Previous month:
November 2004
Next month:
January 2005

With the windows open

On this 31st of December, I opened up all the windows in the house to let the sweet Southern winter air waft through.  It's 67 degrees, slightly overcast, and the lake is as pretty as can be.

After 10 years in the South (following 7 years in St. Louis and 3 in DC) I am still astonished at the weather that we have at this time of year.  There's a peaceful, quiet quality to the days.  On my early morning walks this week I've watched the robins and bluebirds buzzing about, have been hissed at by the geese that hang out by the side of the road leading out of Lakeridge, and, this morning, was able to get quite close to one of the great blue herons as it sat stone still by the dam before deciding that I was getting too close; then it took off across the lake with those long loping wingbeats that take my breath away.

The first time that Lynn invited me to come to Birmingham to see her (thus, my second visit, following the seminar at which we met), I came from Wisconsin, where I had been sitting bedside duty for my father.  His surgery was a day or two after Christmas, and during the week that he was in intensive care, I sat in the lounge at the hospital all night long, reading, talking with Lynn on the telephone, and occasionally helping out with my dad (there was that one night when he almost died, his lungs filling up, and the on-duty nurse enlisted me as we pounded on his chest and pumped his lungs -- she was magnificent and I'll never forget her -- by morning he was sleeping peacefully -- I was drained, astounded, and utterly grateful for the experience).

I left for Birmingham on the 4th of January, driving to Chicago on the day after a blizzard, with the temperature somewhere around 20 below, and the drifts on the sides of the roads 10 and 15 feet high.   I didn't think anything of it.  The normal weather that I grew up with.

I landed in Birmingham, and was not thinking about weather.  (This is where I should insert the story about the slo-mo scene in the airport, and the letter about the guest room, but that'll have to wait for another time...)  The next day, she served me lunch out on her deck (slices of french bread covered with cheese & sausage & spices, toasted under the broiler).  I had not done much travelling at that point, and the notion that one could, in 24 hours, go from the frigid snows of Wisconsin to the delicate, balmy winter days of Alabama, was a revelation. 

It was Lynn, of course, just in her being, that could melt snow and bring on a beautiful warm day in the middle of January.  It made complete sense to me.  It still does.


Writing in Books

I just finished "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," laughing uproariously all the way.  And all the while, by the way, scribbling like mad in the margins and in the back of the book.  I enjoy shocking people who are shocked by the notion of writing in books; but, secretly, I pity them.  Those who care about the matter deeply are, after all, people who care about reading & writing, but I fear they've confused the artifact for the art.  I would never consider writing in a borrowed book, or a library book, but one of the reasons that I buy, rather than borrow, books is so that I have the freedom to engage in that kind of repartee with the author. 

When I'm underlining and checking off and making marginal notes, I'm not (usually) trying to denote things to go back to later -- it's part of my engagement with the book in the moment of reading it.  I'm talking back to the author, and I consider it a mark of respect.  I paid $160 (or some such ridiculous amount) for the limited edition copy of Ulysses that I read over the summer, and I couldn't wait to put my pen to it.  It was a way of saying, "This copy, suckers, is mine!  And I have the right to talk back to James Joyce."

A couple of years ago, I was reading an essay by Sven Birkerts, in which he mentions his habit of putting the dates on which he's read them at the back of his books, so that when he goes back to re-read, he knows how long it's been since his previous visit.  I loved the notion and have tried to do something similar ever since -- at the very least a brief note of the date and circumstances of my reading.  Depending on my engagement with the book, I can end up with mini-essays: paragraphs that wouldn't fit in the margins of a particular page. 

The notion that a book should be as pristine after you've read it as when you began seems foul to me.  I want to wrestle it to the ground, get bloody with it, let some of my life seep into it, just as the book will seep into me.  The book that I've read had better come out of the encounter looking like it's been read, dammit!

(And did you notice that, in honor of Ms. Truss, I managed to use all of the punctuation marks?)


Christmas -1 for Goomer

Since Josephine doesn't actually arrive for two months, I wanted her Christmas gifts  this year to be highly symbolic.  I'm quite pleased -- her first books (a set from Red Envelope called "baby's first library", which includes Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and The Big Red Barn -- classics all, Marian and Lynn assure me); her first  recorded music -- a benefit for preschool programs which includes people like Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., Madonna, the Dixie Chicks, Roseanne Cash, singing children's songs new and old (it's called Mary Had A Little Amp), and a stuffed Figment of the Imagination from our recent trip to DisneyWorld.  Figment is a big favorite of mine.

I've often referred to Marian as the great unexpected joy of my life.  I pursued her mother fiercely and felt properly rewarded when she finally said yes.  But Marian was a part of the deal, whether I wanted her or not, and my friendship over the years with her has been a wonder that has made me a better man.  Now, the prospect of grandfatherhood looms.  As someone who has always proclaimed, in complete sincerity, no interest in having kids, I am astonished at how much I am looking forward to this.  Marian never needed me as her father, and our relationship has matured along other lines, but Josephine will know me only as a grandfather -- and it is one of the blessings of the complicated families of our time that children can have many grandfathers.   There are too many wonderful grandfathers roaming the earth for me to proclaim that I'll be the best there ever was, but I can pledge that no other girl has, or will have, a better one.


Note to Jake

Dear Jake, 

When I bought The Prince of Tides, you were a little uncertain as to
whether it'd be right for me.  You were thinking about the story he
tells, the very southern-ness of it, in light of the thorny, abstruse
nonfiction and poetry that you know I'm fond of.  I told you at the time
that I'd been sceptically dismissive of Conroy's work, having an abiding
distrust of best-sellerdom.  But then I read his intro to
Frank Stitt's
cookbook
.  I was stunned by the sentences and figured that anybody who
could string a bunch of them together like that was somebody I might
want to spend a little time with.  This week I'm taking a reading
vacation, and it seemed like the right time to give it a spin, so I
started it up about 10:00 yesterday morning.  Except for a respite for
dinner and a re-watching of "Big Fish" with Lynn (kind of an appropriate
movie under the circumstances), I read straight through until 3:30 this
morning when sleep finally caught up with me.   I started up again a
little before 10:00 today and just finished.

Now would you mind just ordering for me everything else the son of a
bitch has ever written?

T Scott 


Vulcan

When I started coming to Birmingham to see Lynn, my Dad told me that the only thing he knew about Birmingham was Vulcan -- when he'd been in the Navy in Pensacola, he and some buddies had come up one time on leave.  He didn't remember much else about the trip, but he remembered that big iron statue.

Today is the tenth anniversary of his death.  I got in the habit, after I moved here, of going up to Vulcan on the 23rd, and looking out over the city, just thinking about him.  Sometimes I'd tie a little pouch of Indian tobacco to the rail.  A little prayer for him.  To him.

Vulcan's been undergoing rehab for the last couple of years, and hasn't been receiving visitors.  When the the park reopened last March, my first excited thought was that I'd be able to come back again at Christmas... honor my dad... just spend some quiet time with him at this most marvelously somber and gloriously giddy time of the year.

It's been unusually cold this week, even below freezing, and when I stopped at the park early this afternoon, there were a few snowflakes drifting down.  I huddled in my big black coat, and looked at the memorial brick that we bought for him, and then walked, slowly, up around the tower, pausing to look out over the city that has become so much home.  As I turned to go back to my car I was grinning, thinking how appropriate it was that on this anniversary, even down here, we'd be having something not unlike Wisconsin weather.

Each of my parents gave me wonderful things.  From my mother, the intellectual curiousity, the taste for philosophy and great art and music.  From my dad, the passion to be scrupulously honest and true, to live each day simply, faking nothing.  From both of them, to meet my responsibilities, to be joyous in friendship and family, and to be grateful for the gifts that I've been given.

I am a ridiculously lucky man.  My father walks alongside me every single day.   


"The Electronic Library"

The New York Times has an editorial today on the Google news -- an astonishingly good editorial, actually.  They get the facts pretty much correct.  They raise a bit of a red flag on copyright (we need to figure out how to make the non-public domain works more available), preservation (books are stable, electronic records are not), and the need to protect the books being scanned ("It is an illusion to think that digital images of scanned books will replace the books themselves".)

Most important, they recognize that "It will take even longer [than the 6 years of the scanning project] to understand the cultural implications of admitting everyone with Internet access to the contents of the world's great research libraries."

Incunabula days.


Abuse fatigue

Today there are more reports, this time from the FBI, about abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo.  I suspect the general public has already gotten inured to this.  We're easy to shock, but we get over it quickly.

The director of the ACLU claims that "top government officials can no longer hide from public scrutiny by pointing the finger at a few low-ranking soldiers."  A nice sentiment, but not very realistic.  What the people running this country have been absolutely brilliant at is understanding the low tolerance that the public has for uncomfortable facts.  And, quite frankly, they've been able to crank up the fear factor to such a degree that I would not be surprised to find that a majority of Americans today think that a little torture is not such a bad thing.  After, all, this is a war against terror. 


Tribute to Chuck

Will Blythe has a piece in the latest Oxford American bemoaning the fact that most tribute albums, in their desire to be respectful of the originals, fall short of being truly satisfying musically.  So I’m sending him a copy of the best tribute album – Brown Eyed Handsome ManWhen Fontella Bass opens up with the sultriest version of the title song you’re ever likely to hear, you know this is not going to be the typical respectful homage. Listen to Craig Straubinger’s blistering of the most famous opening lick in rock n’ roll on the disc’s penultimate cut (Johnny B. Goode) – it’s dead on, but it’s all his own.

Startling as it is that there hasn’t been a Chuck Berry tribute album before, this was the way to do it. All of the musicians are hard-working veterans of the St. Louis scene. Most of them know Chuck (who still comes out to jam at Blueberry Hill once a month). They do not respect the songs.  Chuck didn’t write ‘em to be respected. He wrote them to be slung along the bar, bounced off the walls, and danced out into the streets.  They’re songs that the bands on this album grew up playing, and they’ve twisted and bruised them and loved them up into something unique, in every case.

The disc itself is a benefit project for KDHX, St. Louis's idiosyncratic and cranky community radio station. I guess the “authenticity” comes from the fact that, on any given evening, you’re like to find at least a couple of these bands out in the St. Louis bars playing these same songs, just trying to make a living making music. Chuck’ll be there too.


Radiation

Lynn has the phrase "radiation marks" scrawled in bold black letters across her upper chest.  She started her treatments on Wednesday and has a thick black line and several blue positioning points marked around her left breast for the rad tech to use in lining things up.  The marks are high enough on her chest to be visible above the neckline of most of the clothes she wears.  When she went in yesterday, she told the tech to write the phrase.  "I'm not going around wearing high-necked dresses & sweaters for the next seven weeks, but I don't want people wondering what I'm doing with magic marker on my chest.  May as well make it very clear."  The rad tech says, "Oooh, you're fun!"

Indeed she is, and this is simply typical of the way that she has handled her breast cancer from the beginning.  She has been bold about telling people, and has happily enjoyed the support she's gotten from friends.  But she is not about to let this interfere any more than necessary with living her normal life, and she has no interest whatsoever in "hiding" it -- still so often the response that people have to a cancer diagnosis.

My secretary is just back at work after being out for a month with a broken arm.  One of our financial people is going to be out for another six weeks with a broken ankle.  These folks have things much worse than Lynn with her breast cancer.  It's all a matter of proportion and perspective.


Director's Days

At 7:15 in the morning, I'm making my way across campus, huddled in my big black coat.  At 22 degrees, in Alabama, this is in the running for the coldest day of the year, but the early morning sky is a brilliant blue and my coat is warm.  In the lobby of the Hulsey recital center, I get a cup of coffee and mingle with the Deans and other senior administrators. This is a special edition of our twice-monthly Academic Programs Council.  I talk to a few people and get a couple of important things settled or in motion.  The Provost ushers us into the recital hall for a performance by a couple of music students.  The young woman does a lovely job with a Puccini aria, and then her male companion (looking unnervingly like a music student who was a good friend of mine thirty years ago) does a delightful version of "On the Street Where You Live," from My Fair Lady.  To close, they join together for the "All I Ask Of You" duet from Phantom, and there is more than one slightly teary eye in the audience.  It's a wonderful way to remind us of what the point really is of all this fussing around we do every day in administering the business of the University.

The singers depart to applause, and we get down to the business of the meeting -- the accreditation review coming up.  Lots of work to get done on the compliance database.  Lots of things to get handled before the site visit in March.  Serious business, here, and there will be people putting in long hours over the holidays.

Back to my office, where I'll catch up with the Deputy Director on a few things, bring the AD for Assessment up-to-date on what we need to do for the accreditation visit.  Over the course of the day I'll finish the first draft of my April JMLA editorial (to be finished up on Friday), finalize some details for forming the search committee for a Serials Librarian, followup on some arrangements for an AAHSL committee meeting that I'll be chairing next month in Atlanta, work on some of the final implementation details for the restructuring of our paraprofessional positions, and tend to god knows what that will come into my office in person or via phone or email needing to be addressed right now.  I'll be making it up as I go along.

Around 6:45 this evening, I'll head over to the arena and meet Lynn for the basketball game.  We'll nibble on some barbecue and have a glass of wine and chitchat with many of the same folks that were with me in the recital hall this morning.  When I fall asleep, finally, around 11:00 I'll be thinking what an interesting and varied day it has been, and how tomorrow will be another one -- and completely different.