Friday, September 30, 2022

Book Review: The Mother Side of Midnight

Book Review: The Mother Side of Midnight

Author: Teryl Zarnow

Date: 1992

Publisher: Addison-Wesley

ISBN: 0-201-57053-X

Length: 234 pages, plus a preface

Quote: “My family is ordinary, my children are generic, and out of 31 possible flavors my life is vanilla.”

That’s what readers will love about this book and Zarnow’s previous book, Husband Is the Past Tense of Daddy. It’s also what they’ll hate about those books. Everybody knows a young mother who is a lot like Teryl Zarnow. Nice, kindhearted, well-meaning...but she never has anything to tell you that you didn’t already know, and also, since Zarnow lives in Orange County, California, you’ve seen all the products and the product-related episodes in a TV sitcom somewhere. It’s not that Zarnow gives readers any reason to doubt that her family did the things she described in these books; it’s that the TV writers consulted Zarnow’s magazine columns for nice, upscale, mildly funny family scenes.

It’s not that the fight Zarnow’s tots get into in the bathtub, in which Zarnow is “the one who gets doused with water,” was in any way a copy of the fight Jean Kerr’s tots got into in the bathtub, way back in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. I’m pretty sure that the misadventures of the Zarnow family goldfish are in fact different from the misadventures of Cynthia Lindsay’s goldfish in Home Is Where You Hang Yourself or Erma Bombeck’s family’s goldfish in If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries What Am I Doing in the Pits. I’m also pretty sure that, although Zarnow’s water fights and goldfish are much more contemporary than the water fights and goldfish that made the previous generation chuckle, and even if you read each of those three older books when it was new, you will be more likely to chuckle over re-reading those older books than you will over reading this book for the first time.

Or: if you read comedy for the therapeutic benefits of laughing out loud, a possibility exists that you may not get your full daily dose of chortles out of this book.

Zarnow can even be irritating. “A girl’s fascination with ballet begins with the costume...[B]efore ballet lessons come tutus. I have never met a girl over the age of two who does not have her own.” Harrumph. I read the “Little Ballerina” picture books and did the stretches and twirls in ordinary play clothes. I was even the sort of skinny, flat-tummied little girl who wouldn’t have looked pudgy in a tutu. My family did not, however, belong to an extravagant social clique in Orange County, and therefore I never had a tutu. In fact, until well after I’d developed (at age eleven) the body shape that runs on both sides of my family and disqualifies each and all of us for adult ballet careers, I never met a girl who did have a tutu. Even when somebody organized ballet lessons, little girls did their workouts in shorts and T-shirts. Even for recitals, or concerts or games or whatever kids were into, no coach or teacher would have dared to demand that parents invest in special costumes before grade eight at the earliest. The social experiences of children are usually limited to one economic tier of one neighborhood, but it is disheartening when an adult, a mother of three, confesses the same a book, yet.

For readers older than herself, Zarnow’s observations can also be an encouraging validation of our existing beliefs. Apparently Zarnow wasn’t required to study even summaries of Piaget’s theories on why elementary school children, up to age ten or twelve, almost never actually have friends, at least not in the sense teenagers and adults use the word. In 1992 there was a market for speculation about the possibility that forcing children to spend more time among other children the same age, rather than with their parents or other older relatives, might actually stimulate earlier development of “social skills.” Zarnow apparently hoped to see something like that happening...and reports that it didn’t. “They will cut each other cold with absolutely no sense of loyalty and talk about their birthday par­ties in front of children they have not invited.” “I see children callously jilt each oher when a ‘better’ friend comes along: ‘You can go home now; I’m playing with Mary today.’” “Two children panting to see one anotther sometimes can get along in each other’s company for a total of twenty minutes.”

Whether she’s affirming that she really does have something in common with the reader or betraying her lack of common experience with the reader, Zarnow may be most helpful to readers who want to compare observations on the parenting process. A broader base for comparisons would of course be more helpful. Zarnow worries about her children’s conformity to the gender stereotypes that had been challenged and theoretically discarded by the previous generation: “Who’s modeling for this role, anyway?” When invited to pick out what she liked from a toy catalogue, “everything that my daughter circled was pink or purple”; Zarnow’s daughter didn’t “like to build” with regular red, white, and blue blocks but would consider building a dollhouse with “pink and purple pieces.” Zarnow blames herself , because a daughter who “sees me apply lipstick to go grocery shopping” seems to have absorbed more girly-girliness than Zarnow thinks she’s ever modelled.

I could have offered her some reassurance, although her daughter is probably offering it by now. In a time when these issues were taken even more seriously by people who’d forgotten ever having been children, I remember playing “carpenter” and measuring chair legs, taking apart disabled electric gadgets, even wanting to drive a bus as long as those were things the glamorous grown-up male cousins were doing, then rejecting anything that could possibly interest boys or men when the possibility arose that my little brother might want to play too, then, a few years later, sharing all sorts of games and pastimes with that same brother after he’d developed enough coordination not to mess up the game. For a while, in concern and frustration, the adults in my life banned obviously gender-tagged things from the nursery; in the absence of pink and blue things I announced that green was for girls and orange was for boys and my icky little brother had better keep his grubby little hands off my green bowl, and so on. Then, as school-aged children, we became best buddies and “liberated” ourselves from gender roles. Then, as teenagers, we discovered that a mild interest in opposite-sex things tends to fascinate the opposite sex... Zarnow considers other ethical and political issues as they express themselves in her children’s play. “If G.I. Joe shoots Cobra...somebody else must rush him to the hospital.” (Zarnow does not explain how she micromanages the niceties of telling a nice American child he has to step into the role of an Al-Qaeda supporter.) “If [homeless people are] cold, why don’t they move to California?” “When my children do notice [ethnic] differences, I try to talk about them.” But it’s not easy, she laments, making children’s play politically correct. She must have forgotten Beverly Cleary’s explanation, long ago, in Mitch and Amy, of how in order to make up an imaginative game “the first rule was to get rid of the parents.” Maybe her children hadn’t reached that stage yet. Mitch and Amy were nine.

The biggest surprise in this book may be the disclosure, on page 189, that Zarnow is Jewish. At least this surprised me. Maybe those who really cared would have seen the name “Zarnow” and asked “Is that Jewish?” before they even opened the book. I quickly turned back to the book cover, saw the name “Addison-Wesley,” and asked “Isn’t that a specifically Christian publisher?” Maybe not any more. A disproportionate amount of twentieth-century American art and literature is Jewish, and from Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, or Bantam-Doubleday-Dell-And-Just-About-Everybody-Else-As-Well, I’d expect a book about a Jewish family. From Addison-Wesley, not until now.

It won’t be any surprise, but for some readers it will be a delight, to discover that this book contains about as many “heartwarming” scenes as it does funny ones. “We all seem to have the most love in the morning,” a child observes. “I just love babies,” says another child. Whatever experiences the children in this family are missing—and name-brand products seem to be substituting for a lot of the outdoor adventures and extended-family time I remember as the highlights of being those ages—they are loved, and they know it. Some things haven’t changed.

What Color Is Your Pickup Truck?

In the Western States, the blogger known as Pbird says, white pickup trucks have a special mystique. You can view her poll at ; the Disqus discussions tend to move to the newest post.

The discussion today reminded me that this web site is due for a truck status update.

1. My truck is three-colored because it was bought as a fixer-upper. If the hobbyist who bought it had been a little healthier, it would've been white, and would probably have been sold to someone else rather than handed down to me.

2. Most of my relatives' trucks are not white, though a few are. Some years my Significant Other drove a white pickup truck, some years black, some years red, and one truck was brown. "Bargain" and "mileage" seem to be the big selling points but for some years several of the family drove vehicles, cars and vans as well as trucks, painted dark teal.

3. I know some people who do prefer and recommend white for all vehicles. They say that (1) white paint lasts longer, (2) white shows up well at night, and (3) white reflects sunlight better than colors do.

4. Nobody hands out Car & Driver in schools, afaik. Boys used to talk about cars constantly.

5. Same as if he bought a white one: he'd be mistaken for other people who have a similar model and color. The dark teal tradition started with some people who bought midnight blue vehicles in the 1960s, and found that that particular shade of blue was made with copper and would oxidize to dark teal in a few years. That might have attracted ridicule in the 1970s. By the time I was learning to drive a great-uncle's teal car, blue vehicles stayed blue and teal had to be ordered.

Color doesn't seem to be a big thing here, though, except with people who like an unusual, often unpopular color because it makes their green car or purple truck easy to find. Size is a big thing. Many people live on private roads that demand high clearance, though as I recall Toyota Corollas and Subaru DL's used to ride high enough for most local roads. Some men like oversized vehicles because they are oversized themselves, and I happen to like one of those men. Some men seem to like having to lift their wives or girlfriends in and out of their trucks. Some older women, otoh, seem to like bouncing in and out of big trucks just because they can.

I like small vehicles that get good mileage myself, and bonus points if they fit my short legs, but when I saw the hobbyist's big gas-guzzling Ford truck I said, "Oh, that's the kind my Significant Other always liked!" I, personally, do not enjoy driving anything, because of my astigmatism. I like the idea of the new Ford trucks that can be used as generators, which is something we all need almost every year, and I like the idea of little solar-powered cars, but I couldn't afford a new truck and couldn't picture my Significant Other being motivated to recover by the prospect of riding around in a small car.

So there's this truck. It does not live at my house, where it would be an open invitation to the Professional Bad Neighbor. It's sat on a lot for many years and can sit for a few more. I still drive only when I'm with someone else who is not able to walk or drive. The astigmatism isn't getting better as I grow older. I can still read the bottom line on the eye test, but the last time I drove a car (it was after acquiring the truck, but it was not the truck) I tried to see the side of the road quickly and turn at a normal speed, and got that optical illusion where you see two of something plus a funny little overlapping image between them, just for a second. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, hold two fingers pointing at each other, an inch or two apart, in front of the screen as you read this.) So if I do start driving, I'll be one of those annoying people who always drive very very slowly, causing people to honk and shout about having lost the bleeping funeral procession already. 

Walking is so much easier...and safer...and better for the whole world...

Drive carefully, Gentle Readers. How many times can you plan ahead and avoid driving at all?

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Book Review: Fitness After 50 Workout

Title: Fitness After 50 Workout

Author: Elaine LaLanne

Date: 1989

Publisher: Penguin

ISBN: 0-8289-0669-6

Length: 101 pages plus 61 pages of worksheets

Illustrations: black-and-white photos by Jim Stimpson

Quote: "[T]he only thing good about the donut is the hole in the middle because it has no calories."

Jack LaLanne ruled the world of fitness gurus for fifty years. In 1989, when he stepped back and let his sleekly curved sixty-something wife write a few LaLanne fitness book, he was still working out too and looking well preserved. This book is, however, written for women. Men can do the exercises too; they won't give a man a feminine body shape, they're the basic stretch-and-tone-before-you-walk-or-swim routine, but they're written up with an "us girls" tone.

Though Elaine LaLanne addresses middle-aged women, I think she has something to offer the young too. Young women who present exercise shows tend to be scantly clad "hotties" who look as if they'd been slightly underweight for their height since age two. Elaine LaLanne wears a shirt with sleeves tucked into her tights, has some loose skin at the backs of her arms and a lower body shape that looks as if she might once have been pregnant, even shows traces of the thinner, drier epidermis that gives away the age of superbly preserved seniors--and she looks great. You can tell she's not 25 years old but, if you are 25 years old and don't like looking at ninety-pound cheerleaders, you may find a sixty-plus model easier to take.

The book discusses two approaches to exercise: exercises that tone specific muscles and guarantee quick visual improvement, and cardiovascular fitness as such. Elaine LaLanne presents the exercises to reshape "problem parts" before getting into the cardiovascular workout. She recommends doing both, but explains how to do the muscle-specific stretch-and-tone exercises alone.

For some people there's a valid reason for this, beyond the pragmatic reason that if you're going to get into the habit of exercising by watching a TV show, the part-toning exercises are the ones you do while watching TV. Most 19-year-olds are ready to dive right into cardiovascular workouts. I remember taking a cardiovascular fitness course at university. On the second day of classes the teacher just marched everyone out into the chilly Michigan morning and said, "We're going to check our pulse rates after running a mile and a half. Run as long as you can, then walk...just get six times around the course in half an hour, so we can get on with the book work in the classroom." And just like that, in whatever shoes we'd worn to class, we all ran a mile and a half. That's not usually dangerous for undergraduates, although that teacher was taking a calculated risk, but many 60-year-olds have let themselves atrophy so badly that running a mile and a half would be sure to produce injuries. It may be wise to spend a few weeks toning and walking slowly before we start running. That "complete physical" checkup LaLanne recommends getting, before you start, is intended to identify special needs.

A large part of this slim book is meant to be written by the reader. You get six months to log your pulse rate, distance walked/run/swum for your aerobics workout, and number of reps of your toning exercises, each day, on worksheets printed right in the book.

How much good will this book do you? How much will you let it do? There are medical problems, including hypothyroidism and resultant obesity, that aren't cured by exercise alone. Even those conditions can be helped by exercise. Hypothyroid patients who work out don't show the most inspiring style, get tired quickly, and don't develop the perfect figures these exercises help women maintain, but they do tone the muscles and maintain a firmer, shapelier overweight body than flabby hypothyroid patients have. If a doctor gives you permission to do aerobic exercises, this book will help you warm up before the workout.

Possibly the most important thing to understand about all books about health-promoting practices is that everyone's mileage will vary. Most of us are never going to look like the LaLannes or be coaching exercise classes for as long as they did. Merely as a status update, I will mention, however, that while enjoying Internet access I've started following a few blogs that actually post the "mood music" people used to suggest at Live Journal. The Unsatisfactory Toshiba replays music fairly well, and I've taken to doing exercises, especially arm and back exercises aimed at recovering the muscle I lost during the salmonella/glyphosate double-whammy episode, while reading things online. I have thought, occasionally, about surgical alternatives to trying to maintain firm youthful C-cups, and that thought makes "uselessly flapping the air" much more interesting than it was when I just had firm youthful C-cups and there was no doing anything about it. If Elaine LaLanne never had to deal with this specific figure problem, she's still an encouraging example. 

Is Overpopulation a Problem?

There are those who want to think that a decline in the birth rates in some countries means that we don't have to worry about overpopulation any more. "That's just a left-wing idea." If Bernie Sanders said it was raining outside, would that make "It's raining outside" a left-wing statement? A book called The Population Bomb was written by a left-winger. Other facts about the population situation, however, are non-partisan. 

In the 1990s, in a book called All the Trouble in the World, P.J. O'Rourke took a position that appealed to some right-wing types: Right, so our cities are overpopulated--congested. There's still a lot of land on Earth that has relatively low human populations. Mind you, this land has low human populations for reasons, but when people get desperate enough they'll probably find ways to live in the Gobi Desert or on the Canadian Shield...oh right.

During the present century, of course, it's come to seem odd to blame the left wing for any current worries about overpopulation, because left-wingers have not been screaming about the perils of overpopulation. Their latest craze has been reviving the polluted, abandoned cores of inner cities. This would not have been a bad idea if left-wingers hadn't made it into a sort of test of faith in the socialist revolution. It's not enough for Lefty McLeftbehind to open a nice restaurant in the old Greyhound bus station like a sensible person. He has to clamor for Big Government to give him a captive market by packing a thousand families into the rest of the block. Better pull down that old warehouse that used to face the Greyhound bus station, put in a forty-storey apartment block, pack in a lot of miserable working families, and make sure they'll stay there by burdening private home owners with so many stupid "environmental" restrictions that only those who've paid massive bribes to the local government officials will dare to own houses.

Which will be...not "walkable," no, because people don't actually walk in crowded areas. They will be slums. They will generate tons of smog and raw sewage. The left wing have already decided that a few of the most human-friendly places on earth, such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, should be designated "sacrifice areas," and the next generation of technoplutocrats who will own all the money should be the ones entrusted to own all the green space. Quality of life for ordinary people is not a priority for the left wing. Some humans survived in Hong Kong, therefore some will survive in the congestion zones they want to pack people into. Tell'em they don't want to be "hoarders" who own more than one or two books, more than one or two changes of clothes. Tell'em that if they could bond with dogs, they could bond with cockroaches, which may or may not have any capacity for the emotion of affection but are known to enjoy fitting into snug spaces and can be trained to like being clutched in a human hand. Tell'em they don't need privacy, they don't need quiet, they don't need children of their own...and they don't need to live seventy or eighty years; in the kind of environment the New Left like to plan, twenty-five years would undoubtedly feel like a long hard life.

Responsible land ownership, which includes not having more children than you can leave land to, has never been a left-wing thing, which is one valid reason to say no to any plans that would transfer land management into the hands of the new "globalist" left-wingers.

How do we know when having more than One Child Or None has become a possibly public-spirited choice? Same way we know whether to take out an umbrella. We don't consult a political agenda; we look outside.

Here are some indications that it might be a public-spirited choice for some people to have more than one child or none:

* Unemployment: Rate below 2%.

* Standard of living: High, but not grandiose. People can afford to have and do more when they're not overburdened by dependent children. People feel less of a craving to have and do more than their neighbors have because they seldom actually see their neighbors. Humans finally enjoy the utopian conditions our great-grandparents hopes technology would bring.

* Work: Most people work as independent contractors, either from their homes or from separate workshop buildings on their own property. Most factory work is done by robots; most meetings and negotiations are conducted by telephone or computer. Market days, when people go into town and mingle, occur a couple of times a month and are festive occasions. People resent each other less when they don't see each other every day..

* Food: Most of the time most people have access to a good variety of good-quality plant-based food, milk and eggs for part of the year, and meat a few times a year. People exchange food in the market. Only a small  amount of food needs to be grown for commercial use. As people are no longer under pressure to deliver certain amounts of one cash crop for each field, most plants formerly regarded as "weeds" are known as "spring vegetables." 

* Pavement: Mostly broken up and re-purposed. When gravel tracks become muddy, this is taken as an indication that people need to choose alternate routes or build bridges.

* Slums: Abandoned, crumbling--without new ones forming a few blocks uptown. Sometimes you read about a family that inherited an apartment block, and each child has always had his or her own apartment. Anything above the third floor is storage space. "Skyscrapers" are being dismantled.

* Average single-family dwelling: One to five acres. Who'd buy a house without space to grow food?

* Social behavior: Might seem extravagant with time and space to most of us. Even small children have rooms of their own and maintain a healthy interpersonal distance. People probably find, however, that when they really want to cuddle together, they enjoy snuggling more because they have adequate interpersonal distance most of the time. 

* "Sexual minorities": A few people are sterile or asexual for obvious medical reasons, so others are polite about it. Having more than two children might be considered kinky. Otherwise, as when other lifeforms enjoy a healthy uncrowded population density, human sexuality is so vanilla that people wouldn't even get their knickers in a twist if they heard of someone still managing to be "gay." That morbid obsession with what other people might be doing also ceases to occur.

* Primary sexual taboo: Doing anything without your partner's wholehearted (if perhaps nonverbal) consent.

* Military situation: There will always be an army, and they'll always need to be prepared for anything--and people really respect those who can get the troops to prepare for purely hypothetical encounters with hypothetical invaders from other planets, because humans don't fight wars with other humans any more. On an uncrowded planet everybody has Lebensraum already. Compromising that Lebensraum by having more than two babies is considered selfish and foolish but, as long as some people have no children, it doesn't have to be considered an act of war.

* Abortion: People have read that once long ago this was a topic of debate, but find that hard to imagine. What's to debate about a personal tragedy caused by illness?

* Birth control: Most people agree that making love, when focussed on one's partner, is physically as pleasurable as making babies, when focussed on the babies. You might, however, hear an urban legend about the couple who dreamed they were making a baby, although they weren't physically fit to have one, and didn't want to wake up before they had to admit it was true. You ask a doctor whether that ever happens; the doctor says, "Yes; there's a hormone formula that terminates the pregnancy, but it can take a week or two for it to be shipped up from Backobeyond Laboratories."

* Sexual deviations: Since women don't consent to sex on polygamous terms, young men have learned not only to lower their eyes when a pretty girl passes by but to feel shamefaced and "dirty" about having polygamous impulses. "Cheating" is recognized as, well, cheating. Men stop fooling themselves that a man who "only" cheats in relationships with woen isn't going to cheat them, too. As a result eople sue for libel damages when accused of any interest in extramarital sex.

* Sounds typically heard on a city street: Footsteps, bike tires, birds, an occasional yard dog or delivery truck. When people replay music, they gather around and listen to it, sing or play along with it, exercise or dance to it, and are mortified if they realize that anyone not part of an agreement to listen to recorded music together can hear it--they didn't mean to be rude. Noise is rude.

* Animals: Nobody feels motivated to complain about animals that don't eat humans or spoil crops. Neither humans nor domestic animals are crowded together enough to generate much of an odor problem or health hazard. Having time to ride a horse is a status symbol. Houses whose front doors are not normally watched by a cat raise suspicions. Not everyone eats milk or eggs, so not all nice people live with cows or chickens. Most gardens include things planted for the benefit of songbirds and butterflies. On the other hand, anyone who felt called to lobby for allowing animals that are truly incompatible with humans, like bears or coyotes, to roam around outside of specially constructed islands in zoos, would be self-identifying as an antisocial "ticking bomb." Animals that attack humans are rigorously "controlled."

* Landscaping, clothing, decor: Rich variety, with an increasing number of "tiny houses," trailer houses, "playhouses," and other outbuildings popping up near big houses, as parents and children often enjoy having separate houses within sight of their relatives in the active generation. The idea of "zoning" for different types of houses or business in different neighborhoods seems ludicrous. There's room to plant trees to block out the sight of your neighbor's house.

* Energy: Most people have room for enough solar panels, not attached to their roofs, to meet their energy needs. Biomass is burned for additional energy. Pollution from batteries is less of a problem because humans are scattered widely enough for pollution to be reabsorbed harmlessly into the earth.

* Water: Most springs are carefully maintained as good sources of clean water. Underground drainage helps keep rainwater from forming stagnant pools near houses, but dung and carrion are too rich sources of cheap energy to be dissolved in water, and are dried out and burned.

* Vaccines: Are manufactured only in response to epidemic diseases. Most people never see an epidemic disease and thus never see a vaccination. Diseases become epidemic when people are crowded together.

* Immigration policy: Probably at some point in the past people from more crowded countries were desperate to get into this one and were admitted as legal immigrants if surgically sterilized. By now, what need? Humankind survived into the twentieth century without formal documentation of citizenship. People were lawful residents of wherever someone had lawfully sold or leased them a house. The fact that existing technology makes it possible to spy on people and keep elaborate records of their movements does not justify the expense of paying anyone to do that. When people aren't crowded together, there's less reason to fear that their voluntary movements will unbalance the economy.

* Education: Since every child is a wanted child, laws no longer require children to be confined to warehouses for unwanted children. Elementary education usually takes place at home. Schools teach special skills and subjects, mostly to mixed groups of teenagers and adults. Admission to school programs is based on preparation not age.

* "Race": Family pride is unquestioned as being a healthy thing. "Race" bigotry, which forms among populations competing for jobs and status, no longer exists. All the old hereditary "racial" genotypes probably are preserved somewhere in their purest forms, and some new ones may be recognized by people who want to perpetuate their hereditary traits...but nobody hates other people just because they look different. When people aren't crowded together to the point of feeling hostile toward difference, they see difference as interesting.

Are we there yet? Does this sound like your neighborhood? Right. Differences between this hypothetical community and the real ones in which we live indicate the degree to which we are an overcrowded species. The public-spirited choice is: One child or none.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Book Review: Eighth Moon

Title: Eighth Moon

Author: “Sansan” with Bette Bao Lord

Date: 1964, 1984

Publisher: Hale (U.K.), Sphere / Harper (U.S.)

ISBN: none

Length: 183 pages

Quote: “I wondered about America, where my family was living...I knew little about America except for political theories.”

Bette Bao Lord is the author of two bestselling novels: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, based on the Chinese-American immigrant experience of her childhood, and Spring Moon, based on her family stories of Old China. Eighth Moon is a first-person narrative, told to Lord as true, about the experience of her sister who was left behind to grow up in Mao's China.

In 1964, when Eighth Moon was first published, “Sansan” was still a young student and her story basically ends with her defection to the United States.

It's not the kind of big splashy novel American consumers of China-based fiction have learned to expect. Here is none of the red-and-gold exoticism of Spring Moon. Sansan, about the same age as the Clintons and W Bush, grows up in a thoroughly modern “Communist” China, feet unbound but education rigidly limited, eating bran muffins rather than rice, kowtowing to “criticism and confession” sessions rather than quaint rituals of ancestor-worship. She travels by trains, reads strictly censored newspapers, goes to a modern coeducational school where assignments include scooping up fresh horse manure from the streets (for agriculture class, the students cultivate mushrooms on it).

In 1964 “the new miracle antibiotics” were a hot topic in the English-speaking world. China, Sansan reports, didn't have the benefit of them. People sweated out fevers for weeks or even years. One of her friends developed tuberculosis and continued to go to school, wearing a face mask, until the end.

The Chinese government had recognized the dangers of overpopulation, and traditional Chinese parents had always frowned on teen romance...and Sansan's story is 99% sex-free. There is a mention of her having squelched a corrupt inspector with the suggestion that he was trying to peek at her blouse. There is a school friend with whom Sansan at first engaged in honest, spontaneous, idealistic-early-teenager-type self-criticism (“Please, don't steal any more”), but before they're full-grown this mutual self-improvement leads the boy to blurt out criticisms of Sansan to adults, where the criticism will be used against her in her job; this, of course, is unforgivable.

Among the ickiest things Sansan reports about Mao's China is the extremely ambiguous benefits of having family members in Hong Kong and America. Good “Communists” with relatives in capitalist countries get more of certain rationed goods so their letters will sound less dreary. They also come in for closer, harsher scrutiny. Sansan grows up calling other relatives her parents, calling her grandmother “Grandmother” but believing it's an empty courtesy title for a distant relative. Then as a teenager she learns that her real family structure is the reverse of what she's always thought it was.

And why was she always called Sansan, anyway? This was a nickname, not her official given name. It was heard as “Three-Three,” and another child taunted her, “[W]here are children number one and two?” Sansan accepted the unlikely story that she was called “Three-Three” because she was born on the sixth of the month, as a child, rather than dig for the truth that children number one and two had escaped to America with their natural parents. How people long to believe what we'd prefer to be the truth...

Is it possible that Sansan is emphasizing the worst things about her life in China for immigration purposes? It's probable. Then again, why would she want to do that? I think of a TV sitcom of which I remember only ever watching one episode, where the characters overhear a man pleading with immigration officials that he had to escape from the oppressive regime--“Mr. Wossname, our records show that you're from Canada,” an official says severely, and Mr. Wossname whines, “It was cold!” Any possibility that anyone from Canada ever complains about any temperature being too cold is good for a laugh in the warmer half of the continent and yet, if people want to live in a whole different country to get away from cold weather, it seems to me we have to admit that, for them, cold weather is oppressive. Maybe they're on anti-hypertensive medication. Sansan claims no special vocation to practice any form of medicine, admittedly wants to go to medical school to qualify for the highest-paid job she thinks she can qualify for, does not present herself as someone you want to see become a doctor, but in a real democracy she would at least have been allowed enough training to steer her into medical research writing rather than told she had to be a primary school teacher.

Stand Your Ground, Kingsport

This post is a response to Eli Bray's letter printed on September 8, 2022, page A4, which was a response to the August 31 article "Everybody Wants to Move to Kingsport."

In that letter, Eli Bray asked, "Who would want to move into one of the worst cities or crime int he entire state and possibly the nation (for a city of its size)?" and says, "Kingsport used to be a wonderful place to live, go shopping and go to eat  Kingsport is losing business left and right as well  Why? The crime rate..." of , "According to per one thousand residents...One's chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime here is one in 20."

This is true. Two primary factors contributed to the precipitous decline in the quality of life in the northeast section of Kingsport.

One was inevitable: The residents of the neighborhood called Upper Sevier Terrace, or Snob Hill, were mostly retired people. Active, healthy, and loyal to their own, they kept walking through their neighborhood and using their pool and tennis club into their eighties or nineties. Still, many of them didn't live to see the coronavirus panic.

The other factor was a bad decision made by the city for the sake of federal funding. The nice little downscale shopping plaza that was built to serve paper mill and press employees, on Sullivan, was replaced with apartment towers designated "low-income housing" and stocked with the hardest cases from the welfare rolls of other cities--the people those cities most wanted to get rid of. As these people moved in, those who bought or inherited houses in Upper Sevier Terrace began to move out.

My mother always wanted to retire in Upper Sevier Terrace. While she lived there I visited that section of Kingsport often. I didn't care for the factory emissions in the air,but other than that, it was really a "Model City" with the tiers of increasingly luxurious houses as you go uphill, the easy walks to the Super Wal-Mart or the schools or the hospitals or almost anything else you can think of, the charming Greenbelt Park with its waterfowl once including a pelican, the fine selection of new and old books Mr. Bartlett, Mrs. Liu, and staff maintained in the library, and generally everything a nice city neighborhood ought to have.

I'm glad Mother didn't live to see what that neighborhood has become now. It's trashy, with homeless or just drugged-out people squatting everywhere--and I do mean squatting--and surly staff in the few big-chain businesses that have stayed open. One reason why the staff are surly may be the well documented fact that the crowd roaming those streets now are so mean, they steal the shoes and socks off homeless people's feet while they sleep. The "crime" rate still consists more of shoplifting, trespassing, littering, and public (let's stick with "squatting") rather than rape and murder, but it's certainly unpleasant. Walk on those streets on a wet day and your shoes are ruined forever.

I no longer walk into Kingsport. When I join a car pool from Gate City to Wal-Mart, more often than not we find allegedly homeless people begging outside the store. Once, surprised by the age of a couple of panhandlers, we checked them out and found that they really were homeless as the result of a fire.

In Gate City we now have a problem parallel to Kingsport's problem. Northeast Kingsport has a problem with "White flight." It's not that Kingsport's White yuppies are racists. They got along well with their neighbors, Asian doctors and Black business owners and Hispanic storekeepers, for all these years. They recommended these people to me and other visitors or newcomers to their neighborhood. The "blackandhispanic" social problems culled from the slums of Chattanooga are something altogether different. I think that, for the first time in their lives, Kingsport's White yuppies are learning what race prejudice used to be about.

Anyway, we now have a problem with Kingsport's "White flight" people wanting to move to Gate City. This puts us in the awkward position of having to say to friends and even relatives, "No, don't move in here. Don't pay the sucker prices, inflate property values, and start a process of yuppification here!" Although Gate City could certainly use a cash infusion, that cash infusion does not need to take the form of inflated taxes that would jeopardize local business and property owners. Although some Kingsporters are truly nice people and good neighbors, the solution is not for them to let themselves be herded into Gate City and try to create yuppified "boutique" neighborhoods here.

Gate City is a low-rent town, and should remain that way. We have luxurious Victorian houses, decent-looking four-rooms-and-basement houses, and trailer houses, in the same block. That is a valuable quality we should maintain at all costs. Any Kingsporters who do move in need to be committed to resist the temptation to stratify and yuppify. They need to understand fully that what makes nice neighborhoods, including Upper Sevier Terrace, is not "property values" that automatically exclude people who do certain kinds of jobs, which is un-American and morally obscene, but small communities of people who know, respect, and trust one another.

In a nice neighborhood everyone is not everyone else's close friend; in fact people may not speak to each other often, but when there is any reason to speak they are cordial and respectful. People support one another's businesses or employers. One of the nicest things about Upper Sevier Terrace was the way, when a neighbor who was still working became disabled and lost his job, people paid him to do odd jobs and bought what he had to sell off, keeping him in his home as long as possible. When a neighbor's daughter lost her home and children in a divorce, they found part-time work for her maintaining the club facilities. Such things showed that, though well paid even in retirement, the neighbors really were nice. In order to re-create that sort of niceness in a different neighborhood, however, they would need to accept and respect the fact that equally nice people may have lower incomes and may not have or want an "upscale" neighborhood. Kingsport was specifically planned to be a big enough city to have rows of "upscale" and "downscale" stores. Gate City is not so big and, whatever a certain immigrant from Tennessee on our town council may think, we cannot afford the stratification. We need to keep the hardware stores, consignment shops, and "dollar stores" right beside the tourist-trap gift shops and upscale boutiques. If there are people in Gate City who don't want to go into stores where they might meet tobacco farmers, disability pensioners, or even coal miners, we need to keep Jackson Street the sort of place where those people won't want to shop at all.

Yes, we have different personality types and different income levels and different circles of close friends. However, a nice neighborhood has to remain a place where people who are not close friends don't have to talk to one another, but do mingle. In Kingsport the space available made it feasible to build literal tiers of houses and shops that people literally moved up as they progressed from entry-level jobs to management jobs to retirement. In Gate City we don't have that much space, and some of the most "downscale" houses and businesses are and should remain next door to some of the poshest, and if you can't deal with that you need to stay in Kingsport.

What's happening to Upper Sevier Terrace is horrible and tragic. I do understand how the people who had just started redecorating their nice houses, on the tiers higher than Wal-Mart, feel about their neighborhood now. I don't know whether to cry or to be sick as I look at what used to be such a pretty section of town, either.

Kingsport never really had a bad neighborhood, in the sense that Washington or Baltimore, Richmond or Chattanooga, understand the phrase. That's rare for an American city. Kingsport had rows of endearingly shabby little houses near its factories, but they were separate houses, clean, green, well kept. It had a section "redlined" for Black residents, but there again, the houses were small but well kept, the residents had jobs, there seemed a clear intention to attract people who wanted to have a Black cultural atmosphere rather than to confine Black people in a ghetto, and in fact Black people lived in other parts of Kingsport too. Kingsport had a few low-rise apartment buildings, but most of the apartments advertised for rent were either above stores or in the attics or basements of houses; there wasn't even room for potential slums to develop. All of Kingsport was and still is too close to factories for any neighborhood to be considered really good or healthy, but as factory towns go, all of Kingsport was surprisingly decent.

I hate that "Snob Hill" was chosen to be put in danger of becoming Kingsport's first really bad neighborhood.

In 2015 I blogged about being harassed by two teenaged boys, in Lynn Garden near the Virginia border. A relative who wouldn't have stopped if he'd seen me walking peacefully home stopped to ask what was going on, and the boys fled. But the last time I joined a car pool into Kingsport I saw the same boys, now young men. I wonder if they're still claiming Lynn Garden Drive as their drug business zone, still harassing responsible adults who walk along that neighborhood's only real street.

There is a way Kingsporters can fight this. It's not easy but I have seen it work, and when it works, it is tremendous fun. It worked for Takoma Park, Maryland, for a long time; it worked for the part of Pittsburgh where I stayed during the Gulf War. Washington and Pittsburgh are big enough cities to have seriously bad neighborhoods, but there are also neighborhoods where people decided to stand their ground and keep their neighborhoods decent.

Sam Abbott, Mayor of Takoma Park for much of the twentieth century, was a distant relative of Mother's. On national issues he might have been called a left-wingnut. On issues facing a suburb-town his thinking was practical and rational; I think I learned from studying his policies what Kingsport needs to know, and do.

1. Welcome diversity. As a factory town Kingsport has always been diverse, less ingrown than most towns of its size or smaller.. Accept this. Despite the tiers of cheaper and posher houses, rich and poor Kingsporters have shopped in the same stores, sent their children to the same schools, and attended the same churches. Embrace this.

2. Do not accept poverty as a reason for bad citizenship. Expect your new poor neighbors to behave as decently as your familiar poor neighbors always have done.

3. Deal with people as individuals. This is hard when the undesirable people have been shipped in, if not by bus loads, at least in quick succession, but it's necessary. Recognize which new neighbors are merely poor people, just like some of you only without the supportive families, and which ones are truly undesirable people. Don't tolerate the bad ones in the belief that it will make the ones who are merely poor feel better about themselves. Black people may have been socialized to stick together in the presence of White people they don't know well, but they do not enjoy having their property stolen or their yards squatted in by other Black people, When individuals are dopey and incontinent, put them in rehab, and when they are aggressive, put them in jail, whatever they look like and however long they've been there. This policy will make it easier to recognize the chronically poor but decent human beings among your new neighbors.

4. Help and encourage poor people to improve their income and thus their lifestyle. This is not done with yuppie rules about how low everyone needs to keep their grass or how much income every renter needs to have above the cost of rent. It's done by discarding yuppie rules. Fling wide the gates to whatever legitimate products or services poor people can offer to earn quick cash. Buy those products and services. Understand that welfare programs do nothing whatsoever to help people improve their situations, that big grants don't come along every day, and that poor people who work their way into the middle class do so with one little cash sale at a time. Ban all restrictions on yard sales, flea markets, rent parties, and door-to-door peddling. If you catch yourself thinking or saying anything like "Why would I want any of the cheap junk X makes," do penance, thusly: Bite your tongue. Find out how much it would cost someone who's been making cheap frilled-paper ornaments to make something you consider more "upscale." Buy as much of the person's existing wares as the person says it would take to pay for the cost of making them, the time of selling them, a week's groceries, and the posher art supplies. Then, once you know for sure that the person can afford it, describe exactly what you'd prefer to buy and commission the person to make it.

5. Keep rent rates and property values reasonable relative to the incomes of neighborhood residents. Accept trailer houses as a fact of life--they're more comfortable for most people than the "tiny houses" fad. Neither of the two traditional objections to trailer houses is valid: (1) You want to support local construction businesses by letting people pay to replace all the cheap tacky surfaces in a trailer house; and (2) once trailer houses are set up as permanent residences with their own utilities, there's no reason why they should not be taxed as the small, cheap houses they are. Do not allow prejudice against trailer houses to herd people off land that then sits vacant until it's bought up by some sort of really undesirable outside interests.

6. Resist the temptation to plead, "Oh, but with higher taxes local government could do so much more for people!" With higher taxes local government can become more bureaucratic and annoying to the taxpayers. With lower taxes people can do more for themselves. You want to focus on lower taxes. Anyone campaigning for office needs to be able to display the overall budget cuts person has made.

7. Stop thinking of "needs" and think in terms of "worth." Socialists have had a hundred years to yammer about "needs," and what is the effect on the actual poor people? They are sick and tired of it. Don't dare think of a human being as some pathetic bundle of useless, worthless "needs." Before you presume to make eye contact with a person, think of what that person has to offer you and how that person may be able to meet your "needs." In this way, if you want to help the person begging for money to buy food outside Wal-Mart, you will not be tempted to start prescribing what food they ought to buy. Learn to say "I'll pay X amount for the product or service Y" and trust the person to know what to do with the money. Some people do need to be supervised through a rehabilitation program in which they can't spend their own money as they see fit, but most working parents, retirees with medical bills, and disabled people who have not been awarded pensions yet, just need more cash flow. If their priorities seem different from yours, you might respectfully ask them what you need to know about living on their kind of income, bt it's really none of your business.

Which brings us back to step one: Welcome diversity. So there we are.

By taking these short, simple steps Kingsport has a chance to reclaim Upper Sevier Terrace. And never doubt that everyone in Gate City hopes youall can do it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Which Planet Are You Under?

As a comment on , I find it interesting to think, or try to think, of how much of medieval thought Galileo's astronomy upset. A crucial part of medieval education was learning the names of the visible stars and planets. Stars were used as reference points for navigation, so knowing what little was known about them had its practical benefit. They were also believed to have ruling spirits, the gods Pagans worshipped and medieval Christians merely respected as something more like angels. The planets were characterized as what seemed to be stages in life. If you read or translate medieval literature you find constant references to the archetypes associated with the planets. The medieval writers could not say how the planets related to these archetypes because, as we see things, they don't; but neither could they break the habit of referring to the archetypes they saw everywhere in life.

Earth was not seen as a planet in medieval cosmology. Earth was the center and foundation. Earth was "Mother" and "matter"; these words were connected, which was how sediment in wine came to be called "mother" and dead human flesh "mummy." Medieval thinkers could not deny the importance of "mundane" work, often "earth work" (gardening and farming), for survival, but they were always trying to get beyond it, as growing children try to move beyond the family nest. Earth was the starting point on the journey to maturity, death, and resurrection.

Earth's Sun and Moon, however, were regarded as planets. "Brother" Sun was "the great light" of education and enlightenment. "Sister" Moon was "the lesser light" of solitary reflection. Too much of either one was dangerous. Everyone knew about the effects of sunburn and sleep deprivation. 

Mercury, the smallest and fastest moving planet, seems to have represented the youth or apprentice stage of life. As a Pagan god Mercurius was the errand boy to the others, not imagined to have much power of his own. Though definitely male (a "herm" was a pillar perceived as a male symbol; Hermes was the Greek name for Mercurius) he was not usually seen as having a wife or children. Impatience, restlessness, and quick changes of mood associated with attention deficits, were "mercurial" qualities. The physical substance called mercury fascinated medieval thinkers even after they learned how toxic it is. 

Venus represented the young adult, emotional, hormone-ridden stage. As a goddess Venus had her cult, but it was considered unimportant except to people unfortunate enough to be "in love" with someone to whom their parents had not betrothed them. Venus was said to rule over all experiences of Love and Beauty but when people referred to "the act of Venus" they were not talking about the appreciation of music or landscapes. (Hunting, however, was considered similar enough to courtship that several medieval words for hunting were derived from "Venus." Deer meat is still called venison.) 

Mars, the god of war, may have been actually worshipped by soldiers. As a planetary archetype he represented the military or military-style discipline recommended to counteract the sentimentality associated with Venus. Many conflicting stories about Mars' and Venus' relationship to each other were metaphoric ways to describe the relationship between marital and martial obligations in a young man's life. The predominant story about Mars as a mythological person was that he was married, at least for a while, and had two horrid sons whose names meant Fear and Terror.

Jupiter, the king said to rule the biggest planet, represented the successful mature man. In the Greek and Roman world he was the god most often worshipped, with sacrifices of animas whose meat was then sold in the markets. Early Christians, whose failure to buy edible animals for sacrifice to this god was seen as tax evasion, disagreed about the morality of eating this "meat that had been offered to idols" because buying it gave more money to the cult of Jupiter. Ancient writers spelled and pronounced his name in several ways that all seem to have meant "God (Zeus) Father." Many stories were told about him and, though they show him to have been a bully, cheater, traitor, murderer, rapist, adulterer, and even patricide if read literally, they seem to have been metaphors that confused the spread of imperial power with the observed facts of life. In stories where Zeus killed one or both of his parents, or killed one to protect or avenge the other, his father's name was Time; Zeus "killed" mortality by being immortal. In stories where he forgot all about his wife and pursued other women, there seem to have been historical references to his cult spreading through colonies where people had previously worshipped ancestor goddesses. So the early Christians were inconsistent, even individually confused, about whether they could approve of some aspects of the Jupiter cult as showing a primitive understanding of the One God--the name form "Jove" surely reflected some attempt to associate Jupiter with the Hebrew name for God. When Jupiter was explained as the angel ruling the giant planet, his "influence" was thought to explain the "jovial" mood produced by good health and prosperity. 

(The adjective "jovial" doesn't look or sound much like the name Jupiter in English, but in the ancient world the names Jove, Zeus, theos, deus, divus, deva, and Jehovah, were "cognates"--different dialectal words that all basically meant "God." "Jupiter" was understood to be a contracted form of any of those names for God plus pater, "the Father." In Greek and Roman mythology neither Zeus nor Jupiter was seen as the One God, but as local gods who had fought their way to a dominant position among other local gods. Nevertheless their worshippers sometimes praised and prayed to Zeus or Jupiter as if they thought those gods were something like what we understand the word "God" to mean. The Hebrew idea of One God, Ruler of the Universe, had more influence on other ancient cultures than non-Hebrew writers cared to admit.)

Saturn, the most remote planet the medieval astrologers could see, was a complex character in ancient lore. His complexity seems basically to represent old age, and also the historical fact that he was actually worshipped in rural Italy before the Jupiter cult spread out from Rome. He was seen primarily as the god of good harvests and satisfaction, but he was the Grim Reaper as well as the merry reaper, presiding over poor harvests as well as good ones. A "saturnine" personality is not necessarily unhealthy, but is older, calmer, sometimes wiser than a "jovial" personality, soberer, on more familiar terms with harsh reality. The jovial archetype is cheerful in the way people can "party hearty" and forget that they're going to grow old and die, or even to have to pay the bills, later. The saturnine archetype has thought about the bills, probably paid in advance, and can now enjoy as much of a part ad the person can afford. Old age is obviously a time of misery for some people and of mature, productive joy for other people. Saturn's influence was seen as evil, even fatal, for some people and desirable for others. Mars was the planet properly blamed for war, but Saturn could be blamed for damage to the land and economic depressions that came after war--or thanked for peace and prosperity. Though the god of an Italian cult was not directly related to the Greek god or personification of Time, Chronos, Saturn was sometimes thought to represent the same archetype as Chronos. Chronos was the father Zeus had killed, though of course he didn't stay dead; he doesn't seem to have been worshipped, but he was seen as immortal and, of course, very much a power of influence on mortals.

Two physical types are observed in European populations. The basic human type that seems to be the majority everywhere is smaller and darker than what might be called the extreme White type. Medieval thinkers associated tall, muscular, big-boned, sometimes even fat, pale-skinned or even florid, fair-haired, and blue-eyed genotypes with Jupiter, and shorter, darker-complexioned types with Saturn, possibly because those differences were observed between the imperial family and the rural peasants who still worshipped Saturn. The contrast between the types is found in the Bible, where already the types were not seen as distinct "races" but as differences observed between brothers. In the Bible Jacob was definitely preferred to Esau. In Roman and medieval thought the extreme White type was seen as preferable in every way. Writers raved about characters' blond hair; if the characters were real people who had black hair, writers tactfully didn't mention it. (Satirists and political enemies, however, taunted people like Anne Boleyn about their non-blondeness.) But it remained for nineteenth and early twentieth century sociologists to identify the different types as "Nordic" and Southern European "race" types and, ultimately, decide that the "Nordic" or "Germanic" type ought to take over all of Europe. Medieval thinking about the influences of the passing planets, all crossing and interacting with one another, blamed unwanted traits on people's horoscopes and gave people credit for their voluntary behavior.  If you were blond you had been blessed by Jupiter at birth; if dark you had missed out on that blessing, but other blessings and benefits might still come to you.

C.S. Lewis, who made his literary reputation as a medieval scholar before he presumed to write Christian books, was an interesting study of the interplay of the Jupiter and Saturn archetypes. By the time he wrote the Narnia books he was old enough to be considered saturnine. The introvert temperament of which he wrote so well, the taste for remote and wintry landscapes and solitary reading, are saturnine qualities. He does seem to have had fair hair in youth, but it darkened; he was not blond. If he lamented the Saturnian hard times in which he lived, he also attracted some fans by having apparently been born somewhat saturnine, in a good way.

Nevertheless he was successful enough, because of his Christian books and radio broadcasts as well as his teaching medieval and Renaissance literature, that during years of economic hardship he took it as his Christian duty to be jovial. He didn't write about having more money and food than other people and feeling obligated to share what he had; other people agree that in fact he did give and share generously. In Narnia, a mostly peaceable place, he described the duty of the king as being "to laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in Narnia." Though Jupiter's influence was supposed to bring wealth, the idea of revelling over a scanty meal must surely be considered jovial. It surprises some readers, who are attracted to Lewis's expression and celebration of Highly Sensory Perceptive introversion, that in real life Lewis was neither ascetic nor monastic. He wrote of his distaste for extroverts' chatter, but when he had food to share and they didn't have enough, personal taste made no difference; they had to be invited to dinner. In fact, when legal drugs were still available and encouraged as short-term substitutes for food, Lewis used coffee, tea, wine, beer, and cigars liberally. He shared those, too. Dinner with him would not have been the sort of strictly intellectual feast some of his health-conscious posthumous fans might prefer, nor would it have been an extravagant "Roman feast." Joviality is the quality that would have made it a feast, anyway.

Some references:

The Oxford English Dictionary--you could, and I once did, get material for an A+ undergraduate paper from the O.E.D. alone.

C.S. Lewis's Allegory of Love and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama.

Robert Graves' Greek Myths and White Goddess.

Barbara Walker's Women's Encyclopedia of Myths & Secrets.

And of course any medieval literature you find. I buy, read, and sell medieval literature when I find it.

Book Review: Blood of the North

Title: Blood of the North

Author: James B. Hendryx

Date: 1938

Publisher: Triangle/Doubleday

ISBN: none

Length: 278 pages

Quote: "Time'll come when Angus'll be wantin' a wife, mayhap." "Aye, an' Jean could go further an' fare worse."

James B. Hendryx wrote several of these cheap young-adult novels, apparently attempting to appeal to boys and girls at the same time. Blood of the North is a "Western" adventure story, although it's set in the Northwest rather than the Southwest, with fur traders instead of cowboys. It's also a romance. Young Angus Murchie, whose late lamented mother was "Indian," doesn't think he has a right to marry bonnie blue-eyed Jean McPherson--even though their elders think they'd make a perfect pair. Angus has to prove himself a storybook hero, brave, tough, woods-wise, and also able to out-trick a despicable developer in real estate law, before Jean can sweetly tell him that "the really great chiefs who were your mother's ancestors" will be a lot to live up to. Fade out with a kiss, as all romances of this period always do. To find out how Angus proves himself you have to read the book.

Novels like this one, forerunners of movies and TV shows, used to be regarded as a sort of vice--mentioned in some church rules right alongside dancing and gambling--and students used to be warned not to waste their eyesight reading them. It is therefore ironically appropriate that surviving copies are worth more now than they were when new.

Fair disclosure: I did not particularly care for the story. So what? I seldom do like novels. If "Rocky Mountain High" is your favorite song and Lake Louise is your favorite landscape, you probably would like this book for the landscapes alone. If you're interested in the history of the 1930s and 1940s, here is an authentic artifact of pop culture from that period. Or you might want it just because it's old enough by now to count as a decorative item.


Another Tuesday, Another Late Post

Today's blog post is delayed along the way. It will be here soon. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

Book Review: Rita Hayworth

Title: Rita Hayworth (Portrait of a Love Goddess)

Author: John Kobal

Date: 1977

Publisher: Norton / Berkley

ISBN: 0-425-05634-1

Length: 279 pages

Quote: "I was never a girl."

After doing the research for this book Kobal interviewed the long-retired actress and proposed, as a title for this book, The Time, the Place, and the Girl. Hayworth's comment was that it ought to be The Time, the Place, and the Woman, because she was never a girl.

Why do I find myself humming the classic words..."Trying to be a hero, winding up at zero can start a man aching down to the soul...and all the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills, in somebody else's name."

Though descended from more aristocratic stock if you went back a few hundred years, Margarita Cansino was the daughter of mid-list live stage performers who trained their children for futures in musical stage chorus lines. Nobody expected her to become one of the legends of old Hollywood--she was a shy child, pretty but not glamorous, with less than perfect teeth--but nobody imagined her ever having a right, chance, or inclination to become anything but a stage performer, either.

Half Spanish, half English (Haworth was her mother's real name), Hayworth had the sort of face that "could be anything"--which, in misogynist Hollywood, usually meant a pretty girl in the kind of dreary, sexist "love" relationship that makes you think that if that's love there must be something to be said for indifference. Her real forte was dancing more than acting or singing as such; after all her grandfather had been a dancing master, her father and all the uncles and aunts had been known as dancers, and dancing was what Hayworth had been trained to do as a child. Her voice never was great, and in the movies where she appeared to be dancing and singing, someone else's voice was actually what the audience heard.

Her dramatic range was arguably even narrower than Ronald Reagan's; Hollywood allowed cute, dull young men much more active roles than it allowed cute, dull young women. Let Ingrid Bergman demand the right to play murderers or missionaries, let Julie Andrews have the wholesome family movies where the female star kissed babies rather than boyfriends, let Dale Evans play the perfect wife and mother, let Lena Horne be a real singer, let Hedy Lamarr be a real scientist; Haywood was willing to be cast, over and over, as the sort of young woman of whom nobody--not even herself--notices much more than the body. Well, like most dancers, she had a beautiful body. It was not enough to endear her to the women I know who remember her movies. She was cast as a bimbo, though usually a high-class bimbo. It wasn't her fault, they conceded, but...Hawks and Cukor and that whole crew of proto-Weinstein directors did not like or respect women enough to produce a lot of movies with scripts that made little girls of the 1940s think "I'd like to have a friend or sister like her, I'd like to be like her when I grow up." Hayworth as actress was marketed to men, by men, with the comment that she had a way of playing her dismal one-dimensional parts that brought out empathy from some women.

Co-workers remembered her as a disciplined hard worker. Some people, they said, got bored enough on Hollywood "sets" that they came in drunk or hung over, or got drunk while "working," or even sneaked off and had sex while on the time clock but not actually doing anything. Hayworth, they said, focussed. She looked as if that were the case. She was very pretty when she grew up and had her teeth "fixed," and also very serious about getting every dance and love scene just right. In some ways, especially the three divorces, she may not have been a "good" Catholic, but she obviously had learned good lessons from that church.

To curb the immature behavior of actors, the producers and directors circulated a claim that they made or broke their "stars." Kobal questions this. The great movie stars certainly were creations of the movie studios, but the studios tried to produce several stars who just didn't sell. Even some of the great stars of the silent movies, already branded and capitalized products, didn't sell as stars in "talkie" movies; studios invested a lot in John Gilbert and Ina Claire, separately and together, and both of them had real talent as mimes, but when movie technology demanded that they talk, even their long-term fans didn't want to listen. Hayworth was sometimes perceived as an example of the merely good-looking "starlet" made famous entirely by publicity. Kobal argues that Hayworth was a real trouper who could be made famous because, behind the glamorous mask of her 1940s Hollywood face, she had and was able to project a lovably earnest, hardworking, fundamentally introverted personality.

Also debatably, she generated more publicity in semi-retirement than she did in her acting career. Her first marriage, to would-be manager Ed Judson, crashed and burned as Hayworth declared that being managed by her husband amounted to "extreme mental cruelty." Orson Welles, who worked well with her on stage and tried to fill in some of the more glaring gaps in the academic education Hayworth never had, lasted a little longer and may have lost interest in Hayworth before she lost interest in him; they had a child together. Then came Aly Khan, for whose sake Hayworth didn't have to claim to be a Muslim, but her Catholic church refused to recognize this third marriage at all; it didn't last long. A fourth, more private marriage, in retirement, might have been about love.

Was she happy? A quiet, private person, she might have liked a relatively early retirement. Kobal, a fan, obviously hoped she had. For a dancer who'd never really aspired to be an actress, and showed no great talent for acting, she'd certainly done well as an actress. Kobal shares lots of male insiders' reminiscences that reveal how badly Hollywood treated the women it treated best; Hayworth was one of those. She knew she had less to complain of than thousands of other beautiful women, and she didn't complain. The comments she allows Kobal to publish are positively charitable. At the end of the book I'm left with the feeling that whoever Rita Hayworth really was when she was alone, whether that person succeeded at what she wanted in life, will never be known...and that's as she wanted it to be.

She lived out the dreams of millions of women, across generations, around the world. It's hard to imagine a real introvert really enjoying that life story, even as a fantasy, much less as a reality; but Rita Hayworth made choices that enabled her to have it. We can hope that, some of the time, she was having as much fun as her big grin and lively dances suggested.

Still, I find myself reading her success story as a bit of a cautionary tale. I suspect the old woman who talked to Kobal missed whatever it was she meant by "being a girl."

The Account of "Suzanne"

There's actually a magazine, called The Account, that specializes in publishing pieces of fiction or poetry together with "accounts" of how people came to write them. 

Writers tend unsurprisingly to be of two minds about this writing concept. Writers who spent their formative years among literary people who agree that "creative work" ought to stand on its own think the "accounts" are a sort of advertisement for the poems or stories. (If so they're not effective ones, since poetry, fiction, and memoir often appeal to three different sets of readers.) Writers who spent their formative years among unimaginative people who want to imagine that every "creative" idea is literally either a memory or a wish, however, like to do "accounts" to give such people a realistic idea of what actually goes into a piece of fiction. 

Last month this web site displayed a short story that I wrote years ago, then sat on because I didn't want people thinking it was either a wish or a memoir:

The account is probably overdue...

More than ten years ago, the writer known as Suzette Haden Elgin (on her book jackets) and Ozarque (online) hosted a discussion at her blog/forum of a character in some of her fiction who's confusing, intentionally confusing, to Anglo-American readers. The character's name is Troublesome. The discussion is worth reading, if you like philosophical discussions about the obscure, alien philosophy that went into the novels where Troublesome appeared. It started at:

The Navajo philosophy seems out of place on Planet Ozark, except that Elgin believed seriously in the communication rule of "Assume--without necessarily believing--that whatever someone says is true of something, and try to imagine what it could possibly be true of." In real life this rule helps us understand people whose behavior may be a reasonable reaction to some (irrelevant) memory or (misguided) belief or (pathological) symptom they have. It is also a great way to write fresh and startling science fiction.

Anyway, in that philosophical system as it was explained to Elgin, good and evil can be imagined as a continuum that is circular. A certain amount of evil has to balance the goodness in the world. In the story, the fictional planet is almost a paradise until two foolish people start tweaking at its 'equilibrium" with just a few stupid pranks. From that point on the amount of human evildoing increases steadily until two very good people who have accepted the duties of contemplating good and evil, respectively, to maintain equilibrium, meet and work together. The evil on the planet has reached such a height that the good person who has the spiritual duty of meditating on, channelling, and thus regulating, the evil principle there is free, and obliged, to appear in public doing good. 

I thought, "Interesting," and then a variation on the theme popped into my head. People wouldn't want to read a whole novel about someone who had the duty of immersing per mind in evil every day, but what about someone who meditated on the idea found in some schools of Buddhism that good and evil exist in balance? 

I didn't consciously think, "The character would be Korean," before I thought, "As a clue the character's name might be, not Unity--too obvious--but Eun Ha T...Taylor? Tripp? Thomas?" Then I thought, "Then she'd have to have at least some Korean ancestry. Well, that would be appropriate; that is the country with the symbol of that Buddhist balance on its flag." Then I thought, "Well, bing goes that idea for a full-length novel unless I find a Korean collaborator," and set the idea away for ten years.

Then I wanted to submit a story to a speculative fiction contest I hadn't won in other years. Sometimes it's the speculative premise of a story the judges don't like. I'd tried a story from a long-term favorite alternative world of mine, the "More Peaceable World" where people are still mortal and sinful, like us, but they at least manage to reduce pollution and war, because they pay due respect to women and introverts. You can see why I like that concept, but that doesn't mean everyone else has to like it. I'd also tried a story from the alternative world that's developed on this web site, where current technological trends continue until they've produced the sort of world where they can work as intended--a wealthy, high-tech, but very sparsely populated world. Why not something different?

I read some work the contest judges had chosen to publish. Some of their stories were set in what seemed to be our world, or one very similar to it, only with some fantastic element in it. Magic, ghosts, telepathy...

I was walking along Route 23, thinking of ways to introduce a fantastic element into a story about the real world. A big truck, the kind known as a semi (sem-tractor-trailor) or artic (articulated lorry), passed by. The young man driving it blasted the horn, then slowed down, waved, looked at me, and drove on. Possibly he'd mistaken me for someone he knew. I think "trucking" is an honorable occupation for young men in today's world, but in my ideal world, a Greener world, it would not exist. I think drivers who blast their horns from behind, when people are walking a good healthy distance from the road and the drivers are not about to run off the road, are annoying people who deserve a good warning.

What if one of those annoying people got his wake-up call...maybe a man seriously trying to pick up a woman who was older and smarter than he was. Maybe not just "smarter" in the sense of "more sophisticated," but magical? Maybe a Mountain Witch! I chortled, so maybe the contest judges would chortle too.

In traditional Mountain Witch tales of the Ozarks and Appalachians, some of the witches are thoroughly bad people. Mostly they're women, and often their badness has something to do with adultery or sexual perversions; sometimes they're men, in which case they may be even worse. But some of them are mostly nice people. Their magic is unchristian and therefore seen as basically bad, but it's bad in a limited way. Sometimes their badness is mixed with goodness. They tap into evil powers to achieve legitimate goals...

At that point the character who believes in that balance and blending of good and evil, who spends her life meditating on it, popped back into my head. What if she not only contemplated a mix of good and bad things, but worked a mix of good and bad magic? 

Korea has mountains too. A few Korean people, like the owners of a restaurant my husband and I used to frequent, have come to the mountains. Some Korean war orphans were adopted and brought up as Americans, some Korean war brides came in with their husbands, and some families legally immigrated after the war. Without consulting a Korean writer (the contest was not for collaborative work) I could invent a character whose long-gone mother or grandmother had been Korean, who'd been brought up American but was attracted to what she'd learned about Korean Buddhism.

Why would the boor keep his foot on the brake after he'd had a good look at the character? Well, of course she'd be a mixed breed who looked White, except that her hair stayed thicker and blacker longer than White people's hair usually does. She'd have an "American" first name. Eun Ha would be her middle name. Most of all, of course, she'd have the magical power to charm and attract people. Her first name might even be Suzanne, after the woman whose almost magical charm Leonard Cohen so famously couldn't forget. Suzanne would take him down to her place by the river. Pretty Suzie, from another old song, would charm the birds from the sky, the fish from out of the bay, or river, as the case might be.

So there was my little Mountain Witch. Other people see her as youthful and cute, but not to the extent that Bill the boor does. She's nice, for a witch. She uses her powers to tame animals, rescue them, or at least keep them comfortable before somebody eats them. She communes mystically with rocks and trees, too. She heals and protects but annoying her is still a very bad idea. Her powers have the full range of real people's emotions, only amplified, the way infantile magical thinking makes us wish for a few minutes that they were.

What are her intentions with regard to Bill? Who first reaches out with selfish intentions toward whom? Do we have to know? In real life it's often hard to tell. Bill, in hindsight, wants to believe Suzanne was controlling the whole thing. A more realistic understanding of the way some women "behave like witches" in the most pejorative sense of the phrase, in their personal relationships, would be that Bill's boorish attitude taps into a reservoir of resentment that all women have. She didn't choose to attract this boor's attention, or that of any other boor she's ever met, bit she mindfully chooses what to do with it as things go along. She considers some sort of sacrifice of Bill to rescue someone she thinks deserves better things. (How that would have worked, the story didn't require me to know.) Then her better self, or spirit guide, whoever, advises her not to do that and she ends up helping Bill become a better man, instead. But she's unpredictable, inscrutable, and not to be messed with. That's built into my working definition of "witch." 

If her story were going to be a full-length novel, would I want Suzanne to become a Christian? I would. A Korean and/or better writer might have thought of a way that might happen. I have no idea. I've known Buddhists in real life; some of them appeared to be better practitioners of kindness, mindfulness, right occupation, and so on, than others, just assome Christians do. I've not known a Buddhist who became a Christian. Amy Tan, the Chinese-American Presbyterian, could probably write a splendiferous novel about a Chinese Buddhist becoming a Christian; I find it instructive that so far she's not written one. I take that as an indication that Suzanne is likely to die unbaptized, unless she was baptized as a baby and doesn't let that count.

I don't believe that good and evil balance in the equal way they do in the ying-yang model. I believe human beings are a mixed bag of good and evil impulses; eventually, after our lives end, it will become apparent which of us have done more good or evil, but only God has access to that information now and even God may not necessarily choose to make any use of it. 

"But if she never becomes a Christian and repents of practicing witchcraft, doesn't that mean she's evil, in the end?" God knows. If God had chosen to create a world where witchcraft actually worked, there'd be valid reasons for people to have recourse to it, probably believing that God wouldn't have given us magic powers if God hadn't wanted us to use them. Witchcraft would be seen the way technology is seen in our world. There are moral issues about trucking, too. It does make moral judgment easier that in our real world the kind of "witchcraft" that relies on fraud, gossip, deception, hypnotism, or poisons is possible, but the kind of "pure" magic Suzanne works is not.

Anyway, from that point, about all I had to do was write out the story. Details fell into place, as they often do, once I had the outline and started writing. I woke up remembering disconnected dream images, as I sometimes do: an animal had been run over, its hind legs crushed, and then in another image that seemed to have come later the animal was alive and well. The dream hadn't even seemed to connect the two images but connecting them fitted into the story. 

It fitted, too, to mention that someone else who annoyed Suzanne in a more intentional way gets away less easily than Bill. One form of harassment I'd encountered, as a pedestrian, was being offered a lift by someone who didn't seem violent, didn't seem hard to subdue if she'd become violent, and had no reason to threaten me with anything worse than boring conversation...but the person was in fact hostile and chose to act out her hostility by telling a blatantly false story about me to other people. Nobody took her story seriously and even she didn't try to take it very far; still, I thought that was worth throwing into a story about harassment of pedestrians. 

So we have a trucker harassing a pedestrian, a truck sliding down a cliff into a river, a car sharer harassing a pedestrian, and an animal being injured by a car, which adds up to quite an anti-car story. I am not, in real life, altogether anti-car but I do think North Americans have abused God's gift of the ability to build motor vehicles. Most of us need to drive less and walk more. I did not consciously sit down to put together four bad things about motors and motorists, but if I'd sat down to skewer our car culture in the way Ruth Ozeki does with our beef industry in My Year of Meats, I could easily have put in forty bad things about motors and motorists. I don't think banning all use of motor vehicles is feasible now, or even desirable in the future. Some combination of foot and solar power must eventually replace the internal-combustion engine, and the emphasis must inevitably be on the foot power, but "ordering and forbidding" is not the best approach to any desired change in human behavior.

I do think we all need to be mindful about how much use of motor vehicles we can avoid. There are situations in which I think using motor vehicles is ethically justified, but it pays, even just in terms of money, to sit down and think about how we can avoid those situations. Suzanne is harassed on the way to and from the local college, probably a five-mile walk, not too long for a healthy little old lady to plan on walking regularly but long enough for anyone to appreciate a lift in unfavorable weather. I was harassed on the way to and from my local college, which was closer to a thirty-mile  walk; I refused to be discouraged by the harassment but, after noting how car sharing arrangements and cell phone signals inevitably broke down in the most unfavorable weather for walking, and how narrow the shoulder of the road is along the steep cliffs in Lee County, I did decide that it made more sense not to try to work there regularly. I don't imagine that God is any more likely to throw people out of Heaven for driving too much, in this life, than an indignant witch is to crumble a cliff around their heads. I do believe that God is pleased when people mindfully work out ways to avoid using motor vehicles when possible.