Elbows Off The Table

 

“If your mother serves fried combat boot, you kids will eat it.”

Thus ended any potential debate on the edibility factor of canned beets and succinctly describes the negotiation-free tone of my childhood. We were five kids who held second-class citizenship status to the ultimate authority figures: the Old Sarge and She Who Must Be Obeyed. Our self-esteem was of so little importance as to not register a tremor on their Richter Scale of parental concerns; our behavior, however, would sometimes result in seismic aftershocks. We were Lennards, after all, and expected to act that way.

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“Behavior” included table manners and the art of conversation both of which were honed during the sacrosanct dinner hour, six o’clock SHARP.  Lennards are always on time. We’d flinch a bit if the phone rang during dinner. “Lennards!” my father would bark into the phone and then inform one of us to “tell your damn friends not to call during dinner.” Sound despotic? Maybe, but with the tyranny always came tenderness. Flickering in my memory is the image of my young and handsome Dad on Saturday night with three big fingers shoved into a little shoe, buffing away in prep for Sunday church. Lennards don’t wear scuffed shoes, after all.

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“When Books Went to War”

I read literature because I find traces of my private self within its pages. All my qualities -admirable and abundantly less so – are there, and in recognizing them I feel a lovely sense of relief that I’m not entirely an odd duck. But we read for more than mere self-recognition, don’t we? We read because sometimes books can change the course of one’s life.

 

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It’s World War II and a young US Marine is in hospital recovering from malaria…..and the trauma of battle. He writes to Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.”

“I am 20 years old but feel twice that age. I went through hell in two years of combat overseas. I just wanted you to understand that despite my youth I have seen a little bit of suffering. Ever since the first time I struggled through knee deep mud….carrying a stretcher from which my buddy’s life dripped away in precious blood and I was powerless to help him, I have felt hard and cynical against this world and have felt sure I was no longer capable of loving anything or anybody.” He went through the war with a “dead heart….and dulled mind.” But then he began to read. “I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place, I only know that it happened and that this heart of mine turned over and became alive again….I’ll never be able to explain to you the gratitude and love that fill my heart in appreciation of what your book means to me. It brought laughter and tears. Although it was unusual for a supposedly battle-hardened marine to do such an effeminate thing as weep over a piece of fiction….I’m not ashamed. I don’t think I would have been able to sleep this night unless I bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again.”

Read “When Books Went to War” if interested in the fascinating, uplifting story of the Armed Services Editions. Put it this way: while Germany burned books, the US went to incredible lengths to provide military forces with literature. And romance novels – hello “Forever Amber!” They read in foxholes, bunkers, and submarines. And, as noted above, in hospitals.

 

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For Better or Worse…

His books, his booze, his Brooks Brothers shirts are all at home, but he is not. In their eighties, my once inseparable parents have been wrenched apart, physically anyway, by the disabling symptoms of Parkinson’s. Dad is in a veterans’ care facility where everything is top-notch except the ghastly institutional food. White bread served with packets of margarine doesn’t fly with the Old Sarge, long the appreciative recipient of my mother’s excellent cooking.

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She prepares brie and salami sandwiches on nine-grain bread for his lunch. On his nightstand sit little containers of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, sour cream cake, and sliced apples – tastes of home. She wheels him into the parking lot to see what he thinks about her car tires.

When the aides dressed my always dapper father in appalling combinations, she swooped in and hung matching outfits for the week in his closet, Garanimals-style. His room holds his Civil War bronze soldier, books, fresh flowers, pictures of his family, a book of prayer.

She brings him a communion wafer each Sunday after mass and they sit, then, and read the paper together. Life goes on. So does love.

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Kyoto Syndrome

You’ve heard of “Paris Syndrome?” Often exhibited by the Japanese, it is a condition of anxiety bordering on hysteria upon realizing they have fallen prey to an extreme case of false advertising. Far from the romantic image portrayed in “An American in Paris” and glamorous Chanel advertisements, the grittier realities of a loud, grimy, and often rude Paris leave the tourist feeling betrayed, confused, and reeling from an enormous case of culture shock.

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We’ve all felt this to one degree or another, haven’t we? My first keen disappointment in travel was a summer trip to Cape Cod many years ago. Living in Massachusetts, all one hears is: “Going down the Cape this weekend?” “Gotta leave early and beat the bridge traffic.” “Awesome trip to the Cape!” Even though our family had a sweet little cottage on Plum Island off the North Shore, one always had the suspicion it was the redheaded stepchild of vacation spots. The really great place to be was the Cape. Had to be, right? Everybody said so.

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And so we ventured “down the Cape” giddy with expectations. Much like the Japanese tourist assaulted by Parisian smells in the Metro station, our bubble was burst immediately. Our rented cottage was fine, but in a location where even a simple trip to get milk resulted in 45 minutes trapped in summer traffic. The beaches teemed with people. The restaurants overflowed onto the outside decks. The stores were full of ticky-tacky tourist merchandise. I wanted to go home.

That was years ago and I’ve become cynical enough now to expect that the best-selling novel I simply must read will almost certainly be hurled onto the metaphorical kindling pile because it is the Worst Piece of Dreck Ever Written.

The restaurant which simply must be visited for the next special occasion dinner served stale bread, cold coffee and warm champagne. Paris Syndrome abounds.

But hope springs eternal even in my lentil of a heart which was beating pitty-pat as our plane touched down in Japan. At last.

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Far from a comprehensive travel guide, I give you only the impressions gained from four days in Kyoto, an ancient city which served as Japan’s capital for 1000 years. Weeks after returning home, I’ve recovered from jet lag but not from the sensory overload of a culture so different from my own. Simply put, Japan is a nation of attention to the smallest detail which I know now appeals to every fiber of my being.

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Photographers urge us to look up. I would tell you to do the opposite in Japan.

Not that looking up could possibly prove a disappointment:

The Japanese are genius at combining beauty and utility as shown in this array of artful fences. Why not make them as beautiful as the garden they contain? Why not make everything in our lives as pleasing to the senses as we can?

But enough of flooring and fences. What about food? If a fence is given special care, you can imagine how important a meal is. As the waiter placed an assortment of salts each with a specific purpose on our table, I knew I was in for a treat. This one for seafood, perhaps? This one for your beef? Oh yes, please.  Food is celebrated here, meticulously prepared and served. The experience is the very definition of dining. No server named Jared loomed over our table mid-meal to inquire if “you guys” are still “working” on that meal. The horror!

It was William Morris who said famously “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  I can’t help wondering if he ever visited Japan because that ideal is deeply ingrained in every aspect of the Japanese design aesthetic.

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To my Western eye, accustomed to piles of books and other lovely clutter, it felt spare and a bit cold at first. But gradually I sank into the “less is more” aesthetic and began to appreciate the tiny details of the few things in the room. A sumptuous fabric. A delicately glazed pot. An exquisitely trained bonsai. The smell of sandalwood.

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The only place I found clutter (and a heavenly clutter it was!) was in a second-hand bookstore. I am here to say that no matter where you are in the world, it seems used bookstores all smell the same!

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And the books themselves! Oh my. Buttery soft paper and exquisite illustrations proved absolutely irresistible to me. Let me show you just two of the books now safely ensconced in Virginia. These are serialized romance novels, each perfect little books on their own, but to my amazement I saw that their covers join to form one image! I couldn’t communicate well enough with the shop owner to find out if a third or fourth book in the series would continue the size of the image, but let’s just assume they would.

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There is a condition I dub Kyoto Syndrome. One in which the reality far exceeds the expectation. One where you find yourself transported into a culture so different from your own that your outlook is forever changed. I may never return to this enchanted part of the world, but I’ll carry a piece of it with me forever.

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Suffering from an acute case of Kyoto Syndrome

Did you know that Kyoto was on the target list for the atomic bomb along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Secretary of War Henry S. Stimson had it removed in no small part because he had spent his honeymoon there. It seems an enduring case of Kyoto Syndrome proved miraculous indeed for the residents of this ancient city.

Oh, just one more thing. In the intervening years, I’ve learned the Cape does have its abundant charms. It’s important not to let Paris Syndrome close your mind to second chances.

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

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Leaving On A Jet Plane

Cue the Peter, Paul & Mary. Or better yet John Denver. He wrote the song, you know, even though we often associate it with the former.

This hilariously dated hippie-dippie video is completely redeemed once John and Cass Elliot start singing. What glorious harmony.

Real life has a way of intruding into our blogging, doesn’t it? And my blogging is coming to a screeching halt for a while. BH and I are getting on that jet plane tomorrow for a long-anticipated trip to Taiwan and….be still my heart….Japan! I’ve been yearning to see Japan my entire life – or at least since reading “Shogun” back in the seventies. To say I am excited would be an understatement.

I promise to bore you all thoroughly with tales of my adventures when I get home. And maybe I’ll even have some cool new airport carpets to show you.

I leave you with my most recent favorite shot of Max, apropos of nothing in this post but too cute not to share. Oh yes, Max will be staying with friends while we’re gone who will take him boating and spoil him rotten. As it should be.

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Zai Jian and Sayonara!

Barbara

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Defending the Chamois

The extraterrestrial has moved from the gardener to the blogger. If the gardener baffled, the blogger bewilders. Once again the Human Ambassador is summoned.

ET: Why is the blogger frustrated and unhappy?

HA: She feels pressure to remove some favorite things from her writing.

ET: What things?

HA: Words. Rich and lovely words. Words full of texture and life which she has been collecting since childhood. You see, she has been advised that her writing is inaccessible.

ET: Inaccessible? Explain, please.

HA: Not everybody will enjoy or understand her if she uses the words she yearns to. She finds herself therefore practicing a form of literary self-mutilation which is intensely painful.

ET: But this is illogical. What if the intelligence levels vary in the human? They do, don’t they?

HA: Rumor has it.  But no blogger wishes to post into a vacuum.

ET: Ah yes, the black hole. I’m familiar with it, you know. But tell me, if a reader encounters a word with which he is not familiar, are there not ways to define it?

HA: Of course. In a matter of seconds, actually, the word can be defined and pronounced. In all of our languages.

ET: Why you have so many languages and a metric system are still beyond my understanding, but I digress. So let me get this straight. The writer, in order to attain a wider readership, feels it necessary to strip the work of linguistic power and beauty by reducing it to a more facile and spineless version of its former self?

HA: Yup.

ET: And do you not see the parallels in this type of thinking with the decline of the Mediocrian people in the neighboring galaxy?

HA: Excuse me?

ET: Oh, never mind.  A sudden surge of melancholy has me in its grip.

HA: You mean you feel bad?

ET: Look it up, will you?


It’s obvious where I fall in the discussions swirling about the blogosphere lately on using “big” words in our writing. I first read of it on Carrie Rubin’s blog.  She’d been urged to remove the dastardly “fugue” from a novel she’s writing as it slows the reader down too much, evidently, to be confronted with an unconventional word. Sigh.

There’s plenty of room for all of us and our writing styles on the blogosphere. From poetry to pâte à choux, blogs vary as widely as we do ourselves. Some of us are just looking to have a good time posting our daily doings in a casual and loose format. Groovy.

But some of us are in danger of hiding our light under a bushel.

There’s a term in real estate development: highest and best use. The writer who deliberately guts his work in hopes of attracting more readers is like the developer who builds a faceless storage unit on a prime piece of waterfront acreage. The highest and best use potential is forever vanished.

Worse, if our writing becomes flat and tame, we will lose the lovely “self-annihilation” which author Ian McEwan described as the sensation of sinking into words and leaving oneself behind, wallowing blissfully in it all.

I’d miss that terribly, wouldn’t you?

My writing hero, Mr. P.G. Wodehouse, presumed his reader was equal to his own mental agility. I can picture his arched brow and icy gaze at the very idea of making Blandings blander. What ho! Rubbish.

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Were old Plum to have tried, unfathomably, to make his writing more universal, we would be left with this atrocity:

Like most American rich guys, he married a lot, going from one girl to another like a mountain goat jumping from rock to rock.

Compare that to this sublime version which cannot be read without the highest admiration for the magic seeping from his pen:

Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.

Mountain goat? Accessible and painfully mediocre. Chamois? Deliciously and perfectly inaccessible.

Thank you for reading,

Barbara

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Just Say Yes

Five Photos, Five Stories #5

Saying “yes” is easy, I suppose, to the extrovert. Not so much for those of us of a more introverted nature. It’s not that we’re anti-social….exactly….but it takes more of an effort to mentally gear up for events than the extrovert might ever imagine. And certainly for me to tiptoe into the blogosphere was stepping way out of my comfort zone.

Ever cautious of wearing out my welcome, it was a leap of faith for me to accept a “Five Photos, Five Stories” challenge. When I received the invitation, the introvert within stirred and quickly laid out all the reasons why I should say no. But I reminded her of our list of Personal Principles in which resides “Just Say Yes.” I guess it’s more of a resolution than a PP, because it’s not a fixed part of my daily behavior yet. But I’m working on it.

Turns out this challenge was a blast. I was introduced to a new (to me) Traveling Wilburys song. I met Linda Richman again (still laughing at that one – thank you, Linda P.) The Full Monty made an appearance as did Springsteen and The Beatles – among others. I learned various regional names for the Virginia Stickseed. And a book recommendation or two.

Speaking of books, I’m about to delve into “All The Light We Cannot See.” I hear it’s fabulous and can’t wait to get going.

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Thanks a bunch, everyone, for coming along on this “Five Day” challenge. For those of you celebrating it, wishing you a Happy Memorial Day weekend.

Heading into the garden and the book pile,

Barbara

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