Anne Notations

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Live and well

"Work" was officially what I was doing Sunday morning and early afternoon at Brown's Commencement, and I did work - helping parents find good vantage-points from which to watch the procession, guiding trustees and honored students to their center-section seats, and keeping the stage area clear of anyone without a special badge.

It was also my good fortune to spend part of that day with one of the honorary degree recipients, my personal King of the Blues - B.B. King. I'd seen him in concert three times, beginning in 1970 and continuing through his 80th-birthday tour a year ago. I had nominated him for an honorary doctor of music degree last year, but he was unavailable; this year he accepted the trustees' invitation. My role inside University Hall Sunday afternoon officially was to help our photographer, John, set up a shoot of all nine honorands with the president and chancellor. I was blessed to have that access, because, as it happened, I was able to sit with Mr. King and some of his family for a bit before the ceremony began. I was able, finally, to attempt to tell him what his music has meant to me.

How to say it all in a few minutes? Impossible. What came out of my mouth was, to the 81-year-old legend, most likely routine fan babble: You introduced me to the blues, you showed me what it meant, you opened a door to a lifelong musical passion; thank you, thank you. Mr. King was graciousness itself, thanking me, holding my hand, and smiling as he granted my wish to kiss his cheek. He handed me a small enamel pin in the shape of his own Lucille, and it will always be more precious to me than any diamond.

Later, B.B. King sat on stage outdoors with the presidential party, gracefully accepting the honorary citation (which I had written!) and taking the microphone for a few moments to sing a tune from his 1972 album, dedicating it to the graduating class: "Someone really loves you / Guess who..." The students stood and cheered and whistled as if they were at a rock concert.

After the ceremony, John and I set up the group photograph of the honorands in the president's office. Mr. King is able to stand only for a minute or so, and he was grateful to be guided to a chair and helped to sit. In his presence, everyone from professors to captains of business to a Nobel laureate was reduced to star-struck awe and giddiness.

B.B. King is a man ("and a good man, understand"). But he is so much more to me and to anyone who loves the blues.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Getting there

We are beginning to move things into our new house in Warwick. Well, "new" is a funny adjective for a house we bought 11 months ago. The rehab took about four times longer than we had thought.

Here are two photographs. I took the first one in August 2006 after we painted the downstairs. Shortly thereafter, we decided the weird staircase to the second floor needed to be relocated. It was chopping up our first floor and making everything seem awkward and claustrophobic.

Our carpenter tore down the old staircase, made major adjustments to the second-floor landing, walled up one of two doors leading to the first-floor sunroom, and created a new staircase alongside the wall.

Voila! (May 2007) The alteration created a more spacious first floor. Not to mention we now have real oak flooring in place of cement and wall-to-wall carpet. Kevin (5'10") puts things in perspective.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Harden not my heart

During the Great Depression hobos developed a sign language - symbols scratched onto doorposts and in the dirt - to apprise fellow homeless travelers of hazards and havens along the way. A cat pictograph on a gate meant "A kind lady lives here," indicating that a meal or other kindness would be offered if the weary traveler but knocked and asked.

I aspire to be that kind lady. Every time I want to turn my back on a bum extending his hand - and instinctively I do flinch away - I hear the small, insistent voice of my humanity, not to mention my Christian faith, prodding me to respond. Jesus was pretty clear about it: "As you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me." There's no wiggle room there. The brother or sister who asks for our help or our cash may be ill-spoken, dirty, substance-addicted, odoriferous, or otherwise repulsive, but that's no excuse for not helping, not giving.

The sad reality, however, is that today there are sound reasons to ignore a beggar's pitch. When we give indiscriminately, we may be enabling a destructive habit, encouraging dependence, or even putting ourselves and our families at risk. Two summers ago I was out one evening weeding the front gardens when a woman in her mid-50s approached. She admired my flowers, then waved a tattered flyer at me and explained that she was collecting donations for a walk for breast cancer research, and that she herself was a cancer survivor. She smiled and looked me in the eye, eager and friendly.

My gut told me that flyer had been fished out of a trash can and pressed into service. I sensed that this woman had "issues," as we say euphemistically, and that she probably needed cash to support a drug or booze addiction. But she was desperate enough to try this clumsy ruse, so I went inside and came back with a $20 bill. She thanked me profusely.

End of self-congratulatory tale? Of course not. The same woman returned to our house more than once in the following weeks. She needed a loan. She needed more money for the cancer walk. She might have to go to the hospital and had no insurance. Once she brought a seedy-looking friend who stared appraisingly through the screened door into our living room. I turned her down, but I had given once and she knew I was soft. One night Michael answered the door. He told the woman never to return or he would call the police. I felt safer after that. I had learned a lesson.

Yesterday during lunchtime our doorbell rang. A middle-aged woman I had never seen before, dressed in baggy shorts and flip-flops, stood on our porch. "Oh, you're not the same lady," she said softly. "I used to do some work for a lady who lived here." I explained that we'd lived here for nine years. She seemed flustered. "The other lady used to hire me sometimes," she said, meeting my eyes. I told her the previous owners had moved to Israel 10 years ago. Still she stood before me. Finally she dropped her pretense: "I need some money," she mumbled, looking at her toes. "Do you have any work I could do for five dollars?"

My mind raced like a nervous rabbit: She'll keep coming back. She's casing our house. She's looking for an easy mark. "I'm sorry," I said. "I gave money to a woman once and she wouldn't leave us alone, so I don't do that anymore." I mentioned the Baptist church two blocks away, thinking perhaps someone could help if she was truly in need. I wished her good luck, and closed the door.

"I don't do that anymore."

Driving back to work, I felt terrible. A stranger had come to my house and asked for help, and I had turned her away. What would it have cost me to give her five dollars, even 10 dollars? Perhaps a small portion of my peace of mind. What if she was truly broke? Who would help me if one day I wandered alone, destitute and frightened? Would I knock on a door in desperation only to be refused?

There must be a middle ground between being a patsy and giving whenever you're asked. My friend Sarah wrote eloquently about this quandary some years ago and concluded that for her there is, indeed, a defining principle: "Giving a little is such a small, simple thing that not doing it becomes grotesque," she wrote. "Where is it written that a person must earn compassion, anyway?"

I cannot get yesterday's unexpected visitor out of my mind. I wish compassion had prevailed over cynicism and fear when she asked me for five dollars. "If today you hear My voice," advises the psalm, "harden not your hearts." Once again I have learned a lesson - the right one, I think. Or, at the least, one I can live with.

ADDENDUM: There is a wonderful sentence in the comment NOLAcathie left in response to this post: "What someone does with what he/she has been given is not really important...our intention to offer help is." (italics mine)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


In general I enjoy "jump scenes" - sudden hair-raising surprises - even less in real life than I do in suspenseful movies. Which is to say: not at all. Or, as the kids on the celebrity blogs write when confronted with a closeup of Angelina Jolie's scrawny, veiny arms, Do not want. It took me years to recover from certain scream-worthy moments in movies like Wait Until Dark, Carrie, and Deliverance.

Yesterday morning I turned on the shower in the downstairs bath and thought, "Hmmm, Melinda didn't clean her hair out of the drain." I reached down to grab the dark clump of swirling stuff and nearly fractured my skull on the shower-curtain rod when my nearsighted eyes registered that the object writhing just inches from my fingertips was a centipede as big as a goddamned mouse.(And let me just say I would have far preferred a cute little rodent.) He was so big, when I managed to capture him with a wad of toilet paper, he crunched. Multiple times. His long, hairlike legs were still waving as I flushed him down the toilet.

Early today I was walking Daisy a few blocks from home when an object plummeted from the sky so close to my head, I felt a draft. It landed on the asphalt at my feet with an audible thump. Eeek!

This latest jump scene, however, ended comically. A young freckled starling swooped down to reclaim the large french fry that had slipped from his beak in mid-flight. He wobbled off with it, pausing every few steps to secure a better grip, then set to feasting on his prize before it could escape again.

What memorable jump scenes have you experienced? Cinematic or real.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Better than Prozac

Dear Life,

OK, capricious mofo. You can throw sucker punches at me, one-two-three; and yeah, they hurt. But you are no match for a 20-pound mood enhancer known as a granddaughter.

Add some sublime (if ephemeral) spring weather, a baby giraffe at the local zoo, a tot playground, and the possibility of "baby's first real steps" - and you, Life, are good again. For today, at any rate.

And that is good enough.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen

Well, not really. But it feels that way when your husband suddenly loses his job. At age 61. For the second time in four years.

And, of course, to receive his "generous" (four weeks' pay!) severance package, he had to sign a statement that he will not allege age discrimination. Give me a break.

That's plenty of suckitude for the time being. Where's Yoda when you need him?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

She knows me well

Melinda, at right, being inducted into the National Honor Society
May 1, 2007

As Mother's Day tributes go, my 16-year-old daughter will be hard pressed in future years to top the original poem she inscribed in the card that awaited me this morning. Take a look:

Dear Mother,
Here is a poem just for you.
xxoo Melinda


You are the best mom in all the land.
What other mom would travel just to see a band?
No other mom is quite like you.
Who else would answer to the name "Moomoo"?

From OK Go to Los Lonely Boys
And your collection of Star Wars toys,
You have become the coolest mom today.
What other mom goes insane about using "lie" or "lay"?--

Only one who is an editor at Brown,
And the best mom in the entire town.
Who happens to be the mom for me
And makes me laugh so hard I slap my knee!

Today is your day to have fun.
Take a nap or just tan in the sun,
Because tomorrow you will be making lunches,
And my love for you will expand in bunches.

Have a Happy Mother's Day,
But only after you throw this poem away!


Fat chance of that, lovely daughter. This is what parents call "a keeper."

Monday, May 07, 2007

Everything is beautiful

Presenting ... Spring in Providence! We got your cotton-candy pink cherry blossoms and your crabapples and dogwoods, we got flowering bulbs and early perennials, we got your brand-new green leaves and emerald lawns. Who can be grouchy with all this crazy gorgeousness going on? Not I.

Finally the poor scarred dogwood tree we planted as a 3-foot-high baby alongside our sidewalk is blossoming. That's it at the top of this post. And here it is as seen from our front porch, trying to outdo the lilac bush across the street.

About those cherry blossoms. Our part of Providence is loaded with these fluffy ornamental trees. Some streets are basically canopied with pink at this time of year. Here are a few I saw on my walk with Daisy early this morning.

A crabapple tree ...

Our next-door neighbor's white dogwood...

Inevitably all this vernal glory reminds me of my favorite e.e. cummings poem.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Pop the weasels

People who pretend to apologize for intemperate words by saying "I'm sorry you took it that way" are weasels. Today on his local radio talk show, Dan Yorke responded to a 42-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer and teacher of learning-disabled children who complained about Yorke's nicknames for a dumb state legislator: "special-ed" and "learning-disabled." The complainant's letter about himself and his students was heartfelt and sincere, although it unfortunately devolved into a threat of legal action. That would have ticked me off, too, but still I grimaced when I listened to Yorke read a stilted apology, essentially saying: "I'm sorry you interpreted my words that way."

C'mon! That's not an apology. It's a put-down: I'm sorry you're an oversensitive jerk. Even the loathsome Don "nappy-headed hos" Imus managed to retreat from his initial self-justification and concede, albeit under duress, that his remarks were "stupid" and "idiotic."

Let me break it down for you. Either say "I was wrong, and I'm sorry," or don't pretend to apologize at all.

When I edited an alumni magazine, I fielded an astonishing quantity and range of complaints from Faithful Readers. Man, they could be clueless! I responded patronizingly at least once, trilling to an offended alumnus from my editorial aerie, "I'm sorry you chose to be upset by what I wrote." My ego got in the way of my humanity.

Fake apologists are not the only weasels among us. There are also victim-weasels, like the actor Alex Baldwin who left a profanity-laced phone message for his 11-year-old daughtter that concluded, "I'm going to straighten your ass out when I see you! You are a rude, thoughtless little pig, OK?"

The ensuing outrage propelled Baldwin into damage-control mode. To the press, he said: "Obviously, calling your child a pig or anything else is improper and inappropriate, and I apologize to my daughter for that." So far, so good. He should have stopped there. But no; Baldwin had to append a weasely qualification: "There's nothing wrong with being frustrated or angry about the situation. ... I took it out on the wrong person because I'm unable, under the current dynamic, to address the other person." Translation: I messed up (sorry, Ireland!), but it wasn't my fault. Because my ex-wife is a freak, I cannot be rational in dealing with our daughter.

William Beslow, a divorce attorney interviewed on CNN by Anderson Cooper, astutely observed, "Mr. Baldwin's so-called apology, in effect, is a document designed to suggest that he is now the victim [italics mine] and that the person who has been guilty of the most egregious misconduct is Ms. Basinger." Peter Birkinhead, writing in Salon about such forms of verbal chickenshit, bemoaned "the diminishing, even implicit mocking, of genuine goodness."

In recent years I've tried to get real when apologies are warranted. I actually have uttered the words "I'm sorry. I made a mistake" on more than one occasion. That doesn't make me a saint; simply a slightly more thoughtful asshole than I was 20 years ago. Self-improvement: it's a wonderful thing.

When will certain celebrities and pundits join me in aspiring - even if it busts our boomer egos - to a modicum of goodness, of humility, of genuine accountability? When will we stop being weasels and start being, in the words of e.e. cummings, "human (merely) beings"?