Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In case you missed me

Just posting a quick word to apologize for having disappeared from this spot for so long. I had turned my attention to publishing my novel, Agnes Somerset, a literary tale of romance and skullduggery set in New York state in the 1880s. Unable to find a publisher (even with the hard work of my agent) who would put the tale between two hard covers, and unwilling to throw myself into the roaring and ever-swelling river of self-publishing, I decided to simply give the story its own blog and put it out for the reading public in serial format. Ah, how Victorian! A new episode is posted each Wednesday. I hope you might pop over there and try it out: 

I would be grateful for your comments--do leave one on Agnes's site. A synopsis of the story is available there at the top of the first posting (March 18, 2015). Happy reading!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Done with Downton

The ending of Downton Abbey's episode 2 did it for me last Sunday night. I had given Downton another chance, after threatening to not tune in at all this season due to the sloppy, implausible, and horrid death of Matthew at the very end of Season 3. But I missed my Downton friends. So when January rolled around, I turned on the premier with hopes that the writing had taken in energy and creativity over the break and we would be back on track with sensitive scripts and credible situations in the big house. 

The 2-hour opener was slow and labored. Nothing much of anything happened. Ah, but wait--Fellowes was just pulling us quietly along only to hit us with a sledge hammer the next week. 

It seems to me that the writer has run out of ideas for conflict or other elements of plot interest and is resorting again to the cheapest devices in all fiction. With poor Matthew, it was an utterly unbelievable fatal auto accident just as a rosy life with Mary and the baby-to-be are ahead of him. Now the audience abuse continues as Fellowes plays the rape card, and with probably the most lovable female character in the cast, Anna.

Violent rape is not a plot component that viewers of Downton, for the most part, count on seeing as part of the sophisticated story they have come to love. I for one don't watch "CSI," for example, because the ugly headlines of the daily news are sorrowing enough--I don't seek such tragedy in my entertainment.

Secondly, the rape was, again, implausible. Surely some aristocrats took shameful advantage of their maids, but those "gentlemen" had impunity. A fellow servant would not. Anna's attacker would have been out of a career as word leaked out--as it surely would--and punished summarily. And why would he have picked a self-possessed, married woman to attack? 

I am now downright afraid of what might be lurking in next week's script, and the ones after that. So I am saying good-bye to my Downton friends, sadly, in order to protect myself. They themselves need to band together, I should say, to protect themselves from the reckless pen of their creator. What a shame.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A woman for all seasons

I doubt you have ever heard Hannah Breece's name mentioned--a schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who, after some 20 years of teaching, felt a call to educate the native children (and their parents) in the great frontier of Alaska. I stumbled upon the story of this woman, written from her memoirs, in a used book store. The book only got published thanks to the great efforts of Hannah's literary niece, Jane Jacobs, who put her aunt's story into good order and added her own research about the time onto the end of it.

It was 1904 when Washington sent Hannah to an Alaskan village on her first assignment. This was a wild land of small settlements separated by great distances; and peopled by natives, Russians, and a few enterprising white folks from the States. Laws were only sometimes enforced, with much depending on the integrity of the local administrator. Hannah was 45 years old when she arrived to teach school at Afognak. She spent the next 18 years setting up schools in several villages, always improving on what she found, applying her caring but no-nonsense approach to teaching everything from reading to proper housekeeping.

Her adventures included falling through the ice, being beset one Sunday morning by a hundred howling dogsled dogs (which she fended off single handed until reaching the safety of the closest building), walking all day through rough terrain to reach her destination (at great cost to her feet), and suffering the scorn of the local whites after testifying at a hearing against one of their own for mistreatment of the natives and other crimes.

To say Hannah was bold, was determined, seems an understatement. Reading her story was a tonic to me, one who suffers too often from tentativeness and second-guessing. Hannah could quickly size up what needed doing and do it. She assigned the villagers jobs to help make the broken-down schoolrooms usable, taught the natives how to plant vegetable gardens, demonstrated that bathing a baby would not kill it, and overall achieved remarkable results. She did not bite her tongue. Hannah told one native young man, who repeatedly came to school dirty and disheveled, that he could not attend one more day of class unless he cleaned himself up. (Imagine saying that today!) The next day, and thereafter, he arrived washed and combed.

Hannah endured not only the grueling hardships of 40-degree-below temperatures, 24-hour winter darkness, and bear attacks, but repeated incompetence and indifference from many of her superiors. Nevertheless, she complained not once about the latter in her memoirs, and simply persevered in her efforts to procure needed supplies and simple justice for the people under her care.

I would like to see a statue built to Hannah Breece. Lacking that, I will erect a small one in my mind and look to it for inspiration, as an example of what one clear-eyed woman can do.
A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece, edited by Jane Jacobs, Vintage Books, 1995.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Late afternoon

Each of us has his favorite time of day--mine is late afternoon. In summer, that's about 5-ish. (The worst time of day is around 3 p.m., when my energy has dwindled to nearly nothing but official quitting time is two hours away.)

Some love the morning. But a sunny morning is a harsh thing. The sun rises, full of mischief, and proceeds to throw his hard rays against the earth. They glance off surfaces and bound about riotously.

The day wears on. By late afternoon, that same sun has aged, like a teenager who has moved on to find that the best of life is no longer new girlfriends and rowdy concerts but a letter from a friend or a good supper. This sun has grown gentler and subtler, bathing the landscape with his mature light. And the land itself has learned to soak it in, each color richer than it was at noon, the greens greener, the yellows deeper.

Birds who hid from the heat of midday return to the feeder.

Now there is no shame in admitting that one has done what one can for the day.

Oh, my, it's a quarter til. See you next time.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Better than real

Have you noticed how striking the taste of restaurant food has become? Or how rich and bold scenes looks in our movies? It all seems to me, well, better than real.

I try to make good-tasting food for dinner. But the impact of my flavors cannot compare to the vibrant sensations of the palate created by most food I eat in restaurants these days. Granted, everything tastes better when someone else makes it, but still my homemade entrees seem inexplicably dull by comparison. I talked to a friend recently about this phenomenon and she agreed--and she is a much better cook than I am.

What's the deal, we wondered. Maybe, just maybe, I proposed, the restaurant guys are putting in a secret ingredient. It's the same one in the processed or frozen dinners in the grocery freezer cases. I have certainly read those ingredient lists, but which chemical produces this effect, of all those listed, I can't even guess at. But I think it's in there. The street name for it could be the "you-can't-make-it-taste-this-good-at-home" enzyme.

I'll go further. I suspect this tantalizing enzyme is addictive. Sure, prepared foods contain plenty of fat and salt, and those alone are alluring enough. But our national craving for toaster pastries, waffle fries, and strangely flavorful Waldorf salads cannot be so easily explained. And in this tough economy, it's hard to account for why Americans seem to eat fewer and fewer meals at home.

Now, we have the same sort of hijinks going on in movies and television. Look at those green fields! Look at that perfect serpentine road descending toward the deep blue waters of the bay! Even on vacation to stunning locations, the scenery just doesn't look this good. But when I take those vacation photos into Photoshop and up the contrast and color saturation, voila--they are so much better! And do I dare bring up the elaborate improvements made to people on screen and in print (Look at that young woman's red lips and perfect skin and stunning figure!)?

So I'm afraid that we are all being taught to expect things--food, scenery, women, men--that are far better than reality can ever make them. Looking around, how dull things look, how flawed. As we become subtly dissatisfied with the real world, won't we spend more and more time in the enhanced world of delicious additives and super-saturated beauty? I worry about this and am reminded of a quote by author and critic Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977):

"We are always talking about being together, and yet whatever we invent destroys the family, and makes us wild, touchless beasts feeding on technicolor prairies and rivers."

A man ahead of his time, and a warning for those who will listen.

Photo by Michael Doyle.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Princess in a kingdom of confusion

Just the other day, Dr. Phil featured a mother who was "supporting" her five-year-old son's preference for dresses and all things sparkly. Mom called this child her princess boy, and even wrote a children's book about him by the same title, all designed to foster, of course, acceptance. Mom said that from the time the boy was two he had expressed a fascination for female things and girl colors, and now had a wardrobe of favorite dresses, costumes, and other little-girl adornments.

What did Dr. Phil say about this? Did he lean confidentially toward the woman and say, "Hey, call me an old southern boy, but what you're doing is just crazy. You are setting this child up for major hurt in the years ahead, and you're allowing him to be a source of confusion for his young friends and classmates. Don't do this. We'll get you all some help. It will be low-key, and we can work through it to get this little boy on track and keep him happy."

That's what I wish the doctor had said. Instead he told the mother that he fully supported her approach, which was, as she had put it, "going on this journey with him and seeing where it leads."

Isn't it something that the family is putting the person who's the least capable of sorting out his feelings and his sexuality--their five-year-old--at the head of the wagon train? I wanted to call up this mother and tell her (since Dr. Phil would not) that sexuality is often not clear-cut in young children. It requires some molding and direction. In some young people it is quite plastic, in the old sense of the word, and influence can be everything.

Truth to tell, many little boys are captivated by the bright color and glitter of girl things. My own sons, who are now in their twenties and thirties, would, at three and four, watch me keenly as I painted my nails and want colored nails too. Please. So, to their delight, I would carefully paint two or three of their little fingernails. Sometimes they would want a spray of hair on top of their heads, so with the help of a rubber band they got one. But before we walked down to the grocery store, the "sprout" was undone, their hair combed, and they ran outside with no more thought to it. They loved the bright colors and soft tails of the popular little pony toys, and they acquired a small collection--in addition to their pile of over-muscled He-Man action figures.

They went off to school, and their masculinity grew into the spaces where yellow ponies had been. They are now all manly men. I still have the ponies and the He-Men figures in boxes on a basement shelf. I wish I could show them to the confused mother and tell her to not throw down the reins, but let her little boy mosey into the clover here and there as she guides him down the right path. Because there is a right path and children often need our help in finding it.

Let's not give up so easily on our God-given design as male and female. To say these identities don't matter cuts to the core of who we are as individuals and who we are meant to be. As a philosopher (whose name escapes me) once said, after all, "There is no such thing as people--only men and women."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Force of Nature

On a walk through her once-glorious garden, as it shows the effects of two gardeners being let go for want of money to pay them, Agnes Somerset (in a novel by the same name) observes to her aunt, "Do you know what gardening is, Vera? It is man’s attempt to keep Nature from doing what she is determined to do. How could we hope to win in the long run?”

back yard in the house we bought almost four years ago is all garden--no grass. How lovely, we enthused when we first walked down its mulched paths. How imaginative. How un-suburban. By the second year, I could be found on the back stoop, glowering at the tangled piles of uninvited growth, the dead iris and lily stalks, and the vast swathes of some lemon-scented plant that had by then revealed its plans to conquer the entire yard. The fat, spiny yuccas are too terrible to talk about here, except to say that a quick Internet search will teach anyone why they have no business in a civilized garden (dig one out and six vigorous cadets spring up to replace their fallen comrade).

My husband has tried to comfort me as I predict nothing but aggravation from the rear third of our property. "I'll work on it," he assures me. But he has too many other duties. The garden as planted could employ a gardener full-time. In fact, I later found out that is exactly what the former lady of the house was. She devoted herself to these oddly planted beds, keeping meticulous notes and photos in a journal I inherited. ("Didn't get pictures of my new asiatic lilies, but they were beautiful! Poppies bloomed while we were in Italy.") Her husband was assigned all indoor housework and maintenance.

In my defense, I do keep up the front garden and the porch's potted flowers. The bird bath is refreshed each day and the finch feeder regularly refilled. I sweep the stoop and the front walk and wipe away the larger spiderwebs from the mailbox. I am, after all, a front-yard person at heart and enjoy attending to these areas that I pass by with every coming and going.

But the back yard . . . I took a good deal of comfort in a book on bird-feeding that I read the other day. It encouraged bird lovers to leave a natural habitat in part of the yard, if possible, so various birds could feed and find nesting places among the dried flower heads and matted vines. I can do that!

At this moment, a large brown-and-yellow butterfly is sailing about the back yard in search of a bloom, ignoring the only flowering things I have at present, some lavender phlox and a stand of brown-eyed Susans. OK, so my quasi-meadow isn't to everyone's taste. Maybe I'll throw down a packet of goldenrod seeds next spring--but that's if I can clear some space from that lemon-smelling plant and the grass that's taken over the middle bed.

Agnes bent to unwind a thin vine from the creamy bells of a late-blooming foxglove. “They don’t know what’s coming,” she mused. “The foxgloves and the roses and the hibiscus. Choke-weed and violets will overrun them in no time."

I salute all the gardeners, who dig and pluck and plant and water, engaging in this tension between man's designs and Nature's tireless engine.
Quotes are from Agnes Somerset by yours truly, A. M. Doyle.