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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Piece of Mind

Boy, you really don't want to see a piece of my mind today.


Tell me if this is true:


Again is to against as among is to amongst. No, I don't think so.


Against all odds

Against the wind

Against reason


If I tell you that you have a beautiful body, will you hold it against me?


Against my skin?

Up against it.


What a strange word. They did it against and against. No, that couldn't be right. Did they do it again and again? Well, yes, they did.


Against my better judgment

Seven against Thebes

Up against the wall

The agen-bite of inwit


Whan that Aprille with his shoures soute

The drought of march hath perced to the rote

(Is there any former English major who doesn't carry that piece around in her mind?)

And bathed every veyne in swich liquor

Of which vertu engendred is the flour.


It's all I know, but it's there forever.


That's a piece of my mind for you.


Here's another piece: How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank. Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Soft music and the night become the touches of sweet harmony. And so forth. I learned that speech 50 years ago.


Often I read of a prisoner in long-term solitary confinement who kept his sanity by reciting all the poetry he had learned throughout his life. Well, that would get me through the first hour or so of solitary. The rest of the time would be repetition. Again and again and again.


Again a piece of my mind: I recently read a little theory about drinking: the reason we all drink too much and get away with it is that our livers are hidden inside our bodies. If the liver were, say, attached to the top of our heads, like a silly hat and visible to all and sundry, then we would be really embarrassed for everyone to see how we have abused it. All the holes and rigidities and whatever else we have inflicted on our poor livers would be right there for god and everyone to see. We'd be a lot more careful how we treated our livers if they made a visible and damning statement to the world about our lives.


Just a thought. Just a piece of my mind. I have to stay with a piece of my mind because there is no peace of mind at the moment.


Deep breath. In. Out. Slow. Deep. In. Out. Slow. Deep. Nope. Still no peace of mind. I gave it a shot, though.


Here's a piece that we'll all enjoy. Well, I'm lying. I wrote that having no idea at all what I was going to say, hoping that by the time I got to the full stop at the end of that sentence a direction would have appeared to my mind's eye.


Kicking against the pricks.

Going against the grain.


Notice how against means (at least) two things: holding something against your heart means holding it close to you. Going against someone means opposing him. So against means bringing close and holding off. Explain that to your ESL class.


Against my better judgment I look at the paper every morning.


I hold against me the suffering and the pain I read about.


It is against my principles to do some things. Notice I'm not telling you what.


It is against my best interests to reveal myself any more fully.


I am writing against time here, saying and not saying until time is called and I can lay down my pen.


My pen is new. We recently went to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Ontario Wine Awards dinner, a perk for my  husband, who had been one of the judges for the awards. During the evening everyone put business cards into a large box, and after the dinner they drew a card for the door-prize: a Mont Blanc pen. We had put in one of my cards and one of my husband's. For some reason, I had every expectation of winning and was waiting for them to read out "Ann Tudor." Although I was dreading the embarrassing walk to the head table to receive my prize, I was thrilled to know that I would receive the pen. I saw it as a new pen for a new beginning in my writing.


Well, the name drawn was not mine. Instead, it was "Dean Tudor." It took me a moment to make the adjustment. And, because he was not paying attention, my husband hadn't heard his name. So all of us at the table had to prompt him to his feet for the walk to the podium. He wasn't embarrassed, though I would have been.


He came back with a pen-sized box; the ribbon that tied it had the words "Mont Blanc" woven into it. And he gave it to me immediately, saying, "This is for you."


My new pen writes smoothly, quickly. I haven't noticed an improvement in WHAT it writes, but perhaps that will come in the future, with some other mood. But in the meantime I will accept this change in HOW it writes.


It glides against the paper.


Again, again, again, say the children. Again! Hannah at 18 months, skinny and slight but so alive, so full of sensation. Saying, after I had picked her up and dropped her flat onto the sofa a dozen times, "A-dee-un! A-dee-un! A-dee-un!" She wanted no end to that feeling of being dropped through the air onto a soft landing.


And aren't we all hoping against hope for a soft landing?

Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor   


I love knots.


One of the Greek myths I read when I was little was about the Gordian knot. I no longer know why the Gordian knot existed or who had to untangle it (was it one of the labors of Hercules?). The knot was huge and hopelessly tangled, so the hero solved the problem by slicing through the knot with a sharp sword. A very sharp sword.


Even when I was young I hated that solution. A knot is not to be cut. A knot is to be unpicked. I knew that at ten, and I still know it. As I was writing the paragraph above, I realized for the first time that the mythical solution was a male one. Got a problem? Take the sword to it. End of problem. Whereas my approach would have been (had I been the heroine of that myth) to tease the knot, to worry at it, to pick at it, to find an end and wiggle it loose. In short, to untie the knot. It would have taken longer, but when I was finished, I would have had a lovely length of rope to play with.


I thought of this recently, when I was faced with undoing four knots on a pair of antique tingshaws a friend had given me. They were strung on a golden cord in an odd way and could be played only by using a mallet or stick. I wanted them to balance at each end of the cord so I could ding them together in the usual tingshaw way. I've actually had them for several years, but I finally decided it was time to restring them. So I began undoing the knots.


What a pleasure it was to sit by the window in my little maple chair and gently tug at this or that loop of the cord. And how satisfying it was when I loosened a bit so that the end could be pulled through. Success! That's the feeling. The feeling of successfully performing a task. No animals (or vegetables either, for that matter) were harmed in the performance of this task. It was just untying a knot.


All it takes is patience.


During the ten years I spent knitting one-of-a-kind sweaters, sometimes four or five a week, I often came upon tangled skeins of yarn, veritable rats' nests of tangled yarn. I would patiently sit on my stool and undo them. Very occasionally I'd have to give up (this point was reached more quickly when I was dealing with a cheap yarn that was in good supply) and then I'd take the scissors (my version of Hercules's sharp sword) to the whole mess.


But mostly, I untangled.


Even though I didn't know it at the time, undoing knots was a form of meditation. I had to remain in the moment, remain with the yarn—the beautiful wools shorn from lovingly tended sheep, the wool carefully carded and spun and dyed so that I could make sweaters from it. That yarn deserved my attention and my time.


If someone else is around when I am undoing a knot, this onlooker may become very impatient. "Just cut it and let's get on with life!" she'll say. "How can you waste your time undoing a knot?" She doesn't get it.


I can't even honestly say that it's about meditation and being in the moment. It's really all about satisfaction. It's about saying "I did it!" I get the same feeling when I undo the stitched cord on a bag of flour or cat litter. You know what I mean—those pesky closings no two of which are ever alike. Some are stitched with a two-thread machine, some with a one-thread machine. And the way to unstitch them varies with the kind of machine. But I love the challenge. I love the thrill when I pull the right thread and the entire stitching unravels so that in just a few seconds I have a nice long uncut string (or two) and a neat opening edge. Of course, the thread used for this stitching is so cheap that you don't want to keep it, not even in the drawer marked "string too short to use." So you end up throwing it out. But first you have the satisfaction of feeling it unstitch, feeling the thread loops unpick from the holes in the bag. Success.


We can't possibly predict the little hidden pleasures in a stranger's life.


Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, June 21, 2009


At dinner time or bedtime, our parents used to call us in from play by whistling a two-note descending phrase that meant, "All Johnson children come home now!" In pitch, it was a descending fourth.


I am essentially whistle-less, though that isn't quite true. I learned to whistle when I was ten and a half. I was walking from our house down to Riley Park to take part in some summer activity organized by the town to keep the school kids out of mischief.


I was wearing shorts and an ironed sleeveless shirt with a collar (this was well before the days of the ubiquitous t-shirt). The warm and humid air promised a scorcher later on, but it was still pleasant enough in mid-morning.


The whistling was a conscious undertaking. I couldn't whistle. Siblings, older and younger, could whistle, so it was clear that there was no genetic deformation of the tongue/teeth/jaw. That summer morning I was determined to learn to whistle.


I passed the Hannas' big house at the corner of Main and Monroe and then went along the little-used street that curved around the edge of the downtown, bordered on one side by the wooded hill that led down to Deer Creek.


W-w-w-w, I went. W-w-w-w-w-w. I moved my tongue. Re-pursed my lips. W-w-w-w. Nothing but air would come out.


In those days I was ever-hopeful, unaware of the possibility of failure, so I persisted. At a later age, I might have given up and resigned myself to being a non-whistler. But at ten and a half, I knew I could do it if I just kept trying, forcing the air out through those pursed lips, moving my tongue to new positions behind the teeth, closer to, then farther from the pursed lips, tongue curved, pointed, broadened—all possible configurations.


At the place where that little back street meets Washington Street, pedestrian steps lead down, down, to the bridge over Deer Creek. The steps are broad, maybe eight feet across, in two flights of six or eight steps each. The hand rail is a piece of two-inch iron pipe.


Just as I reached those steps, I made a whistling sound! From my pursed lips came a peeping piping tone that was a whistle. I was ecstatic. It was only a beginning, but I knew it would progress. I could become a fluent whistler, a professional purser of lips.


During the rest of the trip—across the bridge and along the path into the park, walking beside Deer Creek toward the big oval that was our combined track and football field--I practiced. I expanded on my piping sound until I had two, then three notes in my repertory. What an accomplishment! I had taught myself to whistle!


But no matter how hard I tried, that day and for months after, I never went beyond those three notes. Three feeble little notes, not loud enough to call a dog or express my appreciation for a concert. Barely worth the title of "whistling."


In compensation for my own deficiencies, I later married a man whose parlour trick was to whistle "American Patrol" with his best friend, in perfect harmony. Whistling skills are not the best criteria for choosing a spouse, so the marriage didn't last. Even today, I still can whistle only three feeble notes.


Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor   

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hands and Elbows

My hands have twirled fine crystal wine glasses filled with plonk or with  rich old reds from a well-stocked cellar. My hands have hoisted beer cans, beer bottles, and frosted beer steins.


When it comes to drinking, however, forget the hands. I'm an elbow-bender. It took me many years to understand that I don't have a head for alcohol, but I remain an elbow-bender. If a glass is in front of me, I drink from it until it is empty. If someone refills it, I drink again. (This may be genetic.)


It is clear that I don't care what is in the glass. I am simply an elbow-bender. So now I put water in the glass instead of alcohol, and I can bend my elbow with impunity. Elbow-bending is simply my way of handling the nervous, ill-at-ease feeling I get when in public. Just as the routines of cigarette smoking provided punctuation for our conversations, so elbow-bending allows me a way to cover momentary embarrassment. If you've ever watched cats, you know that when they are embarrassed they immediately begin to lick a paw. Elbow-bending is my version of paw-licking.


Here's an elbow story:


We all reach an age when we think that we comprehend the idea of mortality. Okay, we say, I've got it. Not only you, but even I am going to steer this old jalopy of a body into the driveway of death.


And we then proceed to live our lives exactly the way we did before we accepted the idea of our own mortality. Perhaps we no longer manifest the sheer abandon of 16-year-old boys, but our actions in general fail to reflect our understanding of mortality.


Recently we had dinner with friends, six of us in all. The lovely meal ended with a gorgeous berry pie from the Queen of Tarts. I overate. Too full, and slightly uncomfortable sitting at the table, I edged my chair back, turned slightly sideways on it, crossed my legs, and rested my arm on the back of the chair.


It had been a beautiful evening. The dining room was lit with candles that marched down the center of the table and that filled the sideboard at the end of the room. There was also a sideboard behind me holding five or six randomly placed candles.


So I sat with my arm on the back of the chair, holding forth or listening attentively, whichever I was doing.


But whatever I was doing, I was definitely not paying attention to the sideboard behind me. Or its candles.


My elbow felt hot. "Oh!" I said, and I pulled it away from the chair and inspected it. Yes, indeed, it was hot. It was, in fact, on fire. Like, burning. Like, in flames.


"Oh," I said again. I grabbed the cloth napkin and calmly batted at the fire, extinguishing it. It wasn't a big fire, just kind of an elbow-sized fire. We all inspected it and found it still smoldering, so we dabbed some water on it.


Then we moved the candles and went on with our business of talking.


It was only later that I really assessed what had happened. I was wearing my pretty red linen Chico's jacket, embroidered all over with red thread. It now had a hole in the elbow the size of two quarters, plus a larger intact but charred area surrounding the hole. But what if my jacket had been made of some more readily flammable material? What if it had gone up in a whoosh of flames that engulfed the whole jacket and its contents (which is to say, me)? What then, pussycat?


Imagine the human fireball, the instantaneous explosion of all our lives. Imagine how everything can change in the blink of an eye, in a moment of inattention.


Aside from the gratifying news that nothing more serious happened, the other good news is that I immediately began to imagine how I would mend the elbow of my red Chico's jacket. I have since mended it, and it carries no visible reminder of the night my elbow caught on fire.


And it was my clever hands that mended the poor burned elbow of my jacket. Hands can do anything!


Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Spelling Bee

When I spent a whirlwind week in Portland, Oregon, with my two sisters, we went to more restaurants, concerts, and galleries than my husband and I get to in a month! A bike ride (first time in 60 years), a recording session (hoo-ha!), a photo shoot (The Three Graces), art walks filled with Things to Buy, and two restaurants a day, till our little tummies were tight as ticks.


But the highlight of the week was the Mississippi Pizza Pub Adult Spelling Bee. Designed as a way to fill the little pub on otherwise dead Monday nights, the spelling bee has been a runaway success. The night we were there, all the tables were filled with pizza-eating, beer-drinking would-be contestants. I have to say that "Adult Spelling Bee" referred to the age of the contestants and not to the naughtiness of the words, though that could have been interesting (one n or two in cunnilingus?).


Our Portland sister, Mary Flower, had decided that Sari and I, the visitors, would be contestants while Mary cheered us on. Our nephew Matt and his wife, Stephanie, also attended as cheerleaders.


Sari and I talked to the organizer ("Katherine with a K") beforehand, and when she learned we were from out of town (and out of country) she made sure we got to the stage. (There are always more applicants than there are spaces on the platform.)


Sixteen of us sat on chairs on the little raised dais, holding laminated cards with our numbers for the evening. The rules were not stringent, but we were cautioned to repeat the word, then spell it (correctly), then repeat it again, just as they do in the official national spelling bee held in Washington, D.C., for school children. In fact, Katherine emphasized that our words were chosen from the 50-year list of the national spelling bee.


In front of Katherine were two beer pitchers filled with paper slips, one with easier words, for the first three rounds of the contest, and the other containing the words for the final rounds. Both pitchers held a strange combination of words: very simple words (coulis, execution, conciliating) mixed with bizarre words, such as gurry (the debris left after the butchering of a whale—and isn't THAT a word you'll use every day?). Katherine had a few problems with pronunciation, exacerbated by the rough speaker system; "cantatrice" sounded like "conchatrichay".


The contestants were mostly 20-year-olds, with a sprinkling of older people. The man who sat next to me was a previous champion who had come back for a new round of bees. A sour-faced older man with white hair made it through the first three rounds but was eliminated after the intermission. Sari got knocked out by conciliating (she says she wouldn't have gotten confused if it had been "conciliatory").


At the break (time for more beer), I was still in the running. My cheering section kept saying, "You're going to win!", but I didn't believe them. I wanted a glass of water, but the counter was too crowded with beer-buyers, so I went without.


Back on stage, with the six or seven remaining contestants, I really wished I'd found some water. It's hard to spell with a dry throat. Katherine pulled the pitcher with the difficult words over to her and drew the first slip of paper. I had expected to hear words that are difficult to spell, the kind you mull over before writing them down (i.e., ei or ie, l or ll, i or y). But the words were the same mixture as those from the earlier rounds: mundane but polysyllabic words interspersed with unheard-of words from specialized vocabularies.


The contestants dwindled rapidly, and I was gratified that no abstruse words were thrown my way. And finally, I was left on stage with one other contestant. At this point the rules changed: if either of us missed a word, the other had to spell it correctly and then spell one more word in order to win. We both missed "paragogy". Then Katherine read out "twall" for him. I couldn't figure it out at first, but once she defined it, I knew. He spelled it as she had pronounced it: "twall". Then I spelled it "toile." Now all I had to do was spell my last word. What would it be?


Anticlimax of all anticlimaxes, my final word was "bibliotherapy." Anyone could have spelled it! So I won, but without any great feeling of accomplishment.


My prize was a black t-shirt with "CHAMPION: Mississippi Pizza Spelling Bee" on the back. I'll wear it with pride, but I'd feel even prouder if my last word had been more challenging than "biblliotherapy."   

Copyright 2009Ann Tudor