§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: December 2005

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Isadora. I like candid photos far more than posed ones. Isadora's been eating the cookies her mother baked for hersee all over her PJs! Love the look on her face and the sparkle in her eyes. Who cares that she's not smiling and that no one has fixed her hair? Posted by Picasa

Automatic line drawings

This is Eleanor on the stool checking to see if there's something a rabbit wants on the table. I wish I could say I drew this, but I didn't. It's a Photoshop technique for turning a photo into a line drawing. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 30, 2005

Charlie and Eleanor again. Charlie's eating the carrot. Posted by Picasa

These guys are Eleanor and Charlie. Eleanor is a full size rabbit who's part lop--in this picture her ears are up like an uppy-eared bunny, but she can also put them down like a lop. Charlie is a dwarf albino--the red eyes are because his eyes are red, not because the camera made "red eyes". Posted by Picasa

More granddaughters! Each photo was turned into a "line drawing" using Photoshop and then the four put together in a collage. Lydia and Grace are on the top and Abby and Hannah on the bottom. This was done just before the birth of the youngest sister. Posted by Picasa

This is Hannah, my son's eldest daughter. I took this picture maybe two years ago and then turned it into something like a painting with Photoshop.  Posted by Picasa

This is one of my best pictures. It's hard to get a good group shot of children. I have several versions of this--they loved posing--and this is the best. These are four of my son's five daughters. The oldest was in her room reading at the time. From left to right are Grace, Lydia, Abigail and Naomi. This was taken nearly a year ago--Naomi is now walking and climbing the stairs. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 29, 2005

More on Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking

I love Didion's writing and for some reason, though I knew, had not paid much attention to what this one was about. I usually don't care; she's worth reading no matter what she writes about. When I began, I remembered. Since my husband died 3 years ago, I was a little bit afraid to read, though I knew her thoughts would be important ones. I stopped to think--and remember-- just now when, shortly before he died, Didion described how her husband had insisted that they go to Paris as planned, when she thought they didn't have time or money. I stopped to think. He had said it might be the last time to see Paris.

Something like this happened to me, only it was London, not Paris. We had made reservations--one of those Expedia package deals--to spend New Year's 2002 in London--a place both of us loved and visited often. I had paid a bit extra to guarantee refundability if we should cancel the trip. Alex was getting increasingly disabled--he had a rare arterio-venous fistula on his spine which was slowly choking off circulation to his lower body, slowly paralyzing him. We didn't know that then. There was an appointment with a neuro-surgeon on January 8th.

We had been walking in the park daily--or at least a few times a week--for months and I could not help but see it got more and more difficult for Alex. We would park at Rice University just off of Main Street and walk across Main and Fannin to the park and then walk the same route every time. They were building the train tracks and station then--the first of a municipal rail system--and walking over and around the construction became more and more of a problem. Alex had to sit down and rest more often and the last stretch back, out of the park, across two busy streets, with construction, was very difficult. It had become harder and harder to chat as we walked. His total concentration was, I could see, on staying upright and finishing the walk. Any sign that I could help, either physically (he outweighed me by more than 100 lbs so there wouldn't have been much) or emotionally, was rejected. He was proud and determined and couldn't bear that anyone, even me, see his weakness. How could we travel abroad?

I called the airline and reserved front bulkhead seats with a letter I'd got from the neuroologist. We'd chosen a 4 star hotel that was centrally located. I still assumed we'd cancel at the last minute. I was convinced that Alex was determined to go since he thought he was giving me a gift I really wanted. I didn't want to go if it was difficult for him. The last day, I finally said--after numerous hints didn't work--that maybe we should put this off, that I understood it would be difficult for him and we could have a good time at home. His answer told me that HE really wanted to go.

We went. It was difficult. The seat they gave us had more room but it was beside him, not in front where it would help. It was a 10 hour flight. When we landed he went instantly to the bathroom and was gone for so long I got scared something had happened.

One of the first things he wanted to do was find a gym. At the hotel they directed us to one in Covent Garden, on Henrietta Street I think. Alex went and I did some errands. I came back several hours later expecting him to be at the hotel resting and waiting for me. He wasn't there. I went to the gym. They remembered him and said he'd left. I went back to the hotel--maybe 6 or 8 blacks, checked messages and waited a half hour or so and then took off along the route he'd have to take. I met him on King Street--he was on the other side of the street, walking very unevenly, concentrating so on keeping upright that he didn't see me. I crossed over and stopped him--he hated to stop since momentum was very important to him when he had trouble walking. I coaxed him into an Italian coffee bar a bit further on and he relaxed and admitted he was worried about getting back. We had cappuccino and a snack and a rest.

The next day we set out for the new Tate Modern Gallery. The subway Alex managed pretty well as long as I knew where we were going and we didn't waste any steps, but we went to Blackfriars and had to cross the bridge which was icy in spots and then walk further down the riverside than I'd anticipated. We got there and went immediately to the coffee shop. Then Alex decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. He insisted I stay. He wanted to read.

We found a funny little restaurant in an 18th century store front on Jermyn Street for New Year's Eve and came back to the hotel early. Our room had a huge arched window that faced a lane going between Leicester Square and Trafalger Square so we would watch all manner of humanity pass by and saw a couple of police emergencies in the distance--while we watched on the television as they reported about the crowds in Trafalger Square. We felt safe and cosy and at the same time in the middle of things.

On New Year's Day we went to Greenwich since Alex had been reading about John Harrison--he who solved the longitude problems for navigation at sea in the 18th century. Alex had read about him long before the Longitude book came out--since he'd spent some time building clocks in the 80ies. I'd planned the trip carefully, knowing that the transition from the Tube to the Docklands Light Rail would be tricky. But there were few people. Getting off at Greenwich, though, we realized not only that it was several blocks to the Observatory but it was all up hill. When we came to the park around the Observatory there were two routes--one diagonal sidewalk and the other a driveway. The latter, though, had several places to stop and sit on a bench. There was also ice on the sidewalk and nearby kids were yelling and screaming as they slid down a grassy hill barely covered with snow.

The Observatory was crowded since it was free for the holiday. You were expected to follow the tour. At one point Alex sat down on a window sill and said there was no way he could follow the group to the Royal Astronomers' room on top and that all he wanted to see were Harrison's clocks. I told him to sit tight and I'd find the clocks. They were more than worthwhile and we stopped at a Thai restaurant for a late lunch on the way back. A free calendar for the year 2002 which they gave away still hangs on my wall.

On the train back to Gatwick on the way home, I forced Alex to take the only seat in the car and went to sit on the luggage at the rear of the car because I knew he couldn't stand to sit while I stood. He was a big, strong man and didn't look disabled.... (Later I wanted to kill the flight attendants who wanted us to give up a bulkhead seat to a couple with an infant. There was no way it was harder for them to manage in three seats than for Alex to sit with another seat in front of him. But he looked perfectly healthy.) On the train, I watched the familiar route back to Gatwick--one I'd done dozens of times—sort of teary since I was afraid we wouldn't do this trip again. Alex had got advice from the taxi driver on another place to see 18th century clocks and he wrote it down for next time.

Thoughts on a friend who says she wants to become a piano tuner.

When I was a kid we had a Baldwin baby grand piano--one of the attractions when we bought the house was that the elderly woman selling it wanted to leave some of the furniture--old black Victorian tables and a wonderful overstuffed sofa that my mother made a new slipcover for every few years thereafter--and the piano. I was too young to remember any negotiations, but I'll bet the piano sold it to my mother who played herself and wanted me to take lessons.

I wasn't so enthusiastic once I started lessons. My mother kibitzed constantly. The house was big--the living room was really two rooms with pocket doors between and then a swinging door, a small butler's pantry (where we kept the phone) and then the kitchen. My mother, peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink, would hear every wrong note and missed rhythm when I practiced and yell "count!" or "wrong note!” or "start over!" constantly.

The best part of the piano, though, was the piano tuner. When he'd come, he was fascinating to watch, a taciturn little man in dirty clothes with a bag like a doctor's. He'd replace the felt and then put in moth balls to keep the bugs out. I discovered that I lerved the smell of moth balls! I'd lean over the piano just for the smell, stick my head up under the lid when it was propped up or open it just to smell. Do you suppose a craving for mothballs signals some weird nutritional deficiency? I still associate pianos, especially grand pianos, with the smell of moth balls--and the smell of moth balls with pianos.

A Nostalgic Bit

There’s a current article in Foreign Affairs that suggests a new kind of “trusteeship” for failed states might be in order. The most likely candidate was Liberia—where my daughter was born in 1965, and where I lived for a summer, evacuated from Sierra Leone (where I was serving in the Peace Corps) because the maternity hospital in Freetown had Childbed Fever. Sierra Leone was cited as another “failed state” where a calamitous civil war was over, a new government in place, but where many leaders had “murky” pasts and where corruption was yet rampant.

In my day, Sierra Leone was described quite differently. It was seen as a haven of peace (if not really prosperity) among former British colonies that had recently had their independence. In 1965 Albert Margai was prime minister and all over town you saw men and women dressed in those colorful lengths of cloth with photos of popular leaders in the middle of elaborate patterned “frames”. In a trunk somewhere I have a dress with Albert Margay’s mug twice on the front and twice on the back. Albert was the brother of Milton Margai, Sierra Leone’s first PM and leader of the SLPP—the Sierra Leone People’s Party.

It was common to hear in those days—I was in Sierra Leone from 1964 to 1966—that the violence in the Congo and the coups and coup attempts in other African countries were totally alien to Sierra Leone. Milton Margai had been a respected statesman and had served in government comfortably under British rule. Sierra Leone’s transition to independence had been graceful. The currency was pegged to the West African pound and was worth exactly $1.40 per Leone—never changed (until you got out of the country of course where it was nearly worthless).

In those days I knew little of politics, nothing of money policy or political infighting and accepted what I heard at face value: that Milton Margai (a graduate of the school where I taught incidentally) had been a great African statesman and that Sierra Leone was a stable new democracy, even a shining example to the rest of West Africa. My time in Liberia tended to confirm that; I worked in the Peace Corps office waiting for the baby and every morning, with the rest of the staff, read and discussed the morning paper. That summer there was a sensational case of ritual murder. It got so serious that President Tubman (who’d been reelected regularly since before I was born) recalled the Chief Justice from the US to conduct hearings. Then one day, Tubman walked in and put a stop to the proceedings. The newspaper went blank on the subject. The rumor was that a top official, possible the Vice President had been involved.

Sierra Leone, I thought, was not like that. I was particularly offended by the Americo-Liberians (descendents of freed slaves who dressed in antebellum dresses and morning suits for their social events, aping what their ancestors had known on the plantations) describing the tribal people up country as “aboriginals”. In Sierra Leone I saw the Krios (also descendents of freed slaves settled by a Britain that didn’t want to absorb them into their own population) as accepting their numerical inferiority to the larger tribes, ceding leadership, but using their generally superior education and governmental experience in the interests of the new country.

But I also remember the opposition party very clearly—probably because I lived in Brookfields, across the road from Freetown Secondary School for Girls and its large sports grounds. On the opposite side of school and grounds was a dirty white house with a wide front porch—the home of Siaka Stevens, leader of the opposition party, APC. There was always something going on at that house and periodically on weekends there would be rallies on the school grounds where you’d heard drums and speakers far into the wee hours, chains of women dressed in Siaka Stevens cloth, dancing an chanting “APC, APC, APC, APC” over and over again for hours.

Years later—probably 93 or 94—I was on a flight from London to Houston, in my favorite seat on a BA flight which I took often, and there was a woman in the adjacent seat who obviously didn’t want to talk. I’m not much for talking to strangers either so settled to my book while she slept. But it’s a long flight and eventually we did talk. She lived in Houston but had been back to visit her family in Freetown. What a coincidence that I’d even heard of Freetown. Her mother had been ill. It was too dangerous to take a taxi. Her mother paid the electricity bill even though there was no power for fear that if power came back she’d be cut off. Her brothers had been students at Albert Academy (where I had taught) but were not running wild in a situation that scared her. She’d been too depressed to talk.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Love this picture. It was taken last summer while a friend and I ate lunch at a restaurant with tables on a pier. The waiter had to caution us not to feed the gulls or they wouldn't stay off the table or out of the food! The ship in the background is one of the tall ships you see around at various historical events, the Elissa of Galveston, TX. Posted by Picasa

This is Grace at a fashion show in her sister's room. She's 9 going on 21. Not only pretty, but knows how to pose for photographs and has "clothes sense". Posted by Picasa

Topsy in her litter box. When the litter is fresh, she finds it a cozy place to rest. Learn more about Topsy from the write up when she was made a "Pet of the Day"! Posted by Picasa

TITLE: The Year of Magical Thinking
AUTHOR: Joan Didion
GENRE: Memoir
RATING: 10 out of 10

This is a really great book. Didion writes of her own experience during the year following the death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, as well as dealing with her daughter's serious illness. I probably identified with her more than most since I've also gone through the death of a husband and some prolonged eqposure to ICUs and the medical establishments, both with my husband and when my daughter developed amniotic embolism last March during childbirth. (She had a healthy child but was in danger herself and on life support for a few days.)

Didion's writing is magical. I read the essays in Slouching toward Bethlehem, published originally in 1968, over and over again when I first discovered them. For years I taught essays like California Dreaming ("This is a story about love and death in the golden land...[and]...the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamer how to live" and On Keeping a Notebook ("The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself" to students who never quite got why I raved so at her prose. If ever I had a writing mentor it was Didion.

This one is profound. Understated as everything she writes is understated. The result is a bigger big bang when you get the emotion hiding just beneath the surface. One hospital official described her as a "cool customer" the night her husband died of a massive heart attack. Little did he know.

This is 9 month old Isadora. I have a feeling that she's going to be like my daughter (her mother) and recognizable in baby pictures. Some kids are "generic babies" and some have their own look from day one. Isadora's look includes an expressive mouth--fun when she's making faces--and intense blue eyes. We're wondering if the eyes will be blue permanently--both parents have brown eyes but one each of their parents have blue eyes. Isadora's mother was blue-eyed till she was two. Posted by Picasa

Children's pictures are so much fun. I take millions of pictures of my grandchildren and then play with them in PhotoShop. This one is of 6-year old Lydia, taken I think at the zoo. She's tiny for her age but has a very expressive face. The essence shows through even when I used some filters to make it look more like a painting. Posted by Picasa