Our Famous Java

My daughter has been playing an online game in which players try to run a successful coffee stand, controlling such variables as advertising, location, and product quality, in order to turn the best profit. One supposedly bad thing that may happen is that customers become sickened by the coffee, but of course, Mademoiselle has turned this eventuality into a desired result; nay, it has become the object of the game. She will not rest until the area in front of her business is a veritable Versailles fountain court of projectile-vomiting patrons.

Book Review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This book is very powerfully and economically written, with poignant understatement sufficing very well. As is known, its main conceit is to take the underground railroad literally, as a subterranean locomotive, as it conveys the runaway Cora through a variety of states of freedom, each with hopes, mysteries, and dangers and each stressing a usually sinister aspect of race relations, involving, to name two examples, medical experimentation and violent segregation.

One splendid sentence is a line of dialogue: “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth” (p. 285). A few lines later, America is named as the grandest delusion of all, hopefully a useful one; and since the ending of the story doesn’t involve total genocide, perhaps it might count as a (very relatively) hopeful one.

In Situ

Most people clean up from the evening’s activities before turning in for the night, but I’ve always preferred to leave things where they are, the better to reconnect with them, and with a slightly younger version of myself, on the morning after. Waking up bright and early to last night’s tea mug, with the damp bag of Sleepytime still in the bottom, reminds me that I was, just a few hours ago, in a mellow world, very different from the up-and-at-‘em condition in which I now find myself. If the Kind of Blue album jacket is still on the floor in front of the stereo, the lesson is all the more powerful. It’s like I’m looking back in time, to a yesterday that is psychologically ages ago.

Sunday night to Monday morning transitions are the most striking, and if the detritus of the weekend is still in place, I find I’m beside myself in a time-traveling sense. Cards and poker chips, beer and pretzels stare up at me from the table, stare forward at me, through time, from the weekend. If today is the first day of the school year, and last night’s Uno game is still in situ, then it calls to me across an even greater distance, from my carefree to my care-burdened self.

The just-passed hurricane reaches out to me too, from flashlights and candles gathered in the dining room, now bathed in the ironic light, and the silence, of the morning after. Of course, I don’t long for the storm as I would for the summer, but I long even so.

Once, in fact, I was able to commune, not just with my late self but with a late friend, through the medium of leftover spaghetti sauce.  She’d cooked a batch of it before going home to hang herself, and we ladled it onto our plates for weeks.

Book Review: Crossing the Horizon, by Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro’s Crossing the Horizon promises a tale of “three remarkable women” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kan7FDWhDcc), but one of its three main subjects, Mabel Boll, doesn’t belong with the other two. Granted, Ms. Boll was one of at least three women who hoped to cross the Atlantic before Amelia Earhart did. However, she was not herself a pilot (she would have made the trip only as a passenger) and comes off in these pages as a frivolous socialite and gossip. She might have been remarkably witty, but she wears out her welcome halfway through the book and is tolerable after that only as comic relief. If there is any lesson in her story it would be that her dependence on other people to realize her dream proves fatal to her chances: Anyone with any merit runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, leaving her in the rotten company she more commonly keeps (especially the scoundrel Charles Levine), with everyone trying to take advantage of everyone else and no one really helping.

Notaro’s other two protagonists, Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay, are the true heroes. Both are addicted to freedom and stop at nothing in the pursuit of it. Both run away from home, eloping with men who seem to offer fresher prospects – though neither one does, and both women return to their families. Both are enamored of fast cars and aeroplanes and quickly obtain pilot’s licenses.  Both are inspired to follow in Charles Lindbergh’s footsteps and set their sights on the Atlantic, although they plan to cross in opposite directions – the American Elder flying east and the British Mackay flying west.

In fact, there are at least as many interesting differences between the two heroes, beside their proposed directions of travel. Elder, of Anniston, Alabama, is supported by her family in her transatlantic endeavor, while suffering at least some measure of opposition from society. It is Ruth’s mother who dresses her in a necktie and trousers, and all her relations turn out for her flight. (This reviewer is also extremely pleased that Elder’s family is not depicted here as a pack of cartoonish hicks.) However, the press seems a bit too preoccupied with the question of Ruth’s husband, and one reporter says that she’d do better as a typist. Even Eleanor Roosevelt calls her ambition “very foolish.” Conversely, Mackay is the favored daughter of aristocrats who, owing to overprotection, forbid her from making the crossing. It cannot be said for sure how much society in general would have supported her plan, for she keeps it a secret; but she seems generally to get her way in the world, and her crew is quite devoted to her.

Nothing stops either woman, of course, but the edge would have to go to Ruth Elder for her pluck at making things happen. True, most doors open for her because of her winning looks. Conscious of this advantage, she employs her lipstick and her smile strategically. However, her pretty face can get her only so far. When the world stops taking her seriously (if it ever did take her seriously) and the doors slam shut, she is forced to rely on her intelligence, her voice, and her ability to prevail in argument.

The turning point of the book comes when a smart-aleck reporter discovers her husband.

“Mister,” Ruth demanded, pointing at the young reporter who thought he had just scooped everyone. “You, sir. What is your name?”

He looked shocked and surprised and pointed to himself. “Me?” he asked, and Ruth nodded. “Dan Shear. Jersey Journal.”

Ruth nodded again and put her hands behind her back.

“Mr. Shear, have you ever been to Anniston, Alabama?” she asked without a trace of malice, but not sweetly, either.

“Can’t say that I have,” he said with a snarky laugh.

“Well, I am from Anniston, Alabama, and I am the second of seven children. Eight if you count my little brother who died when I was ten,” she said.

After revealing more of where she’s from, way more than the reporter bargained for, she asks,

“Do you know that kind of living, Mr. Shear?”

“That wasn’t my question,” he stammered. “My question was–”

“Well, this is my question to you, Mr. Shear,” Ruth interrupted. “Do you know what that kind of living is like? For a seventeen-year-old girl in Anniston, Alabama?”

“No, Miss Elder, I do not,” he finally admitted.

“Now you do,” Ruth stated firmly. “So you can stop asking those questions….My name is Ruth Elder and being married makes no difference in how I fly that plane. It doesn’t make me better or worse. It doesn’t change a thing.” (pp. 199-200)

There’s a lot of waiting around for favorable weather, but Ruth Elder and Elsie Mackay end up flying their planes.

Check, Please

Seated at the next table today at China Doll were three long-retired airline pilots who were reminiscing in loud voices on airsickness of days past. They seemed to think that “regurgitate” was more acceptable table talk than “vomit” or “puke;” and thus they droned on, in sentences such as “I started to feel sick, but I didn’t regurgitate. It wasn’t until we got closer to New York that I regurgitated.”

That was going on next to us. Above us was the only PA speaker in the ceiling, and it was raining down muzak versions of “Lost in Love” and comparable classics, directly onto our food.

Despite the excellent preparation of the eggplant with garlic sauce, I found it difficult to enjoy my meal. In fact, I felt as though my whole world was melting into a swirling morass of tossed cookies and lost love, Eastern Airlines, air sickness bags, eggplant and garlic sauce. Today’s luncheon was, in the words of Mark Twain, “tedious and wretched and dismal and nasty.”

Taiwan Journal: Inner vs. Outer Peace?

Yonghe, Taiwan, ROC                         October 25, 1990

It’s been several weeks since I’ve had the occasion to awaken to the sounds of a pleasant morning shower. The patter of the rain greeted my waking ears like the voice of some old friend, missed but not forgotten, and now that nature has returned to her friendly post and benignly discouraged us from our desperate enterprises, I can once more be sated with my own place, this little room, with only a gentle heartbeat audible outside, and the clamorous exertions of the organism thus muted.

Perhaps it is necessary to be reminded that we can be serene. I’ve always loved the heaven-sent power outage or even the tropical storm; it keeps one’s perspective natural, manageable, under one’s own roof. I know I can trust myself in that shelter to keep myself dry, safe, and enheartened.

But hark, across the airway, not far at all, even in the rain, I can still hear the unpacified and oblivious father, coarsely ordering things about in his own little world, just as on any other day. For him, I imagine, there is not even the briefest repose from his contrived vicissitudes — or relationships. Owing to this man’s command or frown, the child’s forced piano playing now comes plodding across, right on schedule. Venomous parental commentary forms the background score.

And alas, there are a few crying babies, families who bring the street noise in with them, and motorcyclists keeping their dates. Yet as for me, the clouds suffice to block out the illusion of time, and, liberated from the unnatural schedule of the sun, my heart beats in relaxed tempo with the patter of the rain, constant, though often picking up and tapering off, following the currents of my interest.