Monday, June 1, 2020

New Life, No Instructions

New Life, No Instructions: a memoir
Gail Caldwell (2014, Random House)

    Gail Caldwell's previous volume of memoir (Let’s Take the Long Way Home, 2010) was a beauty. It was the story of gaining a best friend, in her forties, with whom she shared a love of dogs, and a hard-won sobriety. Four years later, the friend and the dog have both died. At 54, she is sober, solitary, and lonely, so she decides to get another dog. She wants a Samoyed, bred for pulling sleds; they are big-hearted and stubborn, and so is she. She heads down to Pennsylvania, where there's a breeder she admires, and comes back with a beautiful white puppy she calls Tula.

    What New Life, No Instructions is really about is the reason a Samoyed was a crazy idea: Caldwell is lame, and getting more so. Her right leg has been weaker than her left since she had polio as a baby. With her mother, she did exercises to stretch and strengthen the leg, but only until she was about five. Nonetheless, as we saw in her earlier book, she exercised avidly, either on the water in a rowing shell, or swimming laps. But over a lifetime of uneven use, her weaker leg was also shortened, so her right foot was always stretching down to reach the ground.

    After Tula came, the strain of keeping up with her brought matters to a head. “I had been falling a lot lately, and spending energy trying not to notice.” The doctor she had was pretty good at not noticing, too, sending her to physical therapy with a diagnosis of sciatica. Happily–at last– she went to a new doctor. “I delivered the usual sketch–polio as an infant, years of exercise and strengthening, recent years of pain. When he asked me where it hurt, my brain was so overloaded with information that I became confused. Had no one ever asked me where it hurt before?”        

    That’s not all: “ ‘What did the MRI show?’ There had been no MRI, ever, and I told him so. ‘OK, what about the X-ray?’ Same answer. In the twenty or so years I had been experiencing difficulty–sprains and injuries and progressive weakness and discomfort–no one, in orthopedics or internal medicine or neurology or physical therapy, had ever ordered or even mentioned an X-ray.” This appalls me, though somehow it doesn’t surprise me.

    Caldwell is not as angry about this as I am, perhaps because she, too, had a fixed idea about the reason for her difficulties. “I had been limping around for a decade while friends worried and doctors shrugged, and yet the polio had been such a basic starting point that no one could see beyond it.” Also, she’s learned in AA that sometimes, things just are what they are. "I don't get to be mad at a resident or a therapist or an internist who was working a twelve-hour day  and assumed I needed a cortisone shot or a referral instead of an X-ray. A thousand little subplots converged on the days I didn't get what I needed, and chances are, almost none of them were about me."

    The ensuing hip replacement is at once dramatic and utterly routine. Thousands of people have them every week, but not everybody gets to add 5/8” of thigh bone in the process. ”Most people recover from hip replacement with the same leg they started with, but mine was on its maiden voyage, longer now but unschooled, and I couldn't go far without muscle spasm or fatigue.”

    Friends rally around, both to feed Caldwell and to take care of Tula; she attributes this partly to having neither partner nor offspring, so her friends feel confident that their help is actually needed. Her rehab is both exceptionally painful and grueling, but within a year she is both moving faster and standing more upright than she has in years.

    As always, Caldwell is as wise as she is tough. ”Real change, though, is forgiving enough to take a little failure, strong enough to take despair in small doses. The ocean liner turns two degrees: different destination. You just don't drink for one day. Don't take the bait, load the gun, say the stupid thing. Do make the phone call, throw away the shoes that hurt. Just rest a little and then move another few inches down the path.”

    So must we all, and a sled dog at your side just might help.

Published by e-mail, June 1, 2020

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Wearing God

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God

Lauren F. Winner (2015, HarperOne)

       Have you ever noticed that the Church is in a rut, when it comes to images for God? My home people, the Episcopalians, frequently observe the Good Shepherd in stained glass, psaltery, and hymns; only slightly less popular is a royal God, even if we are letting go of a gendered one. But what experience have most of us with either shepherds or kings? Practically none. 

        In Wearing God, Lauren Winner suggests that other, more familiar, options are available in the Bible, and sanctioned by generations of commentators and poets: God might be as close as a warm robe, as intimate as scented oil, as nourishing as bread or as intoxicating as wine. As fleshly as all this sounds, and it is, it's also intensely scholarly. "Your guide in this exploration is a bookworm who can happily get lost for a few days on a research trail, and I sometimes bring the words of anthropologists or historians or literary critics to bear on our ruminations." 

        It's no surprise that the chapters of Wearing God had their first lives as divinity school lectures. I have never paid much attention to the Christian midrash, the tradition of commentaries and commentaries on commentaries, but, of course, that's what divinity students read. Winner introduces us not only to St. Augustine and Julian of Norwich, but Ephrem of Syria, Anselm of Canterbury, and Theodore of Mopsuestia; Charles Wesley, John Donne, and Christina Rossetti; and plenty of others who are still walking around the planet. The extensive end notes constitute a vast field full of rabbit holes, for those whose appetite is whetted. 

        Amid these treasures, Winner's own writing gets a little lost, which is a pity, because she gives good value. She does not quite persuade me to find God in fragrance; I'm just not wired that way. Nor in clothing, though the picture of God tenderly clothing Adam and Eve in skins before their exile is arresting. Even a moment, though, of "what would it be like, to be clothed in the Divine?" might be salutary. Perhaps this question, or one like it, will snag on our consciousness until we turn and face it. Do I ever look or feel as though God dressed me today? The more I don't want to dwell on that, the more I probably should. Winner says, "I suspect that if I could receive this, something small but important would change. I suspect that the way I inhabit myself would be different if my spinning, whirling brain could receive this, if my heart could receive it, if my body could receive it."

      A child-bearing God, a laughing God, a God who is soothed by the fragrance of burning incense all seem strange, in a way that may stretch our imagination. Perhaps the most profound image of all, because it's the most commonplace, is friendship with God. In what ways is that like all our friendships? "I know that friendship both requires and breeds honesty–perhaps foremost honesty with myself. When I am lying to myself (as I have been known to do, usually about something important–otherwise why bother?), I am not available for friendship." And so it is with the One from Whom no secrets are hid. "Also, I am uneven. I am inconstant. Yet I have begun to grow as a friend. I am less inconstant than I once was." Friendship with God, like any other, is enriched by the simple act of showing up, and sometimes acting together. 

       I think Winner makes her case for trying on different images of God. "The Bible's inclusion of so many figures for God is both an invitation and a caution. The invitation is to discovery: discovery of who God is, and what our friendship with God might become. The caution is against assuming that any one image of God, whatever truth it hold, adequately describes God." Maybe we'll be able to take a break from trying to describe the Infinite Holy, and break through to experiencing It. 

Email edition May 1 2020 

Wednesday, April 1, 2020


Richard Russo (Vintage, 1986)

        My November piece on the essays of Richard Russo brought me around to his novels, of which Mohawk is the first. It's set in Mohawk, New York, somewhere north of Albany, like the Gloversville of Russo's youth. In 1967, it's a town where not much is happening, though the tanneries and glove shops are still in operation. Mohawk is full of men who drink all night and lose at poker. In the morning, they show up at the Mohawk Grill, where Harry pours coffee and keeps an eye on the village idiot.

       Anne Grouse shares an apartment with her son, Randall, upstairs from her parents' flat. Anne's father is dying of the emphysema he contracted from a lifetime working with leather; her mother is content only in the company of her older sister, with whom she shares many a pleasant afternoon complaining about their respective daughters, and imagining that they had always been close. (Mather Grouse is always given his full name, while Mrs. Grouse is always Mrs. Grouse.)

      Anne's cousin, Diana, takes care of her mother and her husband, Dan, who uses a wheelchair. Dan and Anne have the misfortune to be enamored of each other, beginning just after it was too late to do anything about it. They each married the person they were supposed to marry, but the suppressed sentiment lingers powerfully.

      Anne's ex-husband, Dallas Younger, is a man of spectacular unreliability, and the archetypal male Russo character. Dallas is not good at much, besides losing things and letting people down. "Dallas, always careening about town, out of control, always landing on his feet, always vaguely wondering about the sound of screeching tires and crashing metal wherever he went, never suspecting a causal connection."

       The town ages as the characters do; we see it again in 1972, after the destruction of the moribund old hospital, and the arrival of marijuana and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Randall has gone off to college, only to drop out and come home a draft dodger. Anne's father has died, and she's given up hope of moving away for a better job. Dallas has left the garage and started working for a bookie. All of the seams are showing.

       Not only does Russo make us care about these people and their dead-end days, he shows us that they wouldn't care if we care or not. They're living their own lives, that's all; the men playing the numbers, and the women waiting to be loved, or even heard. Randall takes up with a local girl whose lack of curiosity he finds oddly refreshing. "He had attempted, just once, to explain to her the nature of ethical dilemmas, but gave up once he realized her own daily life had little to do with choice and probably never would."

       Russo respects his characters, and loves their town. The comic effects he achieves by knowing them better than they know themselves can be sharp, but they're tender. It's a God-like point of view that gives one hope for what God is like. 

Published by email.
Any Good Books,
April 1 2020

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Word Detective

Any Good Books,
March 2020

The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, a Memoir
John Simpson (Basic Books, 2016)

       "I'd always liked approaching things from odd angles: maybe dictionary work would be an intriguing outlet for my interest in language, literature, and historical research." That set of interests made John Simpson a very good fit for job as a junior editor on the Oxford English Dictionary. It was 1976, and Simpson had a degree in English, but not much insight into the world of dictionaries, or indeed, into the world of work. He would go on working on the OED until 2013, including twenty years spent as the Senior Editor, wisely retaining a hand in the actual editorial work rather than simply managing the work of others.

      Those thirty-seven years were exceptionally fruitful and eventful. The original Oxford English Dictionary took forty-four years to come out in twenty volumes, beginning in 1884. A supplement appeared in 1933, and a subsequent four-volume supplement in the 1970's, but the entire edifice was in danger of becoming an extremely elaborate white elephant, if a means could not be found to overhaul it.

       In 1982, the Managing Director of the Oxford University Press issued a challenge to the editors of the OED. "Here was the task, as relayed by the Shark to my boss: take a look at that incredibly slow project you've been working on since 1957, with your quill pens, mechanical adding machines, slips of paper, and far too many editors, and see if it's feasible to put the whole dictionary on to computer so that in future you can race through the work in no time at all (and produce a first-rate dictionary along the way." 

       It was not only feasible: it actually took less than a decade, which is quite marvelous to think of. There was, in the first place, a gigantic amount of sheer typing and proof-reading. The format of the definitions was already regular enough to fit into a data-base structure, which would help make it searchable. The pronunciation system also needed to be updated to the International Phonetic Alphabet, a job that could be automated, but not easily. The text successfully merged the First edition, all the supplements, and five thousand or so new words Simpson had been shepherding through the editorial process.

      The twenty-volume Second Edition came out in print in 1989; the emergence of the CD-ROM version in 1992 was, in a way, more of an event, because users began to see how searchable data would lead to new discoveries. Nonetheless, you'll notice, some of those definitions were a hundred years old, and another gigantic project hove into view: a complete review and revision of the Second Edition. The Internet was just a shadow of its future self, but it promised avenues of research that had never been accessible before. The searchable Second Edition proved the principle: "To our amazement, we found hundreds of new first uses there, hidden away in other entries, and unlockable before digitalisation."

      By 2000, with Simpson running the show, the OED went online. Revisions went on, with quarterly updates of substantial chunks of the work, incorporating new discoveries of earlier uses, and new markings for obsolescent terms. It's big work being carried out at the atomic level: "The lexicographer sees English as a mosaic–consisting of thousands of little details. Each time one of the tiny tiles of the mosaic is cleaned and polished, we see the mosaic more clearly."

     Simpson's authorial demeanor is pleasantly modest, with flashes of wit. "I come from a generation and a society where over-enthusiasm was deplored, and keenness was deprecated. Nonchalant, non-interventionist observation was the order of the day when I was growing up, and the perspective stuck." For him, at least, it was the perfect perspective for the job.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Wrong Side of Murder Creek

Any Good Books,
February 2020

The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement
Bob Zellner with Constance Curry (2008, New South Books)

      No one would have predicted that a nice Methodist boy from East Brewton, Alabama, would grow up to be the first white field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC represented the youthful face of the civil rights movement; Bob Zellner was hired to visit white campuses and look for students who could be converted to the cause. This memoir tells a more exciting, and terrifying, story of the years he spent on the front lines of marches, freedom rides, and voter registration drives. He was arrested dozens of times, and worked with everybody from Julian Bond to Stokely Carmichael.

       Bob Zellner couldn't have grown up in a more Southern way. Born in 1939, the second son of a Methodist minister and a school teacher, he lived in various small towns in south Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Keeping the family fed required all hands on deck: milking cows and fattening hogs, weeding gardens, hunting and fishing. Zellner's father and grandfather were Klansmen, as was common at the time, but his father took a more progressive turn, and Mrs. Zellner converted his white robes into Sunday shirts for her five growing boys. 

      1960 was Bob Zellner's senior year at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Zellner's sociology class was assigned to study the racial problem and write a paper about what might be done about it. "When the professor told us to research solutions to racial problems, we were supposed to understand that research was done in the library." Zellner and four of his friends proposed to do some actual field work, to the professor's great consternation. After all, Huntingdon's leafy green campus was barely a mile from Alabama State College for Negroes, and there must be some people there with thoughts on the subject.

       The professor explained that if the men sat down with Negro students, "the Ku Klux Klan and others may take exception to your sitting down and they will come and beat you up and that will be a breach of the peace, which you have caused, and therefore you will be guilty of inciting to riot." This spectacularly perverse (if pervasive) logic tweaked something in Zellner and his friends, who wound up going to the anniversary commemoration of the Montgomery bus boycott. Sure enough, to avoid arrest, they had to leave by the basement door while Dr. King made a diversion at the front, but for Zellner, it was just a matter of time. 

      In McComb, Mississippi, he was beaten and arrested; in Albany, Georgia, he served on a chain gang with black prisoners; in Baton Rouge, he spent weeks in a prison hotbox cell; and whenever he entered Alabama, the state had him under surveillance. George Wallace even had him arrested four days before taking office as governor, which teed up a dandy lawsuit. Zellner was tough, brave, and in very good shape, but he was still just one man in his early twenties–yet the authorities were very worried wherever he showed up. 

       SNCC was a black-led organization, for good reason; but Bob Zellner said to his brother before he went off to start his job, "...that I was not in this for the black people–if this was just acting on a missionary impulse, I wouldn't survive–that I had to look at it from a different angle. I was involved because I was fighting for my own rights as well." The right to sit and eat and talk in a racially mixed group had to be fought for over and over, against opposition on all levels. The violent opposition is shocking, but so is the passivity and complacency of the mass of people, to say nothing of the complicity of the Federal government, which was all too willing to compromise away the actual practice of people's rights. That struggle is not over.