Anne Notations

Friday, April 28, 2006

"Holy elephants!" Tom said ponderously

Once upon a time - and a more innocent time it was - people loved to pass along funny word games and jokes. Even without the Internet, the latest one-liners seemed to cross state lines at the speed of light.

For example, Tom Swifties. Does anyone do Tom Swifties anymore? Do people under the age of, say, 40 even know what they are? Random House says that a Tom Swifty "relies for its humor on a punning relationship between the way an adverb describes a speaker and at the same time refers significantly to the import of the speaker's statement." A clearer way to define a Tom Swifty is with examples:

"I cut my toenails too far," Tom said quickly.
"There's the Dog Star," Tom said seriously.

These, and others, are on Mark Wutka's Tom Swifties site. You can Google for more. Bet you can come up with some Swifties of your own. Share, please?

Related, in my mind anyway, are the Robin/Batman one-liners in which an exclamation begining with "Holy" is related to the object of the sentence. The only one I can remember is the much-paraphrased "Holy shit, Batman - are we in a mess!" I'm sure there were more. If anyone has more than two brain cells to rub together and can reach back to the 1960s portion of their memory bank, please send examples.

Finally, I have fond memories of another sixties craze, elephant jokes. These share both an absurdist approach and the riddle form with the more recent lightbulb genre ("How many ___ does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"). Elephant jokes are a bit subtler, but just as smartass. "Why did the elephant stand on the marshmallow? So she wouldn't fall in the hot chocolate." Ba-dah-BOOM. "How do you tell if there is an elephant in your bed? The big 'E' on his pajamas." And for the PG-13 crowd: "What does an elephant use for a tampon? A sheep. Why do elephants have long trunks? Because sheep don't come with strings."

Well, I'm outta here - here being cyberspace. "Thank God it's Friday," Anne said weakly. Holy empty refrigerator, Batman - what am I gonna make for supper? I dunno yet, but I hope it includes chocolate and elephants.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Maple flowers and budding leaves are among my very favorite sights each spring. In April the yellow-green blossoms explode from bare branches all over town. They are at their finest on gray, rainy days when they glow like lacy lanterns against the slick black of asphalt pavement and wet tree trunks.

There is only one word for this amazing color: chartreuse. Chartreuse (the color) derives from a liqueur made by monks in a mountainous region of France. Chartreuse (the booze) gets its brilliant yellow-green hue from an assortment of herbal and plant ingredients.

You don't hear the word chartreuse much anymore. It had more currency in the 1950s, when I would avidly read and memorize the paper wrappers on my Crayola crayons. Chartreuse seemed hip and modern. It was fresh and sassy, both warm and cool at once, as vividly alive as a new leaf.

In recent decades, clothing companies led by J. Crew began to eschew straightforward color names in favor of ambiguous New-Agey nouns such as Mist, Wicker, Lake, and Geranium to describe their palette. You needed a glossary to figure out what you were ordering.

I like to call 'em as I see 'em. So I am resurrecting chartreuse as the only fair description of the riot in our back yard. Vive la chartreuse!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Long Live the King

B.B. King - his initials stand for "Blues Boy" - is frailer now than when I saw him five years ago. His shoulders are stooped, and his old silver head sags forward.

Last Thursday night at the Providence Performing Arts Center, while his veteran backup band ran through a series of foot-tapping solos, I spotted B.B. sitting in a wheelchair offstage, waiting for his cue. In the shadows, the King of the Blues looked every bit the octogenarian, and I wondered if I'd made a mistake in buying tickets to this 80th birthday concert. I had no desire to watch a simulacrum of my musical hero get trotted out and patronized or exploited, propped up solely by his fans' memories.

Then King's saxophonist stepped to the mike and in a rush of tenor patter asked us to welcome “the King of the Blues.” B.B.'s attendant walked him out on stage to a chair set up for him, and it didn't matter whether he'd be as spry or musical as the old B.B. because he was B.B. King, man, and we all loved him and told him so. "We love you, B.B.!" "Happy birthday!" The hall filled with applause, shouting, hooting, whistling; and B.B. smiled. "Thank you," he said in that memorable Mississippi voice. "You're so good to us. Thank you."

At first it seemed that B.B. was going to spend most of his time on stage talking and telling anecdotes and jokes, playing a few licks and letting his bandmates run with most of the solos. But halfway into the concert, the brass musicians left the stage, leaving B.B. and a stripped-down ensemble of guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums to run through some classic blues songs. B.B.'s left hand with its long supple fingers fluttered over Lucille's neck like a butterfly, drawing sweet notes and cries from the guitar, the tone slightly fuzzed by the amps so that at times it sounded almost like a horn, at other times like the screech of heavy metal. I could hear echoes of the younger musicians who had borrowed so generously from B.B.'s technique: Hendrix, Santana, Stevie and Jimmy Vaughan.

"Good things come to those who wait," B.B. sang.
"And I’ve waited a long time.
"I’m a blues man, but a good man, understand."

We understood; oh yes. For 90 minutes we ate it up. At the end, when B.B. stood to thank and salute us, we roared and waved like an ocean of sheer adoration. Then the attendant helped our King off the stage, and in the darkness beyond I could see him settle, exhausted, into his wheelchair and place a soft old cap on his head.

Sometimes in life you are lucky enough to be in the same room with genius. Last Thursday night, for the third time in my life I was in a concert hall watching B.B. King do what he does better than anyone else in the world. The man purely touches my soul with his music and his presence. The thrill is alive and well.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Wilted Daisy

Last Saturday the kids took Daisy for a long walk and romp. They were out for a few hours. After drinking a gallon of water and eating her supper, Daisy found her way to the couch in the playroom and fell asleep. Really asleep. Melinda took this cellphone picture of our droopy dog hanging off the sofa, lost in dreamland.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Corporis mysterium

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

The Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper ends with the Tantum ergo portion of the poem "Pange Lingua" by St. Thomas Aquinas. We worshippers in our hushed pews sing the ancient song a capella while the Blessed Sacrament - the Eucharist, the body of Christ - is carried by priests down the center aisle and back up into the side chapel, where it is installed for the duration of the Easter Triduum. I, a post-Vatican II Catholic, flip through my hymnal for the Latin words.

There is no official end to this Mass. Some of us get up and quietly leave; a handful of parishioners stay to pray over the Blessed Sacrament all night in shifts. "Could you not watch with me for one hour?" the anguished Jesus asked his friends in the Garden of Gethsemane. They could not. Now we do.

My gut always clenches when I arrive at Holy Thursday evening Mass, with its stunning re-enactment of Jesus washing his disciples' feet. It's not the sight of parishioners' bunions and warped toes that makes me tense, but rather the "oh no, here we go" sensation of being in a roller-coaster perched at the top of the loop. The story of the crucifixion and the events that led up to it is powerful stuff. I can listen to a synopsis calmly, but hearing and reading the actual words of the gospel about that Passover night and its agonies, I feel my diaphragm cramp with compassion and fear. It literally hurts to hear those Biblical words. So, I launch each year into Holy Thursday with anxiety, knowing that I have this night and then Good Friday to get through. Even the promise of Easter – rebirth! resurrection! redemption! - doesn't assuage my dread.

Yet I cannot stay away.

After years of spiritual rambling, starting with a bland but overall positive experience as a mainstream Protestant growing up, through flat-out agnosticism in college, continuing through visits to churches from Baptist to Unitarian in my 20s and 30s, and reading my brains out about nature, spirituality, and mysticism - and finally, finally making the leap to Catholicism in my early 40s - I have managed to forge a fragile truce between my yearning heart and my doubting mind. I simply accept that they coexist. I am like the father of the possessed boy healed by Jesus, the man who cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!" I practice Christianity, indeed deism at all, with a sort of desperate tenaciousness, because I want to, I need to. God knows why.

Shall we place bets on which will prove the winner - my urge to believe or my impulse to deconstruct belief? Where is Annie Dillard when you need her? Oh yeah: predictably opinionated, she told an interviewer who asked about her conversion to Catholicism that "faith" is not a word she likes to use. "That's not what religion is about. It's about living life in a relationship with God." Just how difficult this is may best be illustrated by Dillard's own essay "God in the Doorway," from her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk. She recalls as a young girl tearing upstairs one Christmas Eve, terrified at the sight of a neighbor at the front door in a Santa Claus suit, immense and illuminated, a Watcher and Knower she never expected or wanted to see in the flesh. Dillard ends the essay with this observation: "Once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid." We're still afraid: afraid of being silly, afraid of a blinding light, afraid of believing, in the face of all reason.

Lord, help my unbelief.

As I type this, a full moon ducks in and out of scarf-like clouds in a midnight sky. Some blocks to the east of us, a few parishioners continue to kneel in our darkened church's side chapel. All is stark and hollowed where we worship; the white stone altar, cleaned of flowers and decoration, is never more vividly a place of sacrifice, a place where flesh is placed to bleed and die, than on this night.

Once more it begins. On Holy Thursday I am called to confront the story of Jesus Christ in its fathomless, crazy mystery. The restless waters of the Passion lap around the ankles of my watchful skepticism. I am glad there are people praying over a bunch of flat, round wafers - or spectacularly Not-Wafers - in the darkness of our church.

Let faith stand forward to
Supply the defect of the senses.

(Pange Lingua)