Thursday, May 22, 2008

Charles Lamb: unsung hottie of the Romantic Era

Charles Lamb, the 19th century essayist once wrote, in “Readers Against the Grain,”
Rather than follow in the train of this insatiable monster of modern reading, I would forswear my spectacles, play at put, mend pens, kill fleas, stand on one leg, shell peas, or do whatsoever ignoble diversion you shall put me to. Alas! I am hurried on in the vortex. I die of new books or the everlasting talk about them...I will go and relieve myself with a page of honest John Bunyan or Tom Brown. Tom anybody will do, so long as they are not of this whiffling century.

My feelings exactly, although it's not Bunyan I relieve myself with, but Anthony Trollope and it's not this “whiffling century” I object to, but the last few whiffling decades, or at least, the books written in them that Everybody else is reading and discussing.

I took the above Lamb quote from the essay “The Unfuzzy Lamb” by Anne Fadiman in her new book, At Large and at Small. I was mildly excited to come across this essay on Charles Lamb because he has occupied a corner of my consciousness ever since college, where I was profoundly horrified by the story of how his sister Mary murdered their mother with a carving knife and how Charles subsequently cared for his mad sister for the rest of his life. Fadiman admits to having something of a crush on Lamb and this also interested me because developing crushes on long-dead characters from history is a behavior not unknown to me. Indeed, this portrait of Hawthorne still causes my heart to go pitter-pat.
For some reason, I'd imagined Charles Lamb to have spindly legs, a frizzy periwig and puffy, babyish features, but a quick google image search proves me wrong:

I can see why Anne Fadiman has a crush on him. I think I do too, now.

Of all the excellent essays in At Large and at Small, “The Unfuzzy Lamb” is my favorite. I was happy to learn that Lamb was a late bloomer, working obscurely as a clerk while writing his essays, which were not published until he was in his late forties. Lamb wrote his poems while clerking too. We are so obsessed with youth related to success in the arts, that if you haven't published a masterpiece by the age of 22, you're considered to have missed your chance to write anything of note at all. I am setting up Charles Lamb as the patron saint of people who need to work for a living while nurturing a desire to write.

I happened to be at the Alderman Library, selecting a book of Victorian ghost stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, when I noticed that Charles Lamb's books were shelved in the vicinity. After some deliberation, I chose Wit and Wisdom, attracted by its tiny size, the lovely binding, the handsome profile of Lamb, and the inscription “Eugenia from Papa Christmas 1892” in faded ink on the inside cover.
Wit and Wisdom turned out to be tiny snippets of Lamb's writing. I was instantly charmed. I know I read some Charles Lamb in college, I can remember the classroom, the teacher, my classmates, but alas, not whatever it was of his we read. The passage quoted above, from Fadiman's essay, showed me that Charles Lamb probably had committed many worthwhile thoughts to paper, and so far Wit and Wisdom has not disappointed, as example this passage from “Charles Lamb's Autobiography”

...Has been guilty of obtruding upon the public a tale, in prose, called “Rosamund Gray”' a dramatic sketch named “John Woodvil”' a “Farewell Ode to Tobacco,” with sundry other poems, and light prose matter, collected in two slight crown octavos, and pompously christened his works, though in fact they were his recreations; and his true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios. He is also the true Elia, whose Essays are extant in a little volume. He died, 18--, much lamented.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Carless in Charlottesville

My title is a tiny bit misleading. I was carless for only about 24 hours. It would be fun to try and go longer than that.


Sunday night, I, my two daughters plus one cello piled into my reliable Toyota van after the CHS orchestra concert, and when I turned the key, nothing happened except a rapid series of clicking sounds. It was after 9:00 pm, the other parents were hustling their own teens (plus basses, cellos and other instruments) into their own cars and driving away hurriedly into the night. Stranded! My cell phone had just enough battery in it to place a single call to my husband, who, with a kind neighbor, came to rescue us. We have just one car. In the past, we've owned two cars, but the second car would always sit in the driveway, unused 98% of the time, so we downsized to one car.

My car's breaking down coincided with Jon and our two boys leaving for a small vacation with some of Jon's friends. My daughters and I had planned a girls' night out, and lack of a car did not stop us. Our original plan had been to go to the Gap and buy flip flops and probably get dinner somewhere, but we changed our plans to accommodate our carless state and walked to the downtown mall instead.

First we stopped into the new clothing store at the east end of the mall. Mazzi? Something like that. The woman working there showed us these amazing silk wraps from India that you can drape and tie in different ways to make many different styles of dresses and tops. We were sold and bought two--a mini, for making tops--and a medium length for dresses.

We strolled the mall, trying to decide where to eat dinner and opted for Bijou. Unfortunately, once we'd been seated and given menus, we were ignored so pointedly it was almost an insult. Drama Queen noticed a man who had arrived after us, being served his drinks and no one had even taken our drink order, so we walked out and ate at Eppie's instead which was fast and tasty. After dinner we window shopped, especially at Antics, one of my favorite stores on the mall, and later went to Splendora's for dessert where Drama Queen, always original, paired cucumber flavored and blood orange flavored gelato. Miss G and I were more conventional, choosing chocolate hazelnut and Mexican coffee.

We walked home in the chilly, darkening night and, since lack of a car prevented us from renting a movie, we watched Lady Jane, which I happen to own and which is one of my favorite movies. We played with our new silk wraps, concluding that the woman at the shop must have superpowers because she was so much more skillful at draping them than we were. Still, I'm sure we'll master it.

This morning my car was ready. Turns out it just needed a battery. I took the #3 bus downtown and managed to catch the trolley just as it was pulling out of downtown station. The trolley took me to within a block of C'ville Imports where I collected my car and I am once again burdened with two tons of baggage wherever I go. Not really, I have enough imagination and energy to walk places or use public transportation even when I do have a working car, but not having a car at all is freeing in a way. Your horizons are shrunk, as far as where and how far you can travel, but by the same token, you have an excuse not to go to places you don't want to. For example, I know I had a lot more fun downtown last night than I would have if we had driven up to Fashion Square.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A walk down Avon St.

$6 was all the cash I had in the world, and I spent $4.50 of it on strawberries at the City Market.
Here are some pictures from my walk up Avon St. on my way to the market. I'm not a good photographer but Avon St. is the sort of street that looks ugly when you're driving down it, but if you take the time to walk, you see some hidden beauties.

A new picket fence.
Spiderwort and a red fire hydrant.
An old house getting a facelift.

Pretty porch.

Rainbow of houses on Hinton St.

An old garage.

A new hair salon.

Roses over an iron fence.

Pink and green.

Back home--my own irises and speedwell.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Last night I was sprawled in an armchair, lazily catching up on the Sunday New York Times, periodically bellowing at my children to turn on the TV to see if the Office was on. No one would oblige me, so I turned on the TV myself, and instead of seeing Dwight and Michael, I heard Eric Pritchett's panicked voice talking about a tornado warning.

We don't get many tornadoes here in Virginia, although we get even fewer tornadoes in Buffalo, where I grew up. My only experience with tornadoes is my mother's story about how she was visiting someone in Indiana or Illinois, or somewhere, and saw a tiny tornado carry off somebody's rosebush.

The TV warned us repeatedly to "get LOW and stay LOW"--not very catchy, I must say. Couldn't someone have come up with an easy tornado rhyme?

How LOW can you go? This storm is gonna BLOW.
To the basement we go. We need to stay LOW.
When the tornado is acomin' to the basement go runnin'.

My house, with its outdoor-only access basement, is particularly unsuited for tornado survival. How, pray, am I supposed to round up four children, two dogs, and a bunny and take them out into a storm and around the side of the house, and unlock the padlock and usher everybody inside before an approaching tornado obliterates us? The animals are particularly problematic. The bunny would have to travel by Black Bag, which he does not like, and I envisioned the dogs attacking the bunny in the bag while we huddled in the basement. I also saw myself tugging uselessly on two leashes, trying to get two panicked dogs into a basement they are both afraid of.

My daughter Miss G made a case for all of us hiding in the closet instead. This is the closet.

Can you imagine six people, two large dogs and a bunny squeezed in here? I told Miss G that she could go into the closet, but the rest of us would take our chances with the basement.

This is me, awaiting death as predicted by the NBC 29 Storm Team.

Jon, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. We had NO idea where he had got to. He was not in the house, he was not on the porch. He was gone and the Storm Team's hysterical reporting had worked my younger children into a state of high anxiety. The bunny's cage was moved away from the window and piled with blankets. Mr. McP had the dog leashes. I had the key to the basement wound around my wrist on a string. I think my time would have been better spent reading the hysterical commentary on the storm coverage over at Cvillain.

It was all so exciting, I was half disappointed when they canceled the tornado warning for Charlottesville. Just at that moment, Jon came breezing into the house. He'd been at the neighbor's looking at possible doors for our new bathroom.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

bathroom before & after

Maybe not "after." "During" is more appropriate.

There's a plumber here today putting in a toilet and a sink. I hadn't started shopping for a sink and wasn't looking forward to it, since I didn't want to buy a $200 Lowe's special that would somehow turn out to be defective, but I also didn't want an $8,000 sink from a fancy bath place. So my plumber says, "How would you like to buy a Kohler pedestal and save some money?" Why, of course I would! He knew a woman who had put this sink in her house, and later changed her mind and bought a different sink and needed the old one taken off her hands. My plumber actually drove to her house and brought the sink back to me so I could see it and I accepted it immediately. It is a basic pedestal sink, but with a fairly large square-ish top, so you have a bit of counter space on which to rest your toothbrush. It looks old fashioned, but not pretentious. It's such a relief not to have to try to decide between numerous design details of a whole host of sinks. And it was cheap too.

These pictures were taken just after the tile was finished. I'll put up more later, with toilet and sink installed.

This is what it used to look like. The floor was the same 2" squares as was in the shower, only green instead of pink.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Who saw Cranford on Masterpiece Theater last night? I thought it was delightful--the best Masterpiece Theater I've seen in a long time.

How could you go wrong with a movie that has Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton in it? Imelda Stuanton is so funny in this movie, she steals every scene she's in.

Cranford is based on two novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and is about a quiet country village apparently populated almost entirely by unmarried women. Much of the movie is very funny, although by the end, I was crying. Part II is next Sunday. I'm blocking out my calendar.

Watching Cranford was the culmination of what I am now thinking of as my Weekend of Virtue. In addition to taking my paint to Amnesty Day at the dump, I bought plants at the City Market and put them in my garden, did a lot of weeding, and mowed the lawn again. Jon contributed by putting up our new picket fence, the old one having rotted to pieces.

I also started preparing my bedroom for paint. Now that school is done, I am going to go through each room of my house with a fine tooth comb, emptying drawers, investigating stacks of things on top of bookcases, and painting the rooms that need it. In tearing down my bedroom I found my old GRE scores. Last fall, when I was considering entering the CNL program at UVA, I was searching everywhere for these, even posted a blog entry asking how I could retrieve them from the GRE people. I've since learned that there are a lot of people in the same predicament because "find lost GRE scores" is the number one search term that brings people to my site.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

My big day at the dump

Today is hazardous waste amnesty day at the dump. I have been meaning to attend this event for years, but have never been able to get my act together. Until today. Yesterday I hired my nine year old to take all the old paint cans out of the basement and carry them to the car. There were many, many cans of paint, most of them left behind by the previous owners of our house. The Rivanna solid waste authority website advises of a 25 gallon limit on paint, so I had to leave two cans behind.

The website also advised, that although the event begins at 9:00am, the line up of cars can start at 8:30. This was worrisome news, and I envisioned route 637 backed up for miles. I contemplated the 25 gallons of paint stacked in the back of my car, and realized that to return them to the basement was unthinkable. I packed a book to read while waiting, and my personal property tax bill in case they required proof of address and off I went.

The whole experience turned out to be easy, pleasant even. Route 637 was not backed up with dump-bound cars, I did not have to wait more than five minutes to unload my paint, and nobody demanded proof of residency in C'ville/Albemarle. A friendly man with a clipboard asked me where I lived, and I told him, and that was that. They have a pretty efficient set-up and things were moving along well, or at least they were at 9:30, when I got there. And now I am free of a whole pile of old paint that has been troubling me for a long time.

My previous experiences with dumps have not always been so nice. When we were getting ready to move from Buffalo to Charlottesville, I had a whole lot of stuff to dump. My brother told me about the dump on Bird Island and he even agreed to go with me. Bird Island was conveniently located about ten minutes from my house, so I loaded the back of my Volvo 240 wagon with, among other things, a large hard plastic wading pool, and we set off over the scary drawbridge to the dump, which was a noisy, dirty, industrial, confusing place seething with dump trucks.

I noticed that the trucks--I was the only car--had to drive onto a large scale before dumping their loads, and it was the sort of scale that you had to align your wheels with two tracks and the whole thing looked impossible. I think they expected you to back onto the scale, or it was balanced out over the water or something because I remember feeling very intimidated by it.

(Scary drawbridge which allows passage of lake barges through the canal. When I did crew, we would sometimes row right alongside these barges.)

I parked and approached a small hut where I hoped I could find some information, or someone who would tell me that cars were exempt from the scale. The hut was attended by a skinny rat-faced woman with hair slicked back into a trash pony tail, and who looked like she'd lived on a diet of cigarettes and twinkies her whole entire life. Before I'd even opened my mouth she growled, "Ya gotta have CASH." Cash? Really? My research had told me that Buffalo citizens could dump their trash for free, and as young and inexperienced as I was at that time, I knew very well that any cash I gave her would go straight into her grubby pocket. And anyway, I didn't have any cash.

So we left, my brother reassuring me that he knew of another dump where our Uncle Tom brought stuff all the time and they never demanded cash. This dump was in South Buffalo, a bit of a drive, but it is the territory of the Irish, and so, likely to be more welcoming. Sure enough, this dump was attended by a friendly Irishman whose office was a dump truck. I didn't have to drive onto a scale, was allowed to shove the plastic wading pool and the crib mattress, and God knows what else I had that day, willy nilly onto the ground and a backhoe came and took it away. And he didn't demand cash.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Woman vs. Lawnmower

Below is a chronicle of my day yesterday.

05:55 Arise and immediately go for a run.

06:30-08:30 The usual routine. Pack lunches, wake up kids, get everybody going.
Here is Mr. McP at the bus stop.

08:30 Read blogs.

09:00 Make a cup of tea and read for a bit. I'm reading the ultimate trash novel, Forever Amber, and it is awesome.

09:45 Begin my usual start-at-the-top-back-corner of the house and work my way down cleaning routine. This doesn't mean I clean everything! Eegads, no. It's more a strategy to push the crap in an ever-enlarging pile toward the door. I usually give up by the time I get to the kitchen. What happened to the cleaning strike? I've come to a compromise with that--I clean when I feel like it, and otherwise I don't.

10:30 Hang first load of laundry on line. Time to visit the basement. Our grass is about knee-high and all Jon will do about it is say, "Well, I can't get the lawn mower started," as if that is that and we will just never mow the lawn again. We do have a push-mower, and since our entire lot is 1/10 of an acre, much of which is covered with a house, and the rest, paths and gardens, and you'd think mowing a tiny patch of grass wouldn't be such a big deal. But it is. So I am going to attempt the push mower. After all, the blades can have only been getting sharper as it sat, unused for over three years, right? First, the basement, which involves donning appropriate basement attire--old clothes and cricket-stomping boots, and finding the key and then liberating the old push mower.


See that little door? Behind it is a secret room we never knew we had. A plumber had to squeeze through there in order to move the pipes for our new shower. The blue oil drum is actually a rain barrel. Too bad mine isn't connected to the downspout. I need to get on that.



10:40 When I try to push the pushmower, it won't budge, and it all comes back to me, why we stopped using it in the first place. This is a cruel disappointment because I'd had my heart set on mowing the lawn, so I try fixing it by digging out all the old stems and bits of dried grass that are wrapped around the ends of the roller. This takes a long time, but eventually, I give it a go and it actually moves and starts mowing down the grass. I am so pleased, I feel like I have invented the wheel. By 11:30 some of the lawn is mowed, or, not so much mowed as randomly hacked so that now, at least I can see the piles of dog shit. I could never hack it in suburbia. No pun intended.

Husqvarna, my old friend.

11:45 Hang second (and last) load of laundry on line. Pick up all the dog shit revealed by the lawnmower. Mad Scientist informs me that Albert Hoffman, the inventor of LSD, died yesterday at the age of 102.

12:00 Time for a coffee break. Ack! I still need to study. Big final exam on Friday.

12:30 Supervise Mad Scientist while he does his math lesson for the day. He's pretty much self-directed as far as his other courses go.

1:00 pm Study, but can't get the lawn out of my head.

2:00 Take another crack at the lawn.

2:30 Eat lunch.

3:00 The kids start coming home from school. This morning, I thought I'd just mow a few areas that were bugging me, but now I want to finish the whole lawn. I am, as Elizabeth Bennet say, "quite determined." Work like a fiend, sometimes pulling up difficult clumps with my fists. It's all coming back to me--the blisters, the sore arms, the tactic of leaving a difficult patch of grass and working somewhere else for a while, so as to get a dry edge, which will then be mowed more easily. Mowing with a pushmower is like vacumming with a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner. You have to keep going over and over the same spot.

5:00pm Most of the lawn is mowed. I feel like I've won the Nobel prize and the Pulizter Prize. I feel like I am Queen for a Day, I am so happy with this day's work. The unmowed lawn had been bothering me for two months.

5:30 Enjoy my garden for a few minutes before starting to cook dinner.

Giant azalea

Freshly mowed lawn. The last time we mowed was last farking August. I think I will hire Mr. McP to pull all that honeysuckle off the top of the wall. He wants to earn enough money to buy a nintendo.


Under the arbor

In the arbor. It was a beautiful day.

6:30 Serve dinner--meatball subs. I am beginning to feel ominous signs of what tomorrow has in store for me.

7:30 Pick Jon up from work.

8:00 I'm never going to get any studying done at home. Actually, I have terrible study habits. Go to school to study there, away from distractions.

9:30 Stupid PVCC library closes at 9:30. During final exam week! I ask you. I know Alderman is open very late, but don't want to drive in that direction because of the Bruce Springsteen concert.

9:45-ish. What is Bob Dole doing on American Idol? Oh, it's Neil Diamond.

10:00 Read Half Blood Prince to Mr. McP.

10:30 Read Forever Amber in bed.

11:00 Get up to check on Mad Scientist and remind him to get to bed and see gypsy moth caterpillar crawling on Jon's jacket. Mad Scientist kindly removes it and puts it outside for me. He refuses to kill it..

11:30 Read in bed until fall asleep.

Today I feel like I've been mauled by a bear.