E-mail Challenge: When E-Mail Was a Sparkly, Happy Fun Place

In 1997, e-mail was a funky land of fun. I never have fun with e-mail anymore. It’s hard to believe I ever did, though I have proof, having printed out my e-mails from 1997 and kept them warm and cozy in a nice blue folder by the furnace. Hard to believe there was no alcohol, drugs or other substances involved in writing these, but I am pretty sure there wasn’t. And I want to thank my employer for connecting me to the Internet as I am confident all these e-mails were done at the office on company time.

Conversation between me and my friend Nate, who lived in San Francisco:

Happy Weekend Mr. Nate, said the slow and dusty butterfly.
I am headed to St. Louis. Is that in Kentucky?
No, said the butterfly. It’s in Africa. Don’t you know. I saw zebras
there and several tribal bands. Some even have their own boats in
which they capture people and drown them in the Mississippi.
Yes, oh.
Oh. Oh.
Meow. (That was my cat. I can hear him 25 miles away.)
The slow butterfly did not believe this. Nevertheless
he continued flying in the dry office air waiting to see if he could be of any
assistance in filing the stacks of papers labelled simply logistics.
Have a fabulous weekend. I have pictures to send you but I shant get
them to you for several days.

From the Windswept Plains of Oklahoma


From the Windswept Plains of Oklahoma

I was down in the parking lot waiting for her when Annie, my freshman roommate, stepped out of her parent’s Lincoln Town Car, fresh from the windswept plains of Oklahoma. She wore a  lavender and dusty blue floral Laura Ashley short set and her thick blond hair fell well past her shoulders. It was the hair that got to me. It was just like the hair of Samantha, my Christian Scientist friend back home in Alabama.

Annie and Samantha were the only two people I had ever met with really long hair, hair that quantified who you were. Hair that long was not an accident. Annie and Samantha didn’t forget to make appointments at beauty salons. This hair was sanctioned by their parents and displayed the unspoken differences between our upbringings.

I don’t know what Annie thought when she first saw me. Though I can’t recall what I wore, I no doubt would have attempted to look fashionable with the clothes my mother worked so hard to find for the unique combination of fitting challenges I presented her with: wide shoulders, overly long, muscular legs and arms, and long, skinny feet shaped like skis. Putting me in a puffed sleeve floral dress often made me look like I was cross dressing, and wearing one on the day I helped Annie move in would have made unpacking in an unairconditioned dorm room difficult to say the least. I most likely would have been wearing silver snakeskin print Guess shorts, a Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt and a pair of size 11 AA New Balance running shoes my mother had ordered for me from a catalogue full of shoes for old people. Thankfully, she had ordered me the version with laces and not Velcro straps.

When Annie met me, my own hair barely reached the bottom of my earlobes. Before high school, my mother kept me in a pageboy, something I always attributed to the fact that we were Presbyterians. She might have said it was because my hair tangled, or because I refused hair accessories – from plastic animal-shaped barrettes to polka-dot ribbon hair bows in our school colors of blue and green. She might have mentioned the fact that she had to force me to bathe until I reached middle school. But I don’t think those were the real reasons. As Presbyterians, our family did not steer toward excess. Utilitarianism, modest decorum and vacations that included high levels of educational value and outdoorsmanship were more our style. Looking nice mattered, but looking too nice was a sin.

When Annie stepped out of her parent’s Lincoln Town Car, she became my first close-up, long-term encounter with excess. Annie went through more outfits and emotions in her first few hours awake than I would go through during an entire year. She teetered on the edge of cliffs and dared the wind to throw her off. She lay in bed skipping class, lamenting how everything was wrong, or she went to class anyway, lamenting the class’s difficulty, because the classes at our small woman’s college were, in fact, mind-numbing at times. Yet when it came time to party on Thursday nights, Annie was in her element, relaxed and ready to set the world on fire, while I had to be urged into the car like an animal being led to slaughter.

Annie stepped out of her parents’ Lincoln Town Car like a woman from a Pantene commercial, from a commercial for Nice ’N Easy, her nails painted Easter Bunny pink, her posture erect, her smile patient, her all cotton short set freshly pressed. I wondered about Annie’s religion, but her hair turned out not to be related to her Episcopal upbringing. It was related to Neiman Marcus, to her short, often overstated stint modeling for the store as a fourth grader, and to the emphasis her mother put on appearance, rules of etiquette and knowing how to trick the right man into marrying you. Annie’s stout German mother moved like a tornado through the freshman dorm, up to room 203, then swiftly over to Dillard’s to purchase matching dusty blue comforters for our twin beds, coordinating pillows, shams, a pastel cotton geometric patterned rug. After she returned home to Oklahoma, Annie’s mother phoned each and every morning. She implored Annie to get out of bed and go to class. She urged us both to socialize. Go meet those darling men at Hampden-Sydney, or Virginia Military Institute, or Washington and Lee! Packages of Laura Ashley outfits arrived at the student mail room, sometimes for both of us. It took Annie’s mother a matter of minutes to employ me as Annie’s unpaid college caretaker, a task which I took to with alarming ease. Since I woke early to run before my eight a.m. physics class and Annie often slept past breakfast, I delivered her morning muffin to her in bed. I answered her mother’s wake-up calls. I confirmed that Annie was already in class, despite evidence to the contrary. I edited Annie’s writing assignments, touched up the shading on her drawings for art class. In return, she took me with her to parties on the weekends, hooked me up with dismal dates, from leaders of the college Young Republican Club to men who checked off the states on the state maps taped to their dorm walls as they scored. Somehow, Annie was invited everywhere, and always had a tall, handsome boyfriend beside her, one from a good family with roots going back to the Mayflower, one without a state map taped to the wall, one sober enough to remember his own name. Somehow Annie knew no matter how many classes she missed or assignments she forgot to turn in, that she would have time to cram before exams and pass. She wasn’t overly anxious about doing much more. And in the end, her lack of worry didn’t hurt her. Annie buckled down a few years after college, went on to law school and became an attorney. She made it anyway, while I spent most of my college frantic that my GPA might fall below a 3.7 (it never did), and that I might lose my scholarship. I studied and studied and studied some more, but ran into a brick wall on most social outings, always wearing or saying or thinking the wrong thing. I couldn’t get past the bow ties and blazers on the white, rich, well-bred men at the Hampden-Sydney tailgates, or the fact that most of these men expected me to be someone I wasn’t, to hold different opinions that might coincide more with the dress Annie had lent me for the afternoon.

My mother spent years pushing the benefits of a respectable use of subtle make-up, church dresses and curling irons. She came up with the idea that at some point in high school it might be a good idea for me to date. I was required to go on at least one date with the few boys who made the mistake of asking me out. To a small extent, she succeeded in halfway taming me by the time she dropped me off in Virginia for college, but to this day I still can’t seem to dress like a proper lady from the South. I play piano now, so my nails stay short. I don’t have time for manicures. I dig up weeds and garden, ride horses and cook casseroles for dinner, meaning most days it’s all I can do to get the dirt and horse hair out from under the tips of my nails and the smell of onion and garlic off my hands before I go to bed that night. I wear board shorts and rash guards at the beach because wearing anything else gets in the way of running around and having fun. The practical part of growing up Presbyterian may have stayed with me, but the curling iron has found a home in the storage bins deep in the recesses of the basement. I can, when the occasion calls for it, look presentable, and I know how to handle myself at parties, though my idea of getting wild and drinking all night usually ends by 11:00, having reached my limit at one beer. I am still wary of men in bow ties and blazers, men who look like they jumped straight out of a J. Crew catalogue.

It’s funny that I’ve kept up with Annie after all these years, and that we are still good friends, she in her Mizrahi cardigan and Chanel flats, her matching handbag and talent for socializing; me in a pair of jean shorts, my hair pulled back in a pony tail and SPF 30 sunscreen on my face even on cloudy days. I still wake up early to run and spend my spare time reading, lead a den of cub scouts while Annie attends or plans elaborate parties, sits on the board of numerous charitable and civic organizations. To see us, you’d never think we had anything in common or that we could turn out to be such good friends for such a long time, and I think it must have required a lot of open-mindedness on both of our parts. Seeing what a disaster I was at parties, Annie still continue to drag me along. She never gave up on teaching me how to socialize and helping me trick the right man into marrying me, something her mother often lectured about at length on her visits to the college. Do not, whatever you do, be yourself, she told us, but in the end, being ourselves was exactly what we did, and things worked out just fine. From Laura Ashley to Mizrahi, from Guess to Eddie Bauer, we have moved on from those college days of yore, but the beauty of who we are as individuals remains.

Liberal? Conservative? Some Thoughts about Hayek….

With the Republican Convention under way, today seemed like a good day to talk about the cherry picking of Freidrich von Hayek’s views to promote neoclassical policies when Hayek was anything but neoclassical in his very complex ideas about economics. In the his book, The Constitution of Liberty’s postscript, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” Hayek distinguished his classical liberalism from conservatism. Among his grounds for rejecting conservatism were that moral and religious ideals are not “proper objects of coercion” and that conservatism is hostile to internationalism and prone to a strident nationalism. Having more than one type of tax system, as Ryan proposes, is anything buy Hayekian. One of Hayek’s central ideas was known as the “generality norm.” If any government program benefits one, it must benefit all. Medicare and Medicaid must be expanded to cover all citizens, for instance. All corporate and agricultural subsidies must be eliminated. Government housing programs must be eliminated or expanded to serve everyone.  Hayek also believed that the state should provide a base income for all poor citizens and in the idea of universal healthcare. Hayek was always concerned with the welfare of the poor. He proposed a very generous welfare system and would not have allowed taxes to be cut with such a high deficit. It seems that the Tea Party is ready to embrace not Hayek, but a very misquoted version of his anti-government views which has nothing to do with Hayek’s actual beliefs. Hayek’s ideas are quite radical and it is interesting to see career politicians try to use them, although quite frightening to see how badly they misinterpret his vision.

There are many good sites for further reading, besides reading Hayek’s books themselves. His ideas on how the capitalist market works are fascinating, especially his thoughts on individual knowledge and its contribution and value in the market:




Terrifying French Children’s Books

I have to thank British author Jenny Colgan for this post.  Her blog about Terrifying French Children’s Books needs to be shared.  Here is link to the Guardian’s report on this topic: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/gallery/2012/may/30/terrifying-french-childrens-books-in-pictures?CMP=twt_gu

If only I had had a chance to read these books as a child, how much better I might have turned out!  I had only the desperate loneliness and mistreatment of The Little Princess to revel in.  I am going to order a few of these and read them now. (Thank goodness for my French classes!  Merci Madam DuBois et Madam Watts!)


The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Having just finished Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel, I recommend it to fans of Jane Austin.  New York Review Books Classics has reissued a few of her works.  There are two at the Lake Forest Library, which is where I found this one.  More on Elizabeth Taylor can be found in this article from The Atlantic:


Origami Dollar Bill Ring

Creativity comes in lots of forms.  Though my kids aren’t writing prose each day on the old Smith Corona I fixed up for them, they are finding interesting hobbies, including, most recently, baking, origami and creating indoor obstacle courses that include sledding down the stairs and plenty of special knots learned in their sailing classes.  Here’s the latest creation and instructions on how to make one yourself.



Pining for Lost Phrases, Antiquated Language

I have lists and lists of phrases I keep in a small notebook in the car just in case there is a chance to use them at the drive-thru window or in conversation with someone I happen to meet while out and about, but there never is.  There’s hardly ever a reason to tell someone you are choked on the brambles of despair even if you are, or that someone excites your warmest sympathy. I use the same excessively commonplace phrases day in and day out.  My father always said he was fair to midlin’ when people asked how he was, something I say as well, though it’s now lost in translation. Often during the day, I make singular discoveries which I can only explain by telling those around me “No, wait, I get it.” I can’t tell people that they arrested my attention or that my friend is, indeed, as honest a woman as ever stood in shoe leather, or that another is so full of cowardly braggadocio that I can’t bear his company a minute longer or that I am disinclined to anything. I can’t use ought or shan’t very easily either. No one ever speaks of anything being dappled anymore unless you’re at the barn, but half my day is surrounded by dappled things. No one screws up their courage and breathes life into what they say anymore.  And as I mentioned before, neither do I.  I have not the courage.  Instead I use my Elmo voice to order Happy Meals for the kids at the drive-thru once a week and we all bust out laughing.  My God, deliver me from the snare of my own iniquity!


A Novel is Not Waking Thoughts….

A novel is not waking thoughts although it is written and thought with waking thoughts. But really a novel goes as dreams go in sleeping at night and some dreams are like anything and some dreams change and some dreams are quiet and some dreams are not. And some dreams are just what anyone would do only a little different always just a little different and that is what a novel is.

–from The Superstitions of Fred Anneday, Annday, Anday a Novel of Real Life by Gertrude Stein

I couldn’t say it better. But I have a problem with dreams the same as I do novels. Once you get into a good one, you are trapped. Whether you want it to or not it invades your life and your world is one big impressionistic blotch of reality and fiction or reality and dreams so scrambled inside your head there is no way out. Also the isolation of human beings is never so well felt than in a good dream or a good novel. The best novels I have read lately all seem to wallow in the suffering and isolation of their characters and I suggest you pick them up if you haven’t read them yet: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, Sister Carrie by Theodore Drieser, Revenants by Daniel Mills. Can anyone think of a good novel that does not star a character isolated in some way?

The Boundaries of Language: Does Anybody Know What I am Saying?

The late psychologist James Hillman is confirming what I already knew when I decided long ago on January 1st to talk less this year, much less.  Words are the very fundamentals of conscious existence but always severed from things and from truth.  As Hillman writes, they exist in a world their own and have no inherent sense, for they can be reduced to quasi-mathematical units. There is a credibility gap since we no longer trust words of any sort as true carriers of meaning.  This is from the book “Blue Fire, Selected Writings of James Hillman”.  Talking less does indeed mean I have had a lot less misinterpretations of what I meant when I spoke, but writing less, that is a problem.  Here is an excerpt from a piece I wrote with this idea in mind, a young girl filled to the brim with words she is learning for the SATs and a tireless imagination so the image she paints, like the words themselves, are far from truth.  It is from a story called “The River Draws Near”.  I’d like to see someone try and translate this one.

I was twelve when my Daddy got a long iridescent motorcycle, his first to my unemphatic, unpathwayed, what-I-recall.  I wandered in the front of the shop by the plate glass windows and the heavy door with the cow bell, while he strode around back to take a final look at the portly motorcycle covered in shiny mermaid paint that swirled iridescent.  I perused the shop in my white sandals ambulating back and forth among the sharp smells of steel and leather, among the stink of after-shave, rubber and gasoline, under the buzz of fluorescent lights.  I had a mind to read but I could find no magazines, even in the waiting room near the coffee. Daddy had disappeared in back.  When he returned I asked if I couldn’t borrow his new manual.   I sat outside next door in front of Jim’s Hardware on top of a cooler and looked for spelling bee clinchers: crankshaft, flywheel, cam chain, hydraulic steering damper.   I was to be a world champion speller, I was to win the national spelling bee in the great capital of our country this very spring.  Daddy predicted it and I prayed upon it and now I was going to be a part of history. When it was time to leave, Daddy descended upon me with a pink, porcine-looking helmet and we drove home to Mama and Misty.

When I wasn’t studying the dictionary or Greek and Latin linguistics, I rode with Daddy on his new motorcycle, him and his friends, deep into the country along Dog River, under the big Alabama sky.  I was on behind him, the child in a swarming sway of age.  I snuck stones in my pocket, pawed them up from underneath the porch and aimed them for the river as we sped beside it.

I was twelve that spring, the same spring Daddy was struck by lightening.  He was struck through the phone line with pernicious force, after which he drove himself to the emergency room, his ear singed. He suffered cardio-pulmonary injuries and electrocardiographic changes but Daddy said he was good to go.  He had a bad burn on his ear that made the skin peel and fall off. He kept doing funny things like putting the milk away in the cupboard or forgetting to turn the car off when we got home.

Dog River ran in front of our house.  Daddy never went near it. He had no use for waterways of any kind.  Though he was aqueous, he was not aquatic he said, asking me to spell both.  It’s the aqueous part that acts as a conductor of electricity, he explained.  Electricity needs a conduit, please spell that Mirabel.  A conduit is something that transfers electricity.  My sister Misty and I swam in the cool, muddy water all the time except the spring when the rain came and the currents accelerated, tangling our red hair and careening us into big rocks.

But let me go back to the day Daddy was hit by lightening, because it changed everything.  It was ominous.  The morning woke with swollen gray pupils.  My ruckled senses unfolded and Misty and I looked at each other, sensing the stillness that preceded another storm.  Everything was stopped, looming, hindered, except the small stream of blood that poured out of me and spread into the damp cotton sheets.