a while I was actively adding friends with these two missions in mind. Were the missions accomplished? It's hard to know. I do know that Homeboy Industries, one organization I currently 'like,' posts at least two or three items daily, usually including a 'thought for the day' along with a photo of the person contributing it. Professional PR is behind this effort as surely as it was NOT behind my own groups' efforts.

Earlier this year, I had over 600 Facebook friends and was getting very little enjoyment from social media. Today I'm down to 557 friends (plus 116 'likes') and am actually getting some fun out of my Facebook experience for the first time since the earliest days of membership.

Before I started actively getting rid of Facebook friends, I'd go to the site and find whole screens full of things posted by folks I didn't know or care about. When I unfriended these folks (yes, unfriend is the word I must click on to perform this minor miracle), I free up space for postings from folks I DO know, including a precious subset of real-world FRIENDS.

When I click on unfriend, I get a message that asks, "REMOVE FROM FRIENDS?" My affirmative gets the confirmation, "FRIEND REMOVED," and I click a final "OK." So it's at least a three-step process, as friend removal certainly should be if it were as dire as it sounds.

Alas, two or three of my remaining Facebook friends have been known to post ten or more items in an hour: not their own thoughts but pictures and messages they've picked up and passed along from their other Facebook friends and the myriad entities they've 'liked.' Don't they know they're three clicks away from ostracism?

Years ago I asked Steve whether he knew the difference between a second cousin and a first cousin once removed. "I don't know," he said, "I've never had a cousin removed." The distinction between levels of cousinship still escapes me, but I know all about having friends removed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

gardenia essentials

Getting ready for fall rains is always a major focus of my late summer gardening. For me, these rains mark the end of one gardening year and the beginning of the next, as spring-like ('fring' as I insist on calling it) growth will begin as soon as the ground is thoroughly wet. Narcissi and freesias will sprout before Thanksgiving; calla lilies will stand tall before Christmas, and I will watch my step -- staying on the paths to tend seedlings and pull weeds while naturalized bulbs and corms put on their shows.

During the final weeks of dryness, however, I can thrash around in the thickly mulched flower beds with impunity, shaping and pruning hardy perennials without damaging anything underground. Thus I wallow in the narcissus bed to give the gardenias their surgical makeover.

We have three gardenia bushes in a gently curved row, marking the wide line where a largish triangular bed, devoted otherwise to cacti and succulents, gives way to narcissi and sweet violets.  I will never claim that this is good landscape design. A purist would have removed the gardenias years ago, but I will not give up the late spring sensation of walking out the front door into the fragrance of old-timey corsages and boutonnieres.

I remember buying the first gardenia, a dwarf variety, over 20 years ago, and planting it in the middle of the space. It was disappointingly slow to grow and didn't bear enough flowers to suit me, and so the next year I went out and bought two more gardenias -- standard size this time -- and planted them one on each side of the tiny original. Knowing that they would need more moisture than I was likely to give them, I planted each one inside an old tire, buried to the sidewalls. If all three plants had been the same variety, this might have made an interesting hedge. Instead, the tall gardenias overshadowed the small one until I decided to limit them to about 30 inches in height.

This year's pruning is a slow, sweaty process in unusually hot weather, but as the larger pieces drop away, I am finally rewarded with the almost annual phenomenon I'd been hoping to see: a tiny bud just starting to open on the dwarf gardenia, and several tightly furled ones promising more to come. The first time I saw this, it inspired a haiku:

     spring bloom in fall month
     draws wonder and suspicion
     yet smells sweet as June's

Flowering is where and when we find it.
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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License