Kittie Howard

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Goodnight, Irene" - A Louisiana Memory

My heart goes out to all those in Irene's path.  It's difficult to look at the news.  So many lives lost.  So much devastation.  My hub's from New Hampshire...we were in Vermont not long ago - drove up through central New York - Irene's path rips at our hearts.  When the tears dry, we're just going to have to take a collective breath and re-build.  Queen Elizabeth II said it best (when Princess Diana died, I believe), "Stay calm and carry on."  Back when I was in my twenties, I learned that lesson the hard way.  But, once learned, the road opened.  Today's quickly jotted down Louisiana Memory . . . .

* * * * *


I sat sideways on the porch's top step and hugged my knees.  Mama wiped her brow with the back of her hand and settled into the rocking chair near the ivy-filled planter.  She tossed her blond curls and made a face at the pasture in front of her.

I didn't have to follow her eyes to know the grass had blurred into a white haze beneath the hot Louisiana sun or that the road in front of the farm reached long and empty, with neither car nor mule wagon to break the monotony.  Nothing moved, a sound of nothing I liked because I'd been born into it.  Not Mama.  On days like today, when steaming hot quiet would stretch into sultry dark quiet, Mama fussed about leaving New Orleans for 'this,' what she called my grandparents' farm in South Central Louisiana. 
"Oh, to hear a streetcar's rumble," Mama moaned as she balanced a magazine clipping of a shirtwaist dress, the latest 1952 fashion, on top of the ivy.  And, then, after a long sigh, "We live in the middle of nowhere."

I did what I always did when adults made statements that made no sense:  I froze into a cross between a freckle-faced, five-year-old kid and a bug-eyed frog, mouth agape in either species. Sarah, two years younger, shattered the stillness by slamming the screen door and screaming Ma was coming.  "Great," Mama groaned as her mother-in-law, the inhabitant of The Big House across the left pasture (because she and Pa owned the farm), the queen of gossip along the bayou (according to Daddy), and decider of all issues, big and small (according to Mama), approached our porch from a path that ran alongside our house (a bit sneaky, even I had to admit).

But, the sin warranted immediate forgiveness:  My grandmother, a petite stick of Creole dynamite, carried a plate of cookies covered with waxed paper.  Sarah and I erupted into giggles and raced to Ma's side.  By the time Mama made lemonade, Pa returned from checking cows in the back pasture and joined us.  Minutes later, Daddy turned into the farm's entrance.  On weekends he returned home from Louisiana State University's School of Law in Baton Rouge.
As the cookies disappeared and conversation mellowed, late afternoon turned into evening shade. Sarah and I played on the steps with our dolls. Mama and Daddy sat on the swing, opposite Ma and Pa in the rocking chairs.  As he sometimes did, Daddy stretched his long legs, clasped his hands behind his head and hummed a song during a break in the conversation.  I couldn't see, but knew his blue eyes twinkled, just like Mama's did whenever Daddy came home.

Tonight, though, he stood as he hummed and tugged Mama to her feet.  She laughed as he pulled her closer, then, hands and arms positioned outward, he swirled her around the porch as he sang,"Goodnight, Irene; I'll see you in my dreams . . . . "  They looked like Clark Gable and Ginger Rogers.  My mouth fell open.

Years later, on the day their divorce became final, I thought friends had exaggerated how disastrous a divorce could be.  After all, they were still my parents.  Life went on.  It took time for the enormity of what had happened to sink in, for me to repair my soul.

Yes, goodnight, Irene.  You won't be forgotten, but we will move on.

Friday, August 26, 2011

German Fairy Tales and Great Expectations

Updates:  Thank you, thank you for your get-well wishes!  They greatly helped.  After a challenging week (we had a bit of damage - not structural - from the earthquake), yesterday was the first day I felt like my ole self and jumped into the day - to prepare for the hurricane that's barreling up the East Coast.  Please, please, if you're in the zone, take Irene seriously!!  This Louisiana gal doesn't trust hurricanes.  Those things are trouble!

Anyway, the prelude to a question that bothers me: some years ago I decided what knowledge I possessed of the German language required an infusion and registered for an intermediate course at Georgetown University.  The course description, which I carefully read, built upon my level one abilities.  Pleased, even excited, I traipsed to the bookstore, only to learn the instructor would provide the book in the classroom for students to purchase.

Two weeks later, German fairy tales and quaint words focused my life. 

Instead of much-needed conversational scenerios, I struggled with headless horsemen and forest witches.  With my head bombarded by verbs I'd probably never use at the Haufbrau Haus, I thought to drop the course.  This urge to take flight disappeared, however, when reality dawned:  People died in some of these fairy tales.  I wanted to know how this could be.  Unhappy endings didn't occur in Cinderella's world!

Over cups of coffee, I asked a German friend visiting the States, "How can you have fairy tales without a happy ending?"

"Because life is life," she replied and went on to say, basically, that if one always expected a happy ending, this expectation magnified the impact of even the slightest bump on the road of life.

By the end of my German course, I felt a sense of academic accomplishment:  I'd survived rather nicely. In the personal sense, I had a stronger grip on my mother's favorite saying:  "Life isn't a fairy tale."  A U-turn back to basics kept my hands on the wheel whenever life's road got bumpy. 

Now, I mention this today because, during the past six months, I've noticed more and more crisply written book reviews in various newspapers conclude with, "The ending wasn't what I expected."  

True, a book review reflects what the reviewer thinks. Some reviewers live in the first person.  That's okay; the ground rules are laid out.  It's when a crisp, third person review concludes with tacked-on personal sentiment that I wonder what's going on.  Even if the reviewer says the unexpected ending 'worked,' a tiny cloud hangs over the entire book.  In a tight market, this cloud can turn into the kiss of death.

So, okay, who's in charge of a novel or story's resolution, the author or a reviewer's great expectations for sugar-coated, fairy tale-like endings?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dikembe Mutombo and "Play Big"

Dikembe Mutombo, the Congolese-American NBA basketball player, caught my attention in a Sports Illustrated summer issue.  The 7'1/" (2.18m) superstar retired in 2009 after earning the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times and with a reputation as one of basketball's greatest shot blockers.  What caught my attention, though, was how he accepted his height and tuned what others thought a liability into an asset.

When Mutombo was a kid - a very tall, very skinny, very poor kid in a dusty African village -some though thought he was a phantom and ran from him.  Instead of bemoaning his fate, Mutombo maintained a forward-thinking attitude and, well, the rest is history that bubbles into a retirement centered on humanitarian works that include building medical facilities in his home country, with his own money and through his foundation.  Dikembe Mutombo has received many awards for his humanitarian work.

To help support his humanitarian projects, Mutombo gives speeches world-wide and sells various basketball-related items, one of which is a T-shirt that says "Play Big."  The logo made me sit up straight - and start thinking!  I don't know about you, but I do know there have been times when I've held back for fear a character's personality would be too bold (or too sensitive).  The fear, of course, corresponds to societal norms of what's expected, norms that are often more perceived than real.  No one wants to be rejected by society or sense disapproval.  No one wants others to run from him/her. The compromise is to play safe - characters don't ever live outside the box, so to speak.

I've had time to think about this because I'm recovering from strep throat, an unwelcome holiday souvenir in the larger sense  - who likes being sick?  Ugh! - but time to think is good. What I've come up with is this:  I sometimes want to stifle my characters to protect myself.  I don't want the reader to think that the character's sensitivity (or boldness or anger or happiness) is my emotion, a release of my character and a path to who I am, for I don't believe any writer can fully distance himself/herself from the written word.

 Just as I decided to face that fearful word change and open up more, my hub handed me the latest issue of Vanity Fair.  On the cover was a quote from Johann von Goethe:  "We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden."

Mutombo and Goethe - they play well together.