Monthly Archives: January 2018

Worth the paper it is printed on?

 

I wrote 22 book reviews last year, and my goal for 2018 is 24. But the domino effect of newsroom cutbacks and a pending tariff on Canadian newsprint just hit home, so my ability to get those reviews published is now in doubt.

Among the tariffs President Trump’s Commerce Department is considering is on paper imported from Canada, which is the primary source of American newsprint. The paper mills of Maine no longer even produce newsprint. Even the Portland Press-Herald gets its paper from Canada.

The President may try to sell this as a way to protect American jobs, but we all know he won’t be crying any tears if newspapers have to lay off employees, cut back on their newsholes or even close their doors because of the rising cost of paper. The 30 percent duty could be the end of many papers just hanging on in the age of free online content.

The tariff hasn’t taken effect, but already the price of newsprint is going up. And even though it’s been six years since I left the industry, this problem lit up my inbox yesterday in the form of an email from an editor who publishes my book reviews. Rather than a full page every week in the Sunday paper, she’s being forced to cut back to one book review once a week. Since I’m only one of a stable of reviewers, I’ll be lucky to get two or three published a year.

In the scheme of things, this isn’t going to break the bank – I only make $20 a review, and I do it more for exposure than anything else. Indeed, I get many comments from people who enjoy my reviews, and it’s helped me build a following, at least in Rhode Island.

Authors rely on book reviews to publicize their books; readers need them to discern what books are worth paying $25 or $30 for; and the community needs exposure to the ideas they contain. The only other choice: online reviews, which are neither objective nor edited.

Of the most concern is what this signals for the future of print journalism, which wasn’t looking rosy to begin with. I worry about friends and colleagues who still make their living in the business, writers who have regular free-lance gigs, and, most of all, our readers, who are getting less and less from newspapers at a time when they need them more than ever.

 

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File this under Indexing and Journal

 

Both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson practiced a deliberate form of inspiration, by referring back to their old journals for ideas. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr. describes the transcendalist’s method: “… Emerson spent a good deal of time methodically copying and recopying journal material, indexing, alphabetizing indexes, and eventually making indexes of indexes.” Emerson found these indexes particularly useful for his lectures, because they tied together his many thoughts on a subject in one place, for easy reference. Thoreau, too, revisited his journal entries, particularly as he drafted and redrafted Walden, which would undergo seven iterations before its publication in 1854.

I had both men in mind this month as I began, rather haphazardly, to start an index of my journal. I began by picking a volume at random. One notebook – I use the Apica brand, ranging in size from 5.5 by 8 inches to 7 by 10 inches – typically covers three or four months. Immediately as I leafed through the first, ideas for stories, dreams, thumbnails of people, and old memories rose to the surface. Each time an interesting subject heading arose, I started a new file card. Eventually I had about 20 of these, ranging in topic from people’s names to story titles to various nouns.

A typical card I headed with my grandmother’s name, and the following subheadings: Her aprons; Love/grief/cemetery visit; Memories of; Attitudes and superstitions (“Superstitions” would soon get its own card); Garden; Money. One subject card I headed “Handwriting, cursive,” after finding  two rather elaborate entries on this, in 2011 and 2013, including one in which I practiced the Palmer method I remembered from school. Other card headings included Ice; Thoreau; and Writing, General.

Among the abandoned projects I thus unearthed was an essay about my great-grandmothers and a novel I started in 2013, about a man who collects dictionaries.

The most haunting entry, in 2014, described a dream my sister had about her own suicide. Two years later she would die of cancer, although I had no idea then she was sick – although this suggests she may have suspected it.

This exercise appears to have several benefits: 1. The compilation of related material into one place, for  future reference. 2. Comparing ideas, good and bad, for writing projects. 3. The discovery of material within the journals that might still have life. 4. The assurance that, despite our daily anxieties, a wealth of material exists, waiting to be found, connected, and rewritten into a new form.

I’ll leave you with writing advice I gave myself in March 2014:

 

Write in my journal every day – check!

Attack this book as though it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ll ever write.

Pursue whatever writing project I want.

Face the earth in all its substance every day with every pore of my writing self open, absorbing, receptive.

Trust that my critical/revision/editing self will be dogged, will be immersed, and will not stop revising too soon.

Celebrate the opportunity to write without giving in to guilt, depression, or despair.

Tell myself, just for now I will not doubt my ability or my determination.

Continue to read and review with the idea of learning from others.

Not a bad manifesto for the new writing year.

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She had me at ‘linoleum’

In just the first sentence of Oprah Winfrey’s magnificent acceptance speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, she did what all great orators do: She established a connection with her audience. And for me, it was with one word: “linoleum.”

“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee,” she began. She even paused a little on the word linoleum, giving it an emphasis that was no doubt lost on her live audience, most of whom were too young or too affluent to understand the reference.

The young Oprah, she related, was watching actress Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for Best Actor to Sidney Poitier, the first black man to be so honored. But while she made her point, I was still back there at “linoleum,” remembering what it was like to sit cross-legged on a cold patterned floor, watching a TV that no doubt was tiny and black-and-white.

For a certain socio-economic class in the 1960s, linoleum was an affordable, practical alternative to wall-to-wall carpet or hardwood floors. True linoleum consisted of linseed oil imprinted on a burlap or canvas backing; later floor coverings were made of vinyl to mimic the look of tile. Linoleum came in rolled-up sheets that could be cut to fit a room’s size, and typically an edging of wood floor would be left around it, so the linoleum resembled an area rug. Some patterns had a border to accentuate this effect. Indeed, often only the wood floor’s perimeter was painted, with the surface beneath both unfinished and untreated.

When I was five years old, in 1965, we moved into an old farmhouse with maple floors. Their edges had been painted brown, to resemble a dark oak finish. My parents’ sole redecorating effort was to buy some cheap linoleum and cut it to fit. Down the front hallway went a long runner with a brown, art-deco pattern. The kitchen’s linoleum was of a speckled pattern that I later would find to be ubiquitous in run-down New England farmhouses. In the living room, my father had to cut out a hole in the linoleum for the gas floor furnace. He even tacked up sheets of pink vinyl on the bathroom walls to resemble tile.

Linoleum’s advantages were obvious: it was cheap, easy to keep clean, and took an enormous amount of punishment. We also understood its disadvantages. You did not walk barefoot in the house in the wintertime. It also never looked like the lavish ads of Congoleum or Armstrong, where the flooring adorned modern kitchens and family rooms that made our house look like a shack in “Tobacco Road.”

For a vivid reproduction of mid-20th-century lower class living, visit Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth, N.H., where one colonial house is maintained as a 1950s tenement. There you’ll find linoleum in living rooms, a kerosene stove for heating, and sagging, cheap armchairs and couches. Visiting about 20 years ago, expecting something like the East Side of Providence, I was struck dumb by this exhibit. My childhood home had become a museum piece.

As it happens, I own the family house. In the 1980s, in a whirl of misguided renovation, my father tossed out most of the linoleum in favor of stick-on vinyl tiles or cheap area rugs. The speckled kitchen pattern and the Egyptian-looking hall runner became relics of the past. One upstairs bedroom, however, remains untouched, my childhood preserved in an amber of linoleum flooring, one single ceramic light fixture, and a rose-patterned wallpaper border.

Oprah’s point was the power of Sidney Poitier’s achievement to her dreaming younger self. In her speech she hoped to reach the young girls who might be inspired by her tremendous achievements. For me, nothing expressed how far she had come so much as that one word: linoleum.

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Looking back on ‘Snow-bound’

Every winter I re-read my favorite old-fashioned poem, “Snow-bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Its 759 lines are less the “winter idyl” of the subtitle than an elegy to a family circle that has vanished like snow at the hands of a cold and ethereal wind.

When I was a child, Whittier was the white-bearded poet on the Authors cards we laid out on the kitchen table. Even as a teenager reading “Snow-bound,” I could only see in it a vague nostalgia for a simpler time.

The poem starts off with vague foreboding: “The sun that brief December day/Rose cheerless over hills of gray/And, darkly circled, gave at noon/A sadder light than waning moon.” My grandmother understood the meaning of a ring around the sun; she would remind us that it foretold a storm. Whittier describes it as “a portent seeming less than threat,” and what youngster’s blood would not quicken at the thought of a coming blizzard?

Night and day and night the storm “roared on,” and the inhabitants of the Whittiers’ old saltbox house can only hunker down until it ceases. When the snowfall finally stops, the household marvels at the “strange domes and towers” it has created from common objects, such as the corn crib, brush pile, and well curb.

Most teenagers in the 1970s would not have recognized these objects, but I did. We lived in a small village in southern Rhode Island on just under two acres that remained of an old farm. The corn crib my father had converted into a tool shed; the brush pile would be burned at odd intervals to keep the lot clear. The property had not one but two wells, one hand-dug. A snowstorm had plenty of other surfaces to mold: an outhouse, no longer in use; a burn barrel for trash; the fence posts surrounding my mother’s garden.

On Feb. 6, 1978, the snow began to fall in the morning. Like Whittier’s storm, our blizzard that winter of my senior year came on quietly but by evening had roared into a full nor’easter. My father, in one of his many part-time jobs, was off plowing snow for the town of Richmond. My sister Andrea was house-sitting in a nearby oceanside town for our aunt, who had wisely taken off for Florida. So all that remained were my mother and I to brave the elements.

By the fire in Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, Mass., circled a veritable community gathering: besides his parents, there were his brother and two sisters; an aunt and uncle, both unmarried; the village schoolteacher; and famously, the “not unfeared, half-welcome guest,” Harriet Livermore, a woman in her late 20s whom Whittier portrays as willful, outspoken, and temperamental.

When Whittier wrote “Snow-bound,” he was an old man, and all but his brother had passed on. “O Time and Change! – with hair as gray/As was my sire’s that winter day,/How strange it seems, with so much gone/Of life and love, to still live on!” are the saddest four lines in the poem, the ones I return to again and again, and which I failed to comprehend all those years ago.

We had not a fireplace but a woodstove, and my mother kept it roaring from the woodbox my father had filled before his departure. She already had shut off the upstairs, and I prepared to sleep on the old sofa bed near the blazing fire. Tucked into my nightgown – which she had warmed behind the stove – I sat up on that lumpy old couch, writing another self-pitying entry in my journal.

Though she was a writer, Mother had no such luxury. It was nearly 9 p.m., the wind had picked up into a whine, and my father had just called to say his pickup had gotten stuck in a snowdrift and he would have to spend the night at a neighbor’s house. All around Rhode Island, strangers sought shelter as the snow overwhelmed the plows and, one by one, roads shut down.

“I hope they’re treating him all right,” Mother muttered, as she prepared to go outside. The kerosene in the kitchen stove had dipped dangerously low, and since that was our only source of heat in that part of the house, she would have to refill the jug. In her silver parka, a “second” from Kenyon Mill, she looked like an Apollo astronaut about to walk on the moon.

When she huffed back inside with the full jug, tipping it carefully upside down into its cradle, we heard the reassuring glug-glug of flowing kerosene. She kept up a running commentary of the conditions outside: she didn’t think she would make it back; the visibility was near zero; the wind blew and the snow drifted. I stood in the door between living room and kitchen, already imagining how I would relate her hysterics to my sister.

Years later, hearing this story, my husband said matter-of-factly, “And you didn’t offer to help her?”

The thought, then and now, had never occurred to me.

“You could at least have gone outside and offered her some moral support.”

Well, I was in my nightgown. But the truth was we were all so used to my mother’s anxiety that I never took any of her fears – or her hard work – seriously. Now I can imagine what it might have been like to face that howling wind, wade through the rising drifts, turn on the kerosene drum’s tap, and keep that jug steady while it filled. And what it must have weighed as she tried to find her way to the back steps, into the back room and up to the kitchen stove, all the while thinking that her husband was away for the night, and who knew when he would return?

As Whittier mourned his family in “Snow-bound,” so too I look back on that February night, almost 40 years ago, and find it hard to believe that I am the same age, 58, as she was then. That my father, my mother, and my sister have all died, and the Blizzard of ’78 has passed into lore, a story to be told to subsequent generations. As I sit snugly in our centrally heated house, I can only “pause to view/these Flemish pictures of old days,” and marvel at how little of life we really apprehend as we live it.

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