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Archive for December, 2012

My grandson’s favorite Christmas song this year is Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives.  This is really not so astonishing – the first record we ever played for him was a collection of folk songs by Burl Ives.  By the time Saul was two he was requesting him by name: “Play Bur Lives.”

What did astonish me today, though, was realizing that Saul knows all the words to the song.  I was impersonating a fly on the wall with a magazine while he built a little Lego house and had all his Lego men come visit.  The entire time he was working, he sang.  Say Hello to folks you know / and everyone you meet.  Or sometimes just recited.  Hey Ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see.  With an entire village of different voices, tempos, timbres.  Somebody waits for you / Kiss her once for me!  Sometimes tuneful little boy soprano, sometimes gruff, briefly importuning, and when he noticed me listening quite loud and raucous.  All the Holly Jolly variations.

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A four-year old is a highly evolved little primate.  He knows just how far he can boss Pappy around before he’s crossed the line.  He can ask for ice cream a half hour before supper and convince Pappy the request is not at all unreasonable.  He operates on the rock solid premise that simply wanting a thing fully entitles the person to get it.  Or, and this is much more likely, he knows all the rules full well but also knows from experience that with the one-hundred-and-first request the rule might shatter.

But what happens if I sometimes call the little anthropoid’s bluff and just laugh?  He laughs too, and we go on to the next game.

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I bought Sarah Lindsay’s book Primate Behavior at a reading she gave in Southern Pines this year.  Reading it is like an archeological dig: each poem must be read carefully, brushed with fine bristles, held up to the sky.  No bulldozers, please.  I’m still working my way, layer by layer.  I’m discovering that there is unrevealed depth and complexity to us hominids.  I wonder, how did Lindsay get hold of my family tree?

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Primate Behavior

What was she looking for, the woman two days from
the end of a wasting death
who told her nursing daughter, “Shave my legs”?
Or the hospital-ridden one
who, coming out of ether, could only keep saying she couldn’t
be comfortable
without her panties on.

If one of us slips on ice, he or she
checks first for an audience, second for broken bones.
We are the apes
with mirrors inside our heads.  We pick our noses,
we fart and enjoy it,
but this is rarely mentioned.  We make fun of outdated clothes.
We listen to music.

In a thick place of mountain bamboo the
gorilla mother
croons and cradles her young one in her arm.
With her other large hand
she catches her own dung and eats it.
A hum of insects and green wet rot.
The father beside her sleeps.  Is it eight-thirty Monday?
His lower lip hangs on his chest.
Alone at her golden oak table
the young lady licks her finger, dots at the grains
of spilled sugar,
and licks it again.

Close to the Pole, where daytime stretches
like taffy
and icebergs move in vast and moaning herd, a furry man
scrawls a few notes in Norwegian.  He cannot carry a tune,
but he can make stew.  He has thought of little else but stew
and warming his feet for weeks.  Realizing
how dirty his face is, he tells himself:
I am here for no personal good, but to help make maps.
I am civilized.  See the word Forward is drawn on my heart.
And he throws some dried fish to the dogs.

from Primate Behavior, Sarah Lindsay, Grove Press, © 1997 by Sarah Lindsay

Sarah Lindsay received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and currently lives in Greensboro.  Primate Behavior was a National Book Award finalist.  Lindsay’s latest book of poetry, Twigs and Knucklebones (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), was selected as a “Favorite Book of 2008” by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine.

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It’s 1975, late afternoon on Christmas Day in Aurora, Ohio at the Frenches’.  Linda and I have braved the West Virginia Turnpike in winter (Our Motto: Under Construction unto Eternity) to drive up from Durham.  My folks still live in Aurora, too (we’ll divide our time with a microtome), but right now we’re sitting in the living room with Mom and Dad French, Skip, Jill, Sue, Becky, Annie, Jodi, and several imposing snowdrifts of torn wrapping paper, eating another delicious something, and waiting.

There’s the knock.  John is here!  Hugs galore, then he sets up his screen and fiddles with the old Super-8 projector and little reel-to-reel tape player, frame by frame and inch by inch so they’ll sync when he throws the switch.  Dim the lights.  Action, sound!  Grazini Christmas.  A new tradition is born.

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How many years, John, did you make that pilgrimage to the Frenches’ to set up your projector?  Your audience gradually shrank as the sibs moved on – Minnesota, New Mexico, West Virginia.  Some years I had to work on Christmas and we didn’t make it north.  A few years ago you sent us a Grazini DVD and man, did those memories come rushing back!  Now this season I’ve watched GC twice already, once when you sent me the YouTube link and once with my Mom after showing her how to add it to her Favorites Bar.  Margaret may be getting tired of me going on and on about the amazing story boarding and cinematography accomplished by two teenagers learning on the fly.  Linda has reminded us how she had to trail you guys around downtown Cleveland all day until it was time for her thirty-second scene.  But most important, John, is the lump in my throat – I still get it during that closing scene.  Every darn time.  I know what’s coming, I can recite the dialogue, one might say the message is so simple as to be obvious, but I still choke up.

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Readers, it’s time for you to watch Grazini Christmas.  In 1972 two high school seniors, John Mlinek and Dave Prittie, made a movie with a handheld Super-8 camera, a portable tape recorder, and scissors and tape.  A hero for our time, Grazini-Man searches for the true meaning of Christmas.  The film is literally a family tradition – watch for Linda as the little old lady and her brother Skip as the blind scam artist.  Much of it is shot on location in Cleveland; that’s the real Higbees Department Store Santa (the store security guard chased them out once he figured out what they were up to).  The closing scene is set in The Church in Aurora, where Linda and I were in the high school youth group, just a block from Linda’s parents’ home.  Tradition.

How is it possible to “make” something a tradition?  The word means that which is handed down  – doesn’t that imply that a tradition must seep into you from the past, that it requires years and years of gestation before its birth?  Maybe John hadn’t created a tradition the first time he knocked on Linda’s door with his projector, but I’m willing to say that by the second time he had indeed.  I think the secret is more than the family context, the predictable jokes, the backstory.  I think this little film connects with something primal – at some level we are all of us always searching for meaning, whether we can articulate it or not.

Thanks, John.  Got to go now.  Getting ready to premier Grazini Christmas on the big flat screen.  Linda says, “Hi.”

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And there were in the same country shepherds
abiding in the field, keeping watch
over their flock by night. And, lo,
the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not:
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you;
Ye shall find the babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude
of the heavenly host praising God,
and saying, Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:8-15 KJV

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Click to watch Grazini Christmas, written produced and directed by John Mlinek.

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He began life as Blue Mouse, and how apt: pointy nose, bristly whiskers, cupped ears, and of course he’s the color of September sky.  Nowadays, though, when I walk in the kitchen door and Saul careens from across the room, he grabs my hand and says, “Get Blue Rat!  Get Blue Rat!”  Just how has the little creature transformed? Perhaps it’s the prehensile tail (it has wire in it so it can curl and grab things, like little boys’ ears), or the big googly Muppet eyes.  Could be because Blue is three times the size of the life-like field mouse finger puppet that drives the school bus and doesn’t talk much.  Most likely, however, it’s because of Blue Rat’s voice: gravelly, colloquial, with a distinct Bronx accent.

Voice?  Voice, you say?  How did a little stuffed plush critter come by a voice?  Well, from his conception Blue Rat has been designated as my ward.  When it’s play time (and it’s always play time) and we pull out the fuzzy animals, plastic figures, Lego men, Saul commands, “You talk Blue, and I’ll talk all of these.”

Because they all have voices.  Mappy the Hamster doesn’t have a mouth – he sort of mumbles.  Pinky Pie (purple kitty with pink nose) is high pitched and squeaky.  Lego pirates and space men are appropriately gruff and swashbuckling.  Saul “talks” all of those.  I get to talk Blue Rat.  He just looks like the kind of guy who’d be most comfortable chomping a Coney Island while he ogles the girl rats on the boardwalk.  So every afternoon when Saul whips him up a sandwich (plastic pancake, tomato, fried egg), he gustos it down and says, “‘Ey, Baby, dat’s deelishus.”

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Voice.  (Prepare for a big leap here.)  Voice.  When you read, don’t the characters speak in your mind?  Pitch, accent, cadence.  When you write, don’t you imagine and invent a persona for each creature?  Their voice?  How they say is as important as what they say.

One of my favorite little books is The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell.  The whole week I was at the Zoo last summer I carried copies and gave a couple away.  The Bat Poet discovers the voice of Owl, Chipmunk, Mockingbird, and they are all true.  In the end he discovers his own voice, and we discover how odd and wonderful it is to live in the bat-world.

Here are a few stanzas: I hope you’ll borrow or buy the book yourself.  Is there any end to the voices we may speak?

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from The Bat-Poet, Randall Jarrell, pictures by Maurice Sendak, copyright 1964 by The Macmillan company, copyright renewed 1992 by Mary Jarrell

Owl
. . .
The mouse beside the stone are still as death –
The owl’s air washes them like water.
The owl goes back and forth inside the night,
And the night holds its breath

Chipmunk
. . .
Curled at his breast, he sits there while the sun
Stripes the red west
With its last light: the chipmunk
Dives to his rest.

Mockingbird
. . .
A thrush is singing, then a thrasher, then a jay –
Then, all at once, a cat begins meowing.
A mockingbird can sound like anything.
He imitates the world he drove away
So well that for a minute, in the moonlight,
Which one’s the mockingbird?  which one’s the world?

Bat
. . .
The mother drinks the water of the pond
she skims across.  Her baby hangs on tight.
Her baby drinks the milk she makes him
in moonlight or starlight, in mid-air.
Their single shadow, printed on the moon
Or fluttering across the stars,
Whirls on all night . . .

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New York Times book review of The Bat-Poet from 1964.

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