Thursday, December 19, 2013

Calvinball Dating

Sometimes I think dating’s a lot like Calvinball.

You remember Calvinball, don’t you? It was a game invented by Calvin, the incorrigible gross-out kid artist in Bill Watterson’s cartoon strip “Calvin & Hobbes,” and it was “never the same….always bizarre.” You didn’t need a team or a referee, just two masked players and a ball. Whoever had the ball could make up whatever rules he/she felt like. Once, Rosalyn, Calvin’s much put-upon babysitter, complained (in a slow-motion voice because he had just decreed that everybody had to do everything in slow motion), “Thiisss gaaaame maakes noooo sennnse! It’ssss aasss iffff you’rrrre maaakinnngg iiiiit uuup aaas youuu gooo!”

“Hobbes!” Calvin shrieked to his stuffed-toy tiger sidekick. “She stumbled into the perimeter of wisdom! Run!”

I’m not altogether sure what the perimeter of wisdom in male-female relationships is. But in the years since I started dating again, it has definitely felt like Calvinball, and I’ve definitely been both running and stumbling.

For the first four years after my husband Tim’s death, I didn’t date. I chatted with men at parties, and people dangled the names and numbers of available men in front of me. But I made no attempt at follow-up. I wasn’t ready, and, in my heart of hearts, I knew it.

Then I finally agreed to let friends set me up with various men. I went to a few singles’ dances and even answered some personal ads. And I discovered that dating was a helluva lot different the second time around.

First, there was this code. For instance, “I’ll call you, and we’ll do something” didn’t necessarily mean that: it meant that the guy was bookmarking me for future reference. Second, the rules would change without notice. The guys would begin picking fault with me for the slightest reason – “do everything but kick the tires,” as one woman, a veteran of the dating wars, put it. I left the gathering where I met my first blind date after two hours – a respectable amount of time for an initial meeting, I thought – and the guy was incensed. I wrote another guy a friendly, flirty thank-you note for a gift he’d brought my son, Zeke, and he freaked. A third guy, whom I’d been dating for about a month, got into a huff because I answered the phone a couple of times while we were watching a video. Note: Zeke was staying overnight at my brother’s, and the guy owned the freakin’ video. I escorted him to the door after making a snarky comment. (Not my best but pretty damn good for the time.) Game over.

They were playing Calvinball. And I was feeling like I’d left “Bizarre” a few hundred miles down the road.

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t make my share of mistakes. But they were honest ones, the kind you make when the terrain’s uncertain, you know only a few words of the language, and there are landmines all around. I stuck it out for a time, though, even going out with some guys a second time despite that voice inside my head screaming, “Run, do NOT walk, to the nearest exit!” when we met.

I’ve just been starting to ease back into dating. Nothing major -- just a coffee date here, a movie or a dinner date there. But there’s a difference now. You see, I’ve come to believe that the right guy, like the teacher in the adage, comes to you when you’re ready. Very Zen. And here’s something else I’ve learned: there are very few hard-and-fast rules in this game. Someone who looks perfect on paper – could be all wrong for you. The guy who’s testy on the phone could actually turn out to be more considerate than the one who waited in the bar while you dealt with babysitter issues, invited you to a concert, and never bothered calling to let you know that the concert date had been switched.

No, the only thing you have to guide you is your gut because the game, as Rosalyn observed, makes no sense. Everybody’s wearing a mask – at least in the beginning – and everybody’s trying to get control of that damned ball. You have to make the rules up as you go along.

But the rules have to be fair. You do unto others as you would have them do unto you, not as you have been done unto. And, yes, we have to stop fighting for that ball sometime: the game’s supposed to be playful, not mean-spirited and petty, and relationships shouldn’t be about control, at any rate. And the masks do have to come off eventually if things are ever to become Real.

I may not be in the perimeter of wisdom yet, but I think I’m in what my cartoon friend called “the corollary zone.” Anybody up for a good, clean game of Calvinball? It’s never the same, but it doesn’t have to be bizarre.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Lovecraft Extravaganza

He was a racist who married a Jewish woman, an atheist who wrote some pretty lurid tales about ancient deities too powerful and horrific for humans to defeat. A prolific writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 -1937) had a limited following at best during his lifetime.

But that picture has changed considerably over time. H. P. Lovecraft, the man with the tombstone face, is now considered one of the most influential horror writers of the last century. Two of his stories, “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air,” were dramatized on Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery.” Others have inspired films and songs by such bands as Metallica and Black Sabbath. There are fanzines devoted to him. And this past August, one Niels Hobbs of the University of Rhode Island brought Providence’s the dormant Lovecraft literary conference back to life as NecronomiCon. Diehard devotees came from all over Europe, Central America, and even New Zealand for what vet and artist Tom Morganti calls “a Lovecraft extravaganza.”

Of course, Morganti was there, too, armed with his “geek-fest equipment” – a kit for conference participants that included bumper stickers, an elder-sign lapel pin, and tee shirts, one of which reads “Cthulhu FHTALN” or “Cthulhu sleeps.” (Cthulhu is one of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, a deity complete with tentacles and rudimentary wings. He’s very popular.)

It’s not Morganti’s first trip to Providence. Back in 1972, he and his brother Bill visited all the sites connected with the writer. “The people we talked to were – I felt – amazingly ignorant of Lovecraft,” he recalls. “At the time, I thought, ‘This is Providence. Why have they never heard of the most famous author from their own town?’” It took some doing, but the brothers finally located the Phillips obelisk in the Swan Point Cemetery. “I felt a rushing in my ears, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. He didn’t even have his own stone, just a panel in the side facing the river.”

This time around, however, there is a stone, put up by Lovecraft’s fans in 1977. Under his name and dates, it reads, “I AM PROVIDENCE” -- a line, Morganti explains, from one of his “effusive letters to some correspondent about his return home in 1926.”

And Morganti has a whole lot more company on this visit to the cemetery. Twenty to thirty Lovecraft devotees are there “’in costume’ – robes, top hats” – and there’s “a feeling of anticipation…like someone was expected to arrive and then the ceremony would begin.” In keeping with this feeling are the “grave goods” left out like so many offerings on an altar. A gold-framed wood-block print of his Grandpa Theobald (one of Lovecraft’s pen names was Lewis Theobald) and an original musical composition, its title indecipherable except for the word “melancholy.”

The essential elements of the original literary conference remain. There are discussions about the New England settings in many of his stories; Lovecraft’s critics; Lovecraft and sex (repressed sexually and socially or a closeted necrophile?); and Lovecraft as an “Atheist Evangelist.” Still another talk bears this quirky mouthful of a name – “Lovecraft’s Phobias, or What Can You Do with Somebody Who’s Afraid of Everything?”

The cast of characters leading these discussions is definitely eclectic. Robert Price, “the star of this show” and “an expert on comparative religions and an atheist at the same time.” Lois Gresch, the author of the Mortal Instruments Movie Companion, who calls Lovecraft “a bent genius.” Peter Canon, a small press advocate and publisher. Diane Louise Lindley, the widow of Dan O’Bannon, who wrote “Alien.” (O’Bannon, Morganti learns, suffered from Crohn’s disease his entire life – and there, my friends, you have the inspiration for the famous “chest-burster” scene in the movie.) An expert on medieval outlaw ballads who explains how “during the Middle Ages, the monster story left the realm of the campfire,” culminating in the supernatural/horror stories of Welsh writer and mystic Arthur Machen. (Machen, like Edgar Allen Poe and journalist/ghost-story writer Algernon Blackwood, was an influence on Lovecraft’s work.)

And the Lovecraftian fans are sitting there, taking it all in. Morganti describes them vividly: “The women look like hipsters for the most part – some Goth, some with funny hats.” There’s a guy wearing “a Green Man mask (and a black tee shirt). No, wait, he’s got tentacles – he’s Cthulhu….There’s a man in drag with peroxide hair, wearing a tiny hat. The guy next to him is dressed like Che Guevara. One of the panelists has a bouffant hairdo colored like the rainbow….The fella to the left of the podium is Gothed with black nails. His pal in the front row has black leather boots up to his thighs and a petticoat.”

It’s something of a mad tea party – albeit one with dark overtones -- and it gets curiouser and curiouser. At one point, Morganti wanders into the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel for one of the lectures…only to stumble upon “a small group up front, transcribing what sounds to me like poetry. One of the guys asks me if I want a lyric sheet, so I get one of those, and they start the boom box.”

That first song turns out to be a major re-working of the “Dreidl” song:

I made a little Dreidl
Cthulhu out of clay
And when I went to spin it,
I listened to it say….

Actually, it’s kind of an improvement on the original song. The next one borrows its tune from “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms of Jesus” (used in the 1955 movie “The Night of the Hunter”):

Sli-mee tentacles
Wri-ggling tentacles
Spell the doom of all man-kind
Great – green tentacles
Co-smic tentacles
Stran-gle in the everlasting arms!

Suddenly, Morganti realizes that it’s an actual organ he’s listening to and -- “No shit, I had walked into the hymn rehearsal for the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast Choir, scheduled tomorrow at dawn!”

But even he finds himself singing along on the next little number, sung to the tune of “Jesus Loves the Little Children”:

Cthulhu de-vours all his minions!
Eternal death shall set us free!
As he stirs us in the broth
That is known as Azathoth
Crawling chaos will transfigure you and me!

There’s even a Lovecraft-inspired version of “Rock of Ages” that probably has generations of churchgoers turning -- and groaning -- in their graves. Morganti, however, describes it “catchy, very catchy.”

All of this pales, however, beside the WaterFire event that caps off NecronomiCon. It begins at 10 p. m. in Roger Williams Park. A line of “robed and cowled acolytes” (all the big donors get robes with the elder-sign insignia) wend their way through the streets of Providence, carrying torches. Some costumed monsters are among the marchers, “including an obese man wearing a fly head.” He even has “a second head gibbering where his navel should be.” There’s also a giant 20-foot-tall pulley-operated puppet of Shoggoth, a monster from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. It is, as it turns out, “too heavy for its supports” and breaks in two: the “acolytes” have to carry it sideways to the gondola. It all culminates in a celebratory Water Fire Event – more than 80 bonfires rising from the river with live music and more characters from writer’s fictional universe wandering about.

So, what would Providence’s most reclusive son have made of all this? Morganti talks with sculptor Bryan Moore, whose bronze bust of Lovecraft is unveiled at the Providence Athenaeum during the event. They agree “he’d have been embarrassed over all the fuss made over him and his work” – that he probably wouldn’t even have attended it, given his dislike of crowds. “His biggest thrill,” Morganti concludes, “would come from the knowledge that in 2013, 76 years after his death, his stuff is still being read. That’s the mark of a true artist.”

But there’s more to it, I think. Somehow, the outsider who didn’t hesitate to “outsider” others, as one panelist puts it…the author whose “life makes an arguably more compelling narrative than many of his own stories” (Leeman Kessler, Lovecraft eZine contributor and HPL portrayer)… now has a following among people more diversified than he himself could possibly have imagined.  A community, almost.  And that is kind of amazing in itself.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Beyond Compassion: Amanda Waring

Amanda Waring has a voice like a phoebe’s call: soft and sweet without being too sweet. In it, I hear echoes of her mother’s voice. She has a lot to say, and the words just seem to tumble out of her.

Waring is an actress (“A Month in the Country,” “All Creatures Great and Small,” and “For Love of Chocolate,” a one-woman show “where I get completely covered with chocolate and I perform a Jackson Pollack on the floor”), writer, film-maker, and advocate for compassionate care for the elderly. And it’s her work as an advocate that we’re talking about now. A member of Britain’s National Dignity Council, she goes beyond compassion to passion. Because for her, it really is personal. Waring was galvanized into action by the cold, impersonal treatment that her mother, actress Dame Dorothy Tutin, received in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital after being diagnosed with terminal leukemia. “I feel like a caged animal,” Tutin – remembered by many for her tour-de-force performance as Anne Boleyn in “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (1970) – told her daughter.

The latter was horrified at how her usually strong, determined mother “aged and diminished visibly…the weight f[alling] off her and the light [going] out of her eyes.” She drove to where Tutin’s doctor lived: he was getting into his car, about to leave for a round of golf, but Waring “jammed the door open with my foot and said I would not go until he had promised she would be moved. On the day I smuggled mama out of the hospital – and it was a furtive exit because she was worried about creating a stir – she burst into tears of relief.”

Waring brought her mother to another hospital, where she received the kind of care she needed. Tutin came back into her own and had a year-and-a-half more with her family despite the doctors’ original three-month prognosis. She died in 2001.

                                          (Some of the faces of Dame Dorothy Tutin.)

Someone once said that perhaps we need to follow not our bliss but our heartbreak. And that is essentially what Waring did. She took her grief and transformed it into positive action. She made a short award-winning film, “What Do You See,” starring her mother’s friend, actress Virginia McKenna (“Born Free,” “Ring of Bright Water”). McKenna plays a stroke victim confined to a convalescent home. The aides talk over her, handling her with a rough matter-of-factness: to them, she is not much more than a fixture, another part of the job. Unable to communicate except through strangled noises, the elderly woman is nevertheless very much aware of everything going on around her. We hear her thoughts in a wistful, haunting voice-over by McKenna as she implores the aides to see her as the playful, laughing child and romantic young girl she once was…as the caring, sensitive person she still is. “You’re not looking at me --!” she silently cries, and they’re not.

“The reason I decided to make the film was that I was haunted by the faces of the elderly I saw,” Waring explains earnestly. “Love in care is not a dirty word, and loving care is what it’s all about. We’ve lost the understanding of the value of reciprocity. When you’ve damaged the spirit of the person, you’ve impaired their physical ability to strengthen their own antibodies, their ability to get well. So that’s why understanding this behavior – talking over somebody in the bath…mak[ing] them feel like a piece of meat, something to be done unto – is important.”

The film, which has been called “powerfully poignant,” was a finalist in the New Producer Alliance Awards. It has been screened at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Purbeck Film Festival and featured on “BBC Breakfast.” It has raised both awareness and funds for such charities as Help the Aged and MacMillan Cancer Relief. “What I anticipated as happening has happened,” Waring says. “It was such a leap of faith for me to sell my flat and make this film in memory of Mum. I feel very overwhelmed because I’ve received hundreds of e-mails and letters about how my work has positively impacted on care staff attitudes and transformed training.”

Another film, “No Regrets,” looks at things from the caregiver’s point of view. In it, a middle-aged woman visiting a convalescent home lets loose all the anger, guilt, sadness, and sheer soul-weariness pent up inside her. “It was the ups and downs that made it so hard,” she blurts to the silent elderly woman lying in the bed. “Looking at me as though I was some sort of skivvy.”

The films are a very important part of Waring’s person-centered care pack. But there’s even more to that pack. What she and her specialist consultant, occupational therapist Rosemary Hurtley, have created is a ten-step program aimed at hospitals, convalescent homes, and other elder-care facility staffs. The program is interactive, making use of a workbook, DVDs, and a CD-ROM of extras. And while it focuses mostly on the needs and rights of the elderly, there’s also a section designed for the caregivers themselves – “Caring for the carer: supporting and nurturing those working within health and social-care settings for the well-being of mind, body and spirit.”

Spirituality actually comes into play quite a lot here, making, as Consultant Admiral Nurse Karen Harrison Dening observes, for a “welcome inclusion in the pack….Developing a training pack on person-centered care and promoting dignity is a challenge in itself; but to also tackle ‘Spirituality’ is perhaps a greater challenge still, but, again, Amanda does this well.”

Waring, who has trained with Native American shamans, incorporates many of their traditions, especially drumming. “For me -- for most tribal traditions as well -- the role of an elder is seen as one of respect,” the actress-writer remarks. “Elderhood is not something to be feared but revered. So, wherever I go, I will take my drum and use the energy of the drum to honor all that they [the elderly] have been, all that they are, and all that they will be. Because I don’t work for anyone in an official capacity, I have the freedom to bring in aspects of spirituality from many different cultures to support the spirit through its final transition….It’s lovely to have whatever feels right in any of these rites of passage, whether it’s Reiki or sound healing or drumming.”

That “final transition” is something she comes back to near the end of our talk as she reflects on her most recent film, “The Big Adventure.” The adventure in question is death, and Waring has naturally given a lot of thought to it: “Death is not something we should shield ourselves from – it’s something we should guide ourselves through.

“This is a film that’s meant to be inspirational,” she continues. “I’m proud of all my films, but when I watch that film, I come away with a greater understanding of my own fears of death. I’m more compassionate.”

It’s a never-ending journey…one road branching off into another and then another, and all of them bringing her back to where it all started, with her mother’s final illness. “It’s almost like a wound that has granulated, that has healed,” reflects Waring, whose book, The Heart of Care: A Guide to Person Centered Compassionate Care (Souvenir Press, Ltd.), came out last year. “But every time I talk, I scratch the surface.”

Related link:


Monday, September 30, 2013

An Urban Naturalist: Greg Gerritt

He dropped out of forestry school at the University of Maine “to hitchhike and live in the woods,” Greg Gerritt says. There were fewer forestry jobs available at the time, and he was “fed up with Western civilization as an ecosystem-destroying machine.” As he saw it, the school’s forestry school “had no more interest in forest, ecosystem, or community health than the corporate forest overlords who had paid for the brand-new Forest Resources building.”

He switched his major to anthropology, but he never stopped caring about environmental issues. The guy who grew up in the Bronx “spent the next 25 years in the woods, managing a woodlot, keeping my eyes open, gardening, building things of woods, reading quite a bit.” Today, Gerritt, an employee of the Environment Council of Rhode Island, is a leading advocate of making ecology “a component of efforts to create a sustainable economy” in his adopted state. He has led the council’s Compost Initiative and received a Merit Award last year from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for his work in this area. He is the founder of the think tank and Friends of the Moshassuck and a co-founder of the Green Party. For him, the ecology/economy connection is a vital one. “You cannot heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you cannot end poverty without healing ecosystems,” Gerritt maintains, “and you will not do either until we shut down the military-industrial complex that is at the heart of the inequality on the planet and uses violence to remove the original inhabitants from the forests of the world.”

Which is, when you stop to think about it, a very simple, straightforward concept. So why is it taking so long for people to grasp it? He does something of a mental shrug, remarking, “I bring a wider array of knowledge to the game than most. I strongly oppose the vested interests that do not want us to see the connections, as the separations allow them to maintain their power and control.”

It’s just one of the many subjects that Gerritt has explored as an activist, writer, and videographer. The Green Party’s 2004 presidential campaign...the fight to ban clear-cutting in the forests of Maine in 1996…and frogs.

Gerritt has been filming the wildlife around the ponds in Providence’s North Burial Ground. The ducks, geese, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, muskrats, otters, and amphibians there have been providing him with “a small wildlife fix” on his daily walks and finding their way into his blog. He began videotaping the development of Fowler’s Toads and Gray Tree Frogs, paying particular attention to the tadpoles. “I decided to focus on tadpoles because they were easy, visible, cute, and can be used to easily demonstrate development in vertebrates,” he explains. “I assumed some day, I would work with some sort of children’s program to do this. But it turns out, I did it mostly for myself.”

His delighted fascination with his amphibious subjects comes across in his prose. The tree frogs, for instance, remind him in their early stages of “pelagic shellfish on steroids. I often think of them as harried commuters living in tadpole cities during the morning commute, often with a predominant direction. It is a sight to behold, these little critters going every which way, bumping into each other, stopping here and there, then moving on.” And then there’s his description of the frogs calling “from the ponds, from the trees all around the pond”: “it is not only a sonic experiences, it is a visceral one. It is the most addicting thing I know. I get out there and just want to record all evening. And vibrate.” Now, there’s some writing that’s not just poetic – it’s downright Thoreauvian.

“I have never referred to myself as Thoreauvian,” Gerritt replies, “but I get where that comes from. America has a long tradition of nature writing, and it is one of the types of writing I do. I think I do it reasonably well, but I have my own style.” To him, Thoreau and the other major American nature writers are, well, not particularly major influences.

Interestingly enough, the author who does strike a chord with him is Ursula K. LeGuin, who is known for her Earthsea trilogy and other fantasy and sci-fi novels. “What she is especially good at,” Gerritt observes, “is creating alien worlds in which there is an internal consistency to the ecosystem, and…with how the ‘people’ (often aliens who differ tremendously from people) act and interact. She also has a great understanding of how things get done and the power of words and of giving things their right name. Much of my work is about speaking truth to power – in other words, calling things by their real names. Even her work about wizardry resonates in the real world.”

So, what does he see himself doing next? Well, for starters, Gerritt plans to continue with his video work: he still has this year’s footage to edit and post. If he does it again next year, he thinks he’ll “have the rhythm better and get more of the things I missed this year.” He has also received funding to write about the economy and prosperity in his community, which will enable him to bring the healing-ecosystems-ending-poverty equation into “more public forums in Rhode Island for the self-serving rich to stumble over…I expect to do more and more work around the idea that what we learn from environmental-justice remedies around the world needs to be applied to our own communities if we are to thrive.”

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Stumbling into Motherhood: A Few Words About Bonding & Mother-Women

(From The Way-Back Files -- Our Mothers Our Selves;  Writers and Poets Celebrate Motherhood (Bergin & Garvey 1996.)

When I came to, she was lying in my husband’s arms “We have a very pretty daughter,” Tim said, “and she has your dark eyes.”  He offered her to me; but my arms were still trembling from the anesthesia, and I knew I couldn’t hold onto her.  There was a vague gladness in me, but there was also a sense of being disconnected from this tiny, big-eyed girl-child I’d wanted so much.
The feeling lasted for a long time after Marissa’s birth.  A couple of months later, I was comparing notes with a woman from my childbirth class who’d had her baby naturally.  “Don’t you feel cheated?” she demanded.  Her daughter had been whisked away immediately to have the meconium suctioned out, and she was still gnawing over the thought that they’d missed the chance to bond at birth.
“No,” I said, and I meant it.  Still, I did ask myself sometimes if I would’ve had that strange feeling of disconnectedness had Marissa not been born Cesarean.  During my short labor, I’d experienced enough of natural childbirth to decide it was highly overrated (when my daughter’s pediatrician said he was sorry that I’d had a Cesarean, I shot back, “I’m not.”), but I couldn’t help wondering what I would have felt had we done the whole thing according to pro-natural-childbirth books.  Other then sore and exhausted, I mean.  Prior to Marissa’s birth, I’d read one of those take-back-the-birthing-process treatises and been very much swayed by it and by conversations with the friend who’d lent it to me.  Yes, I will do this without medication!  Yes, I will reach down and help pull my baby’s head out during the crowning!  Yes, Tim will cut the cord himself!  Yes, I will go and plow the field afterwards!
Well, reality — in this case, Marissa managing to get the cord snaked around her head — cut in on those imaginings.  Marissa is six months old and a happy, cuddly, opinionated baby despite the fact that we didn’t do it by that particular book or even till almost an hour after she was born.  And, as I’ve been getting to know her, I’ve had time to re-think this whole bonding business.  Truth be told, I don’t buy it.  Loving your child, I learned, like any other kind of loving, comes with time.  You love your child at first because she is your child.  But it’s still all in the abstract.  Only later, as her personality begins to emerge, do you begin to love her for who she is.
The bonding philosophy is tied up with the patriarchal notion that women must give all of themselves over to mothering the instant they conceive a child—they must become, as Kate Chopin puts it in The Awakening, “mother-women.”  It’s an insidious notion, and the people who espouse it are often the same ones who criticize working mothers and believe that women should be denied the legal right to abortion.  They are the folks who try to impress upon you the idea that raising your child is more important than anything you can ever possibly hope to do.
My response?  Yes, I believe that raising a child to be a loving, well-adjusted human being is a terribly important task; and I also believe, as Marge Piercy says in one of her poems, that every child born unloved is a bill that will come due twenty years down the line.  But I do not believe that it can or should be the entire focus of a woman’s life.  Making it so isn’t fair either to yourself or the child.  I know women — women in their early thirties like myself — who buy into this mother-women doctrine.  They channel so much of themselves into baby-making and –rearing, they’re scary.  I remember being with one such woman while I was diapering Marissa.  Marissa was wriggling around and kvetching on general principle.  My friend darted over from across the room and exclaimed, “Aha, just what I thought!”  One of the fasteners on the baby’s diapers had slipped from my fingers and stuck the baby’s hip.  My friend could tell, she said, what had happened by Marissa’s cry.  And I could tell that I’d just failed the mothering litmus test as far as she was concerned.
Since then, I have given up attempting to be the all-knowing, all-giving Earth Mother.  That, like the bonding doctrine, doesn’t work for me.  Like Chopin’s heroine, Edna, I would give up everything for my child except myself.  So I ad-lib as I go along, trying to tailor the day to meet both my needs as a person and Marissa’s.  It’s a continual balancing act, of course.  I’m learning to distinguish her lonely or “I-really-need-you-now” cry from her cranky one and to go to her when I hear it, even though I’m longing to be at my desk, working on an article or story.  Sometimes she just wants to be near me, so I take her upstairs with me and put her in the cradle alongside my desk.  I’ve done the same during phone interviews.  On the other hand, I’m also learning that when I feel really overwhelmed, the best thing for me to do is to pack Marissa in her crib for a nap and get back to my writing.  (Sometimes, I confess, I run the vacuum first to put her to sleep.)  If I can’t get even a few paragraphs in, I feel fragmented.  Lost.  And I’m no good to her then.  As Brenda Ueland observes in her book If You Want to Write—in a wonderful chapter entitled “Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for writing,” to be exact—you cannot “teach, encourage, cheer up, console, amuse, stimulate or advise a husband or children or friends…[without] be[ing] something yourself.  And how to be something yourself?  Only by working hard and with gumption at something you love and care for and think is important.”  Ueland takes the idea a step further.  “If you shut the door against the children for an hour a day,” she exhorts the “worn and hectored” mothers in her writing class, “and say: ‘Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!’ you would be surprised how they would respect you.  They would probably all become playwrights.”
Now Marissa is, naturally, a long ways from understanding the concept of being a playwright, let alone becoming one (although judging from the long cooing conversations she carries on with her favorite stuffed animal, Gray Bunny, I think she’ll be acting out her share of stories with him and the other toys in a few years).  And I cannot shut the door against her in quite the same manner that I would be able to with an older child.  But I do think some of Ueland’s argument still holds true.  I want Marissa to be her own person, well at ease, and not an extension of me.
We have weathered the first six months—and each other—reasonably well. We may not have done things according to the childcare books or popular folklore, but we’ve discovered that we enjoy being together.  That we can laugh together over her bath.  I’m beginning to be able to read her moods, and I know that she likes music, bright colors, and cuddling with Gray Bunny & Co. in her crib.  I read to her before naps and bedtime; she doesn’t understand the words, of course, but she likes the pictures and follows the inflections of my voice till she tires.  Our best time is in the golden glow of the late summer afternoon, the last burst of sunshine stippling the old scuffed-up maple bureau, the two gray-striped toy cats in the child-sized twig chair, and the neatly turned posts of Marissa’s crib as we relax in the large, comfy gooseneck rocker with a book.  Sometimes though, I put the book aside and just hold her.  She looks at me out of those large dark blue-gray eyes which seem to change their color constantly, then turns her head to the open window, listening to the birdsong.  We sit there, outside of time, as close as it is humanly possible for two individuals to be. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Stray Hearts & Four-footed Matchmakers: Annie Kimberlin

              (From The Way-Back Files: Just Cats!, May/June 2000)

       The woman didn’t move until he [Alex] was almost to her….Without hesitation, she picked up the cat in arms that were no stranger to a cat’s shape. The cat instantly butted her chin with its head and shot a satisfied smirk at Alex. Then the woman glanced over at him. Her eyes were big and gray, windows to a serious and solemn soul. But her glance was a quick one, returning immediately to the cat in her arms….  
    Alex couldn’t get the cat out of his mind….

                                                   -- Annie Kimberlin, Romeo & Julia


Not exactly the steamy bodice-ripping stuff you’d expect to find in a romance novel, is it? Then, again, Annie Kimberlin doesn’t write typical romance novels. The heroine and her against-all-odds love interest generally have to share top billing with a cat (as in Kimberlin’s latest novel, Romeo & Julia, Julia being the pregnant stray who sets everything in motion) or a dog (Lonely Hearts). And don’t look for them to meet in a glittering turn-of-the-century ballroom or on a windswept English moor either. No, her lovers find each other by pure happenstance in an animal shelter on Christmas Eve (Away in a Shelter) or out in a cold parking lot, rescuing a down-on-her-luck feline (Romeo & Julia).

“I write books about people who are obsessed with their cats and dogs,” confesses the Gahanna, Ohio writer, who currently shares her home with four dogs and a “very, very fat” black-and-white cat named Tiggero. Her work has been described as a cross between James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small books and Jan Karon’s Father Tim novels with their host of quirky, colorful characters. “And that sounds sort of eccentric, but for me, cats and dogs are a part of life. I have had cats and/or dogs since I was three. To not have a cat or dog in my life would be beyond comprehension – it would be like someone telling me to imagine a life without sunshine.”

So strong is this feeling for animals, it’s the most natural thing imaginable for the real-life cats and dogs she has known to come miaowing and woofing their way into her books. Julia -- who brings Liz, the divorced librarian, and Alex, the hunk-with-a-heart-of-gold bus driver, together– is based on a stray kitten who ambushed Kimberlin and “my sweetie, Mark,” on a raw, cold Easter Sunday. “She came running up, yelling and screaming her head off. She had a big gash on her head as if someone had kicked her.” The minute Kimberlin “picked her up, she turned on that innocent kitten charm.” They looked around for her owners, “but I will admit we didn’t knock on that many doors. We figured that whoever had had her had put that gash on her head and didn’t deserve to have her.” Akasha, the Easter Sunday waif, now lives with Kimberlin’s oldest son.

Then there’s Woody in Stray Hearts who’s modeled after her vet’s office cat. The real-life Woody, abandoned at a hospital in his kittenhood, is “a candy striper. And when other cats and dogs come in, he sits by their cages and purrs and keeps them company.” When one of Kimberlin’s dogs had to have its stomach pumped, Woody kept jumping up on the examination table, rubbing his head against the sick animal and purring. It was as though he “was patting my dog on the head,” she laughs, adding that her vet often jokes about Woody having been a nurse in a former life. “Here you have an incredibly nurturing cat who was found in at a hospital. When I was writing that scene in that book, he just sort of showed up. So I asked my vet, ‘Can I borrow Woody?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’”

So, in her own words and her own way, Kimberlin is managing to make others more aware of the plight of homeless cats and dogs. But she doesn’t stop there. A percentage of her royalties go to The Company of Animals Fund, an Ohio organization that gives grants to groups directly helping companion animals. For the writer, it’s just one more way to do something for the critters she loves with such passion. She puts it to me like this: “The hardest scene I ever had to write -- and why I support The Company of Animals -- is when the volunteer from Away in the Shelter looks down the runs, and there are fifty pairs of eyes staring at her, begging her to take them home….We domesticated cats and dogs, and we have a responsibility to them.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Love, Llamas, & Big Fluffy Dogs: Lynda Dunlop & Richard Busch

The dogs greet you right away at Dragon Dance Farm. The first one who catches your eye is Alvero, a three-year-old Great Pyrenees male. He’s followed by Lexie, a two-year-old Great Pyrenees female, and Sophie, a two-year-old Pyrenees-St. Bernard-cross – “a St. Pyr” and “a foster failure,” says Lynda Dunlop of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue. Next are Mia (a. k. a. “Winky”), a one-eyed Chihuahua-Jack-Russell-cross, and Stella, “an impossibly happy pug, as all pugs are.” Dunlop, a registered nurse with an advanced degree in behavioral health, cuddles the pop-eyed pug in her arms like a baby. Stella, Sophie, and Mia are “the comedy team,” she tells me. They’re somewhere between seven and eight…although Richard Busch, Dunlop’s husband, likes to say that Mia is “Methuselah’s age, somewhere in there.” And then there’s Amelia, an eight-month-old Great Pyrenees who has just arrived at their comfy farmhouse in Barkhamsted, Connecticut.

“She’s a hurtin’ puppy,” Dunlop remarks. “She underwent a spay surgery, and then her sutures didn’t heal. She’s on antibiotics. She spent two-and-half days in transport coming up from the South.” She doesn’t know exactly what Amelia’s life was like before she got picked up by Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, only that the puppy is skinny and looks starved and/or sick. She might’ve been beaten. So the couple’s just letting her be until she feels safer. Surprisingly enough, Amelia’s already showing an interest in her surroundings after having been with them just one day. “It’s kind of magical to watch,” Dunlop muses. “She goes under my desk, or she goes into her crate. She comes out a little bit, she’ll say, ‘Hi, how are you?,’ and then she’ll go back in. Or she’ll go with the other kids outside, and she’ll run around a little bit. By this time next week, she’ll be a different person. She’ll be out a lot more. But you have to be really patient and understand that.”

When Dunlop calls Amelia “a person,” she means it. She and Busch, a former Air Force cop and correctional officer, manage to be both sensitive and matter-of-fact about the dogs who come to them for fostering. Their involvement with Big Fluffy Dog Rescue began when they moved to Barkhamsted and adopted their first Great Pyrenees, Bru, from friends who were internationally known llama breeders. Bru was born with “a horrible cardiac murmur -- could never live on a farm, could never do what a Pyr is supposed to do,” she explains. “They’re livestock guardians.”

He was later joined by Alvero who came “sight unseen” from the National Great Pyrenees Rescue in Texas. “We just fell in love with the breed,” Dunlop says. “They’re terrific dogs – they’re terrific to be with. We like unusual dogs – well, we like the unusual. And we rescue all of our dogs, including you” – this is said in a soft lullaby voice to the dog nearest to her -- “and we just ended up having space and time.”

Next came Lexie, courtesy of Lone Star Pyrs & Paws-North in New England. Then the couple began looking at other Pyrenees and discovered that Big Fluffy Dog Rescue “had a lot of the Pyrenees – lots and lots of Pyrenees – and we just started talking with them. And we said, ‘All right, we’ll just start to foster.’”

A good many of the rescues come up from the South, where Pyrenees are used as working dogs. And if they’re not able to work, they’re shot, dumped at shelters, or abandoned outright. The spay/neuter and animal-protection laws are much more lax down there than they are here in New England, Dunlop explains. “We’re talking about rural South – we’re talking about rural Tennessee, we’re talking about rural Kentucky. We’re talking about people who are dirt-poor and who will breed Pyrenees and maybe get fifty bucks a dog. But the puppies are full of worms and full of mange.” The shelters will contact the breed-specific rescue organizations to “come and get them if they can. You have to go down and get ‘em…pull ‘em up and quarantine ‘em and heal ‘em…and sometimes operate on ‘em. And you have to neuter them. It’s very expensive to rescue a dog.”

Not all of the dogs are easy fosters either. Some of them come to Dragon Dance Farm shy, hurt, or afraid of men. Dunlop and Busch work with them, observing and medicating them…basically healing them both inside and out and “get [ting] them ready for their forever family to come along.” The rescues have been anywhere from twelve-weeks- to six-years-old and the turn-around time anywhere from six hours to two months. The couple is very strict when it comes to screening potential adopters. “I’m really wacky about who adopts the puppies,” she admits. “I’ve told people, ‘You’re not appropriate to take one of my dogs.’” And both Jean Harris, the president of Big Fluffy Dog Rescue, and Elizabeth Zaccaro, the head of the Connecticut chapter, have “trust[ed] my judgment. We’ve put so much time in our fosters. I think all fosters do.”

Dogs aren’t the only creatures who have found haven at the farm. At one time, they had close to twenty llamas. Why llamas? Dunlop starts laughing, and Busch joins in. “She was into llamas before I was,” he explains. “She divorced her husband, gave up her llamas…”

“He got the llamas in the custody battle,” she says facetiously of her ex.

“No, he sold them,” Busch corrects her.

“He sold my llamas out from under me,” she agrees.

“Then, about a year later,” he continues, getting into his story, “she goes, ‘Richard, guess what?’ I say, ‘What?’ She goes, ‘I bought The Man back.’ And I go, ‘Well, either I’m not going to have a place to live because you decided to go back with your ex-husband, or she bought her favorite llama back, which was Chili.’”

(This is the sort of dialogue that just spontaneously breaks out during the interview. Dunlop and Busch are so totally in synch with one another, they’re kinda like the George Burns and Gracie Allen of animal rescue.)

Over the years, the herd dwindled down to three. Then two died. Llamas are herd animals and don’t do well on their own. So they gave the lone survivor to another llama owner. Dunlop looks back at those twenty years with the llamas as “an incredible special time. They’re wonderful beasts.” You can hear the ache in her voice. “I miss them horribly. They’re just great companions. They’re not much different than these guys.” She gestures toward the dogs. The llamas “have a Pyrenees mentality. They’re very independent. They’re very smart. They’re very loyal, very family-oriented.”

She and Busch share all sorts of llama lore. How when a female gives birth for the first time, her voice changes and she develops a call that’s unique to her and her baby. How the baby does the same, making it seem almost as though they have their own private language. And how llamas will keep out any and all intruders. “We did not have any deer, bobcats, coyotes, or bears around,” maintains Busch. “Llamas have a distinctive sound that they make whenever they’re worried. An alarm call. And that alarm call kinda sounds like a horse’s whinny. All of a sudden, you hear this sound, and you know something’s going on in your area because they’ve got it spotted.”

It wasn’t unusual for the llamas to spot bears several hundred feet away, he continues. “If anything was to get in there, they would actually have killed it. Stomped it to death. They’re very protective.”

Now, of course, the couple just has the dogs and a flock of exotic chickens who look like escapees from a Mardi Gras parade. But the nurturing instinct is still going strong in both of them. “Richard has always brought home stray living things,” remarks Dunlop. “Stray dying plants, kittens…all kinds of strange animals.”

“I’ve just always liked animals,” he says in that easygoing way he has. “I enjoy animals. So she’ll sit there and go, ‘Oh, we’re getting a new dog this weekend. ‘Oh, we are? Oh, O. K.’”

“That’s not true,” she rejoins.


“I always ask you.”

“You always ask me.”

“I always ask you.”

“It’s funnier the way I say it,” he points out.

“Yeah, it is.” And they both start laughing.

There’s a lot of laughter and playful verbal sparring between them…a friendly copacetic energy that spills over into everything they do, including their rescue work. They both work from their gut, Busch says, and that’s how it has been with them from Day One. They met on-line: he was living down in Maryland, “and she lived up here in Connecticut. She was going through a terrible marriage, and I was ending a terrible marriage. And we started talking to each other – we were in the same [chat] room. She thought I was some kind of idiot until one morning, I just happened to say a certain phrase, and she thought it was funny.”

Dunlop seconds his version of the story. “When I started talking to him, he couldn’t express himself. He couldn’t spell. He wasn't typing very well. But he was funny.” They talked to each other on-line for a year; when they finally met, they were “both free of their marriages.” Six dates into the relationship, she asked him if he wanted to move to Connecticut, and he said, “Sure.” Since then, they've been apart maybe three weeks at most.

“We’re really lucky,” Dunlop reflects. She’s cutting up green grapes – “crack for chickens” – as she talks. “We have a really nice love story. And I think that probably why we’re successful with our fostering is because we’re successful with our relationship. Our household is pretty quiet. It’s pretty mellow. It’s good energy. And I do think that with any kind of intuitive, intelligent animal, they know.”

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Otter Perspectives: Grace Yoxon & The International Otter Survival Fund

Grace Yoxon knows her otters. She and her husband Paul started The International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) on the Isle of Skye thirty years ago. “We have both loved wildlife since we were very young – well, as long as we can remember,” she says. “We both studied geology at university and first went to Skye on a field trip. We fell in love with the island and moved here in 1980.”

A few years later, they opened the Skye Environmental Centre and began teaching wildlife and geology courses. They didn’t see their first otter until 1985, though. “We were looking at the rocks, and it came out and ate a fish in front of us!” she exclaims. Word got around that they “cared about animals. People started bringing us orphaned and injured creatures, and we had our first otter in 1988. So, now we were hooked!”

As time went by, the Yoxons began feeling more and more strongly that they “wanted to put something back into wildlife,” particularly for the otters. That feeling led to the creation of the IOSF in 1993. The organization’s reach goes far beyond the island, which is part of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland: it works with otter rescuers and rehabilitators in thirty countries, including Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belarus, Georgia, Kenya, and Nigeria. The IOSF has also assisted people with otter cubs in fourteen countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Guyana, Ecuador, Hungary, and Ireland. “We don’t actually have agents or representatives in these countries but work very closely with people who are active in otter work.”

The otter foster program is a very important part of the IOSF’s work. At home on Skye, there are four otters available for adoption: two from Cumbria in northern England, one from Ireland, and one from the island itself. “The two from Cumbria are called Bubble and Squeak and are inseparable,” Yoxon explains. “They were about eight-weeks-old when they were found alone in a garden. They were looked after first by the Aquarium of the Lakes and then transferred here. When they are big enough, they will go back to Cumbria.”

But they’re not the only otters in the foster line-up. There are others at the Cikananga wildlife rescue center in Indonesia. One of them, Ness, is an Asian small-clawed otter: he was “found as a cub and reared by someone who was originally from Scotland – hence, the name….]T]his species needs company, so he ended up at Cikananga, where they also have two other otters, which are rescued pets. Indonesia has a big trade in otters as pets – in fact, there are at least 800 people in the Jakarta area with pet otters, and most of these are taken from the wild.”

And then there’s Kamiya, the Congo clawless otter.

This is clearly a favorite story of Yoxon’s. Only it doesn’t start with Kamiya – it starts with another down-on-her-luck otter, Mazu. Back in 2010, the IOSF received an e-mail from Glen and Rita Chapman, a missionary couple in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A hunter had killed a female otter, orphaning her one-week-old cub. Human nature being the inconsistent thing it is, he’d wrapped the cub up in his shirt and brought her to the Chapmans, who were animal lovers. The IOSF quickly put together “a network of vets and other people with otter experience, especially in Africa, who could help.” The Yoxons also mailed the missionaries a parcel containing baby bottles and teats, weighing scales, medications, and other necessities.

Mazu, the orphan otter, “became a local celebrity, and the chief said that the people must stop killing otters. Her fame spread, and even government officials came from Kinshasa to visit her.” When the Chapmans went back to America on sabbatical, they left their little foundling with “two wonderful Congolese men,” Delphin and Sico. Mazu gradually began spending more of her time in the jungle,” and her visits became “very few and far between.”

Enter Kamiya.

Two years later, the fund received an e-mail from another missionary family in the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo mentioned earlier). They had, as it turned out, “a young Congo clawless otter whose mother had been killed by a hunter, and one of their problems was that they were soon to go on sabbatical. It was like déjà vu!!” The IOSF and its network sprang into action. They were able to get permission for a cross-border transfer and fly Kamiya into the Democratic Republic. So, when the Chapmans returned from their sabbatical, they found Kamiya all settled and comfy in Mazu’s old quarters. “She is now starting to explore more herself,” Yoxon continues, “and hopefully soon will return to the wild like Mazu.” And out of this tale of two otters have come two crucial victories — the Kikongo Otter Sanctuary and a growing “awareness in the Congo about otters.”

The foster program is vital, but it’s only one part of what the IOSF does. Other programs include Otter Watch, which enables them to coordinate sightings, and the Furget-Me-Not Campaign. The latter got kick-started in 2007, when a Romanian company actually contacted the organization about purchasing furs. Horrified by the request, the Yoxons began investigating the trade in otter pelts. They learned from a colleague that the problem was worse than they’d realized – that “for every tiger skin found, there are at least ten otter skins, and in some area, otters are locally extinct. This trade includes the rare hairy-nosed otter.” Otters tend to be overlooked because the focus is usually on larger species.

“We urgently need more people working on the ground in these countries,” Yoxon insists, “but there are very few otter workers in Asia. We also need local people doing the work rather than Westerners going in and saying how to do things.” The IOSF’s solution? Running workshops to train these people in otter survey work and conservation awareness. Case in point: a workshop held in Cambodia back in 2009. “Shortly afterwards, a fisherman handed in an otter he had found in his nets – he could have got about $200 for the pelt but had heard about the conservation work.” This past March, another workshop was held in Indonesia, which led to the creation of an Indonesian Otter Network. China is next on the IOSF’s docket. It is, Yoxon admits, “clearly going to be a huge challenge. But we are working on contacts and fund-raising and hoping to do this in 2014. There is a slight change in attitude in China: people are beginning to become aware of the environment and wildlife, and we need to build on this.”

The political and the personal are entwined for most of us, and working with the otters has only deepened Yoxon’s feeling for them. She shares some of their stories. One special character was Dax, an old male brought to them by a friend: “He had hardly any teeth, so, obviously, he was finding it hard to hunt. Clearly, he could never be released, so we put him in one of our large croft enclosures.” Shortly afterwards, the Yoxons received Soli, a young male from the Isle of Islay. Male otters tend to be loners; so, when Soli was a little older, they put him in a pen alongside Dax’s. But the two otters apparently had their own thoughts on the subject, and “when we went to check, Soli had moved in with Dax! Dax remained his ‘foster-dad’ until Soli went back to Islay, and then he [Dax] lived out the remainder of his days with us.”

I tell her how I read that after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, otters were among the few creatures that didn’t put up a fight when the rescue workers were cleaning them up – that they would just lie there, totally unafraid and trusting. Has she ever seen that kind of behavior in the otters that she has worked with? “To be honest,” Yoxon replies, “I always treat the otters as if they are going to bite!! They are wild animals and in a totally alien situation, and I can understand that they want to defend themselves. Even the small cubs can give you a good nip, and you can get some very nasty infections from the bites. Paul ended up in hospital after one such bite.” At the sanctuary, they try to keep human contact to a minimum so that the otters “can be released as wild animals. This can make it difficult to catch them for release!”

Still, she concedes, it’s possible that an ailing or hurt otter might allow a human to handle it without fighting back. They are, after all, pretty unpredictable. “Otters are constantly teaching you,” she muses, “and you can never know it all. You believe you know how they act, and then they do something which you didn’t expect. For example, we know otters can climb, but we don’t expect to find them sitting up in a tree – and yet we have a photo from France of an otter in a tree!”

Otters symbolize many things to different cultures: laughter and curiosity; dynamic energy; feminine power and nurturing; grace; empathy; and trusting your inner knowing. Yoxon admits that she has never heard of the empathy connection. “But maybe,” she says, mulling it over, “the actions of Dax in taking on Soli show how he could somehow feel that this young cub needed company, and although it was natural, he felt he had to do it.” She’s still a little hesitant on this point, though.

What she and her husband are passionately sure about, however, is that the otter is “an ambassador species to a first-class environment.” It lives, feeds, and plays both on land and in the water; it’s also at the top of the food chain. In protecting otters worldwide “through a combination of compassion and science,” the IOSF is working to ensure a better world for all creatures, including man.

Related link:


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tell Me a Story: Clavin Fisher & Stephen Minot

 (From The Way-Back Files – The Farmington Valley Herald,
                                        1980 - 81.) 

Early in my career, I had the good fortune to interview two very fine, thoughtful writers: Clavin Fisher (1912 – 2006) and Stephen Minot (1927 -2010). They were incredibly kind and supportive, and they quickly became part of my stable of regular interviewees. This quote by Elizabeth Goudge, herself a wonderful spinner of tales, sums them both up for me: 
“For storytellers know what is the source of the misplaced admiration; they as well as actors, clowns and conjurers, are the public entertainers, and from the dawn of the world the entertainers have been placed upon pedestals because they can amuse the world, make it lay aside its worries for a whole hour as it watches players upon a lighted stage, or forget its pain as it holds a book in its hands and cries aloud like a child at night-time, “Tell me a story. Light the candle and tell me a story.” 


His enthusiasm for history and local legend dominates the conversation. And you quickly get the feeling that Clavin Fisher writes his historical children’s novels more for himself than for anyone else.

Fisher, who lives in West Simsbury, Connecticut, casually dismisses his work as “junk.” He has always been a writer but “a sort of frustrated one,” he says in that gentlemanly self-deprecating way of his. “I’d had success immediately, which ‘got’ me.” He’s referring to articles that he wrote for Our Navy and Boys’ Life back in the 1940s. The need to earn a living after the war put that dream on hold, however. Only when he retired from the Aetna Life and Casualty insurance company in Hartford was he able to purse his pet project: a children’s novel about Simsbury’s involvement in the Revolutionary War.

A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga started out as a story for Fisher’s own children, Peter and Wendy. It focuses on a young boy named Davy Holcomb, who accompanies his uncle, Captain Noah Phelps, on a spying expedition for the Connecticut and Massachusetts militias. And it has enjoyed a steady popularity with young readers as several thoroughly dog-eared copies in the local library testify.

Davy is fictional, based on the writer’s son Peter. “I wanted people to believe that he [Davy] was a real person,” Fisher says. By using a common New England surname like Holcomb, he hoped to make the boy even more “believable.” But the story itself is based almost entirely on fact. The plan to capture Fort Ticonderoga, a British stronghold on Lake Champlain, was developed by the Connecticut Committee on Safety, a forerunner of the present state legislature. At the time of the war, it served it served as a sort of transitional government.

Fisher tells me in detail how the expedition left Hartford for Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1775. Phelps was considered “a logical choice” for a leader: as a teenager, he had spied for the British during the French and Indian War. He’d also been with General Jeffrey Amherst’s troops in 1759, when the fort was originally taken from the French: his inside knowledge of the fort and his skill as a spy were “critical to victory.” Apparently not overly concerned with self-glorification or prestige, Phelps relinquished his command – first to Captain Edward Mott of New Preston, Connecticut and then to the joint leadership of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold.

“The Connecticut and Massachusetts militias were almost entirely responsible for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga,” Fisher says seriously. “The Green Mountain Boys played only a small part in it.” He goes on to explain how after the Revolution, an enterprising journalist interviewed a number of veterans and compiled these “exclusives” into a book, complete with battlefield sketches. The interviews with Allen and his Green Mountain Boys are “quite revealing” as to how much of a part they actually played in that victory. A priceless find by any historian’s estimation, the book became one of the main sources for A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga.

Fisher has an ear for a good story, and he brings some of his best stories along with him for the interview. One involves a notorious Tory colonel named Philip Skene, who owned what amounted to a “little kingdom” in New York State – 50,000 acres of land complete with mills, a general store, and a small fort, which was captured by Captain Elisha Phelps (brother to Noah) before Ticonderoga was seized. It had to be. “It would have been a dagger in their backs if they hadn’t,” Fisher explains.

Skene and his family were taken prisoner and marched down to Connecticut, but they left something behind: the crudely mummified body of Mistress Skene. Phelps and his men learned that the dead woman had enjoyed a substantial yearly income, which was to last, according to the legalese of the day, “as long as she remained above ground.” Eager not to lose the income, Skene had her mummified. “I don’t know how true this next part is,” Fisher remarks, “but they say he used to hold her hand whenever he signed the money receipts. I wanted to use the story in A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga, but I couldn’t because it was a children’s book.”

Even without this story, A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga (which was, at one point, on the New York State school program’s suggested reading list) is still a wonderful read. Fisher has a gift for making history very real to his young readers. “I get a kick out of reading and re-reading the letters kids write me,” he says happily. “One of the youngsters wrote to me that I seemed to know so much about Benedict Arnold that I must have just talked to him.”


A sharp intelligence and an equally sharp sense of humor characterize Stephen Minot’s conversation. Hunting words is definitely his delight: a well-turned phrase or image has him practically purring. So we go off on a word expedition. “That’s good,” he says when I quote from a review I’ve just read. And it isn’t even about one of his books. He just knows a good figure of speech when he hears it.

Writing has always been a major part of his life. In addition to several novels, he has written a number of short stories and a textbook, Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. “I wrote my first novel when I was 16,” the Simsbury, Connecticut writer recalls. “I didn’t finish it, but I started it.” He laughs genially. “You see, if you do become a writer, then people will say that you knew what you were meant to be at an early age.”

There’s more to him than that, though. Minot, a former associate professor of creative writing at Trinity College in Hartford and winner of a National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) creative-writing fellowship, is deeply concerned with socio-political issues, and that concern shows in his writing. Back in 1966, fiercely opposed to the war in Vietnam, he ran for Congress as a third-party candidate. His slogan? “Why not Minot?” He didn’t win, but the political activist in him didn't disappear either.

Surviving the Flood (Atheneum), his latest novel, is essentially a “re-telling of the whole Noah story from the view of his son Ham, age 900, looking back to his youth,” Minot explains. “It’s a ‘now-it-can-be-told’ expose of what really happened on the Ark, an ‘if-you-ever-wanted-to-know’ piece. It has some of the comic elements you might expect on a boat with a lot of people who don’t get along with each other and a lot of animals who don’t get along with each other.”

There is, however, a darker side to the novel…disquieting “suggestions” about “who are the fortunate, who are the unfortunate, and how the survivors should look upon the latter.” It is, to Minot’s way of thinking, a particularly “telling theme” for the 1980s, when people are dying in underdeveloped, politically unstable countries. “The novel is essentially comic, but there is this other side which keeps it from being a Mel Brooks screenplay. Every time you read the newspaper, you see this relationship between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, both on a domestic and an international level.”

For Minot, it’s a matter of re-visioning. The Noah’s Ark story always appealed to his imagination, but it struck him as being way too short. The idea of that many human beings attempting to survive this apocalyptic flood in a wooden boat, no matter how large, was one that “called out for enhancement.”

But he’s quick to point out that he’s not the only one who has thought that. Artists over the centuries have paved the way with their imaginative illustrations, some of which appear in the novel. “If you look at what the artists have done with the story, you see that it is in the common possession of us all, similar to the Greek myths, which do not belong to the Greeks or pagans alone any more than a Biblical story belongs solely to Christians.”

Several enthusiastic reviews have already appeared. “He [Minot] makes legendary figures long since assumed to have been frozen in stone come marvelously to life in a way that will horrify Biblical literalists,” a writer for the Dallas Times Herald observes. “Surviving the Flood is sure to make their hit list and that is enough to recommend it.”

And that, to Minot, is probably one of the most satisfying accolades of all.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Heart to Heart

You know plain enough there's somethin' beyond this world; the doors stand wide open.
      - Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories


She was just a high-school kid, living with her aunt in Queens, New York, when she met him, Shawn Reid remembers. Delroy – or “Bunny,” as everybody called him – was a track star from Montego Bay, Jamaica. But he had friends in Connecticut, where her mom was living, so they had that in common.

 “We became friends.” Reid, who works in a correctional facility in Suffield, Connecticut, speaks very earnestly. “You know when they say you meet your soul mate? He was mine.”

They married in 1988. Four years later, Bunny and some friends headed down to Louisiana for some guy time. “We used to do ‘girl trips’ and ‘boy trips,’” she says, “and this particular trip was his turn to go away. He was the one driving the car. They got into a car accident and hit a pole. He was the only one who got hurt and eventually died from it. Nobody else got hurt – not even a broken arm or leg or anything.”

Curiously enough, the autopsy also revealed something that Bunny hadn’t even been aware of: an enlarged heart.

Shawn, who was seven months pregnant when the tragedy took place, dragged herself home after the funeral. She went straight to bed, only to find that she had a visitor….Bunny. “I don’t care what nobody said, I remember him coming in that room and touching my hand and telling me everything is going to be O. K. I felt his presence – I smelt him and everything. And you know how you sleep but you know what’s going on around you? I felt him telling me everything is going to be O. K.”

But Reid could be excused for thinking that her husband’s spirit wasn’t the best oracle out there. The very next week, Tia, the baby girl she’d been carrying, was born prematurely and died twenty minutes later. The child had developed a heart problem in utero; and if things weren’t bad enough, so did Reid. “It happens in one out of 2,500 pregnancies that you develop a heart problem,” she explains. “That whole month is like a blur. I couldn’t even tell you the day, the month, or anything….My aunt passed away that same month. It was a horrible, horrible month.”

Things didn’t turn around right away either. Reid’s body just broke down: she had a stroke in 1996 and then, two years later, found herself in need of a heart transplant. When she was admitted to the hospital, she was “so full of water that they told me if they didn’t get the water off, I had only two more weeks to live. So, when I got there, I was so out of it, you could say I was, like, comatose.”

She remembers lying in that hospital bed, connected to tubes and being vaguely aware of her family’s voices in the background. And then, suddenly – it really was like an out-of-the-body experience, she says -- there she was, talking to Bunny again.

 “He’s telling me, ‘It’s not time – go back.’ I’m listening to him like ‘I’m just sick of all this.’ And he’s saying, ‘Go on back – just go on back. Everything is O. K.’ He was telling me how he was taking care of my daughter – that my aunt was helping him.” His eyes never left her face. “He looked happy and still looked good.” The fact that he was still watching over her, just the way he had when he was alive, was “a comfort.”

When he told her about Tia, her response was instinctive: “‘Let me see her – I want to see her.’ And I remember that was the end of the conversation, with him telling me everything was all right. But I never got a chance to see her. I always wondered why, you know…always wondered what she looked like.” Reid sighs. “I’ll see her when I get there – I’ll see her when I get there.”

 Reid adjusted to life with a new heart and was able to go back to work in 2000. Her finances turned around, and she met somebody new. And over time, she got rid of Bunny’s things. But she still has that sense of him being around “all the time. You know, we used to do a lot of traveling back and forth to New York. And if I go by something that we would talk about, then a smile will come on my face because I can hear him saying, ‘Remember that? The things we used to do?’ Because we used to talk all the time. He was my best friend.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Man and His Cat: Dr. Frederick Feibel & Herbert J. Cat

He was walking through the wards at the Avon Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Feibel recalls, poking his fingers through the cage doors the way he always did. But this time, a white kitten with a Charlie Chaplinesque face “came charging up and grabbed a finger – no claws out – and hung on. Purred like mad.” The 87-year-old vet laughs. “After three or four times, I said, ‘I can’t leave this little guy here,’ so I hauled him home.” And that was the beginning of his fine, furry friendship with Herbert J. Cat, an Animal Friends of Connecticut rescue.

Feibel, who opened the clinic in Avon, Connecticut back in 1958, had always been partial to cats. Back when he was in vet school in Oklahoma, he and his wife Miller “had a cat – looked somewhat like Herb. She adopted us and presented us with a litter of kittens.” Puss Mama traveled from Oklahoma with the Feibels and proceeded to make herself very much at home, sleeping with them and scooting as far under the covers as she could go. But then Miller began to have “a real bad asthmatic reaction. The doctor tested her and decided that it was the cat.” So Puss Mama went to live with Feibel’s mother, and the household remained cat-less till well after Miller’s death in 2001.

Feibel was a little worried about introducing a kitten to his two older dogs at first. He needn’t have been. The moment he let Herbie out of the rec room, “the two of them accepted him. The big yellow Lab, he [Herbie] rubs his head on her head. Other times, he torments her: he chews on her tail, chews on her feet.” The vet’s voice trails off in laughter. “And the elkhound…he’s just totally in control. He goes by her and reaches up and whacks her.”

Yep, Herbie pretty much runs the show. His food dish is on the counter, away from the dogs, but that doesn’t stop him from joining his human for a more up-close-and-personal dinner: “I must admit, my wife would probably be upset, but while I’m eating at the table, he hops up there. And if there’s salmon or turkey, he helps me along….He doesn’t mind helping me out at all.”

Feibel’s laughing as he talks. In fact, he laughs throughout the entire interview. His joy in this cat is very real. “He’s so much fun, so much company, it’s just great for me to have him around.” If he’s relaxing in his recliner, Herbie doesn’t just walk over to him – he “runs across the room, leaps through the air, lands on my lap, and stretches across my leg. He has this perfect position he has to get in. He purrs away, and he’s happy to be there.” At night, when Feibel’s reading in bed, this scenario repeats itself with a few variations. Even though Herbie has “his own bedroom with a regular bed in it” (“It’s pretty classy,” the vet observes.), Herbie will suddenly appear, leaping over the bed and “stick[ing] his butt up into my face. So, at least five or ten minutes, I rub it down, and I’m patting him, and his motor’s going all the time.” And it’s not necessarily a one-shot deal: Herbie has been known to show up again in the middle of the night for another massage/work-out if he hears his buddy wake up.

He’s an indoor cat, naturally. “I worry about the coyotes,” Feibel admits. “I get shudders when I see out here [on the bulletin board] a note about a lost cat.” But Herbie seems to be OK with not going outdoors. He has a fairly busy life…stretching his claws and doing “his exercises” on the sofa…checking out noises around the old farmhouse…making the rounds of the upstairs bedrooms…and warming himself on the slate by the woodstove in the dining room.

They’ve been together three years now, and the camaraderie between them is titanium-steel-strong. “I’m so fortunate to get a hold of him,” Feibel reflects. It’s still “so funny” to him, the way Herbie “attached to me as a little kitten. There were four or five in that litter, and he ran over and grabbed that finger. Yeah, he chose me.”

Monday, January 14, 2013

House Call

(From The Way-Back Files -- Miracles of Healing, Guideposts 2006.)

           We sat atop the cemetery knoll, my old friend and I, staring in disbelief at the newly made grave.  “What am I going to do, Jenny?”  I sobbed, crumpling against her shoulder.  “What am I going to do?”

            I was 34-years-old and just widowed with a 3 ½ -year-old child, Zeke.  I felt as if someone had ripped my arm off and beaten me over the head with it.  And I had this horrible aching sense of suddenly not belonging anywhere, not even in my own home.  The house that Tim and I had bought prior to our marriage – a circa 1918 house that I had loved for its quirks, even while he’d complained about its smallness – had, overnight, become a desolate No-Man’s Land, and I was wandering around in it like one of those shell-shocked WWI soldiers in a Hemingway novel.

            Still, Zeke and I had to live somewhere.  So I went over the checklist that we’d been working on before Tim’s car accident.  We’d already contracted people to do the painting and wallpapering, so I went ahead with scheduling those things.  My oldest brother finished up the enclosed front porch, putting up the last few pieces of tobacco-barn wood paneling that Tim hadn’t gotten to.  I cleaned up the rest of the old beadboard wainscoting and painted the trim in the kitchen.

            Better, I thought once those things had been completed, but it’s still not enough.  I moved my bedroom up to the third floor, where Tim’s absence would, I told myself, not haunt me so deeply.  I took down the mini-blinds and put lace panels in their place, hoping to let the light in but, at the same time, maintain some privacy.  I hired a carpenter to build a new stair railing, extra kitchen cabinets, and covers for the old-fashioned stand-up radiators.

            Nice, I said to myself.  But, in my heart of hearts, I knew I’d been happier when the whole house was still a work in progress with barely any wallpaper up and what Tim had scathingly called “garbage-bag-brown paint” in the kitchen.  When he’d been there with us, joking and moving through the various projects with that quicksilver energy of his.

            I kept working on the house, basically doing whatever I could to make both the house and myself feel at ease with one another again.  Then, one morning, a good 5 ½ years after Tim’s death, I was painting the kitchen – again – when the truth came to me.  Not with any fanfare but quietly and kindly, like an old friend waiting for just the right moment to speak her mind.  It’s time, isn’t it?  Truth said, pulling up one of the Hitchcock chairs that I had so carefully saved up for early in my marriage.

            Yes, I said, pausing in mid-brushstroke, it really is.  I don’t want to be here anymore.  It's hard admitting that you've fallen out of love, whether it's with a person or a place.

            I found a realtor – or, rather, a realtor found me.  Lori showed up at my back door one day, canvassing the neighborhood for prospective sellers.  And I found a house – or, I should say, the house, like Lori, found me.  Early one Sunday afternoon, I was scanning the real estate section in the paper when one house in particular caught my eye.  The picture showed a white Cape Cod house in the town where Tim and I had grown up.  It was very similar to the one I’d grown up in and very much within my price range.

            I told the man I was dating – a letter carrier who happened to work in the same town as the Cape – about my find.  There was silence, followed by a chuckle.  “That’s the fourth house on my route,” he informed me, adding thoughtfully, “I could make it the last house on my route, though…Would the postman have to ring twice?”

              By the end of the week, I was standing in the Cape’s wide sunny living room, and I knew, without knowing how I knew, that I had come home.  I could see us sitting in this living room, my grandmother’s black cat andirons presiding over this hearth as they had over the great stone hearth in her old farmhouse (there’d been no fireplace in our 1918 house) – could see Zeke playing in the finished-off section of the basement on rainy days.  There were enough trees on the property to satisfy my tree-worshipping heart and an inexplicable but strong feeling that the house – which had been neglected by its current owners -- had been waiting for us.

            Oddly enough, my father-in-law, pragmatic soul that he was, wrote me a letter that underscored this feeling.  He was living out in Arizona now, but, of course, remembered the neighborhood well.  “There was one house that always intrigued me,” he remarked.  “It was on the corner of….”  And he pinpointed the exact location of the white Cape, the house that locals still referred to as “the old Clark house.”

            Of course, it takes awhile to put down roots in any relationship, and this new one that we were entering into with the Clark house was no exception.  I tackled both house and yard slowly, trying to get a good feel for what they needed.  And there were still things that I had to call experts in for, such as wallpapering, re-wiring, and removing the half-dead shrubbery out in front.  But I did more of the work here myself, rag-rolling the majority of the rooms in purply-blue, mauve, and creamy yellow and putting in flowers, trees, and herbs that spoke to something deep inside me.  As I painted each room, I, like the walls, became alive and singing with color. Likewise, as I planted pale-yellow Solstice roses, rainbow-hued irises, red bee balm, and kaleidoscope butterfly bushes with their fragrant calico flowers, I drew new strength and energy from the ground I was working.

            It has been 11 years since we came here.  Perhaps the pussywillow tree that I put in a couple of years ago says it best.  I have always loved pussywllows – as a sign of spring and for memory’s sake but especially for the old Polish legend about them.  According to that legend, some kittens were thrown into a river; and the mother-cat cried so piteously, the willows on the bank felt her pain and held out their branches for the kittens to cling to.  My tree reminds me of that legend and how, in a very real sense, this house called to me, holding out a life-line and helping me find my way back to myself.