A Life Both Reasonable and Proper

U.S. 34 ~ South Central Iowa

Many decades ago, when relatives from Kansas City traveled north to our small Iowa town for family visits, at least half of their trip involved driving on Iowa highways. The experience invariably turned my usually sanguine uncle into a grump. “What’s with your roads?” he’d say. “You ever going to get something besides those concrete cow paths?” A Minnesota friend’s father asked similar questions when her family drove south into Iowa for business or shopping. “What’s with these Iowa farmers? Can’t they build a road?”

Everyone knew there was a problem. Ted Landphair, reminiscing about the highway that bisected my home town, wrote:

[I remember] winter driving on old U.S. Route 6, then a cross-country main highway rimmed by cement curbs. A highway with curbs? Not just in town, but even out in the county?
Having seen enough wrecks of cars that slid off the road in Iowa’s fierce snowstorms, some engineer must have thought raised edges would safely direct drifting autos back into line. In my case, they served only to dislodge my Beetle’s right hubcaps and ravage the tire alignment.

Few who drove on those roads failed to cuss at them occasionally. My father surprised us with a few choice words of his own after an encounter with a curb on US 34, a highway paved between 1928 and 1930, provided a memorable lesson in tire alignment and my father’s only known brush with the law.

We were heading home from a farm sale when something — a moment of inattention or simple bad luck — bounced us into and away from the highway curb. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have been noteworthy, but a strangely sibilant sound claimed our attention: clickety shhhhh clickety shhhhh clicketyclickty clunk.

After stopping to check the tires, Dad said, “We’ll stop at the next town and figure out what the problem is.” So on we went, easing along at 40 miles an hour or a little more: slow enough to notice if something decided to fall off the car.

Within minutes, we’d been pulled over by law enforcement. Whether it was a sheriff, the highway patrol, or local police, I can’t say, but I certainly remember Dad rolling down the window as the officer ambled up and said, “Going a little slow there, aren’t you?” 

“I am,” Dad said, “but I hit the curb back there, and the car sounds like I did some damage. I thought I’d stop at a garage in Chariton so they can check it out.” Putting his pen away, the officer grinned. “Makes sense to me,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.” Then he was gone. We were back on the road, somehow the problem was solved, and eventually we made it home.

Whenever I think back on that experience — my dad’s explanation, and the officer’s easy acceptance of it — I remember the road signs that made the exchange possible. Given our circumstances, it was perfectly reasonable that we should be making way slowly, and the law was on our side.

Yes, this was a real speed limit sign

The fact that the state assigned to motorists both the right and the responsiblity to decide the best speed for travel seems more than improbable today. The journey from Reasonable-and-Proper to You’ll-Take-Our-Regulations-and-Like-Them is a long one, and the curbs being put in place are increasingly high.

In those early decades of my life, ‘reasonable-and-proper’ applied to far more than life on the highway. People generally assumed it was reasonable to trust others, and proper to help them as we could.

If I needed a dress for a special occasion, I’d often stop by my favorite  shop on the courthouse square and ask the owner if he had something new I might like. He’d show me a few things, then put whatever appealed to me into a bag for me to carry home ‘on approval.’  After trying them on at home, consulting with my parents, and deciding what I wanted to keep, I took the other dresses back to the shop and paid for what I’d kept. Only then was a receipt written up.

Taking things out ‘on approval’ wasn’t a special consideration for my family, or a quirk of life in a very small town.  It was the way business was done. When the owner of the shop became mayor of our town, the same qualities that made him a successful business owner marked his service to the community at large


Occasionally, I’d don one of those special dresses for a shopping trip to Des Moines. The highlight of those trips always was a stop at the downtown Younkers: central Iowa’s version of Macy’s or Saks. Established in 1899, the store became almost mythical before closing in 2005. After its closure, renovations were undertaken, but in March of 2014, the old building nearly was destroyed by fire.

As word of the fire spread, nostalgic Iowans the world over breathed a sigh of relief that the Tea Room had escaped the worst of it. The basement lunch counter, popular with bobby-soxers and people pressed for time, served many of the same foods as the Tea Room, but the fifth-floor Tea Room was an institution.

The Younkers Tea Room Lounge in the 1930s

Even ascending to the Tea Room was an experience. Stepping into the elevator, store customers were greeted by an attendant wearing a cap and white gloves. Resting on a fold-out seat, the attendant pushing the elevator buttons announced each floor in turn. “Second floor. Millinery and ladies wear.” “Fourth floor. Gentlemen’s attire.”

Then, just when patrons thought they couldn’t endure another minute of creeping and stopping, the longed-for announcement came. “Fifth floor. Tea Room. Enjoy your lunch.”

Over time, the baroque decorations of the Tea Room’s earlier decades gave way to fresh interpretations of elegance, but at the time of my first rite-of-passage luncheon there, all the important pieces remained in place: the crystal chandelier; the white linen tablecloths and napkins; the scent of fresh flowers; and the glow of polished wood.

The service was as elegant as the setting. Not long after the 2014 fire Gail Froyen, a long-time Iowa resident, recorded memories of her time as a Tea Room waitress.

My first employment in the restaurant world was at the elegant Tea Room. The ladies lunching there were decked out in beautiful dresses, hats and gloves; gentlemen wore suits, white shirts and ties. White cloths and linen napkins graced the tables. Goblets sparkled, reflecting light from the hanging crystal chandeliers. A pianist played soft music and diners were delighted when seated at tables near the large, gracefully festooned windows.
Clad in my grey starched uniform, little white apron and pin-on hat, I reported to work 30 minutes early on my first day to be trained by a more experienced waitress. Her job was to teach me to serve “The Younkers Way.” She was excellent at her job, and intended that I should reflect that excellence.
After explaining the menu so I could ably inform the patrons how each dish was prepared, she taught me how to properly space the china and silver. I followed her for the rest of the shift, learning how to take an order, to serve from the left and remove from the right, pour water, coffee and tea. Patiently, she insisted on the correct way to be a Tea Room waitress.
What she really taught me was how to be gracious with even the most persnickety patron.

To put it another way, Gail Froyen was being taught how to respond properly to even the most unreasonable patron.

Dina Bechman, who worked as a manager at Younkers in the late 1980s and who supported restoration of the site as a way to preserve at least a portion of a building filled with so many memories, said after the fire:

To see it gone was just devastating. Try as we might to preserve history, sometimes that choice is taken away from us.

And so it is. In time, piece after piece falls away. Younkers is gone, closed because of changing times and then destroyed by fire. My favorite small town dress shop is gone as well, its kind and trusting owner laid now to rest. Even old U.S. 34 nearly has disappeared into the brush: its slabs of concrete meaningless except to those who followed its curves up and around the hills of a much-beloved land.

U.S. Highway 34 ~ going, but not forgotten

Yet if much is gone, much remains of the people who inhabited these buildings and traveled these roads: their trust, their graciousness, and their deep sense of gratitude for the fullness of their lives.

Willing to curb their baser impulses for the sake of safer passage, they brought stability to their communities, and a sense of foundations well-laid. Perhaps it isn’t reasonable to expect such trust, such graciousness, such gratitude, and such stability to prevail, but hoping — and working — to ensure their continuance always is proper.

Comments always are welcome.

Serendipity Strikes Again

When I discovered that a recent photo had captured a fading sunflower petal taking to the air, the image seemed too delightful and too improbable not to share — so I included it on Lagniappe in a post titled “Summer’s Flight.”

Reader Derrick Knight‘s reference to the ‘serendipitous’ nature of the image brought a smile, especially since his use of the word was exactly right. ‘Serendipity,’ a word coined by one of Derrick’s countrymen in the 1700s, refers to something quite different from coincidence or luck, and its history is as interesting as the experiences it seeks to define: experiences which include the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the odd as odd can be.

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined serendipity,  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes Walpole as an exemplar of a particular British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness, and just plain madness.”

Beyond question, Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When not busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters.  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau — presumably written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France — was a fake.

Purported to have been written by King Frederick of Prussia, the letter offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick promised, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Apparently never suspecting Walpole’s authorship, Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume had sent it; in time, the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, which he deemed a “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted others to admire his treasures, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Strawberry Hill

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china, and carpets.”  Some postulate that Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a visual analogue to his writing. As Walpole himself once said:

­Visions always have been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, once suggested that Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

In his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,  John Barthes makes the point that,”You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s ‘serendipity’ was far more than lost bearings or accidental discovery. Sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous, or irrelevant facts — was equally important. Seeing what others have missed is one thing. Realizing what we’ve seen is quite another; it may require time, and patient thought.

This much is certain. A willingness to lose our bearings now and then, and an ability to incorporate accidental or unexpected encounters of any sort into the narrative of our lives, adds vibracy and interest to our days. Two and a half centuries later, Walpole’s most important legacy for our constricted and fearful time may be his conviction that the unsought; the wholly unexpected; the occasionally fortunate; and the remarkably odd are to be celebrated rather than feared.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Gulls

Laughing Gulls taking their ease

It seems John Updike never met Mia McPherson. If he had, he might have titled his poem differently.

Five years ago, Mia — a consummate bird photographer based in Utah — took  upon herself the task of correcting just about everyone’s propensity for misnaming gulls. In a post titled “For The Love Of All That’s Birdy, There Is No Such Thing As A Seagull,” she made her point with the help of a few sign-holding gulls. As she wrote:

One of the things that make my feathers ruffle is when I see people post a bird photo and call it a “seagull,” because there is no such thing as a seagull.
Under just the Genus Larus we have Pacific gull, Belcher’s gull, Olrog’s gull, Black-tailed gull, Heermann’s gull, Mew gull, Ring-billed gull, California gull, Great black-backed gull, Kelp gull, Cape gull, Glaucous-winged gull, Western gull, Yellow-footed gull, Glaucous gull, Iceland gull, Thayer’s gull  [We said goodbye to Thayer’s gull this year not because they went extinct but because they were lumped with Iceland gulls], European herring gull, American herring gull, Caspian gull, Yellow-legged gull, East Siberian herring gull, Armenian gull, Slaty-backed gull, Lesser black-backed gull, and Heuglin’s gull.
Not included in any of their names is “seagull.”

Despite the passage of time, I’ve never forgotten Mia’s post. Most of the time, I remember to call birds in the genus ‘gulls,’ but poets — W.B. Yeats, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg among them — aren’t ornithologists, and most of them found ‘seagull’ a perfectly acceptable term.

That said, Updike’s poem “Seagulls” does begin by referring to “a gull,” just before it veers into a suggestion of gullability among humans.  Updike could be remarkably clear-eyed when it came to categorizing human foibles, and he was no less so when it came to the gulls; his descriptions of the bird are creative and on point.

Had they met, I don’t think Mia would have chastised Updike for using one of her least favorite misnomers, but she might have whispered, “By the way, John — you might consider changing your title.”

A gull, up close,
looks surprisingly stuffed.
His fluffy chest seems filled
with an inexpensive taxidermist’s material
rather lumpily inserted. The legs,
unbent, are childish crayon strokes—
too simple to be workable.
And even the feather-markings,
whose intricate symmetry is the usual glory of birds,
are in the gull slovenly,
as if God makes too many
to make them very well.
Are they intelligent?
We imagine so, because they are ugly.
The sardonic one-eyed profile, slightly cross,
the narrow, ectomorphic head, badly combed,
the wide and nervous and well-muscled rump
all suggest deskwork: shipping rates
by day, Schopenhauer
by night, and endless coffee.
At that hour on the beach
when flies begin biting in the renewed coolness
and the backsliding skin of the after-surf
reflects a pink shimmer before being blotted,
the gulls stand around in the dimpled sand
like those melancholy European crowds
that gather in cobbled public squares in the wake
of assassinations and invasions,
heads cocked to hear the latest radio reports.
It is also this hour when plump young couples
walk down to the water, bumping together,
and stand thigh-deep in the rhythmic glass.
Then they walk back toward the car,
tugging as if at a secret between them,
but which neither quite knows—
walk capricious paths through scattering gulls,
as in some mythologies
beautiful gods stroll unconcerned
among our mortal apprehensions.
                                             “Seagulls ” ~ John Updike

 

Comments always are welcome.

No Seven Year Glitch

A few months ago, I noticed the blog of Robert K.Rehmann, a photographer living in northern Italy. Intrigued by its title — The Quiet Photographer — and given my natural inclination toward quietude, I took time to explore. Eventually, I found Robert’s explanation for his title, with his own translation into English from his native Italian:

Why a quiet photographer? Because in a world where so many people are screaming, fighting with all instrument in order to impose their idea I just desire to speak about photography in a quiet way. Without imposing my idea.
For me to make photography goes behind the “click”. It means to communicate ideas, feelings. It means to look for something. For ideas, even through an open discussion with the ones who have different ideas. To make photography means also to have friends with the same interest. This is the reason for which this blog starts, in a quiet way.

In a recent entry, he posed an interesting question: “How about you? Have you ever experienced reliving a special moment through a photograph? Would you  like to share it with us?”

Coincidentally, I’d recently made a trip into Houston for my semi-annual visit to the eye doctor. Although seven years have passed since the surgery that restored my vision, little had changed; I continue to enjoy 20/20 vision. When I read Robert’s question, the special moment that came to mind was that surgery, and the photos I remembered were a pair that I posted soon after. It was such fun to revisit the post, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share it as a response to Robert’s question, as well as a way of introducing you to The Quiet Photographer.

Hallie’s Moon ~ Debbie Little-Wilson

Perhaps because I dream so rarely, or at least remember so few dreams, frequent dreamers fascinate me. 

When friends report extravagant, tangled threads of narrative woven through their nights, I press for details. One awakens suddenly, her heart pounding, barely a step ahead of the ax-murderer with a grudge. Another, constricted with horror by the sight of luggage-toting lizards at her door, thrashes awake, gasping for breath.

My mother once dreamed the Mayor had appointed her to be Keeper of the Kitties. Despite the honor of it all, the thought that she’d been charged with caring for hundreds of cats was for her a true nightmare: fully as distressing as the week she spent all night, every night, searching the aisles of supermarkets for a product she couldn’t find, couldn’t identify, and wasn’t sure she truly needed.

But the Queen of Dreamers — the one to whom her faithful readers turned for entertainment, bemusement, and enlightenment — was Bella Rum. Bella dreamed about house repairs, a variety of ex-Presidents, vampires, and the odd assassination attempt. Hollywood screen writers would kill for the opportunity to adapt her dreams for their plots.

Because we knew each other for so many years, and because Bella maintained such a dream-friendly blog, I didn’t think twice about leaving an off-handed comment on her blog about an odd dream of my own:

I had a Bella dream last night. Things have gotten very complicated (not bad, just complicated) with the process of moving toward my eye surgery, and last night, after fussing and fuming over several problems that have to be solved, I dreamed that I went blind. Just like that. Poof! Everything went black.
I woke up convinced I couldn’t see, until I realized that I could.

By morning, the dream had faded. Finding my way to the coffee maker, I added an extra cup to the pot and pondered the issues still waiting to be resolved. Loss of sight wasn’t on the list.

First on the list had been the need to move from contact lenses to glasses prior to surgery. I wasn’t pleased by the prospect, but I had no choice. As my ever-cheerful surgical assistant explained, my hard contact lenses had reshaped my eyes. To guarantee a perfect fit for implanted lenses, they had to be allowed to return to their natural state so that my new prescription would be accurate. Weekly appointments for measurements would be involved, in order to track my eyes’ progress.

When I asked how long the process would take, the assistant laughed her cheerful little laugh and said, “We don’t have a clue. When the technicians get the same results two or three weeks in a row, they’ll know your eyes have stopped changing, and you’ll be ready for surgery.”

After only a week, there was no question my eyes had begun changing. My new glasses became less useful by the day, and my world grew increasingly blurry. “Not to worry,” said the surgical staff. “It happens.”

Two months later, I was back to the ophthalmological equivalent of square one, with nice, naturally-shaped eyes. After the removal of the first cataract and the implantation of a near-vision lens in my left eye, I was relatively functional. I could work, use the computer, and read stop signs, but with one eye corrected for near vision and the other barely corrected at all, driving was difficult. “Not to worry,” said my surgeon. “Once you get your distance lens in your right eye, things will be better.”

And so it was. After a second blurry, post-surgery night, I awoke with no cataracts, new lenses, and perfect vision. I was ecstatic until mid-afternoon, when something like zero visibility fog rolled into my right eye. Astonished by the sudden loss of vision, I thought, “Is this what it’s like to go blind?” Then, I remembered the dream, and shuddered at the thought that it might have been a premonition.

Of course it wasn’t. Reasons for the sudden fogginess were simple enough: a little inflammation here, some post-surgical swelling there. A combination of antibiotic and steroid drops brought daily improvement until, for the first time in my life — including childhood — I had 20/20 vision. 

“See?” my surgeon said. “I told you not to worry.”

In Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Mendel, who boasted to his teacher, Rabbi Elimelekh, that “evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light.” “Yes,” said Rabbi Elimelekh, “in my youth, I saw that too. Later on, you don’t see these things any more.”

Perhaps. But when the day came for a greatly anticipated, long-scheduled, and oft-postponed trip to Presidio La Bahia in Goliad, I might as well have been seeing angels.

Everything in sight had been transformed into an astonishment and a marvel: great sweeps of basket-flowers along the ditches; patterned bricks in buildings; a miles-long view down Lavaca Bay; crisp, clear horizons; the vibrant, shimmering colors of businesses and billboards.

Traveling a randomly chosen Farm-to-Market road, I even found what I feared I had missed during my spring confinement: an extravagance of wildflowers. After stopping to photograph a field where swallows dipped and Gaillardia spread their rich, colorful blanket over the hills, I laughed with delight to see my first pair of images.

Thanks to my bad habit of leaving my camera in front of air-conditioning vents, I’d captured a perfect memento of my journey toward sight: one of the best before-and-after pairings in the world.

What was then…
…and what is now

Looking over the hills, some words of the Persian poet Rumi presented themselves as a perfect hinge between past and future.

your way begins
on the other side
become the sky
take an axe to the prison wall
escape
walk out like someone
suddenly born into color
do it now

As for what came next, the not-knowing was the best part. Varnishing became easier and my house a little less dusty, but I didn’t keep my eyes at home. There were stars and dragonflies, hummingbirds and highways to be seen and experienced; words to read and words to write; births to celebrate and deaths to mourn; all within an ever-shortening span of allotted time.

The possibilities still fill me with a certain exuberance, not unlike that found in a video our town’s volunteer fire department helped to create in 2012.  Though less elegant than Rumi’s poetry, it’s deeply human, and filled with happiness.

Both the video and my pair of before-and-after photos seem a perfect response to Robert’s question: they are, indeed, a way of reliving one of life’s special moments.

.

If all the days  that come to pass
Are behind these walls,
I’ll be left at the end of things
In a world kept small.
Travel far from what I know,
I’ll be swept away.
I need to know I can be lost
And not afraid.
We’re gonna trip the light,
We’re gonna break the night,
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light.
Remember we’re lost together,
Remember we’re the same.
We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts,
We hold the flame.
We’re gonna trip the light…
I’ll find my way home
On the western wind,
To a place that was once my world,
Back from where I’ve been.
And in the morning light I’ll remember
As the sun will rise,
We are all the glowing embers
Of a distant fire…
We’re gonna trip the light…

Comments always are welcome.

The Taste of Memory

From the tenor of their conversation, it seemed the woman placing her order had been a customer of the meat market for some time. At least the clerk had known her long enough to ask, “Do you want seven chicken breasts, or have the kids gone back to school?” After a moment’s thought, the woman said, “One’s still at home, but she doesn’t like chicken. Two will be enough.”

“What about a roast?” the clerk said. “Are you ready for a nice pork loin, or some chuck?” The woman sighed. “No. Not yet. I can’t bring myself to turn on the oven in this heat. Besides, roasts are for winter.”

That’s when I smiled, recognizing a woman who shared my preferences. I don’t crave pot roast in summer any more than I long for gazpacho when I’m trying to thaw out in January. Some dishes appeal throughout the year, but certain foods, whether from habit or preference, remain confined to one season.

As I pondered my own list of seasonal foods, it occurred to me that ice cream manufacturers are in a tricky spot. It would be easy to associate ice cream only with warm weather: a refreshing treat for days when temperatures soar. For decades, families spent summer afternoons churning homemade ice cream, just as the churches turned to ice cream socials as summer fund-raisers. The sound of the roving ice-cream seller’s bell was a summer sound, and summer trips to the ice house were as often for ice as for beer.

To break the connection between ice cream and summer — and to make a profit even in the depths of winter — companies had to find new ways to attract customers.

One of the most effective methods has been the establishment of seasonal flavors, and Texas’s beloved Bluebell Creamery has mastered the approach. Aficionados of the brand have learned their ice cream calendar by heart: peppermint in December and January, Mardi Gras in March, homemade vanilla with peaches or strawberries in early summer, and southern blackberry cobbler as August turns to September.

Fall deserves it’s own flavors, of course; spiced pumpkin and butter pecan are sheer perfection. When they appear on store shelves in the weeks between summer’s peaches and holiday peppermint, everyone knows that falling leaves, crisp air, and pot roast can’t be far away. While we wait for the end of summer’s interminable heat, we enjoy: waxing poetic over the virtues of a traditional and quite tasty treat.

 

  So
  little
  is needed.
A dish. A spoon.
  Even the carton
  will do in a pinch if
  no one is watching, no one
  complaining, no one advising
sweet moderation when offered the
chance to keep scooping and scooping away.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here .