May 29, 2015

I Don't Know What to Call this Post--Interesting?

C.K. Scott Moncrief, in July 1903, was 13, taking the THREE-DAY entrance exams for Winchester, the most scholarly of the English PUBLIC schools, and he was asked, among other questions, to translate eight lines from the 15th book of Ovid's "Metamorphoses." He did. His translation was judged far and away the best, and Walter Kaiser, reviewing a biography of Moncrief in TNYRB (June 4, 2015), writes, "Only a boy extraordinarily sensitive to the rhythms of language, who had not only remembered but responded to English poetry and the syntactical splendors of the King James Bible, could have composed this passage...the astutely ingenious, poetic use of language for which he is celebrated in his great translation of Proust was his from an early age."

I mean, come on! Can you believe it? You have to, because it's true. And it's also true that, as Kaiser writes, "schoolboys of Scott Moncrief's PUBLIC school world spent a very great part of their days memorizing and translating." I suppose--well, I know, as do you--that our approach to education, public and private, has changed. And I know, too, because Kaiser goes on to tell me, that the English approach to education has also changed--for the worse, in my view, though I don't imagine everyone agrees.

Kaiser: There was a long tradition in England of tanslating from English into classical languages in order to master them. The scarcely believable final assignment--to translate the last act of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" into Greek tragic meter in the style of Aeschylus, which Kaiser's own English PUBLIC school education demanded of him--is a world that, Kaiser writes, "has disappeared."

OK. But let's go on. Moncrief was gay, yep, wouldn't you know. He was also, according to men who served with him in WWI, "the bravest man (we) ever saw." He rushed to enlist, was "adored" by his men, who noted that "his presence in the front line, under a severe strafe, imbued us with a strong feeling of safety and security." He was badly wounded in his leg by friendly fire, almost lost the leg, and limped from then on.

And then, to help support his nine nephews and nieces (which he did without complaint and very devotedly), he became a spy, though his career was not interesting or exciting. He moved to Italy for that job, and happened upon Italian versions of Pirandello. He did not know Italian and Kaiser tells us "we do not know how he acquired his Italian," other than he read newspapers...yet he suddenly told a friend, "I am going to translate the complete works of Pirandello, in 218 volumes; it will be very difficult, as I do not know any Italian." Yet, writes Kaiser, "his Italian (when the work was done) appears to have been almost perfect."

And his Proust? For the 20th century, it was THE Proust translation. Joseph Conrad thought his translation was preferable to Proust's original; Fitzgerald deemed it a masterpiece in itself; it was used by Joyce in "Finnegan's Wake;" it is the version that Virginia Woolf "found akin to a sexual experience."

He was clearly a "natural" when it came to languages, but more than that--and more than the performances even subsequent great translators, like Lydia Davis, can muster--Moncrief's guiding principal was "to write a line that you know the original author would approve." Kaiser writes that Moncrief was superior because he had a feel for rhythm, for the music of the languages, that these others really cannot match.

Pretty good, and quite impressive...Moncrief died at the age of 40 from cancer. He did all right without very much time to do it in.

May 26, 2015


The Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas rose 40 feet during the night Saturday late.  One set of friends were awakened by neighbors, took one look and climbed out the window to safety moments before their house left its foundation and floated away.  Another family is still missing.  They are the 8 people being searched for in the news.  The grandfather, our age, had both cars running, ready for the escape, while they were gathering up children when the house was pulled up and ripped away.  Grandparents, their daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter with another family of four with two small children.  One texted her sister saying, "we did not get out, are floating in the house in the river and are about to hit a bridge. Tell mama and daddy I love them."  Their dog was found clinging to the top of a tree the next day, their cars still running by the empty house foundation.  Our friends are gathering from Corpus to help search for their bodies.

Wimberley is now a small popular tourist town in the heart of Texas Hill Country, southwest of Austin and northeast of San Antonio - pretty and quiet with 100 year old cyprus trees - population of 2,500 and vacation homes along the river.  I went to a very rustic girls camp there when I was young, Rocky River Ranch.  I have fond memories.  Probably it is gone and certainly the town is gone.

This is not to take away from tragedy in Nepal, India, Afghanistan, from tornados and earthquakes, droughts and accidents, oil spills and war, but it is close to home.

The joys, the tragedies...

May 23, 2015

Rather Be Lucky than Good

Harold Bloom, the eminent literary scholar and critic--he's most often seen in the hot soup, following some opinion or theory or list he comes out with, or a book, one he seems to have written after considerable thought about what he might write that would make everyone mad--has published his list of the 12 greatest American authors. As you look through the names, just think about the names you do not find there. Here are the top dozen: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville ("a condor for a quill, Vesuvius for an inkwell"--man, what a great line!), Walt Whitman, Henry James (though Bloom notes that James is nowhere the equal of Tolstoy or Joyce), Mark Twain (only "Huckleberry Finn," none of the other work), Robert Frost (he could be mean, ambiguous toward women, but a great poet can be allowed those missteps), Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Hart Crane (I never think of Hart Crane, other than the sad fact of his having jumped off the back of a motor boat in the Hudson River, or some river Up There, when he was a young man = suicide, but Bloom links him thusly: Whitman, Crane, Shakespeare).

And those names he left out? Yep. Me, too.

Occasionally, I come across something that makes me drop to my knees and thank the ghost of Wilt Chamberlain that, even though I'm not good, I'm lucky. As in, most recently, an interview with Tatum O'Neal and her son (with John McEnroe, and I can't think of the son's name just now; starts with a K, probably Kenneth). O'Neal is the youngest Oscar-winner in history--"Paper Moon," in which, you will recall, she starred with her father, Ryan O'Neal, one of this world's biggest jerks. Since then, she's done little but self-destruct. Now, and since 2008, she, at age 51, is "clean," and she and this son, K, whom she lost to the courts at one point, visited with a reporter. O'Neal is trying to resume her acting career, and K has published a debut novel that, we read, is being highly praised. The novel is based on his grandmother's story (Tatum's mother), who was also an alcoholic and dope head. She was the actress Joanna Moore. The people in this family saga are all way out there, and addicts (other than John McEnroe, who, though Tatum says he's a decent person, is, she also has to say, uh, impossible to deal with, a driven, narcissistic maniac, yet both she and McEnroe will be at K's reading tonight at The Strand bookstore in NYC). K is also an addict. The day his novel was accepted for publication, he was in jail on a drug bust. He, too, we read, is now "clean." Anyway, I thought the following segment would pretty well sum up the whole deal:

Tatum: Probably the last time (she tried to work things out with her mother, when both were addicts and Tatum was just on the verge of losing her three children to McEnroe) was when I’d just left John [McEnroe] and was renting a house in Bridgehampton. I had three small kids. Kevin was 6 or 7. So I called my mother and said: “Can you come? I need you. But I need you to be sober. Do you promise?” She did. “I swear on my dead mama’s Bible,” she said. She was from Georgia. And things were going great. But one day, she’s making this bouillabaisse, and I could tell something was wrong. I always could. One of her fake eyelashes started peeling off. So I went to her bedroom and found 12 little bottles of vodka. She’d broken her promise to me for the 80 millionth time. I couldn’t fight anymore. So I drove her to the airport. We cried the whole way. And things just got worse and worse for her. (She went on and died at 63.)

And from that bit, and the rest of that sad tale, I take today's blog post title: I'd rather be lucky than good.

We joined the MFA program writers at The Little Church last evening for a reading and visit by and with Mary Ruefle, the poet, who now teaches in a "low residency" writing program up in Vermont, and says she is no longer interested in her young students, or at least not in what they are thinking, what's important to them, etc. She's around 60, and is very funny, very generous and open, and very accessible. I encourage you to get her "Madness, Rack and Honey," and see what you think. Ruefle, like every writer I've talked with, heard or seen, urges us to write the truth, as did a writer who is getting nearer and nearer to being my contemporary, or vice-versa--Plato, who preached--demanded--that a work must be cloaked in a raiment of truth. FYI. 

And this is from an interview Jonathen Lethem conducted with Vivian Gornick, who has a new memoir out, called "The Odd Woman," I think. Gornick is a very feisty (always has been) NYC native and non-fiction writer. Here, she tells Lethem that many readers and even critics do not understand her genre, "creative non-fiction." It so happens that creative non-fiction was the first of my classes in the Portland State MFA program, and a great class it was, too. (Taught by Tom Bissell, an excellent person and writer. Look him up.) It was, I admit, difficult for me to get past my belief and guiding principle, that everything in non-fiction must be absolutely true--the person quoted must have said exactly what is written, etc. Not so fast there, Jones. Were that the case, scratch, for one of many, Norman Mailer (Tom Wolfe, Geoff Dyer, Ryshard Kapuncinski, Vivian Gornick, on and on). Here is something Gornick said about creative non-fiction: "Still, I never identified anybody in anything I ever wrote by their real names or their real occupations. I was always at pains to disguise them for all the obvious reasons, and I always felt I had the right to do so.  After all, I’m  writing personally but I’m not transcribing, I’m composing. My allegiance is to the narrative. It always surprises me when this is not understood. Some years ago, at a public lecture, I casually said that in an episode in my memoir `Fierce Attachments' my mother hadn’t actually spoken the words I’d written for her and someone in the audience ran off, absurdly, to tell the world that I was lying. That represents a total misunderstanding of what this work does."

Further, discussing the great contribution her editor made in her work, she said she had taken his advice, thanked him profusely, but then went on without him, telling him, "Let's not make this another Raymond Carver-Gordon Lish event." I know you're aware of that "event," because I've written about it here before. Basically, the argument is, yes, Carver would have been Carver without Lish's editing vs. no, he would have been not very much. Here is what Lethem says about that subject:

" the case of Carver, it was clear that without Lish – it really was like a fairy-tale relationship, because without him, Carver was unremarkable. Later he published what he wrote without Lish and it was no good."

Carver, if nothing else, had tremendous luck and just as tremendous misfortune. I like my odds!

May 22, 2015

Indie Bookstores? Really?

In the Times, this morning, I read a story about Jeff Kinney, the author of the "Wimpy Kid" book and movie series--well, "phenomenon" is more like it. I don't have the story in front of me, so the numbers I publish here will be of the "give or take" variety, but "close enough" to give you the idea. Kinney made $20 million last year. That number is one example of "give or take."

I think Kinney was an Army brat. He grew up in or around D.C. He studied computers and criminal justice or something similar in college, thinking he'd work for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms = ATF, a rather muscle-oriented outfit (ask David Koresh and the Branch Davidians). But--carumba!--enter Good Fortune. Kinney was working at a tech publishing company or something like that. He had loved cartoons since he was a kid. He began drawing and writing his own--"The Wimpy Kid"--and his boss said why not publish it on the company website. He did, and, uh, how is life in Outer Space, Jeff?

He has now sold 150 million books, a couple movies are out, another in the works, another book coming, merchandise. In other words, Jeff Kinney is a big industry.

A dozen years ago, and for various reasons, he and his wife and two sons, ages (now) nine and 12, moved to Plainville, MA, 40 miles south of Boston--Plainville, a dead and rusting manufacturing town. Twelve years go by, Kinney travels the country, of course, and everywhere he goes he checks out the indie bookstore. Turns out, a few authors own indie bookstores--Ann Patchett, for one, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a few others. Patchett, in Nashville, made money from the start, even though she expected it to be a financial drain. They--and authors like James Patterson, who gave $1 million last year to a bunch of indie bookstores around the country, spreading the wealth--do have a vested interest, because more bookstores means more books sold, but the fact is, they love books and bookstores and even though they have profited from online sales, bricks and mortar stores, well, those authors, and merely regular folks, like Yours Very Truly, know real stores cannot be replaced in Virtual Reality.

For $300,000 Kinney bought a historical building in the middle of town that had long been vacant, an eyesore, though one the people there loved. His intent was to rehab it, but the building's core was rotten. He has built a sort of historically accurate replica of the old building (the picture with the story shows the building looking sort of like a big train depot).

The good news is that there are several hundred more indie bookstores open in the country now than there were just a few years back, and not all of the increase is thanks to booklovers with deep pockets, who don't expect to make a dime. There is an outfit that advises would-be indie bookstore owners about the "how to's" of the business, and part of the service provided is to decide whether or not a certain location will work. Plainville, that company said, would not be viable were it not for Jeff Kinney's notoriety. People will go to the store because they love "The Wimpy Kid" series. In fact, Kinney says he will be behind the cash register occasionally, or in the coffee shop, as well as in an on-site studio where people can watch him work.

We'll see how it goes. Let's wish him--and all the other big-hearted and bold adventurers--God Speed.

May 20, 2015


President Obama said this the other day:

Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States. Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.

Under his task force a group of environmental regulators have 180 days to come up with a strategy to protect the bees.  We visited Rose Lynn on Sunday for brunch with new friend, Mike, who is an expert on bees.  He builds bee houses, moves swarms, and is very interested and informed.  It is neonicotinoids that need to be completely banned.  Places like Lowe's and Walmart regularly use it on their plants before selling.  You bring your new goodies home, plant them, enjoy them and have no clue what the effect may be.

At Rose Lynn's on Sunday, we had a Bee101 lesson from Mike. Rose Lynn is our rescuer from the Hell Hole where we were trying to live in an Airbnb last year.  We left the Hell Hole and entered a dreamland, but you should see it now, and you will in a few minutes with pictures.  She is building a masterpiece, adding to what was already in her gardens, mulching, mulching, mulching, making pathways - it is gorgeous and huge and thick, and it is filled with bees and flowers and vegetables. The raspberry sticks she stuck in the ground out by the street just this time last year already are shoulder high and thick.

                                                Wood Peony
                                                            Bee Man, Mike, and Rose with her Peony


                         Digging in the dirt

                           Two Bee Hives

                            Foxglove and Rhodies

Now, on Rose Lynn's bees, one hive is absolutely thriving.  You can watch the bees enter with their hind quarters loaded with pollen.  You can see through the glass the combs loaded with honey and drones working away.  A beautiful working machine of wonder.  On the other hive, only a few bees entering and of them, only a few with pollen on their legs.  And all around the hive are dead bees 1/2 inch thick.   Either they did not accept the queen when the swarm from the other hive was moved or they got into some toxic pesticides.  Mike is bringing another swarm.

So we whole heartedly put colony collapse disorder up there in our concerns for the world.
Next up, how a common cat parasite gets into the human brain and affects human behavior.
And have you heard of triangulation, a psychology term, that seems to be growing in relationships where couples have problems and one of them refuses to allow the child to see the other.  Whew!!!

Learning, learning and more learning...
Saw an Estonian movie called "Tangerines."  Beautiful and lingering, as I always tend to say.  Set in 1992 during the Georgia and Chechnian conflicts after the Soviet Union disintegrated.  Two Estonian tangerine farmers stay to harvest their crop after everyone has fled.  One takes in two wounded soldiers from the opposite sides and helps them heal in his rough cabin.  The hatred, the love!

May 15, 2015


One of the up and coming hoods near us is a neighborhood rumored to be slated for high end development. Huge apartment, condo and commercial buildings are going up on corners of Williams Street, now filled with shops, restaurants, food carts, and coffee houses, with some remaining classic bungalow homes.  "STOP THE DEMOLITION OF OLD PORTLAND HOMES" say the signs around town.  One building under construction will be 8 stories high, 85 feet, which is the limit.  It will be made of whole compound solid 2 by 6 boards - not chipped up - to form a plywood like piece of wood.  They will be pressed together and will be as strong as reinforced concrete.  They are doing this in Europe.  This will be the first "skyscraper" built with this material in our country.  The building is small on footprint.  It will have 14 high end 1,500 square foot units, two units each floor with the bottom floor retail.  There will be 22 parking places for the 14 units.  In the parking garage, you will drive your car in, put it in park, take your keys with you, and your car will be moved to its slot on an automated conveyor belt, providing efficiency in space down there.

A small bungalow in another hood nearby went on the market.  It is 750 square feet, 2 tiny bedrooms, one bath, a tiny corner in kitchen for a tiny eating table where no more than two people could fit, no usable attic or basement, street parking and large back yard.  It sold in five days for $350,000, unless we later find out someone paid over the asking price, which is the norm.

Our friend, where we lived when we had to leave the "HELL HOLE" last spring, would like to find a companion after a divorce  5 years ago, from a 35 year marriage.   She has tried some online match making which has only given us all great laughs.  So she heard of Portland Singles and decided to give it a try.  She got dressed up, filled out all the paperwork, and then began her personal interview with the matchmaker.  At the end of the interview, a piece of paper was held up and the business woman said, "Which package looks most agreeable to you? $4,000 for 4 dates or $8,000 for 12 dates?"  Say what?

My walk to Whole Foods yesterday:

Lavender is everywhere

Fragrances galore

May 12, 2015

Magical Living

Another Oregon Symphony experience that thrilled.  Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances From West Side Story, followed by a piece composed by Roberto Sierra and played by guest saxophone soloist, James Carter, a young talent equally expressive on alto, tenor and baritone sax, but really sent me on soprano sax adding fuel to the fire.

Then American composer Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings famous for its ability to evoke profound sadness. The program said it has both moved and comforted many in mourning and is associated with the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, 9/11 and through the movie, Platoon, the deaths of Vietnam War.  It was gorgeous and went deep. In his later life, Barber came to regret that so much of his reputation rested on the Adagio.  There is a book by Thomas Lawson called The Saddest Music ever Written.  In it, Lawson says about Barber's Adagio, "After the lament took musical wing in 1936, it became an emotional albatross from which he was never free...Barber even forbade the Adagio from being played at his funeral, so that at least in death he would be free of it."

And finally, Christopher Rouse, a living Pulitzer prize-winning American composer, on the faculty of Juilliard, whose piece, Concerto for Orchestra was composed in 2008. It had been called a "boisterous, exhilarating concoction."  And it was exciting!  In an interview with the New York Philharmonic, Rouse stated, "I'm interested in writing music that grips people and that won't let them go.  That's why I never have movement breaks, in pieces with multiple movements; I always keep the music going because I don't want to let them go.  But the first thing I need to do is get their attention and then, I hope, take them on a journey in sound that they find is emotionally appealing to them, or at least meaningful."  This one was 27 minutes long with a huge number of instruments playing at the same time and ended the show with a "WOW!"

This Mother's Day adventure was preceded by a colorful uplifting brunch at a Cubano restaurant called "Pambiche."  With Cuban music and Spanish language floating all around us, we entered a colorful new experience in foods:  plantain omelette, croquetas, yucca (we are suppose to say YooKa) and Cafe Cubano con leche.  We did not order but next time maybe a  dish called Picadillo Comunista  which due to food rationing and meat shortages is a soy hash typical Cuban meal. I am color girl and this place was right up my alley.  And Michael met two tables of new friends and left the place skipping from conversation.

Bless all the little children, from all the mothers everywhere!