Archive for December, 2008

Da Fam-ly Part III

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Today we come at last to our family’s patron saint.

If you’re lucky, your family has one … indeed, having a hallowed, benevolent figure may be the very definition — and hallmark — of what we consider a family.

Meet Grant Blackburn, my grandfather.

The first memory I have of my grandfather, or Papa, is when I am 3 years old. I have crawled under the dining room table to hide from him. I have knotted his tie around my neck and I’m trying to get it off. He finds me and we have a laugh about it. That morning, I had seen a large red-yellow sun blaze through the window of the bedroom where I slept. It was that kind of day.

Each summer I spent at least a week with Papa and Grandmother, running through the pasture, catching salamanders and crayfish in the Little Creek, and brushing the ponies and donkey. Papa spent hours with us … showing us how to build dams on the creek, carrying us around in the back of his pick-up truck, saddling us up on the donkey, Pedro or Big Chubby, who good-naturedly allowed it.

One summer, Papa linked a cart to his small tractor. He’d fixed up the metal cart with wooden boards, giving it the appearance of a little wagon.

Now I can’t imagine how small it was, so that gives an idea of how young I must have been: My crazy cousin Chuck and I installed ourselves in that wagon and went to pick blackberries with Papa, who drove us all over the pasture.

What an awesome time we had! We painted the sides of the wagon blackberry-purple, painted ourselves purple and ate our fill of the yummy ripe fruit.

Papa raised goats, ponies, chickens and ducks in addition to Big Chubby and his faithful lab, Tar Boy.

In the late 1960s, he and my grandmother began a project that in many ways defined my childhood. He purchased rough-hewn pine boards and built us a cabin in the woods.

Grandmother and Papa hand-set the chimney to begin, and he spent every off-work hour building that cabin.

When it was completed, we spent many nights there — cold winter nights, when Papa would keep the fire going for us while he slept upright in a chair; warm summer ones when we’d fall asleep after eating hot dogs grilled outside.

He played endless games of Rook with us, carted us around with him as he fed the animals, gave us tastes of goat milk, which he sold.

All in addition to working in a textile mill … yes, you heard it right … both of my grandparents are the archtypical “textile workers” — giving me authentic blue-collar cred. (My grandmother’s family were also coal miners for a time in West Virginia.)

There were trips by car to the Blue Ridge Parkway, with roadside picnics; trips to Tweetsie Railroad, fish farms, Roaring River and waterfalls.

He also had a hillside lined with fruits and vegetables, which my grandmother canned.

He never spoke a harsh word. Yet you knew it when you disappointed him. He never lectured, either, but his spare words and simple, noble mien gave the best, and fullest lessons.

Think how a hook feels in a fish’s mouth, he said when I wanted to fish in the goldfish pond; Ever heard of the Land of Milk and Honey, he observed, eating said foods for breakfast one day.

Papa died in 1976 after a brief, but horrible, struggle with lung cancer. His early death, at 56, has indelibly marked us all and in some ways become a benchmark, sort of like A.D. and B.C.

These days, when I’m at my Grandmother’s, I’ll often walk over to the cabin, where I’ll talk to Papa. A time or two, I’ve cried a bit, but mostly I just feel fortunate to have known and loved such a person, even briefly.

FICTION DAILY RETURNS IN THE NEW YEAR WITH RESOLUTIONS, SOON-TO-BE-BROKEN PROMISES FOR BETTER WRITING HABITS AND THE USUAL PLEDGE TO EAT MORE VEGETABLES!

Da Fam-ly Part II

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

In today’s installment of the fairly self-indulgent series on my family, we come to the person closest to me in the world: My sister.

Long has she lived under my shadow.

Early on, I developed a reputation for being smart, etc. and no matter how she shone, it seems I was always in the way.

So she made her own path — and showed me up quite a bit before it was over with — as a very social, dare I say, popular figure in high school and college, where she attained the ranks of cheerleader and homecoming queen with startling regularity.

Yet somehow, a reputation for being “irresponsible” attached itself to her. It probably had more to do with my dysfunctional quality of being way too responsible … nevertheless, every time she failed to show up for some dreaded family event … or failed to call or send some kind of thank-you note, I would hear comments like, “Well, you know, she’s just irresponsible.”

Years later, she has confided in me that she knew she was going to let someone down … so she just decided it best to be honest from the start … and turn up late, or not at all.

The worst episode, I must admit, came when we moved out of the house our family lived in for four generations … stuff stuff stuff … it was everywhere … my sister was, well, sort of missing in action in those days … granted it was overwhelming, but it had to be done.

In the end, the new owners moved some of our remaining personal belongings into the cavernous attic. We were supposed to get them out as soon as we could, though there was no real rush, since we were on friendly terms.

Weeks passed. I finally went up to that attic, where my sister’s things were sitting there, untouched. I’ll never forget going through her beloved vinyl albums from junior high … AC/DC, KISS … and picking a few out, then releasing the rest for, well, the landfill I suppose.

These days, however, the tables have turned.

My sister is a Super Mom … from the minute she wakes, she’s running a tight ship. She follows a schedule to the letter … runs 3 miles a day … gets her child to school on time … cooks wonderfully healthy (and tasty) meals … runs the school benefit auction … bakes for her neighbors … gives presents to everyone … and walks her dog, too.

I, on the other hand, seem quite adolescent in comparison.

Last weekend, I chose to leave my grandmother’s home just as everyone went to bed … and drive home overnight. I left about midnight for the long trip back to Greenville.

You’d think I had robbed a bank the way everyone carried on!!

Marion, they said, you just can’t do that. You need to spend the night.

I made it home just fine, but there was a hint of disapproval from everyone in the family.

Even my sister.

“You know,” I can imagine her saying, “sometimes Marion can be just a bit irresponsible.”

Da Fam-ly Part I

Monday, December 29th, 2008

I’m not saying my family is nuttier than anyone else’s … but I do believe the mixed heritage, personality types and circumstances have created singular characters, American style.

As I’ve just returned from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where many of us came together for Christmas at my Grandmother’s home, with great-grandchildren, cousins and crazy uncles in attendance, it seems fitting to take a look at them.

So today, FD starts a series on non-essential holiday posts presenting these personages.

Today, it’s my cousin. We’ll call him Chuck (his name is withheld to protect the innocent.)

Growing up, we’d meet several times a year at my Grandmother and Papa’s home for vacations — Christmas, weekends, and the epic, much-awaited, summer vacation.

Understandably, I was a bit precocious and inclined to be “good.” (I learned early that if I “behaved,” the grown-ups would leave me alone.)

Chuck, on the other hand, was a time bomb, a live wire, a walking “dare me.” Once when I first got my driver’s license (I was two years older) he took my car out and as we rushed down one of those incredibly steep hills leading to a valley, he thought it would be fun to pop the transmission into 2nd gear. At about 50 miles per hour. I thought it was a bad idea, but he did it anyway … fortunately, we didn’t leave the engine there on Elk Spur Road.

One Christmas a few years later, he thought it would be a good idea to go driving around and pop into a honky-tonk type bar beside the railroad tracks, where he orders and leaves with a tall-boy can of beer.

Then there were the mudball fights with our other, rival cousins: I was about 10 or so and this cousin, from another side of the family, comes by … of course we assault him with mudballs, but the next thing I know, he’s squealing back up to the house, and the adults are calling us in.

“Who hit Morris (not his real name)?” they asked us.

“It’s just mudballs. We were throwing them around.”

“Someone hit him with a rock,” they said. I had no idea what they were talking about … we were all in trouble, nonetheless. Later Chuck tells me he put rocks in the mudballs.

There are too many stories to tell, but let me end with this one, recounted to me by my sister this weekend:

At Grandmother and Papa’s house, we only had one rule … one real rule … and we weren’t supposed to break it. Just one rule. And that was No matches in the barn. That’s where Papa kept hay for the animals.

So Chuck decides to have a haunted house in the barn. And what does he do? He makes a scarecrow, stuffs it with hay … and uses firecrackers for his eyes.

Yep, we got in biiiiiig trouble for that one.

Our childhood days were magical at Grandmother and Papa’s house. And now, it’s been more than 40 years since we played together, building dams at the creek, spending chilly nights in the cabin Papa built us.

Papa died of lung cancer in 1976 and my grandmother is 92 years old.

Today, I’m a writer … one of the last of the Great Rule Makers.

And what about my crazy, rule-breaking, mud-ball loadin’, fire-cracker-lightin’ cousin?

Today, he makes his living as … a lawyer.

For the Birds, My Dear Part 2

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

SPECIAL HOLIDAY EDITION OF FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

Happy Christmas Eve to everyone in Fiction Dailyland! I hope today, everyone will slow down, sit with someone you love by a fireplace and enjoy a few hours of peace, calm and hopefulness. Draft someone else’s child if you don’t have one yourself. They’re still having fun with this.

partridge11.gif

So let’s wrap up the Twelve Days of Christmas with our litany of gifts for the Epiphany:

On the twelfth day of Christmas
My true love sent to me

Twelve lords a-leaping
Eleven ladies dancing
Ten pipers piping
Nine drummers drumming
Eight maids a-milking
Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five gold rings
Four colly birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves, and
A partridge in a pear tree.

As a child I enjoyed making private jokes with words, and amused myself by running together the lines so the geese were actually laying the gold rings. Ha ha, we writers just know how to tell a joke!!

What’s so fascinating about this holiday song is the image we have of imagined courtly life. In today’s America, or even in yesterday’s America, we have little sense of the feudal system that reigned in Europe for centuries and frankly, defined our modern world.

I saw some of the big picture in college, when I slogged through book upon book … I was at times a political science major, history major, pre-law, chemistry and English major before finally settling on French. (Seemed a wise career move at the time.)

All those books demonstrated our human (western) progression from a time when class — birth — determined everything about a person’s life. That’s why events such as the signing of the Magna Carta are so pivotal in human history: It marked one of the first times when individuals other than the monarch were able to assert a modicum of autonomy, and participate in making and enforcing the rules.

By the late 16th century we have the rise of landed gentry … another revolution … and while today, it’s considered a bit barbaric to assign rights based solely on property ownership, at the time it was downright radical.

Of all the things I love about this country (and there are many, present administration excluded), among the most precious is our largely classless society — and the idea that if you work hard, you are somebody … and anyone with desire can have a say in the way things operate.

Still we look back somehow to olden days, imagining ourselves either as happy peasants content with our king … or the kings and queens of olde.

And so, this seasonal song remains a favorite, allowing us to be the fortunate lover of a wealthy, aristocratic, suitor, destined to live in a glorious, tapestry-filled castle, with servants in waiting, livestock, peacocks and pheasants running around the yard, and happy peasant farmers who adore us.

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM FICTION DAILY!!

FD will return next week

For the Birds, My Dear

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

SPECIAL HOLIDAY FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

In keeping with the holiday spirit that has somehow afflicted Fiction Dailyland, today we’re looking at that beloved song, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

partridge1.gif

Are we going to delight in the sentiment of the moment?

Of course not!! In a special holiday edition of Figuratively Speaking, we’re going to eviscerate common mistakes made in the singing of this otherwise masterful song; naturally, we’re going to provide the correct versions.

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me.

Note that in the traditional, and authoritative, English version, the lover sends and does not give these things.

A partridge in a pear tree.

Some suggest that this partridge is in fact a perdix, which is a French word for the bird. Its genus is also perdix.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me two turtle doves … and on the third, three French hens.

The pattern here reflects the royal tastes in England, which would have been for things French … and for objects of the hunt or leisure pursuits, such as game birds.

Now to the next day .. Let out the dogs, because rarely is this line sung correctly:

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me four colly birds …

Yes, these are colly birds, and not calling birds.

Colly birds are a European blackbird, and are so named because their color resembles coal … from collier and colliery, which derive from coal.

On the fifth day we have five gold rings … and not golden, no matter how long the note is held.

On the six day, my true loves sends me six geese a laying.

And those types of birds indeed love to lay eggs … as I’ve learned personally … thanks to the ducks who live next door. Remarkably friendly, they are, and they’re always laying eggs in our backyard, in our shed, under our azaleas, in my daylily garden …

TOMORROW: The rest of Christmas, as told only by Fiction Daily.

FD Special Edition

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

HOLIDAY WEEK IN FICTION DAILYLAND

Well, it’s happened.

christmas.jpg

It’s likely that sometime in the next few hours I’ll mail off the last of my holiday cards … in the hallway stand three small metal Christmas trees, very modern … along with a Baby Jesus in a paper creche colored by Matilda … and the tall slender Claus that seems to have been designed by Giacometti.

Yes, I have a wee bit of the holiday spirit.

I admit I feel something like the Grinch every year … with all the madness, people trying to make perfect dinners, perfect packages and perfect families … when all I want is some peace and the ability to write one beautiful paragraph.

The rushing around and deifying consumerism … the fake spirituality and religion … the imposition of beliefs onto my sense of private reflection … every year feels more intrusive, and me, more resolved against the whole thing.

As I picked out some soft stuffed animals to give my favorite children … it brought a sense of quiet joy … imagining their surprise and excitement to have a box, to open it and to pull out a cuddly dog … a book … some other surprise.

And so it happened that I felt a bit of seasonal joy myself. My deadlines have slowed down, though I have one project to work on this holiday season … as well as the novel.

So I’ll slow down and enjoy whatever gifts the holiday brings.

DUCK THE HALLS:
A holiday commentary by MB

Scent of a word

Friday, December 19th, 2008

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

For some of us, words get under our skin.

(I guess that makes words hypodermic? And the condition hypodermia? Hypo from the Greek hupo, under, and dermic, true skin or dermis.)

See what I mean?

When I was in graduate school and reading lots of French books, I also learned a lot about my own language. Often I came across a translated word I’d never heard of before.

Such was the case with antimacassar.

Over time, I forgot the word … until one day recently, I remembered the word … but forgot it … at the same time.

It was madenning. I tried to Google search the word, to no avail.

My memory of the word was triggered, Proust-like, by the word macadam (or should that be maca-madeleine-adam?) which refers to a type of road material made of broken stones of equal size, used as a base beneath asphalt.

Then, out of the blue last week, I’m wrapping up a Scott Turow novel … and there it is!! My long-lost word! Antimacassar!

Antimacassar refers to a piece of cloth placed over the back of a chair to protect it from grease and dirt, or as ornament.

sl14.jpg

It derives from anti plus macassar … or Macassar oil … which was used in the past to give men flat, shiny hair, as was the style in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries … oh yes, and even today (Brylcreem anyone?).

It was found in Makassar, a place in the Indonesian islands of the South Pacific by Portuguese sailors.

Macassar comes from the fragrant ylang-ylang tree … absolutely one of my favorite scents … and when the ylang-ylang blossoms are macerated, or broken up, in coconut oil, we have macassar.

Now, like the reunited lovers at the conclusion of Jane Erye (or better yet, Wuthering Heights) I have at last found my forgotten word.

Which leads to the question: Does anyone else become so obsessed with words? Is this an illness of some kind?

NEXT WEEK:
A special holiday edition of Fiction Daily!

The Rest is … Alex Ross

Monday, December 15th, 2008

pbcover4.jpgNow that everyone is taking stock of the best books of 2008, I’m just getting around to reading one of the best books of 2007.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, by Alex Ross.

As soon as I ordered it last January I wanted to open it, but in that old-school, protestant way, I put it off, reminding myself that I was reading two books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one or two by Jack Kerouac, a couple of French novels, not to mention Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (for the past two years).

Well, yesterday, I reminded myself that I had actually finished many of those books (though not the ones by the Dalai Lama; I have a bookcase full).

So why not just read it. And so I got started.

The Rest is Noise is a look at so-called “classical” music of the 20th century. It begins with Gustave Mahler, Richard Strauss (hint: he’s not the waltz guy) and Arnold Schoenberg and explores the music as it emerged from the times, and the writers — their personal relationships, how their work was received (or rejected), even their own personal struggles. Schoenberg, for instance, comes across as quite sensitive, concerned about the depths of poetry and even subject to personal depression, when I always thought of this abstract, whole-tone scale composer as emotionless.

From the opening words of the preface, Alex Ross rushes out of the gate with excellent, studied and meaningful writing. What a pleasure!! He really cares!!

Not only does he care, but Ross approaches topics in a modern way. If you’ve ever tried to read dry, fusty non-fiction … especially music critiques … then you know how easy it is to bore the reader to death.

It’s always been my personal approach in writing to invite the reader in, to invite the reader to care. And so with Alex Ross. He wants us to follow him; he’s not just showing off.

Though he could. It’s clear Mr. Ross not only adores music, but he understands how it works. With just enough description of chords, scales and harmonics, he allows us to see why music is daring, but he doesn’t overwhelm us with details.

If you’ve read the New Yorker, you know Mr. Ross as the magazine’s music writer. Not that he needs any qualifiers after this book!! (and not, frankly, that I hold TNY-er in esteem any longer, after that Obama parody cover, and an article last year trashing the Dalai Lama. Who trashes the Dalai Lama???)

So music lovers, treat yourself this holiday season to The Rest is Noise. And get ready to listen.

FD will return with Figuratively Speaking Friday.

The Holly Days

Friday, December 12th, 2008

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

douglas-fir.jpg

Who says FD doesn’t have the holiday spirit?

Darn it, of course we do. The season isn’t about presents, after all, it’s about words.

So today, FD takes a jingle-infested sleigh ride through a few holiday words. Disclaimer: Without intending to offend, looking under the surface may reveal the holiday’s pagan roots.

Let’s start with yule. Other than rhyming with mule, why do we use this word to describe Christmas?

Yule comes to us from the Old english geol, which means Christmas Day. It may have arrived via the Old Norse jol, which was used to describe a heathen festival lasting 12 days … later referred to as Christmas.

treenetworksmwht.gifOur very own Christmas trees come to us from the old Celtic traditions of communing with spirits in the woods. And the evergreen trees, such as fir, pines and holly, symbolize eternal life. For an interesting review of the custom, visit the Christmas Tree Farm Network. Here’s an excerpt

King Tut never saw a Christmas tree, but he would have understood the tradition which traces back long before the first Christmas, says David Robson, Extension Educator, Horticulture with the Springfield Extension Center.

The Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrive, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life’s triumph over death.

The Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps to light one’s journey through life.

Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals. The Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life, and place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.

Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. Our modern Christmas tree evolved from these early traditions.

Legend has it that Martin Luther began the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas.

Meanwhile, in a surprising turn for the Merry Christmas word police, those fanatics who object to the term “holiday” on so-called religious grounds, threatening to boycott stores who don’t stick to their script … it’s interesting to note that word holiday is actually quite sanctified.

Holiday comes to us from the Old English haligdoeg, or “holy day.”

A perfect word for the season, that represents the sacred and yet can be used by everyone. Now that’s the true spirit of Christmas.

Deadlines today

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Oh dear … time is running out in Fiction Dailyland for a number of assignments … there are dogs to be walked and fed … phone calls to return … I hope to return tomorrow for Figuratively Speaking Friday.