Monday, April 28, 2008

Tossing off the high C's and C notes

Saturday Michele and I went to the Lensic in Santa Fe for the last live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's season, La Fille du Régiment. We were in the next-to-the-last row, so I couldn't wear my custom-designed suction cups, catapult myself to the screen, and attach myself to Natalie Dessay, my ultimate hug-honey after Michele. Juan Diego Flórez has received some fairly ecstatic press for nailing all the high Cs in Ah! mes amis (including a solo encore). You may have to subscribe to the online NYTimes (free), but you can also hear an excerpt of the aria at his website. The opera was a delight; the singing and the acting were superb.

Natalie Dessay as Marie, la fille du régiment

Before the opera began, we enjoyed listening to the people sitting behind us.

"Do you speak French? It looks like we're in for a lot of French today."

"I don't speak French."

"Well, we're in for a lot of French today in this opera by Donizetti. Wait. Donizetti. That's Italian. Then why are we in for a lot of French?"

They then started talking about their travels. "No, they're not dead people! What they are is mummies." I was glad to have that distinction clarified.

At all the operas at the Lensic, I noticed a woman who seemed to know everyone, and everyone appeared to know her. I figured I should introduce myself, just in case we should know each other. So I went up, introduced myself, and shook her old cow hand. She introduced herself to me. Well, the woman is richer than God. She raised $9 million to renovate the Lensic, owns the Eldorado Hotel, and does other philanthropic work. I thanked her for all she does. Yep, she's someone worth knowing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"I got the idea from Gertrude Stein": further adventures in bookselling

Most of our local authors are wonderful people who appreciate the support the bookstore gives them. Most of them are good writers, and one, James D. Doss, enjoys a national reputation as a mystery author.

One, however, is a pain. Ina (not her real name) is self-published, prolific, and a master of self-promotion. Her books include a Southwestern mystery, a mystery of the Great Lakes area (not a big seller in the Southwest), the biography of a Michigan author whose fame echoes from Kalamazoo to Battle Creek, and a romance in the style of Jane Austen--if Jane Austen had mined a rich vein of prose combining the charm of a Pentagon briefing with the excitement of double-entry bookkeeping.

Nevertheless, she has her fans.

Ina’s current claim to fame is that she walked the entire length of the Santa Fe Trail from west to east over the course of many years. Far be it from me to denigrate the achievement. I mean, the woman is now 70+ and is planning another hike of the trail, this time over the mountain route.

During her trek over the lower route, she sent back regular dispatches to the local paper, which obligingly printed them. She also presented the editors of every scrappy small-town weekly along the Santa Fe Trail with press releases about her trek. She collected the clippings, which are all pretty much identical, combined them with those from the local paper—and voila! another book.
Child: "We cain't shake her, Paw. She's still out there. Step on it!"

Her latest, the “ghost-written autobiography” of a retired teacher, is making me nuts. In the first place, an autobiography should be written by the person herself. In the second place, nobody should have to pay twelve bucks for a photocopied VeloBound book. In the third place, she should have shared the money from sales with the teacher.

And in the fourth place, when the teacher passed away at age 97, Ina called me at the store to see how many of her books we had on hand. I told her we didn’t have any.

She said she couldn’t get any more herself because the copy place was closed. She wanted to sell them at the memorial service for the teacher.

I just stood there with the phone. I couldn’t speak. Her comment precluded further comment anyway.

After a short pause, Ina assured me that she'd come up with a solution: she’d make up some order forms and hand them out at the reception after the service so folks could bring them by the store to reserve their copies.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I don't know, Angie. What do you feel like doing?

My friend Marion sent me an email and asked, "Sometime, could you write about being a bookseller? As in, do you like it (the lesser-known Shakespeare play)? It’s one of those careers, like caterer, massage therapist, and b-and-b owner, that people fantasize about (I suspect wrongly)."

I had a romanticized view of owning a bookstore. I envisioned having a cozy wood-paneled shop with a golden light filtering softly through the windows. The shop is stacked floor to ceiling with books, most of them rare old leather-bound collectibles, as fine to the hand as they are to the mind. The requisite store cat snoozes peacefully between the antique cash register and the old Royal manual typewriter on which I type the index cards for the inventory and the special orders. The f key sticks a little. Comfy chairs are placed here and there, and I, the proprietor, in my tweed blazer with the leather patches on the elbows, lean over the counter reading some rare tome and glance over the top of my glasses to welcome a customer. “The Edwardians, by Vita Sackville-West,” the customer says. “I’d like the first edition if you have it.” “Certainly,” I reply. “It’s right over here.”

That’s what I fantasized about. In reality, daily life as a bookstore owner is pretty ordinary. It's a lot of work, but I love it, and Michele and I don't regret having bought the store.

We have a staff of a dozen, who seem more like a large, quirky family than our employees.

One of our merry band, Marcine, is a handsome older woman with an equally handsome grown daughter. Marcine brought her daughter to the store to introduce her to everyone.

“This is my daughter,” she said.

“You are every bit as lovely as your mother,” said Lori.

“What a sweet face!” exclaimed Judy.

“I am so pleased to meet you,” said Heather. “You look just like your mother.”

“Your hair is so beautiful,” said Becky.

Then the two went into the workroom, where SJ was checking in the current shipment of books. SJ stood, took Junior’s hand in both of his, and said warmly, “You look just like Ernest Borgnine.” The only sounds in the workroom were those of pins dropping, crickets chirping, and tumbleweeds rolling down the dusty main street. Marcine’s daughter smiled graciously but without warmth, and Marcine swallowed audibly.

After they left the store, Alan, our manager, came unglued: “Borgnine! Ernest Borgnine!? What were you thinking? Were you thinking, SJ?”

SJ said, “Well, I was going to say something nice, but then I saw her aura, and it spoke to me, and it said, ‘Ernie.’ Ernie Borgnine. You can’t ignore an aura.”

Ernest Borgnine never once ever entered any of my fantasies about owning a bookstore.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"I wish I'd said that." "You will, P-Doobie. You will."

Ever since 1968, when I graduated from high school, I've kept a commonplace book of quotations, funny and interesting words, and felicitous turns of phrase. It's a little notebook that holds paper 3 1/2 inches by 6 inches that I bought at TG&Y, which I think was still where the Central Avenue Grill is now. It has 2918 entries right now, with quotations ranging from my senior English teacher, Mrs. Campbell, to the novelist Jerome Jerome and the letters to and from Groucho Marx. One of my favorite quotations in it is from the play No Trifling with Love by Alfred de Musset: "Shall I not find a sensible man here? Upon my word, when you look for one, the solitude becomes appalling." It's appropriate for so many situations.

Here's the front of my commonplace book.

Here's the back.

And here's a page spread.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

IRS . . .

. . . the last three letters in THEIRS. And that's all I have to say about that.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

If one in four Americans owns a firearm, one of the Lennon Sisters is packing a rod.

The discussion of shop class last month put me in mind of other "specials" in elementary school. I loved going to the library, art class, and shop. PE was okay if we were outside, but indoor activities, including rope climbing, tumbling, and trampoline, gave me the All Overs. Music was a trial. Before Mountain School had a designated music room, the music teacher, Mrs. Cherry (I'm using a pseudonym here, but you know who I'm talking about), visited each classroom. Have autoharp, will travel.

We all thought she was a little nuts. Our next-door neighbor John H. called her a hick. I asked what a hick was, and he hunched over and began stalking around the lawn, singing and snapping his fingers. He looked like a musical stork. He looked exactly like Mrs. Cherry.

She was dramatic and offensively jolly ("Polly Wolly Doodle" was always a laff riot for her), loved having us sing the descant to any song (and if the song didn't have a descant, she'd make one up), and conducted with all the fervor of Leonard Bernstein on meth.

One day in fourth grade at the end of the music lesson, she favored us with three chords on the autoharp and sang

Good-bye, everybody! Yes, indeed!
Yes, indeed!
Yes, indeed!
Good-bye, everybody! Yes, indeed!
Yes, indeed, my darlings!

We were to respond with

Good-bye, Mrs. Cherry! Yes, indeed!
Yes, indeed!
Yes, indeed!
Good-bye, Mrs. Cherry! Yes, indeed!
Yes, indeed, my darling!

"My darling"?! The rolling of our eyes was almost audible. She had left the room and closed the door by the time we reached the second "Good-bye, Mrs. Cherry, yes indeed!" Thirty fourth graders abruptly and simultaneously stopped singing. No way were we going to sing, "Yes, indeed, my darling!" a line that would have stuck in our little throats and made us the laughingstock of the whole school.

The door reopened with a bang like a rifle shot. It was Mrs. Cherry. Her nostrils were flaring. Her hair was waving softly from the draft. The strings on her autoharp hummed at the same frequency her body was quivering. She fixed us with her gimlet eye. "You will sing the entire song. You will sing it loudly enough that I can hear it from my office!" Her office was halfway down the hall; singing to be heard at that distance would require us to use our leather-lunged outside voices. Everybody in the school, not to mention the surrounding neighborhood, would know that we called Mrs. Cherry "darling." Three chords on the autoharp got us started, and she stalked from the room.


In sixth grade, we had music in the new music room. Gone was the autoharp. Mrs. Cherry had a piano now. She introduced the principles of harmony. We didn't get it. She urged us with her face. We sounded terrible. She demonstrated on the piano. We sounded worse. She appealed to something we all did: watched TV. "When you watch The Lawrence Welk Show, you see the Lennon Sisters. They harmonize so beautifully. Sing, boys and girls! Sing like the Lennon Sisters!" Thirty little heads thumped in disgust and dismay to the tabletops.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Oh, you mean like "did gyre and gimlet in the wabe"?

I've often said that if a person can't find what she needs at Otowi Station, Metzger's Hardware, or CB Fox, she probably doesn't need it. I don't need a gimlet.

I have a framed image I want to hang in my office. I needed to start a hole for the screws that hold the eyelets that hold the wire that hangs on the hook that lives in the house that Jack built, and a using power drill was a little like using a sledgehammer to swat flies. So I schlepped across the street to Metzger's and wandered around for a while. Finally someone asked whether I had been helped, and I said not yet, and he asked how he could help, and I said, "I need a gimlet."

"It's too early in the day for a gimlet," he said. I explained that I didn't need a drink. I needed something to bore a little hole to start a screw. I needed a gimlet. "I've been working here for 42 years, and I've never heard of a gimlet," he said, looking at me as if I were making up words just to confuse him.

"I'm an English major. I know lots of words. I need a gimlet. You know, like 'a gimlet eye and a terrible swift sword.' Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey used the phrase to describe their father in Cheaper by the Dozen." I thought I was being helpful, but it was obviously more than he wanted to know.

"Let me get Ernie," Mr. 42 said. "He can help you." I wandered around for a bit, and eventually Ernie, a curious cashier, and Mr. 42 came toward me in solemn procession. Mr. 42 said to Ernie, "This is the lady who needs a gimlet." The cashier said, "I've never heard of a gimlet." Ernie asked what a gimlet does. I explained that it bores a hole so you can start a screw. "What you need is a drill bit," he said.

"I have a drill bit. The job is too small for a drill bit," I said.

The cashier said, "I've never heard of a gimlet." Ernie told Mr. 42, "She really needs a drill bit. That'll start the screw." Mr. 42 said, "Yep, I think a drill bit is what she needs." I said, "I'm standing right here." The cashier said, "What's a gimlet. I've never heard of a gimlet." Another clerk joined us. "She needs a gimlet," the cashier explained. "What's a gimlet?" the clerk asked.

Ernie squatted and stared at the display of drill bits with the same expression and intensity as someone just stumbling on Shakespeare. Finally he stood up with a packet of two 2.38-mm high-speed steel drill bits. "These will start the holes." By that time I felt a sporting obligation to buy the drill bits and get the heck out of there before the rest of the staff joined in the discussion. I walked back to the store brooding about why I am so weak in front of sales clerks. A twine will lead me.

As I went into my office, I saw my backpack. My Leatherman tool was inside. It has an awl. And it worked a treat, too. I wondered what would have happened if I had asked for an awl. Would they have led me to the lubricants and asked what kind of awl I wanted? It was too much to contemplate. I started on the hole for the second screw.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

neu·rot·ic adj. 1. Of, relating to, derived from, or affected with a neurosis; see also bookselling

If the National Institute of Standards and Technology ever wants to create the definitive standard for "comparison shopper," all they need to do is get a bell jar, create a vacuum therein, chill to zero degrees Celsius, and send for a senior citizen looking for a dictionary.

I love dictionaries. The staff knows I love dictionaries. And whenever a person wants a dictionary, I can help. Unless the customer is a senior citizen. Then all certainties vanish, the world is flat again, and I am peering into the abyss.

I have come to dread a staffer saying, “We have a senior citizen who needs your help with a dictionary.”

“May I help you?” I ask the woman, who seems to be about 70.

“I want a dictionary. Mine is old. What do you recommend?”

I reach for the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. “I recommend this,” I tell her. “It has definitions of the new words in the language and excellent notes on usage. And it has pictures.” I open it for her. “It’s designed to be browsed.”

“Pictures turn me off,” she says. “And there’s too much white space. It’s wasted space. They could have used that space to put in more words.” She pokes at a Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as if it were an under-ripe cantaloupe in the produce section. “What about this? How many words are defined?” I say it has more than 200,000 definitions. “I know it has more than 200,000 definitions. I just read that. How many words does it define?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“How am I supposed to make a comparison if all the dictionaries are shrink-wrapped? How about the Oxford American Dictionary?"

“Well, you can’t go wrong with Oxford.”

“What do they know about American English? They’re British, aren’t they? Why aren’t they writing about British English? Don’t they do that anymore? How many words are defined in this one? If I’m going to buy a dictionary, I want the most words per dollar spent!”

I’m wishing I had some cold rags to apply to my forehead, when suddenly I flash back to fourth grade and the word problems: “P-doobie wants a dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary costs $59.73 and defines 90,000 words and 10,000 new words. The Oxford American Dictionary costs $62.98 and defines 107,000 words. If each dictionary leaves its respective station at 10:15 a.m. . . . . "

I snap back from my reverie. “The cover says it has more than 204,000 definitions.”

“I know how many definitions it has. I just read that, and then you read it to me. How many words does it define?”

“Doesn’t say.”

“I want to look inside both of these. I want to know whether they define the word goth with a lower-case g. And they better have the definition of emerods in them.” The dictionaries are shrink-wrapped, and my handy Swiss Army classic is in my jacket pocket back in the office, and going to get a box cutter right now is a really, really, really bad idea. I turn my back to her and gnaw a starter hole in the shrink-wrap. I pull off the shrink-wrap and hand her the dictionaries. She pokes and prods them. “I wish I knew which one has more words. I want a lot of words, but I can’t lift an unabridged dictionary.”

“This one has a CD-ROM you can use in your computer,” I suggest helpfully.

“Do I look like I have a computer in the house?”

“No, ma’am.”

She hefts American Heritage and Oxford English. "I guess I’ll take this one," she sighs, handing me the American Heritage. I start to ring her up.

“That will be . . . .”

“Wait! Does it come in paper? It’s very heavy.”

“Yes, ma’am.” We return to the dictionaries, and I hand her the paper version.

“The print is too small! Doesn’t it come in a large print edition?”

“Yes, ma’am, but it has only 35,000 definitions.”

“No good. I’ll just take this one.” She flips through it to make sure that there’s a definition of goth with a lower case g, and smirks. She murmurs to herself, “I’m going to whip their butts in Scrabble down at the senior center.”

Friday, April 4, 2008

When you're down and out, lift up your head and shout, "La plomberie est imparfaite, et je suis incapable de se laver!"

One of my favorite channels on XM radio is 102, Sur la Route, which features French pop tunes. I love to listen to it when I'm feeling down. I never know what the lyrics are, but even if the song were about a school bus being hit by a train, it still makes me happy because the music is so great.

Today I was listening to Sur la Route on the way to work, and the song seemed vaguely familiar. The title wasn't much help, because my knowledge of French fits in the eye of a needle. When I got to work, I wrote down the title and the artist, used Google, and sure enough, the tune was the one we called "that breathing song" in college, "Je t'aime (moi non plus)." You can also find it on YouTube, but the recording is more vivid and erotic than the videos.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Rose by any other mane . . .

Oh, hai. I can haz closeup now, Mr. DeMille?

Today Rosie got a haircut and a bath. She has very cottony fur that mats quickly and solidly, so we get her clipped every few months. She is very pretty now.