Friday, August 28, 2009

Attention to Detail

(News-Herald, August 27) I love the stone skipping contest. It makes for such a finely focused afternoon (particularly in better-organized years like this one). I’ve judged the event basically since its Franklin inception, and I often hear the same question—how do you count all those little skips?

The big complicated answer is something about the audible tips, the little splashes, the rhythm, the patterns of ripples, but the short answer is simple: you pay attention. From a distance, a row of stone skips may just look like a line of splashy water. Everything looks different close up.

The common, simple image of a river is that it’s flat and flows steadily downstream. But even a kayak duffer like me quickly sees that’s not so. I’ve spent many hours out on the river this summer, and it is a beautiful place. But what looks like a large, flat rolling ribbon from a distance is considerably more complicated close up.

Sometimes the river really is a flat ribbon. But in some places it suddenly plunges into a deep hole or over a submerged stone step. There are places where ridges split the river lengthways and the water flows sideways, spilling over a lip almost too slight to measure. The river will stand with lake-like stillness until it drops, suddenly, and the water springs to life. It can race, cut through itself, even swirl in little pockets that hit the kayak as if it had landed on top of a big spinning ball.

Where French Creek and the Allegheny come together there’s always something interesting going on. Sometimes the river runs a bit higher than the creek, and the creek’s waters pile up against it. More often the river runs a bit lower, and you can see the slightest of mini-waterfalls at the creek’s mouth. As flat as we expect water to be, a river is filled with dips and rises and steps and hills.

Ditto for the bike trail. Certainly no one would mistake the bike trail for one of those alpine peaks in the Tour de France, but pedal up and down enough times with your gear cranked up to somewhere between “Wow—we’re zipping along now” and “Wow—I’m definitely getting older” and you can see (and feel) the trail dip and climb.

The same phenomenon is evident through many parts of life. It is probably the mark of true love for something to see all the little details and variations.

If you don’t like polka music, pretty much every polka sounds like every other polka. But polka fans know the differences, can hear nuances and changes and distinctions and can tell the difference between Polish and Slovenian polkas.

All parents who hate their children’s music are certain it all sounds exactly the same, even though the children who love the music are quite sure it doesn’t.

Pursuing and mastering a passionate interest often involves learning to see the small distinctions, the little details, and understand them. It’s the way a sports fan learns pages and pages of trivia. (I am proud to say that I am not a fair-weather fan of the Penguins; I maintained a steadfast indifference to hockey through the entire Stanley Cup proceedings.) Those who love the game can go on at great length about the details, specifics, techniques, strategies, and finer points (I know—I heard them all everywhere I went). But to me, hockey just looks like a bunch of guys on skates batting a puck around.

If you hate small towns, they’re all the same. If you hate cities, one urban mess is just like every other. Refusing to see those distinctions is how many people keep something at arm’s length and avoid developing interest or understanding. If you don’t let yourself really look at it, you can avoid learning to love it. Sometimes being forced to come up close to something is how you learn to love and appreciate it in the first place.

It is one of the benefits of staying in one place for many years. A good, long hard look shows you the patterns, the shapes, the intricate little details that are woven together. Sometimes it takes many years, many views to have that moment of discovery, the uncovering of unexpected beauty.

In a world where we demand that everything be scrubbed down to quick simple microbursts of experience, it’s no wonder that so little satisfies us. That scrubbing removes everything rich and interesting, the details that move the spirit and awaken the heart.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Monarch Park photo collection

Monarch Park photos on flickr.

Here's a batch of Monarch Park post cards, plus a photo of an original map.

And if you don't know what this is all about, you can look here for a brief history.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Car Shopping

(News-Herald, August 20) I hate car shopping. I try to arrange to do it as rarely as possible. But my old car, which had always displayed a certain amount of character, had lurched past “character” into “personality disorder.”
This was not my car’s fault. On our semi-annual jaunt to Maine I forgot to account for the car’s oil mileage (roughly 200 miles to the quart). On the way home, the oil light came on and clunky noises were heard. (In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that there’s a part of the story where I technically set fire to the engine, but while that was alarming to my daughter, I don’t believe it upset the car.)
In the following weeks we moved from subtle death rattle straight on to the sound of marbles in a washing machine. I could no longer avoid car shopping.
I was prepared neither financially nor mentally for my car’s unplanned expiration, so I had to do my online and car lot homework. I learned some things have changed since I was last in the used car market, a decade+ ago.
First, car manufacturers are all making the same car, a sedan that’s about as bold as tadpoles in the Allegheny. These identically boring vehicles come mostly in colors like Grey and Beige. I don’t care much about appearance, but if cars were meals, every dealer would be selling tuna fish salad on white bread. With extra mayo. There’s a handful of fun and exciting looking cars out there, but based on what I’ve read, I conclude that the auto industry has decided that a car may not both look good and work well.
Second. If you’re my age, you probably remember “energy crisis” and “gas rationing,” which led to “cars that don’t have lousy gas mileage.” It seemed for a long time that all automotive genius was aimed laser-like at the issue of fuel efficiency. Apparently the more recent word on the hunt for fuel efficiency is, “Never mind.”
Third. Every used car lot must include at least one Chevy Malibu. I have no idea why. Maybe it works like the box of baking soda in the fridge.
We learned other things. I say “we” because my brother, who enjoys this stuff, came along to keep me out of the weeds. (Together, we can play bad buyer/confused buyer.)
We learned, for instance, that car dealerships aren’t all that excited about cash for clunkers. “There’s a perfectly good car and I can’t even sell you a hubcap from it.” Cash for clunkers manages to combine two of history’s great lies so dealers get to be on the receiving end of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you by sending you a check that is, I swear, in the mail.”
C4C has also caught the used car market in a giant vice, reducing inventory and driving up prices for those of us who can’t afford a brand spanking new tuna fish sandwiches.
Used car dealers remain cartoon versions of themselves. (At one dealership, the salesman in the next booth told his cellphone “Yeah, so I feel slimy. But it was one of those deals they force you to make.”) Pushy, manipulative, inappropriately friendly—what I hate about the car shopping process is that I start out feeling like a velociraptor’s lunch and end up feeling like a sucker. The best was the guy at 4yourcarconnection in Seneca, who talked with me like we were both real live human beings. But in the end, I did not buy a car from him. So while I enjoyed talking to him, I have to admit that he didn’t get anything out of it.
The place I did buy my car was in the classic vein. My salesman, clearly trained in a variety of sales “techniques,” eventually had to “go talk to the manager,” and when my brother began to whisk us out the door, the manager came to deal directly with us, acting as offended as if we’d claimed his sister was working in a Mexican brothel. So there was more posturing and totally-not-straight talk pretending, badly, to be straight talk.
In the end, I bought the car. I owe my brother one more large favor and I owe the bank a stack of money. I bought a Ford Taurus, respectable grown-up transportation, and while I don’t shop for color, I ended up with burgundy, so it’s a tuna salad sandwich with a slice of tomato.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hildegarde Dolson: Final Thoughts

(News-Herald, August 13) I don’t often spend three weeks on one subject, but this month is the 101 anniversary of the birth of Hildegarde Dolson, hometown girl who made good, and I think she deserves the attention.
There are plenty of things to learn from her story, including the most obvious. Here’s a young woman who left the region, went to New York City with nothing but her wits and talent, arrived at the worst possible time, and managed to create a lifelong career as a successful writer.
It’s worth noting that her small town origins weren’t an obstacle to her success, but integral to it. Her small town girl in the big city voice was part of what created her success.
She appears as a character is most of her work, remarkably consistent in her self-view. A small, mousy woman, not physically exceptional (though she credited the character with nice legs), not always at ease, sometimes self-centered and frequently naïve.
Beyond the autobiographical character, certain other characters reappear. There’s the male artist, gifted and selfish, talented and undependable as a friend. And there’s the flashy woman—outgoing, elegant, drawing men like moths to a flame, but callously using and discarding them.
Flashy Woman is the closest thing to a Dolson villain, often stealing the man from the Hildegarde character. FW wants attention and victory in the field of amorous battle, suckering men who lack the insight to see the more sincere and heartfelt affection offered by the Hildegarde character.
But I oversimplify, and Dolson doesn’t. While Dolson can draw characters with brutal honesty and scathing detail, she also understands what drives them and what admirable qualities they possess. There are no truly evil people in Dolson’s world, not even in her murder mysteries; even when a character is not very nice, Dolson understands why friends and family still love that character.
I admire Dolson as a writer, combining the clear sharp prose of a journalist with the keen conception of a fiction writer and, as a bonus, an apparent fearlessness about mining her own life for material. But I admire Dolson the woman for her clear-eyed positive view of the world and the people in it. She did not ignore the flaws, and even saw pettiness and self-centeredness in herself. But somehow the flaws were not as important as other things.
Her resistance to marriage lasted most of her adult life (she once wrote an article entitled “Why I’d Make an Awful Wife”). It wasn’t that she didn’t like men; it’s clear that she did. But she was busy. She had work to do. She didn’t exactly reject the role of a wife—she had some clear ideas of what a wife was supposed to do and she knew she lacked time and, perhaps, aptitude for the role. She didn’t want to renegotiate the role; she just didn’t want to quit her job as a writer to take a job as a wife.
When she did finally marry, she was fifty-seven years old. She married author Richard Lockridge, a widower who was well-established mystery writer.
Lockridge wrote a must-read for Dolson fans. In One Lady, Two Cats he tells the story of convincing Dolson to marry him. Neither Lockridge nor Dolson offer in their writings a clear picture of how they fell in love, though it’s clear that it was somewhat unexpected and the onset was quick—two people who had known each other but suddenly found themselves in love. When they had to attend to separate business in separate places, she told him that had never known it was humanly possible to miss somebody so much.
In Lockridge’s book their wedding is a small formality in the midst of the story of an independent minded woman very much in love learning how to adjust to a man and his cats. Yes, he’s a man in love, but it’s hard not to feel what he feels, to be struck by how smart and understanding she is, how kind without being mush-headed she is.
Dolson died in January of 1981; she was only 72. It’s on my “if only” list—if only I’d discovered her back then, I would have written to her, asked to meet her. A reminder in the present to be alert for things today that could become “if only’s” tomorrow. Dolson seems to have avoided “if only” in her full and successful, if unconventional, life. She remains on the page, another fine Venangoland success story.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Hildegarde Dolson Reading List

(News-Herald, August 6) Last week I re-introduced successful Venangoland author Hildegarde Dolson. This week, I’ll offer a short reading guide.
This is not comprehensive. Local scholar Mike Dittman decided to tackle a comprehensive listing of Dolson’s works; this turns out to be one of those projects that starts out looking like a puddle and ends up more like the Grand Canyon, and I wish Mike all the best on his journey. For our purposes here, we’re going to stick to her books.
How About a Man (1938). A short breezy guide to acquiring male companionship. Frank and funny, some aspects are dated (gloves) and some are not (sex). Reminiscent of Thurber and White’s Is Sex Necessary?
We Shook the Family Tree (1941) Accounts of growing up in Franklin, attending Allegheny College, and starting out in Depression-era NYC, including her brief stint in vaudeville. Dolson’s most successful and best-loved work. Required reading for Franklin resident.
The Husband Who Ran Away (1948) Addison Stubbs is so henpecked by his wife and her mother in the small town of Bracklin, PA, that when he breaks his mother-in-law’s heirloom clock, he first hides under the porch and then runs away to NYC. The literary equivalent of a screwball comedy, this is probably the most over-the-top wacky piece that Dolson ever wrote.
The Form Divine (1951). Lucilla Webb decides that the best way to deal with her lackluster husband and her own skinny frame is to sign up for a beauty spa. Light comedy.
Sorry To Be So Cheerful (1955). The first of Dolson’s collections of short pieces. This really highlights her light, witty style. The account of her interview with Emily Post is worth the price of admission.
A Growing Wonder (1957). Dolson called this her favorite of her own works. The unnamed narrator is a single writer in NYC who comes from a small town in western PA, and she has front-row seats for a love triangle involving an artist, two very different sorts of women, and a small but talented boy who becomes collatoral damage. Still funny and sharply observed, but with more serious drama and depth than her previous novels.
The Great Oildorado (1959) (published in Britain as They Struck Oil). Required reading for all Venangoland residents. This book actually owes a debt to Herbert Asbury’s The Golden Flood, but Dolson’s breezy style, her sharp eye, and her familiarity with the area make this the most readable and enjoyable of any works ever written about the local oil boom. If you want a sense of what the fuss was about, this is where to get it.
Guess Whose Hair I’m Wearing (1963). Her other collection of short pieces. Also fun.
Open the Door (1966). A book editor, still smarting and isolated from a previous bad affair, is drawn back into life and love by two children of a family that moves in upstairs. There is a love quadrangle, an old adversary, and new love with an intriguing writer. Since Dolson herself had just married a writer, one suspects some biographical spin here.
Heat Lightning (1969). Here Dolson really uses her eye for the social patterns and interactions of life in the exurbs—the social ins and outs, the politics of committee work, the patterns of privilege—and applies it to another unconventional love quadrangle as a community tries to prepare a mammoth Fourth of July celebration. Truthfully, not a great deal happens, but her eye for the interactions and character is great.
Her keen eye for life in that Connecticut small town (like the place she had settled with her new husband) was apparently just getting warmed up for her four mystery novels. Written in the seventies, they feature Lucy Ramsdale (a sharp-edged illustrator and widow) and Inspector James McDougal, retired and bruised by life (his wife left him).
The mysteries are classic drawing room—in the first portion of the novel we meet a cast of interesting characters. Then one of them is killed; detecting ensues. Any one of these would make a Murder She Wrote episode, except that Lucy is more interesting than Jessica Fletcher.
To Spite Her Face (1971), A Dying Fall (1973), Please Omit Funeral (1975), and Beauty Sleep (1977) should be read in order to watch the arc of Lucy and Mac’s relationship. I will note that Dying Fall includes gay characters, and while those characters are handled well, the characters around them treat them in ways that might be a bit jarring.
Most of these can be found in local libraries or at on-line used booksellers.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Hildegarde Extra

Because I have spent the summer developing a massive Hildegarde Dolson crush, I've started a blog just of Dolson quotations.

I figure thousands of people will read them, become interested in her writing, start buying up old copies of her books, which will prompt publishers to re-issue her catalog, leading to a massive world-wide resurgence in her popularity. At least, that6's the rough plan.

I've started with How About a Man and The Form Divine because those are the two I don't own, and the library will want their copies back soon. I'll get to the rest eventually.

At any rate, you can get your almost-daily dose of Dolson right here.

From my Flickr