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Hitty, Her Second Hundred Years

July 14, 2014 | by

16585 Hitty illfrontis

On Saturday, in Maine, I rode my bicycle the mile and a half to the very comfortable Northeast Harbor Library, which contains well-stocked “Maine” and “Garden” rooms; it’s currently showcasing a collection of antique “woolies,” folk-art embroideries made by extremely secure nineteenth-century sailors. Patrons who wish to memorialize their visit may buy “postal cards,” which are subcategorized accurately under such headings as  “Circulation Area” and “Reference Desk.” I bought six for a dollar.

It is always awkward to be the only adult in the children’s room, and repetition does not make it any easier. But I went down the hall, past the mat where very young children have story time. I took a left at an enormous stuffed mouse and ran my finger along the “F” shelf in chapter books until I came upon my quarry: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years.

I knew they would have it, not just because it won the Newbery in 1930 and is considered a classic, but because it is one of the great Maine children’s books. Hitty is an imagined history of a small doll carved from a piece of mountain ash—inspired by a real doll that its author, Rachel Field, found in a New York City antiques shop—which takes its heroine around the globe via whaling vessel and Missisippi river boat, and in the custody of many different children. But Hitty is born in Maine, specifically on Cranberry Island, some two nautical miles from the library itself. In the course of her travels, she bears witness to the events of the nineteenth century, all of which she relates with serene pragmatism, in the manner of a doll Forrest Gump. Read More »

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In Limbo

July 3, 2014 | by

A photo from the German Federal Archive: a waiting room in April 1978.

Twice this week, I was stood up. In both cases there were extenuating circumstances, attempts to communicate, and sincere apologies—which I had no trouble accepting. The truth is, I didn’t mind; the truth is, I love waiting.

Good thing, because I’m writing this from the DMV, an institution that brings us as close as we can come to Limbo, now that Limbo is no more. I can’t seem to find a pattern in the numbers being called, but I have no reason to believe mine will come anytime soon. And this is profoundly relaxing.

I have a friend who has talked about “the power of being early.” This is debatable—if anything, it’s the person who keeps another waiting who wields a certain power—but it’s certainly true that, once you’re waiting, you have surrendered control, which, as any yoga teacher will tell you, is paradoxically empowering.

I am struck by how relaxed everyone is in this DMV. The air-conditioning is on high; someone else is running things; there is a pleasant feeling of solidarity. As Milton said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” And he knew a thing or two about Limbo—if not the DMV.

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Radical Middle

July 2, 2014 | by

John_Constable_-_A_View_at_Hampstead_with_Stormy_Weather_-_Google_Art_Project

John Constable, A View at Hampstead with Stormy Weather, ca. 1930.

July 2 is the midpoint of the year—we’re 182 days into 2014 with 182 to go. This is obscurely depressing, although there is something neat about its falling on a Wednesday. It’s all downhill from here, you might say—although sometimes people use that expression as a positive, meaning smooth sailing, so take it as you will.

Everyone finds New Year’s Day dreary. But summer, for all its promise of leisure and romance and ease, has an urgency that is sad in its own way. From the moment it starts, it’s on the wane—days ever shorter, relentlessly shifting sands in a Wizard of Oz–style hourglass. Outside my window, someone is actually playing “Summertime” on a saxophone. He’s probably thinking that we are in New York in hot weather, and it is iconic. The pressure is immense. The high-pressure weather is stifling.

Ashbery touched on it. “Soonest Mended” is about much more than the mundane, although it conjures the mundane vividly. Amidst the dissection of proverb—and allusions to pressures of art, and youth, and time—he manages to put into words the particular melancholy of the midpoint.

Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like:
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

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Brazen Towers

July 1, 2014 | by

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Francis Thompson at nineteen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The Summer looks out from her brazen tower,
Through the flashing bars of July.”
—Francis Thompson, “A Corymbus for Autumn”

By the time he died of tuberculosis in 1907, the forty-seven-year-old Francis Thompson had found respect and moderate success as a poet. A favorite of G. K. Chesterton, and later both J. R. R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, Thompson gave us the phrases “with all deliberate speed” and “love is a many-splendored thing,” which would become the title of a 1952 novel, a ludicrous film, a hit song, and, later, a soap opera. The latter is especially apt; Thompson had a dramatic and difficult life.

The son of a Lancashire physician, Thompson studied medicine himself, but in 1885 moved to London to try to make it as a writer. Instead, he developed a serious opium addiction and started sleeping rough on the streets of Charing Cross, occasionally selling matches and newspapers to make a little money. He would claim later that, on the brink of suicide, he was saved from ending it by a vision of the poet Thomas Chatterton. More materially, he was, he said, helped by an anonymous prostitute, who gave him money and lodging before conveniently disappearing, Thompson would say, because, in classic hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fashion, he feared that associating with her would hurt his burgeoning career. (Needless to say, he would go on to write about her romantically in many poems.)

Here’s what we know for sure: after reading a manuscript Thompson had sent them, the editors Wilfrid and Alice Meynell took him in, ran his work, and would later help him publish a book. (It probably didn’t hurt that Thompson had been raised Anglo-Catholic; the Meynells were active in Oxford Movement circles.) The Meynells even paid for Thompson to do a stint in Our Lady of England Priory, a sort of Victorian rehab.

Of course, by then years of neglect and addiction had taken their toll. Thompson was never physically robust, and died after years of illness. In a final act he might have appreciated, his onetime home, which bore a Blue Plaque, came to an appropriately depressing end: in March of this year, an engineer accidentally hit the house with a cherry picker, and it proceeded to promptly collapse. (Watch the video here.)

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Comfort Food

June 30, 2014 | by

SallyBells_1

Sally Bell’s started making box lunch in the 1950s, but the recipes used to make the salad, sandwich spread, deviled egg, cheese wafer, and cupcake that go into the box date back to the 1920s, when Sarah Cabell Jones opened her bakery in a building across the street. There is nothing singly spectacular about the immemorial meal you get here, except for its immunity to anything modern. Sally Bell serves the exact lunch it served a half-century ago, which is probably much the same as polite Virginians ate a hundred years ago. There are two salads from which to choose: macaroni, which is fine, and spicy-sweet potato salad laced with onions, which is memorable. Of the eleven kinds of sandwiches, we seldom can resist pimiento cheese, but we have not regretted chicken salad (on a roll rather than white bread), cream cheese and olive (talk about a bygone taste!), and thin-cut Smithfield ham. As for cupcakes, there’s no beating the orange-and-lemon, its icing sprinkled with little bits of citrus confetti. All the elements are neatly packaged in a cardboard lunchbox lined with wax paper.
—Jane and Michael Stern, Roadfood

Sally Bell’s Kitchen is hardly a secret. It is a Richmond institution, beloved by generations of Fan District denizens, and the subject of a lengthy profile, in 2000, in the New York Times. Saveur calls its box lunch “paradise in a box.” Its demure, upside-down cupcakes, twenties-vintage Colonial Dame logo, deviled eggs, and old-fashioned, pecan-crowned cheese wafers—described by the Sterns as “heartbreaking”—speak to a sort of timeless gentility most of us can only imagine.

Certainly I can. I have no ties to Richmond, no institutional memory of the place. The three times I’ve tried to visit Sally Bell’s, I’ve fallen victim to the bakery’s conservative hours. And yet my obsession with the place is so well known that friends have more than once taken the time to wait on line and rush me a box lunch up to New York. People have given me aprons emblazoned with the cameo logo and a picture book filled with mouthwatering images of deviled eggs and beaten biscuits. On occasion I have been known to print out a copy of their menu and quixotically check off the options that appeal to me: potato salad, ham roll, lemon cupcake. For a while I had this pinned over my desk at work. I imagine people found this eccentric; in fact, I found it deeply comforting. Sally Bell’s—or my dream of it, anyway—has somehow become my happy place: a magical, cozy, well-ordered, old-fashioned realm filled with immutable recipes and homemade mayonnaise. Never mind that these aren’t the foods I grew up with; they have somehow become, for me, the definition of comfort. When I’m sad or disoriented, I pull down my book and pore over those pictures. I watch this film again and again, and I cry for reasons I can’t even explain to myself. Read More »

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Philosophy of the World

June 27, 2014 | by

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Detail from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Kaufhaus im Regen, 1926-7.

In the summer, a trip to the grocery store or the laundromat can pose one existential conundrum after another. On seemingly every corner of the city, one is greeted by a young person with a clipboard in his hand, an enormous T-shirt on his back, and desperation in his eyes. And then come the questions—huge, unanswerable, world-shaking.

DO YOU CARE ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT?

SPARE A MOMENT FOR GAY RIGHTS?

DO YOU LIKE TO LAUGH?

ARE YOU REGISTERED TO VOTE IN NEW YORK STATE?

CAN I ASK YOU A QUESTION ABOUT YOUR HAIR?

YOU LOOK LIKE A FRIENDLY PERSON! CAN I ASK YOU SOMETHING?

ARE YOU JEWISH?

DO YOU LOVE CHILDREN? Read More »

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