Archive for August, 2011

Okay, I love Ga-Ga’s music.  And I have enormous respect for Hillary.  But rock stars (no matter out outrageously self-promoting) and politicians (no matter how stalwart, savvy and dedicated) are not mysterious.  They are the very antithesis of mystery.  We know more about them than we ever wanted to know.  Their stories, endlessly analyzed, rehashed, doctored, spun and publicized over and over, are drained of mystery, creating a lacuna.  A great, silent chasm around which we cluster, yearning for something to think about. Yearning for a puzzle.  Enter Joan Ginther.

Underdogs are a staple of American Story.  We love underdogs, although only when they transcend firestorms of vicissitude to at last win something or other.  Money is a popular thing for underdogs to win because then we can criticize them for not having enough sense to invest it wisely, or for squandering it on home movie theaters and fancy clothes when something or other so desperately needs financial support.  A shame, we think.  If only I had won.

Joan Ginther, a small-town girl, albeit with a Stanford Ph.D. in math, has won the Lottery four times, raking in a total of 20.4 million dollars.  The statistical odds in favor of any individual randomly winning the Lottery four consecutive times are, essentially, beyond possibility.  So, in the best card-counting, gangsta math-geek tradition, Joan has beat the system.  She’s cracked the algorithm, tracked the distribution pattern and four times bought up the thousands of scratch cards among which only one would win.  This is no accident.  This is not luck.

After reading Nathaniel Rich’s great article about Joan (although mostly about the Lottery since nobody knows anything about Joan) in Harper’s (Aug. 2011), my first thought was – How could you scrape that gummy coating off 63,000 scratch cards?  It would take weeks!  But then I wanted to know Joan’s story.  And there isn’t one.

When my attention is captured by the shadow of a story the substance of which is deliberately hidden, I am compelled to make up the forbidden story.  Probably a writer thing, but doesn’t everybody do that?  The inclination to manufacture stories we are not allowed to hear is innate, giving rise to both tabloid journalism and religions, I think.

Joan Ginther

This is the only publicly available photo of Joan Ginther, a native of Bishop, TX (pop, 3,300), who now lives in Las Vegas.  In sixty-three years she has made only two recorded statements, both (arguably reasonable) complaints.  One was recorded in a USA Today interview conducted, apparently, just after a flight.  Joan was unhappy over the abrupt removal by a flight attendant of her unfinished cheese-and-crackers and ice cream sundae.  In the other statement she told a reporter from the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she purchased her Las Vegas luxury condo for its view of mountains, not of a monorail later constructed across her view.  And that’s it.

Moreover, decades of her life remain to be accounted for.  She finished her doctorate in 1976 and then is said to have taught math at various unnamed universities in California for ten years.  After that, nothing.  Nobody, or at least nobody anybody found to interview, has the slightest idea where she was for over twenty years of her adult life after those ten years.  She’s an enigma, an unknown quantity, a (very wealthy) mystery.

But before engaging in wild conjecture, I have to wonder why it is that nobody seems to have done the obvious research.  She has a Ph.D.  From Stanford.  She will have had a doctoral committee, an academic advisor, fellow candidates, none of whom has been interviewed.  And what about her dissertation?  Did anybody go to Stanford’s library and read it?  What if it’s about analyzing algorithms?  And what about all these unnamed California universities where she taught for ten years?  There are personnel records, students, colleagues to talk to.  Yet nobody has.

Joan is no Lady Ga-Ga, no Hillary. She doesn’t photograph well and clearly loathes publicity.  But so did Whitey Bulger and that didn’t stop anybody.  So I’m left chewing on the idea that unless one is either male or a female icon of seething sexuality and/or political ambition, one isn’t worthy of attention.  Even if one has managed to break the Lottery code to the tune of twenty mil.  Dumpiness as protective shield.  Nobody wants to know about the fat lady.  I think this is weird.

Meanwhile, all sorts of commissions are madly investigating her.  I imagine men in black with ear-cords following her everywhere except the ladies room, where she’s followed by women in black.   Armanied mavens of organized crime send her gigantic floral arrangements daily with invitations to private meetings.  If one of them succeeds, the others will watch him sink to the bottom of Lake Mead by sundown of the same day.  I imagine that in her mail she receives countless death threats and supplications from people whose dying children long to see Disney World.  Among these is a single letter that’s heartbreakingly real, but she doesn’t know which one it is, and the fact keeps her awake nights.  That and the fear that somewhere, right now, a highly-paid chemist is mixing the tasteless substance that will wreck her brain and leave her unable to understand basic algebra.  The substance will be dusted on airline crackers or hidden in chocolate syrup.  In my mind, brilliant, bulky Joan isn’t safe, anywhere.

Or a worst-case scenario, and one that might account for the significant disinterest in her, would have her a gambler.  Addicted to those flashing lights and maddening casino sound effects, she loses thousands a day at Blackjack, Red Dog, Pai gow.  She’s as obvious as a tractor on the casino floor amid the amphetamine-thin denizens of that world, but they form an ever-shifting and heavily armed wall of protection around her.  They’re paid to protect her by the casino owners, not one among whom would fail to cherish a multi-millionaire compulsive gambler.  They know if she loses big, all she has to do is win another Lottery.  I hope that’s not the right story.

So far, there’s no evidence that Joan’s a criminal.  Gaming and lottery laws are murky legal territory, the law scrambling to keep up with a technology that becomes more impenetrable every day.  It may turn out that, arguably, she stepped over a legal line somewhere, but her last win was a year ago and nobody’s found that line yet.  I prefer to think she’s just smart, a small-town girl with a high IQ, an eccentric who got tired of explaining moot hypotheses and contingency tables to bored adolescents.  I prefer to imagine her holed up somewhere for years in the baking Texas heat, painstakingly scribbling mathematical formulae on the wall a la William Faulkner’s storyboard for A Fable until at last she saw how to do it.  I want her to revel in the fact that she broke a system thousands have failed to break.  I want her to use her winnings well and grow with the opportunities they bring her.  And I want to read her story, if anybody ever bothers to write it!

















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Iron Lungs

Philip Roth is so egregiously sexist that I haven’t read him in years.  Thus it was dicey when I saw that his new book, one in a series of small novels, is about polio.  The word brought me up short.  I am old enough to remember polio before Salk, although I don’t particularly remember it.  What I remember is a story.  So I read Roth’s book, entitled Nemesis.

The year is 1944, it’s summer and unbearably hot in Newark, New Jersey, Roth’s home town.  Bucky Cantor, 4F for impaired vision, is a playground director in a Jewish neighborhood where one by one the boys succumb to the dread disease.  Bucky flees to work at an idyllic camp in the Poconos with his girlfriend, but it’s “The Masque of the Red Death” all over again, although reviewers consistently compare the book to Camus’ The Plague.  I guess Camus sounds more impressive than Poe.

In any event, Bucky’s life is shattered, not so much by polio as by a retro-macho nice-guyness Roth captures in one sentence – “But there’s nobody less salvageable than a ruined good boy”.  The viral epidemic that ambushed an entire generation is only a framework for Bucky’s story, a sort of minor American tragedy.  But after closing the book I couldn’t stop thinking about polio, and the story I remember.

Nobody talks about polio any more; it’s been nearly eliminated by the Salk and then Sabin vaccines.  But I was

Elvis gets his polio shot

thirteen when I got that first Salk inoculation.  The specter of paralysis and death hung over every summer of a long childhood in which I was not really aware of any specters.  The perceptions of children are nothing like the perceptions of adults.  I knew about infantile paralysis, as it was called then, heard about it on the radio, saw pictures of kids in iron lungs in The Saturday Evening Post.  But I was not an adult and couldn’t internalize or project the horror of it.

Instead, I resented not being allowed to go to the Saturday morning movies.  Kids could get in for three or four metal milk bottle caps from Nugent’s Dairy, and we wrapped these bottle caps around the spokes of bicycle wheels until Saturday.  They made a satisfactory noise, sliding up and down.  After weeks went by when terrified parents forbade the dangerous massing of children inside a dark, dirty, pre-air-conditioning movie theater, the rattle of accumulated bottle caps on countless bicycles all over town assumed the nature of a peevish choir.  I sulked bitterly over missing my favorite serial, “Kharis the Mummy,” and did not worry about paralysis and death.

We were forbidden to wade barefoot in the flooded streets after storms, and waded anyway.  Flooded streets were irresistible despite inevitable cuts and scrapes from the teeming debris of backed-up storm sewers.  The specter haunted only adults, the parents whose terrible job is to keep children alive.  Oblivious, we sailed plastic bathtub boats in filthy water, falling deliberately, pretending to swim.

So summers went by, each with identical warnings despite which I didn’t get polio and none among my seven cousins got polio.  Nobody in my Sunday school class got polio, and nobody in my grade school.  None of the neighbor kids with whom I played cowboys and war all day, every day, got polio.  And then one did.

I’ll call her Judy Underwood, and she lived a block from me but went to a different school.  We were the same age, six or seven, and still forbidden to cross streets alone.  We played on our respective blocks, but I knew who she was – a blonde girl who wore dresses all the time, an anomaly when everybody else ran around in bibbed blue jeans.  The news that she was in an iron lung in the hospital I could see from my house, and not expected to live through the night, prompted a quiet, primitive response in what I would later understand is a gemeinschaft context.  A community rather than a society.  A small town.  I’ve lived in cities all my adult life, but I revere the gemeinschaft for what I learned that night.

The Old Cathedral

Judy Underwood was Catholic and her family attended an historic church down on the river five blocks away, founded by a Jesuit missionary in 1749.  Its proper name is the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, but then and now everybody calls it “The Old Cathedral.”  It’s gorgeous in that old Catholic way, rococo, statue-laden and possessed of encrypted bishops and a reliquary containing the teeth of a saint.  A vigil for the life of Judy Underwood was somehow immediately organized at the Old Cathedral.  There would be people there in shifts, all night, praying for her survival.  One of these would be my thoroughly agnostic father.

He took me there in the afternoon and we sat quietly amid flickering candles for a while, then went home.  He didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to.  I knew why I was there.  A kid just like me, a kid I sort of knew, was in a big metal cylinder because she couldn’t breathe.  Before morning even the iron lung might not be able to make her breathe, and she would die.  I was expected to be present in this magical concentration of intent that it not happen.

In the middle of that night, in the very bowels of the night when children are never awake, I heard my parents get up.  There were quiet footsteps, then the door opening and closing.  I heard my mother go back to bed, and knew my father had gone to take his turn at the vigil amid the flickering candles.

I saw Judy Underwood a few years ago.  She came to a booksigning event a friend and I did together in our home town.  She’s a grandmother now, still fashionably dressed, her hair colored and frosted in a way reminiscent of flickering candles, although I didn’t say that to her.  I couldn’t say that.  Her story is something else entirely that I can never know.  Mine is the candles.

And what I learned from polio that night is that you don’t have to believe anything.  What you have to do is show up.

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Gustav Dentzel horse, Paragon Carousel

Carousels are magic; they always have been. The wild glass eyes of beautiful, anatomically impossible horses reflect all the agony or ecstasy you have the courage to perceive.  A Wurlitzer wind of eerily familiar music to which no one alive knows the words, can and will, if only briefly, blow fragments of myth behind your eyes and remind you of who you are.

The horses, those eyes, carry the experience forever, but they do not carry it alone.  Sometimes menagerie animals leap at their sides, sometimes farm animals, sometimes beasts of fantasy.  A flower-bedecked pig, a dragon with gilt scales or a strangely professorial ostrich may also carry human souls around and around in the music.  But even in the absence of those support animals, there are strange paintings on the panels, the shields and rounding boards.  Mermaids beside George Washington followed by Niagara Falls and then a buxom lady in Victorian underwear holding a banner that says something in German.  Heads of jesters, queens and pirates, unicorns, alligators and local celebrities may adorn the shields.  And the mirrors, usually oval and rimmed in lights, mathematically spaced along the boards, showing nothing but a photographic blur of color.  That would be us, that blur.

Every child should ride a carousel at least once, encoding in her or his still-perceptive brain complex images that may never consciously make “sense,” but will remain when all other images are at last seen as sham.  Adults quite responsibly take children to carousels, and adults invariably elect the literary conceit of childhood memory when speaking of carousels.  But in truth, carousels are profoundly the realm of souls sufficiently old to understand what they’re about.  Watch a carousel late at night, just before closing when the kiddies have all been taken home.  There will be a handful of people with mysterious, inward-seeing eyes, circling and circling in the music.

Step on a carousel and risk an enlightenment belonging only to our time, and that, barely.  Of the seven thousand carousels that once adorned American parks, fairs and resorts, only three hundred remain.  And many of these have been rescued from oblivion by local groups of people who are not young, desperate to preserve a particular magic before it vanishes forever.  I am one of those, at least in theory.  I love carousels and would probably join a church devoted to their meaning.  So I wasn’t surprised when, while writing a novel about grown-up people to whom childhood’s magical perception suddenly returns, I realized that they had to ride a carousel.

It should have been easy, but there’s a quirkiness to this stuff.  A quirkiness set in stone.  The characters were all in Boston, meeting in a house on Beacon Hill.  There’s a carousel on Boston Common; they could have walked to it!  But no.  I don’t know why that carousel wouldn’t do, but it wouldn’t.  I sensed another carousel nearby.  A better carousel.  It had to be that one, and after hours of research I found it.  The Paragon Carousel in Hull, Massachusetts.  http://www.paragoncarousel.com/story.html

Dentzel horses and chariot, Paragon Carousel

So I wrote the scene and the book without ever actually seeing the Paragon Carousel.  I never do this and it was driving me crazy.  What if I got something wrong?  (I did.)  What if I described an experience impossible there?  (I didn’t.)  So during this Boston sojourn I enlisted a friend and my son, rented a car and took off for Hull.

It was 92 degrees and a Sunday in July, the worst possible time to drive along an East Coast peninsula so narrow anyone with a good arm can throw a rock from the Atlantic on one side to the bay on the other.  Hull was hellishly crowded.  In my life I’ve never paid twenty dollars to park, but I was happy to do it, only a half a mile from the carousel that by now was like a siren song.  I would have crawled to it over broken crystal and the blowing pages of a Shakespeare First Folio.  No 9th century pilgrim dragging herself through most of France and half of Spain to Santiago de Compostela was more determined.  Or hotter.

My son immediately dived into the Atlantic, leaving my friend to follow my headlong rush to see a merry-go-round.  (How many friends have followed me on these obsessive little journeys over a lifetime?  I am humbled to think.)  And there it was!  The setting for a significant event in my book.

There the two gorgeous Gustav Dentzel horses that drew one of my characters to Hull, the others following, as of course they had to.  But I didn’t know about the elaborately carved Dentzel “chariot,” those benches meant for elders and proper Victorian ladies who couldn’t be seen straddling wooden animals.  I would have to go back and rewrite that scene.  And I knew but failed to include the fact that the Paragon Carousel is enclosed in a building, necessitating a few changes for the moment when it flies!

But everything else was right, and I rode a splendid, prancing horse around and around and around, just as my characters did.  Ah…!

Later I took photos and met James Hardison, whose workshop is visible through a glass wall in the carousel gift shop.  Gepetto’s shop pales in comparison, as James Hardison is a professional restorer of carousel animals.  If I could, I would move to Hull tomorrow just to be an apprentice in that workshop!  As it is, I can only write about those horses and boards, those panels and shields and faces and mirrors that still hold, if perilously, all the fading magic of Western culture.

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July was Boston and I finally got around to touring the House of Seven Gables (in Salem), an experience that precipitated much thought.

Years ago I taught Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables to high school seniors and read it again only weeks ago on my Kindle during the very familiar and very long cross-continental flight from San Diego to Boston.  Reading as a writer is different than reading as a teacher, and by the time we were over New York State I was shocked to realize that (a) the first third of the book is so painfully boring I don’t know how I ever got a bunch of teenagers to read it (if, indeed, they did read it…), (b) it’s cloyingly sexist, (c) there are gaps in the plot through which a herd of rhinos could comfortably graze and (d) Hawthorne’s elegant, repetitive description of a dead body at the end is  masterfull!  If asked now, I would have to commend this classic of American literature for its exemplary and totally horrifying image upon image of one dead man.  No blood, no spilling viscera, no maggots, just a dead body sitting in a chair, described in a curious journalistic style more bloodcurdling than Hannibal Lecter in his prime.

Nathaniel Hawthorne hated and was burdened by a past embodied in that corpse, accounting for the exquisite care he brought to describing it.  Short version – Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, was a magistrate during the Salem witchcraft trials and is said to be the only one who never recanted or regretted his role in the slaughter.  The House of the Seven Gables is about a “house” only in that ancestral sense – the “House” of Bourbon, for example.  It’s about the few and troubled descendants of a man who condemned another to death as a witch in order to seize the man’s property.  The property on which the fictional seven-gabled house sat.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

But there is a House of Seven Gables in Salem, complete with seven gables, and this is where it all becomes intriguing.   The original 1668 building had two rooms on two floors and was owned by a man named John Turner.  Turner made several additions to the house, which at some point may have had seven gables, or may not, but for some reason the idea stuck in local lore.  Sometime in the 1720’s Turner had the house redone in the Georgian style, removing some of the gables.   And that way it stayed through John Turners II and III.  Turner III, in the best profligate tradition, lost the family fortune including the house, which was purchased by a family named Ingersoll who were apparently related to Hawthorne, as Susanna Ingersoll is referenced widely as Hawthorne’s “cousin”.

As a boy Hawthorne is said to have visited this cousin, exploring the old house (which then had three gables) that later provided the famous title.  However, with regard to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne went to great lengths in the book’s preface to state that, “The reader may perhaps choose to assign an actual locality to the imaginary events of this narrative…He [the author] trusts not to be considered as unpardonably offending by laying out a street that infringes upon nobody’s private rights, and appropriating a lot of land which had no visible owner, and building a house of materials long in use for constructing castles in the air.”  So… the author himself stated categorically that the house of the title was imaginary.  There never was a particular, real, identifiable House of Seven Gables.  The title was an allegory.

And yet every year thousands of tourists (including me) pay handsomely to be escorted through a seven-gabled Salem mansion that is held to be the setting for Hawthorne’s novel and in 2007 was assigned its place in the National Registry of Historic Places – the House of Seven Gables.

I followed the tour guide in that transcendent state created by the dizzying awareness that everything is Story. In the novel, the evil Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon (the spitting image of his witch-burning ancestor) comes to the House of Seven Gables to threaten his aged and infirm cousin Clifford (only recently released after doing thirty years in prison for a murder we later learn was committed by Jaffrey) with further imprisonment in an insane asylum.  Clifford’s (aged, impoverished but nonetheless devoted) sister Hepzibah is told to bring Clifford to the parlor where Jaffrey sits, cruelly waiting.  Hepzibah cannot find Clifford in his room or anywhere else in the old house.  But suddenly he appears in the hall outside the parlor, giving rise to a wholly unsupportable theory on the part of readers that Clifford must have used a secret staircase.  Of course!  It hardly matters that there is no secret staircase in the book, merely a gaffe in story logic.  But there is a secret staircase now!  I know because I climbed its treacherous, musty and atmospheric steps, reversing Clifford’s doubly fictional passage to the hall from which he would see, ah! – the unnaturally still figure of Jaffrey Pyncheon.  So this much is “true” -inside a house that existed only in the mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne is a staircase that exists only in the minds of readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and anyone can see this house and staircase for fifteen dollars.

I was inside a physical building that is itself a story, structured to reflect another story (Hawthorne’s novel), itself an allegory for a third story involving American history, ancestral guilt and redemption, complete with a fourth architectural plot remedy provided by readers.  I suspect that I had the deranged look of a literary pilgrim, one of those who tremble to think, “Oh my God, Nathaniel Hawthorne actually looked out this window!”  Only that wasn’t it.  I was thinking, “This whole constructed mirage, recognized by the United States Government for crying out loud, isn’t ‘real,’ so what is it?”

Caroline Emmerton

And what it is, is another story.  Women generally don’t identify with male ancestors and thus aren’t generally prone to guilt about whatever atrocities their male ancestors committed.  Women tend to have current, quotidian concerns, like the aesthetic context of their lives and the survival of the next generation.  Well-to-do women of the 19th century were renowned for social activism in these regards, and from this milieu came a woman named Caroline Emmerton, who was deeply influenced by Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House.  Emmerton created a similar settlement house in Salem to serve the needs of the many Eastern European immigrants who came to work in the area’s textile mills and tanneries.  To fund this endeavor, in 1908 Emmerton bought the Turner-Ingersoll mansion where Hawthorne supposedly visited his cousin, and spent two years and fifteen thousand dollars turning it into The House of Seven Gables. http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/salem/2011/03/history_time_they_changed_the.html

Emmerton had the missing gables reconstructed (or constructed), created poor fictional Hepzibah’s “cent shop” under a front gable and instructed the architect to build the secret staircase Clifford Pyncheon could not have descended in the novel, since there was no secret staircase in the novel.  Proceeds from tours of the House of Seven Gables still support the social services agency, The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, founded by Caroline Emmerton, who died the year I was born.

And so, again, a “reality” has been built of layers of Story.  Over 350 years of Story, half-forgotten, fictionalized, distorted, enhanced and commercialized in a Massachusetts geography renowned for a history in which the always-permeable boundaries of fact and fiction so famously dissolved completely.  The House of Seven Gables actually exists, but really functions as a secret doorway to countless layers of Story available only to those who trouble to see.  I didn’t see nearly enough; I’ll have to go back.  I love this stuff!

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