Monday, December 30, 2013

One PO’d Santa… But it Passed

Like I’ve said before, I’ve been impersonating Santa Claus for so long that I don’t bat an eye when a little kid on the subway tugs on his momma’s arm, pointing at me excitedly, imploring: “Look, Mommy! It’s Santa!” I take it in stride with a big grin, trusting, I suppose, that it’s my due. All the little kid sees is the full (but tidy) white beard, twinkly eyes, ruddy face suggesting northern climes and the ample form, of course. I’m in civvies so the kid doesn’t see me in full uniform (yet): the soft red velvet pantaloons and jacket with jingle bells pinned on, black vinyl booties to pull over shoes, thick black belt to cinch at the waist, floppy red (what else?) hat with white pompom atop. (The whole rig cost me a C-note a hundred years ago.) When I came on the scene last week at Albany’s University Club during the Neighborhood’s Annual Christmas Party, I got a sinking feeling.

It had nothing to do with the children—about twenty in all, most under the age of eight, excited grinning faces that attached themselves to me like metal filings to a magnet. No not those beauties! But the setting, the absence of adults, the exile of us all to a shabby back room while several hundred middle-class adults ate and drank while shooting the shit with each other and the local politicians in the Grand Front Ballroom. I did this gig for the first time last year after Rose suggested me to the Neighborhood Association, as she did again. As I took in the scene—two mothers and one father with cameras and one paid Nanny—it dawned on me that me and the Nanny were The Help. Pissed me off!

But I put it aside to take care of business. Elsa, age 6, claims my left knee and never leaves while boys and girls take turns on the right or simply plaster their little bodies against me between the occupied knees. I routinely ask them their names, then I make it a point to tell each one that I KNOW that he or she is a GOOD BOY, GOOD GIRL (I don’t want their little heads taxed by having to ponder such a weighty matter posed the traditional way: “And have you been… et cetera?). Then I ask the Elf at my side to dip in my green (laundry) bag for a present. The Elf is Rose who stocks the bag for all my appearances. The girls got Indian bangles, Mardi Gras beads, candy canes and chocolate ‘coins’ enclosed in silver gauze drawstring bags; the boys, sticky gel bugs and small squishy white mice along with candy canes and chocolate coins in no-nonsense cellophane bags. The bugs and mice were a big hit as they flew around the room, back and forth between the boys and girls.

I always remember their faces afterward, and sometimes bits of conversation. I routinely ask the children what they want for Christmas. Even if I can’t make out what’s being said in hesitant small voices, I tell them to tell their mommies who’ll tell me and I’ll bring it on Christmas Eve while they’re asleep in their beds. Elsa flummoxed me with an order for an “IP5.” Not sure I heard right, I turned inquiringly to my Elf. “That’s the I-Phone 5,” she said. (What more was there to say?)

 And I remember Charlotte, age 9, who stopped by with her dad on the way to her violin recital at her school. She confided that she’s been playing since age 4 but really wants to be a painter, and presented me with an original kaleidoscope wheel done in crayon on art paper, that she signed at my request. And Ulya, age 4, who takes charge of my right knee and stays. Her whispers about a doll is all I catch. And the Outlier, Rav, age 7, who warns me he’s Jewish, but I sucker him in to receive his Hanukkah Gift. And Baby Zinnia, content to remain, staring up at my face, burbling all the while.

After three-quarters of an hour, I make my grand exit from the room, waving goodbyes to the children while shouting aloft for Rudolph to ready the team. I duck out of sight into a storage room to change out of uniform. As we leave, unthanked and unnoticed, I see a young matron leading a child by the hand, another in her arms, hurrying towards the Back Room to dump them both, I think uncharitably.

I recall that the St. Catherine’s Home for Children was in dire straits this season, having to draft a female Santa Claus. (I am staunchly behind equal rights for women, but I can’t quite get my head around that.) Then, I think: What if I don’t show up next year and Elsa, Ulya, Charlotte, Zuza, Amelia, Bodin, Rav, Baby Zinnia and the others do, expecting…? The pique is gone, my head is clear. They’re all the thanks I require.

© 2013 Robert Knightly

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tales of Creation, Not Murder

Feeling overwhelmed by all the tributes to Haute Cuisine by my colleagues here and on Jungle Red, I took a look at some old friends, Fannie, Pierre, Craig et co.…

Saw them as they really are: not utensils, like pots and pans, but as Books! Stars! Celebrities. On TV and the Big Screen. Lauded by eminent authors in the Grey Lady. The eminences grises of the culinary world!

I opened my ancient Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Merritt Farmer (as of 1935—1,686,000 copies sold) and selected a few lines to share with you!

"With the progress of knowledge the needs of the human body have not been forgotten... the time is not far distant when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one's education."

"A flavor should appear only once on a menu."

"Nothing adds more to the attractiveness of a table than a sense of space."

"Certain foods possess health-giving factors, although other foods of nearly identical chemical composition do not possess them."

"A cupful of liquid is all the cup will hold."

"Baking is cooking in an oven."

"Tea is used by more than half the human race."

"Coffee made with an egg has a rich flavor which egg alone can give. Many use a pinch of salt to bring out the flavor of the coffee."

"Cold water, being heavier than hot water, sinks to the bottom, carrying grounds with it."

"To cook pancakes, heat griddle or frying pan; grease or rub over with a cut turnip."

"To stir, hold the spoon upright and move it in wider and wider circles until all is blended." (Sounds like a dance routine!)

" To split a live lobster—cross large claws and hold firmly with left hand. With sharp pointed knife, held in right hand, begin at the mouth and make a deep incision and with a sharp cut draw the knife quickly through body and entire length of tail."

N.B. Here I drew the line and turned to Pierre Franey!

"Most of the first rate chefs I've known are gentle and meek. They like to ski and dance and make love."

"Some things are made for each other, like Moet and Chandon, Lea and Perrins and Crosse and Blackwell."

"The time to start to cook is before you start to cook."

"In kitchens, as elsewhere, the motto is—don't do as I do; do as I say!"

Another delightful book I have read often is by Vogue columnist Henry McNulty—Drinking in Vogue!

Introduced to alcohol at age 3, when his parson father mixed the communion wine with water, he long associated alcohol with health and well-being.

"Alcohol relaxes the nerves and so a judicious quantity will improve most social occasions."

His skills go from Aperitifs to his affair with coffee in various forms. His style is charming and fun. Chapter titles include Whisky or Whiskey; Vodka - It's Wonderful!; The Bold Approach to Sherry Drinking; Champagne, Psychological Magic; A Liquid Form of Summer; and How to Be Happy But Temperate!.

His humor and grace are so contagious you may want to order this book for yourself or a dear friend!

Now, I've shared my little kitchen secrets with you… So, tell me who you turn to in your culinary flights of fancy and high cuisine!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Friday, December 27, 2013

Five Ways to Get Over a Really Bad Cold

I'm just about over a really bad cold, and as a public service I want to pass on to you the nuggets of wisdom I gained last week and the week before while coughing myself all to pieces.

1) See the doctor.

The doctor will check all those vital signs that are supposed to be ticking along in good order. The doctor will listen to your chest. The doctor will tell you if you have bronchitis, or asthma, or both, and prescribe drugs that will ultimately cause you to feel better. Maybe you have pneumonia. You would want to know that before you kill yourself running around. Do what the doctor tells you.

2) Stay home.

There is nothing noble in bravely soldiering on with a contagious disease. Dragging your germ-ridden body to work, infecting your friends, coughing and sneezing on your co-workers, is a bad idea. You're sick, for cat's sake. The world will get along just fine without you for a little while.

3) Take naps.

This is not to say, go to bed and stay there. You don't want to do that. It will give you pneumonia. (My sister told me so.) But take naps, get as much rest as you can, and when you do go to bed at night, prop up your head and shoulders on a foam wedge or a pile of pillows. It helps a lot with coughing. You might even get a full night's sleep.

4) Drink a lot of ice water.

I know, I know, you'd rather have whiskey. Or fruit juice. But, listen, you can't taste it anyway, so why not drink the very healthiest thing? It will loosen up your cough. It will wash away impurities (whatever they are). Fruit juice has a lot of sugar, which encourages germs to grow. Whiskey is better consumed when you can appreciate it.

5) Watch Fred Astaire movies.

You're scratching your head. What, you ask, will Fred Astaire do for my cold? Well, I'll tell you. When you're planted on the couch in front of the television, your lungs full of glue, your ass made out of cement, your feet nothing but dead distant lumps, Fred will model what it is to get up and move with energy and grace. Look at what he does with his hands. Couldn't you do that, if you tried really hard? Already you're sitting up straighter. Can your feet be far behind?

© 2013 Kate Gallison

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Lady Who Taught Me to Read

On the night table: Ten Second Staircase (Christopher Fowler)

I’m going to be unabashedly sentimental today. You are warned. 
Now, THIS is a reader's Christmas tree.
Courtesy Meredith Cole

I began learning to read when I was barely 4, which was unusual when I was a kid. When my sister, Barbara, went to kindergarten, she decided to take me with her. Just like that. Don't try to get between my sister and what she's set her mind to do.

She sat me next to her, and helped me with the exercises. She made sure I got a sticker star the same as she did, even when my attempts at printing letters were, well, free-form. At home, she would play teacher and read from her Dick & Jane reader, pointing out the words to me as she went. When I got sick, she'd sit by my bed and read to me. When she got sick, she’d listen to me while I sat with a book in my lap and made up stories because I couldn’t yet read all the words. But I knew there were stories in there, stories better than I was making up, because she'd read them to me. I knew they were there.  I wanted to be able to read them. 

Being able to read well got me through grade school, even though — with my dad in the army — we moved around a lot.

Barbara got me through high school. I firmly believe that. I became almost pathologically shy and found constant excuses to stay home. I never read the literature assignments. While the rest of the class was reading Wuthering Heights or Silas Marner, and I was supposed to be doing the same, I read Mary Stewart, John Steinbeck and Daphne du Maurier. (I was/am also certifiably stubborn.) Because the reading lists never changed year to year, Barbara could — and did — coach me for the tests. 

She loves grammar, and she taught it to me. She enjoyed diagramming sentences. Predicate nouns, adverbial clauses, genitive case, she taught them to me. She remembers that I wrote papers for her. I recall that I'd give her a couple of ideas, maybe an opening sentence. Meanwhile, I only passed English because of her. I was too busy reading books that weren't on the reading lists.

In a way, she’s responsible for my being published. An editor at McGraw-Hill was looking for someone to proofread an English-as-a-second-language project, to make sure there were no mistakes in the lessons.  She knew my sister through their church, and knew she was a grammar nut — uh, expert — and meticulous. Barbara was too busy at the time, running a theater company in New York City, and suggested Louise contact me, because she said I was almost as big an — uh — expert as her. I'd been laid off from my radio DJ job and had realized that, at my age, if I were going to stay in  New York, I'd have to find another line of work. I did. From McGraw-Hill, I went to another job, full time, as a copyeditor, then an editor, and that is where I met a woman who introduced me to my first agent. So, there you go.

Barbara is a drama teacher. She lives in what I consider my hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, where my family settled when my father retired from the army when I was 12. I lived there till I finished college.

My sister and brother-in-law, David (yes, we both married Davids), returned to Clarksville in the mid-1990s from New York City. They went back to care for my parents. My father had advanced Parkinson’s and my mom was trying to care for him on her own. 

When my father died, in 1996, they stayed on, to be with her. They made new lives for themselves. She as a teacher, he as a minister. Gradually my mother developed dementia, but was able to live on her own in her own house. Because of them.

So today, I’d like to say thank you to my brother-in-law. And especially to my sister.

The lady who taught me to read.

Photo credit: Shane Martin

Sheila York
Copyright 2013

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Support Your Local Library

This is going up on Christmas Day, but frequent readers of this blog know that for my last blog of the year, every year, I rerun this post with an appeal for support of the most benign and democratic institutions in the United States: Free Public Libraries.

This year I have a new story to add.  Since I wrote the post below two years ago, I have had the opportunity to research at the British Library.  I want to tell you what that took.

The libraries of the world line up like this. One: The Library of Congress in Washington.  Two: The British Library in London.  Three: The New York Public Library, where I get to go four five times a week.

Here is the drill if you want to research at The British Library.  First, you have to go on their website, which is dense with long paragraphs of information spread over many pages.  The information is arranged in the most arcane way: like books stored by the Dewey Decimal system--according to rules understood only by licensed librarians.  If you are really determined, you will be able to find and fill out the application form.  Once you have submitted a properly completed form, you see the list of acceptable forms of identification and are told you will need to present two of them when you arrive at the library.  Also displayed for you is your personal applicant ID number.

The British Library
On the day you arrive for the first time, you are directed to a special room, where you enter your ID number in the computer system and then wait.  Eventually you are called by that ID number to be interviewed.  A very friendly, in my case, person will ask you to explain what of their collection you want to see and why.  I have no idea of the criteria they use to judge your worthiness.  All I know is that I passed muster to read in their Africa and Asia Room.  They give me a special British Library photo ID.

If you survive the above, you go to the cloak room in the basement, where you give up all your wordily possessions except for your computer, pencils (NO PENS), and your notebook.  You put those three things, and nothing else in a clear plastic bag.  You then can take the elevator to the reading room you have designated.  There a guard will check your ID and your clear plastic bag.  Then and only then you can read a book.

I don't resent this.  It is a privilege to be able to read their books, and they have a right to require whatever they want of the people they allow in.

But in the NYPL, in public libraries all over the the USA, if you want to read a book, all you have to do is ask for it.

Trotsky said the New York Public Library was the most democratic place on earth.  Just saying'.

Here is my annual appeal for your support.  And your admiration.  For places I consider sacred.

The "Liberry"

My Brother and Me
The Paterson (NJ) Public Library saved my life. I would have grown up somehow if I could not have read its books as a child, but I would not have grown up to be me. Even before my brother and I learned to pronounce it, we loved to go. We went at least once a week in the summer. Our mother took us to our local branch, about a twenty minute walk from home, a simple storefront filled with hundreds of books and staffed by two of the nicest ladies ever. Mommy got books for herself and my brother and I chose from the children’s section. He had a weird taste for books about snakes, guns, and tanks—a bother since we were allowed only three books at a time. When I finished reading mine, I was stuck with his questionable selections until the next trip. As long as we were still in elementary school, the rules allowed us only children’s books, but since I was voracious, there was soon nothing left for children that I hadn’t read. So as a seventh grader, the librarians allowed me to select biographies (but never fiction) from the adult section.
Paterson Public Library

During the summer, between grades seven and eight, I took to going with my friend Dolores to the main branch, a bus ride away. It was much grander than our local storefront. Here is a picture of it—a building designed by Henry Bacon, who subsequently designed the Lincoln Memorial. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was one of the most elegant places we had ever seen. Only churches and the Paterson City Hall compared with it. Even in the big library, however, we were not allowed grown-up books, except for biographies. Why the librarians thought that the lives of real people would be more edifying than those of fictional characters is beyond me now, but in those days we just took what we could get. Consequently, I read the lives of Fred Allen, William Randolph Hearst, and Lunt and Fontaine, among many others—lives of people who lived large, an idea one could hardly get a whiff of in our working class neighborhood.

New York Public Library
Now I am privileged to do my research at the Main Branch—the Stephen Schwarzman Building—of the New York Public Library, a marble temple of knowledge that can tell you anything you want to know and will tell it to you no matter who you are. That’s the thing about free public libraries—we have them here in US, but they do not exist everywhere.

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale
di Firennze

 An Italian friend who was living here in New York was amazed when she found out how egalitarian our library is. We went together to do research one day. She is from Florence, home to one of great libraries of the world: The Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. It is massive and beautiful. And like libraries everywhere has on staff some of the most devoted employees anywhere. When the floodwaters were rising in 1966, one of them, a woman, stayed until the last possible moment, moving priceless treasures from the lower floors to the upper ones. When it was too late to continue, she escaped over the rooftops, carrying Galileo’s telescope. That library is fabulous, but unlike ours, you can’t just walk in. You have to have credentials to get through the door.

Map Division
Not so at the New York Public Library. My friend and I walked into the Main Branch one day along with scores of others seeking all kinds of information. She wanted to know the New York City and New York State laws governing the manufacture of foods containing dairy products. I wanted a map of Paraguay in 1868. We both found what we wanted: she in the main reading room, and I in the Map Division. Where else in the world can you do that? And get the help of kind and knowledgeable people to do it efficiently. It’s amazing.

Main Reading Room

And it is gorgeous, is it not?

Your library needs you. You may not even go there yourself, but the library deserves your support. PLEASE, give a donation to your local public library. You can probably give online in a couple of minutes. There are kids in your town who need the library, for whom it will open vistas that will change their lives.

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Reading to Diana

When my phone rang some weeks ago and I heard my friend, Diana, say, “I was just thinking of all those books and articles about apartheid you read to me,” I knew Nelson Mandela had died. I read the books to her because she is blind and it seemed to take forever for some titles to make it onto Library for the Blind cassettes.

But it was Diana who made apartheid something more than a problem that happened “over there” or the foreign policy concern that the Reagan administration met with “constructive engagement.” I read Donald Woods’ Biko and Asking for Trouble because she suggested them. I read Joseph Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow and Breyten Breytenbach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist to her because I could get my hands on them quickly. We also worked our way through articles about other movement figures like Joe Slovo and Ruth First. It made the horror more personal somehow and I remember our shared sadness when Donald Woods died.

For a number of years Diana and I lived next door to each other at Coles House and we clicked in the way that only readers can when we discovered a mutual love of all sorts of books. We started our shared reading with Gary Kinder’s Victim: The Other Side of Murder which, as its title suggests, looks at long term effects of a crime on victims and their families. The book was horrifying but very well written and I discovered how wonderful reading to someone could be. Rather than just recommending a book to a friend, I could read it to her and we could enjoy it at the same time. It was fabulous.

We had a weekly Sunday reading ritual that centered on the Sunday New York Times. We would skip the formal Coles House breakfast and Diana would bring back the paper, 4 large coffees and 4 donuts. Fueled on caffeine and sugar we began our reading in high spirits no matter how bad the news. We lingered over the Book Review, the Magazine and any especially unusual obituaries.

At Christmas time, the reading of the New York Times included a close perusal of the The Neediest Cases, an appeal to Times’ readers to give money to a number of social service agencies that supported vulnerable populations within the city. Today the profiles of families appear on a daily basis and there is a photograph of the family and the accompanying story suggests that no matter how deeply needy these people might be, there is hope that their lot will improve.

This is an honorable approach, but years ago, the neediest cases were presented in somewhat starker fashion. There was a whole section of the paper devoted to the needy. Illustrations were black and white pen and ink drawings and the stories that accompanied them were Dickensian in both detail and misery. I don’t remember if the writing was good or tinged with purple but the stories were amazingly compelling. Diana and I were riveted to every word.

Diana and I each left Coles House and, for a time, lived on separate floors of the same apartment building. So we continued The Times readings and I would read her things as they struck my fancy. It was at another Christmas that I read A Prayer for Owen Meany. As you will recall, it has a compelling opening line:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

I will confess that I usually avoid novels with religious themes but I loved that line and shared it immediately with Diana. Though I do little acting when I read, this book did compel me to come up with an Owen Meany voice, which I can still produce though years have passed. I didn’t read the whole novel to Diana but I read her large sections and we enjoyed his comments about Christmas carols (“‘Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying. VERY Christmasy’”), his defense of Liberace (“‘Well, he was very good to George’”) and his portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Future—a performance so chilling that one of his classmates wets her pants. It’s not a book that either of us can read every year—the ending is very sad. But we remember that reading as a kind of milestone of our friendship and always talk about it at Christmas time.

Diana and live about 15 minutes from each other now. I still read to her occasionally but certainly not as much as I once did. Modern technology gives her many different ways to find the books she wants. But the intimacy of reading aloud has given our friendship a sort of literary history that no technology can replace.

© 2013 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas in Gallisonland, Part Two

Christmas mailings.

Folks, I am so old that not only do I remember when you could send out a Christmas card for three cents, but I remember the postman coming to the door with a package on Christmas day. Yes, a delivery from the United States Postal Service on Christmas day. It was a box from my great-aunt Billie in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Ten dollars in import duties had to be forked over before we could have it. When we opened it the box contained a Mister Potato Head and a few other trifles. But it was good to be remembered. Billie always did her best to keep Christmas.

And so do I. When I was a teen-ager at home, that meant helping my mother prepare the gifts to be mailed to the many relatives in Canada and Maine. She sold me on the idea that I was the most creative one at wrapping packages, although her own favorite wrapping, that which her presents had come wrapped in when she was a child, was white tissue paper, Christmas stickers, and ribbon. Most of you have probably never seen those stickers, it strikes me. They were printed with Santa faces and angels and things. You had to lick them. They tasted bad.

My style of package-wrapping in those days was to study the Ladies' Home Journal for the latest in wrapping styles and then big-deal my mother into buying fancy ribbon and shiny paper, carefully color-coordiated, which would be all used up in the distant relatives' presents before we got around to the immediate family, so that what we had under our own tree was often quite plain. I grew skilled at curling that new curlable ribbon with the edge of a table knife. I was never any good at tying bows, no matter what my mother said. Everything had to be in the mail by December tenth, I think it was, or maybe it was the fifteenth. One was required to wrap international packages in brown paper and tie them with string, so that bureaucratic customs tags might be attached.

The Christmas season ran on a very strict schedule in those days: the sending of cards, the buying, wrapping, and mailing of gifts, the baking of cookies, the decorating of the house, the putting up of the tree, the hanging of ornaments, the putting-together of toys late, late on Christmas Eve. Maybe it still does, for many people. In our house, not so much anymore. I'm always behindhand with the cards, partly out of a terror of having them returned "address unknown" or "deceased." The old beloved Canadian relatives have all died off, although thanks be to God I have new ones. The children are grown and gone. No late-night toy assembly. We have no fireplace in our little cardboard row house, so there's no place for Christmas candles. Poinsettias and massive swags of Christmas greens bring on my asthma. There are no free flat surfaces to display the creche.

Still I do my best to keep Christmas. This year I had all the presents rounded up by December seventh. On the tenth I began coughing and wheezing, but we put up a tree just the same, a nice big live tree, fragrant. I got kind of tired after hanging half the ornaments, but it looks just fine like it is. On the thirteenth I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with acute bronchitis and prescribed a number of drugs. By the seventeenth I felt worse. I made an afternoon appointment to go back to the doctor. "Maybe I have pneumonia," I thought to myself. "Maybe she'll send me to the hospital. Maybe I'll even die there. I'd better get this box of presents off to John." My youngest son is in Olympia, Washington, half a world away. I wrapped the presents hastily and carried the box across the street to the Post Office.

The freight was forty-three dollars because the package was big, though light. I could have done better by putting it in the car and taking it to the UPS Store across the river but I was too sick to make the trip, so off it went. Harold drove me to the doctor and sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half while the health care professionals gave me breathing treatments to quiet the noises in my chest enough so that they could tell by listening whether or not my lungs were involved. A terrible snowstorm was falling by the time we headed up to the hospital to get my chest X-rayed, turning a normal journey of twenty minutes into something much longer and more unpleasant. But, hurray! I didn't have pneumonia.

We picked up some more drugs and arrived home in time to cobble together a late dinner. As I was taking the second bite I suddenly realized I had sent John's package to the wrong address. Instead of saying such-and-such a street, NE, I had written SE. Or it might have been the other way around.

What a dunce! I had ruined everything! Half a world away the evil clowns of the United States Postal Service, chuckling, would cast my carefully-selected gifts into the dead letter office, or worse, onto the porch of some strange lowlife on the other side of town who would sell them for drugs. Christmas was ruined. It was all my fault. I took a pill and coughed.

Last night John called to tell me the package had arrived. God bless the Post Office, those sweet angels. I can keep my Christmas in peace now. You'll be happy to know that I'm feeling a lot better, and Merry Christmas to you, too.

© 2013 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Christmas Gift from Kurt Vonnegut

What can I say about Christmas?  Not much that hasn’t been said better by many. What can I say about writing?  No much.  But I wanted today’s blog to be about one or the other.   I was stymied.  But you never know when help is going to drop into your lap.

On Monday, a friend on Facebook asked me specifically and publicly a question that has been making the rounds: Name ten books that have stayed with you.  Because I love the friend who asked, I had to answer.  Others on his list of respondents, spoke eloquently of the trouble they had choosing the right books to list.  I was not inclined to soul search over the question.   Examining my soul when it comes to books would be too intense a task.  You see, I am profligate, promiscuous when it comes to books.  I read five, seven at a time.  I take one to bed with me and stay up all night with it.   The next night I take another one, taste it, and give it a quick kiss-off.  I am insatiable.  I go back and spend many evenings enthralled with old loves.  They almost always satisfy in the same way they did when my love for them was new.  Sometimes, they are better than I remembered.

Okay, I am going to drop this salacious subtext now and get on with my main point.

For my ten books, I merely made a FAST list, thinking of books that I talk about often in the course of year’s conversations.  When I got to ten, I stopped.   I did not rethink.  Here is my list, for what it’s worth:

"Persuasion" by Jane Austen
"Katherine" by Anya Seton
"Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame
"The Sirens of Titan" by Kurt Vonnegut
"Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare (if a play counts as a book)
"The Cater Street Hangman" by Ann Perry
"Ragtime" E.L Doctorow
"Il Gatopardo" (The Leopard) by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
"Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Tar Baby" by Toni Morrison

The one item on this list that gave me pause was Vonnegut’s.  I have all his books, have read every word of his I could get my hands on.  My feelings for the man border on worship.  The book I listed was the first I read.  It is not his best.  Not nearly.  But my instructions included the phrase “stuck with you” and The Sirens of Titan is the one I talk about most—so many fabulous characters, images, observations on the human condition.

So where is the Christmas gift, you may well ask.

Here it comes.

Many years ago, the International Paper Company ran a series of two-page-spread ads where they asked famous and brilliant people to expound on an interesting topic.  (Advertisers used to do stuff like that, in the good old days.)  They ran one called “How to Write with Style” by Kurt Vonnegut.  When I was teaching writing to corporate types, I used to order reprints, made available free of charge, that I handed out to my students.  At the bottom, the ad said, “Printed in U.S. on International Paper Company’s Springhill Offset, basis 6-lb.”  I have kept a copy in my files for years.  I have to say: the paper stock held up.

I don’t have permission to reproduce it here, but I will give you Vonnegut’s rules, if not all his words:
  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Don’t ramble on, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have the guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean to say
  7. Pity the readers
  8. For really detailed advice 

Number 8 is followed by a recommendation to read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

In between the rules, are the wonderful words, written in Vonnegut’s brilliant style. I will gladly give you a copy of the two pages as my gift to you.  All you have to do is go to my website and send me your mailing address.  You will get your gift by return mail.

Merry Christmas.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, December 16, 2013

Quitters, Take Heart!

I noticed in Sunday’s paper (in the Sports section, which I routinely toss without reading unless there’s mention of Saratoga horseracing) a commentary on a U. Albany basketball player. The headline caught my eye: “There’s no Quit in this Player.” It went on to predict success in medical school, a wealthy practice afterward, and all manner of deserved manna—apparently because he worked out on weights in the gym to get stronger in his senior year, which the coach prescribed while not believing that his player would. Consequently, the player got stronger and better and, in the view of the columnist, was guaranteed success for life.

Made me think back on all the times I quit in my life and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t. One time, in particular, sticks in my mind. I was reminded of it some years ago at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Party at the John J. Smolensky Democratic Club snug in the bosom of Polish Greenpoint. What was an Irishman doing in a Polish Club on that day? Well, my favorite bartender, Ronnie Zelichowski, asked me to come to show support for his Uncle Charlie who was footing the bill and running for District Leader (Ward Boss, in the vernacular). And it couldn’t hurt for a lowly beat cop like myself to rub elbows with a Man of Respect. As I stood at the Bar drinking a beer and showing support, the guy next to me in work clothes that cried house painter, said, out of the blue: “I remember you. The St. Anthony’s track meet in McCarran’s Park.“

First off, I don’t like some stranger saying he remembers me, just like that. Makes me anticipate the worst. Call me paranoid, maybe it’s my line of work, but in my experience, the next sentence will be something I don’t want to hear or I’ll be reaching for my off-duty piece. I faced him and looked for a threat but saw none. “You were the anchor in the 440 for St. Anthony’s,” he continued. “You had it won but you stopped dead ten yards before the tape. Always wondered why you did that?”

That was twenty years ago, and he remembered me. I hadn’t thought about that day in a very long time, no surprise there. The school had staged intramural races so the coach could look over local talent. I’d been picked to run last—‘anchor’—in the 440-yard dash. I was fast and I guess somebody’d heard. I was in the lead for the entire lap, my three teammates having been fast enough to put me there, and I was increasing the distance between me and the baying pack. My memories are like flash cards in my head: people lined up on both sides of the cinder track; no tape to break, signalling the end; I’m wearing dungarees (kids didn’t wear ‘jeans’ in my day) and I’m gasping to catch a breath. “Who remembers?” I say with a shrug as I move away from my interrogator.

No more track-and-field, but I played basketball, a ‘guard’ on the Junior Varsity (JV) team for St. Anthony’s Juniorate, the religious high school among the potato fields on the North Shore of Long Island; it turned out Franciscan Brothers to teach in the Catholic schools in the blue collar neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In my Freshman and Sophmore years, we played some of the powerhouse Catholic schools on the Island, like Chaminade High. We didn’t have a ‘deep bench’ (sportswriter lingo) because we were just thirty boys in the entire school, aged 12 through 18. I suppose there weren’t enough of us to be a ‘Varsity’. Our high scorer was Tom Pryor, a Junior, who was a terrific ball-handler, and Joe Rogus, from well-to-do Chappaqua, who had a great jump shot and polio, and “Skippy” Herbert, quick as a snake. We had three big men inside, Frank DiNapoli, Tom Carlin and our center, Geordie Doran. Must be true about the persistence of old memory versus the fleeting nature of the recent. How else explain instantly recalling the names and faces of boys I knew sixty years ago when face-to-face I forget the names of lawyers I’ve worked with off-and-on in the past year?

From ages 12 to 14, I loved basketball: the playing of it, not the cheering for home teams, except the Juniorate, of course. Problem was I dribbled the basketball like a drunk staggering home (maybe I exaggerate a little). I got in games infrequently, usually to substitute for one of the regulars when he fouled out. But I was on the bench, suited up for every game; I liked watching, more than playing myself. Yet when Brother Linus, our coach, would point and bark: “Knightly, in for Skippy!” (or whomever), my heart was in my mouth; I could taste the anxiety, the fear, whatever you choose to call it, but I’d rush on the court and take the ball out-of-bounds and head up Court towards the opponent’s basket. Linus kept me on the team despite my lack of skill in moving the ball because I was a scrambler. We numbered fifteen men. I wasn’t tall enough to play the Forward position under the Boards, but I would manage to get in close and jump against the six-footers for the balls rebounding off the backboard or the rim of the basket. And occasionally I’d wrest the ball away from an opponent. I could jump surprisingly high for a mere five-feet-eight, and felt a wild joy from the body contact and elbow-throwing in the melee under the baskets.

I will always remember my best game; it was against Kings Park High, from the next town over. Linus had put me in near the end of the First Half for an injured Skippy. As I moved the ball towards Center Court, I saw him on the sidelines making frantic T-signs which means: Call Time Out. Instead, I flung the ball one-handed and high at the opponent’s basket down Court as the final seconds ticked off. Dumbfounded, I stopped at Half-Court as the ball swished through the basket a second before the buzzer sounded, ending the first-half to the roar of the crowd. Nice. But something even better occurred later as I was back on the bench with a teammate who whispered to me that he’d heard a young girl in the stands behind us yell at the very moment I was taking the shot: “Look! He runs like a gazelle!” Of course, I looked for her in vain. And as I look back, I believe my persistent AWOLs sneaking into the Town of Kings Park were in search of The Girl. Soon enough, I was expelled as lacking a religious vocation. Right;: at 14, I was spared from a fate worse than death (the Vow of Chastity).

Later on, I quit on other occasions: jobs, people, places (some with regret, most not). But I‘ve come to regard them as so many Life Course Corrections to get back on The Path.

© 2013 Robert Knightly

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mandela… Belongs to the Ages… R.I.P.

Today the global spotlight shines on the memorial service of a man called "Madiba," a revered statesman and anti-apartheid leader.

Countless heads of state gather in Johannesburg, including four U.S. Presidents and twenty-six U.S. lawmakers.

Nelson Mandela will be buried in his home village of Qunu, surrounded by aloe plants.

Kashmir declared 5 days of mourning; Iran named a street after him.

He once said, "There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered."

He was born Rolihlahla Mandela, in Mvezo, in the hills of Transkei, South Africa, to a father named Gadia Henry Mphakanyiswa, a chief of the royal Thembu people, a subdivision of the Xhosa nation.

Called "the Black Pimpernel," he was imprisoned at age 44, released at age 71, from Robben Island, where dust from the limestone quarry glued shut his tear ducts.

As President, he lived in a modest house in Johannesburg, where he made his own bed.

In February, 1955, two thousand policemen of Johannesburg forcefully removed the black families of the section called Sophiatown, which was then flattened and removed from maps.

Nelson Mandela played a vital role in the resistance. Images of Sophiatown can be found in novels by Nadine Gordimer.

Here is a poem I wrote in 1955 on that terrible crime…

<hr />

the dark men ... Johannesburg, 1955

ubiquitous the name of fear stands now
around the trembling hungry heads of black
where pole must cross with pole and match
the color demarcation of the soul.

black heads, black bones, black blood.
terror falls upon the ground.

how many worlds are siphoned from the one
where leprous skin more touchable than black
erupts amid the slumber deep and calm
and daylight ultimately marks the night?

black hearts, black minds, black souls.
devils haste to fell the eden trunk.

the whirling asteroids are lost within the maze
of stars yet coming in the dream; the souls
of new gigantic worlds repel the light and bow
obediently, humbly in the heat.

black cross, black tomb, black dawn.
sky reveals the multi-prismed light.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas in Gallisonland, Part One

Time for the annual contemplation of Christmases past.

Today we revisit the days when I used to work as a seasonal employee in various retail establishments. My very first job (other than babysitting) was selling glassware in a big variety store in Plainfield, New Jersey. The high school employment office arranged it. The tedium of the work experience kind of got to me, the music they played all the time over and over, not just Christmas stuff but pop music that couldn't bear quite as much repetition as we were forced to suffer. I can't hear The Great Pretender without smelling brown wrapping paper and store dust. Oh, oh, oh, yesss, I'm the great, prete-enderrr

Getting paid was excellent, though. I spent all my pay on presents, a pink sweater for my sister, a necklace of gold-colored beads for my mother, although my father warned me that I should get in the habit of saving it. My supervisor, a fusty old lady, used to be mildly annoying, but she gave me a handkerchief with purple flowers on it on my last day at work. I still have that handkerchief. It's strange what sticks to you and what slips away.

One thing I wish I still had was the training package issued by John Wanamaker's in Philadelphia the year I worked in their ribbon and button department, right under the famous Eagle. Three mimeographed sheets of do's and don'ts. Even the seasonal employees went through two days of training before they were allowed on the floor. They taught us to be classy sales clerks. Each morning just before the store opened we stood at our stations while the store chimes played a little tune, almost like the company song that everyone stands and sings in the Japanese factories.

Esprit de corps. We knew we were Wanamaker's clerks, there to serve the customers with as much intelligence and good humor as we could muster. Every day there was a concert of Christmas music on the famous Wanamaker organ, right over our heads, and huge crowds would jam the aisles so that we didn't even have to do any work, since the customers couldn't get to us through the crush. The music was a far cry from The Great Pretender.

Some years later I found myself, a young married person, selling toys in a now-defunct department store in Trenton. I fell desperately in love with a Madame Alexander baby doll they had for sale, so life-like, but at thirty dollars it was out of my price range. What I actually wanted, deep down, was a real baby, but that's a story for another day.

The fun of that job was finding just the right toy for fond parents and grandparents to buy for the little ones. Or it would have been, if the little ones hadn't been clamoring for a lot of dispiriting plastic crap they had seen on television. "I can make a better dressing table than this in my workshop," one father complained. "Don't you think she would like it just as well?" In thirty years, yes, when you're in your grave and she looks back on the work of your hands and all you did for her. Right now, though, she expects the overpriced Paint-me-Pretty pink plastic dressing table to be waiting under the tree on Christmas morning.

I had kind of a crush on the man in charge of the toy department, a good-looking guy in beautifully tailored suits, the son of the owners. Nothing like my feelings for the Madame Alexander doll, but still it made my heart beat a little faster when he gathered the salesgirls together on Christmas Eve and put his arms around us all. Until he gave his Christmas Eve speech.

"All right, girls," he said. "This is it. Christmas Eve. Anyone who comes in looking for toys will be desperate. They'll buy anything. This is our chance to get rid of all the dreck. Get out there and sell."

© 2013 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Museums are Great Places to Find Ideas for Mysteries

Mary Coley has written a suspenseful book that harks back to a frightening time in the lives of the Osage Indians. In 1906 the Osage Allotment Act decreed that "all persons enrolled as Osage before January 1,1906, and all born between then and July 1, 1907," would share in the division of the land and resources, including the abundant petroleum. When the roll was closed in 1907, 1,119 names were listed. These people became enormously wealthy when the oil boom struck in 1920. They became targets for greedy white men who killed many of them for their headrights. These killings, most never solved, throw a shadow over Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to this very day. Mary Coley invites you into that world of mystery and intrigue in Cobwebs—A Suspense Novel, now available at online book sellers. Enjoy the thrills, and remember—this cold case is still open. Learn more about Mary Coley at

Kate Gallison

Want a good idea for a mystery? Try watching the travel TV series “Mysteries in the Museum”. Talk about great ideas! I found the idea for my book, Cobwebs—A Suspense Novel, in the Osage County Historical Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Few people have ever heard of Pawhuska, the tribal capital of the Osage Nation. The Osage people were relocated to the wild, rugged forests and prairies of northern Oklahoma in the 1850s. Savvy tribal negotiators who signed the treaties with the U.S. Government for the reservation demanded the tribe be given all rights to their reservation, both above and below the surface. Then, in the early 1900s, when incredibly rich oil and gas fields were discovered in Osage County by oil speculators (including the founders of Phillips 66 Petroleum) the wealth of the Osage Nation was guaranteed.

But this wealth resulted in tragedy; more than a dozen Osage were murdered. Many others disappeared. The tribe pleaded with the government to investigate and a new federal agency was created. Eventually this agency was named the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The investigation resulted in two convictions. Decades later the Oklahoma governor pardoned and released one of them. The deaths and disappearances of numerous tribal members were never resolved. Most people in Osage County agree—justice was not served.

Books have been written about the events of that tumultuous time known as the Reign of Terror. Many families never knew the fate of their relatives. A question cried out to the mystery lover in me, what if MY ancestors were Osages, and lived in Osage county at that time? What if MY relative had disappeared, or died under mysterious circumstances never associated with this Reign of Terror?

The idea intrigued me. I haunted the Osage County museums, staring at sepia-tone photographs of Tribal members and gazing at display cases full of colorful Native American dress. The story crept into my mind.

As I learned about this bit of Oklahoma history and discovered I carried Native American blood in my veins, the story embedded itself in my psyche and cried out to be told.

The book, Cobwebs—A Suspense Novel, became reality.

But the questions evoked by my visits to those museums still linger. What really happened to those missing Osage people? How did they die, and who killed them? These 90-year old cases may never be solved.

So—looking for ideas? You may have to look no farther than your local history museum.

Mary Coley

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Murder at Christmas

So while Sheila is deciding what movies to watch around the holidays, I’m looking for a Christmas mystery. I remember them being rather hard to find, but no more. Indeed, Anne Perry has produced a Christmas mystery every year since 2003.

I start reading mysteries after Thanksgiving dinner and stop on New Year’s Eve when I select my first read of the coming year. My additions this year are both Otto Penzler anthologies: Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop which I picked up on a recent visit to New York City and The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. I think short stories work very well for the holiday season when there are so many distractions around.

Favorites from years past are:

Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer (1941). Yes, I am a sucker for an English country house mystery, especially when everyone is incredibly witty and forced to deal with each other because of an inconvenient snowstorm. The irritatingly cheerful do battle with the chronically irritable and we get to watch it all.

Maigret’s Christmas by Georges Simenon (1951). I love the Maigret novels. I yearn to have a job that includes going to bars and cafes, interrogating people (every effective social worker is curious with intent) and sipping Calvados. This collection of nine short stories is not exclusively devoted to Christmas. Maigret’s Christmas is a novella in which there is a sighting of Santa in an apartment across the street from Maigret and we also get a peek at his marriage to the estimable Madame Maigret.

Upon Some Midnights Clear by K.C. Constantine (1985). There is a story behind my affection for this book. I took a business trip to a medical conference in Boston. My boss, not known for his tact, flashed a fancy invitation to a party in front of my eyes and said, “You’re not invited.” What I’m sure he meant to say was “I’m sorry I can’t invite you to this, but I’ve already invited Mary and I can only have one guest.”

My colleague Mary was a splendid person and when I said I would feel better about the whole thing if I could go to Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge she and I set out in wind and rain to find it. I picked up (among other things) Upon Some Midnights Clear.

Mario Balzic, chief of police, in the chronically depressed town of Rocksburg, PA must deal with an old lady who says that she was robbed of her Christmas Club money. The person she insists robbed her insists he didn’t. The chief of the volunteer firefighters is quite upset about this and begins collecting money for the woman. Balzic begins to find the whole thing very fishy. I loved Musconi’s, the local bar, and Balzic’s family. I forgot all about the party and discovered a book that I now read every year.

Poison to Purge Melancholy by Elena Santangelo (2006). Now, first I love the title. I don’t know if Rayanne Culpepper would think it was effective, but it certainly caught my eye. I am usually not much for the supernatural in my murder mysteries, but I make an exception here as Santangelo does such a great job of linking crimes past to crimes present. The setting here is Christmas spent in lovely colonial Williamsburg under less than lovely circumstances. Pat Montella and Miss Maggie never disappoint. One warning: you should never read one of these mysteries while hungry, the descriptions of food are amazing!

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley (2011). This is one of the wonderful Flavia DeLuce mysteries. Set in the 1950s they feature a very clever and resourceful 11 year old chemist who lives with her family on a rundown estate. In this installment Flavia is developing a sticky concoction to spread on the chimney to see if she can capture St. Nick. Meanwhile, her father, all too aware of how little money he has allows a movie crew to film on the estate. This is a variation on the country house mystery and not to be missed.

If you have a holiday mystery that you’re dying to talk about, go ahead!

Stephanie Patterson