Kolam: The Beauty of Uselessness

Kolam, IndiaThis one’s for Carin Ruff, and by way of answering my niece Kate’s question.

A little more than twenty years ago, I spent a summer traveling around India under the auspices of the Fulbright-Hays program, a summer fellowship grant program for teachers. Over the course of about six weeks, we traveled to some twelve cities, from the very feet of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.

India seems far nearer now than it was then; when our group visited, the country was in the final days of an old-style Socialist economy, and it was before the boom in the country’s tech sector—which had already started—had achieved a generalized reputation abroad.

It was before India became the home of the world’s customer service call centers, and before the ubiquity of the “mobile phone” revolution: I recall a hot afternoon in Chennai (which was then still called Madras) when I had to walk three blocks to a telephone office and pay in cash to wait for an operator to connect me to an international trunk line.

On that trip, I saw the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the erotic temples of Khajuraho—the whole UNESCO package. But what I remember more vividly, and fondly, are the little things: the reusable cups given out by the “air hostesses” on Indian Airlines and the dogs that waited in front of sidewalk shrines where shirtless Brahmin priests performed puja— acts of reverence to the divine—as though they, the dogs, were praying. [Read more…]

For the Love of Hank Stuever, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Hank StueverHank Stuever’s 2005 collection of essays Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere may not be the Good Book—as I said in the first part of this post—but you might be forgiven for thinking that I have treated it as such: My copy of the paperback edition’s spine was long ago broken, victim to interrupted bedtime reading, and the text falls open automatically to well-thumbed sections, the equivalents to top Biblical hits Psalm 23, John 3:16, and 1 Corinthians 13.

Part 1 of this post scoped out a number of the reasons why Stuever’s work is such a touchstone for me, but didn’t actually make reference to any of the essays from Off Ramp. That seemed a suitable way to underscore the way that I encountered his writing in the first place, as it leapt up at me from the Style section pages of The Washington Post.

Off Ramp is a collected, but not exhaustive, anthology of Stuever’s newspaper feature work that roughly spans the period 1992-2004, not only at the Post but also at the Austin American-Statesman and before that, The Albuquerque Tribune—years when he was not once, but twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. [Read more…]

For the Love of Hank Stuever, Part 1

50614-stock-photo-music-listening-tape-cassette-symbols-metaphors-tape-spaghetti-radio-playIt’s been a rotten day. The Fed Ex package didn’t arrive; a typo slipped through several levels of Edit. The leaf blower crapped out but not before spitting out a pile of half-masticated leaves onto the wet sidewalk, so that now the concrete looks like a rusted boat hull. The auditor is suspicious of that high overhead rate. The toddler peed on the carpet. And all the high school kids think Ronald Reagan was president in World War II.

On that kind of day, I just make it to the end, make sure my children are fed and have brushed teeth, pour a glass of wine, and pull out the book I almost always pull out at the end of a bad day—arranging the sofa throw just so over my knees. Salud!

If you read at all, you likely have a book like this. (My husband’s is What If, which presents alternative outcomes of historical events.) Perhaps it’s even the Good Book (you are a better person than I). In my case, though, the reassuring tome at the end of the day is the collection of essays Off Ramp, by Hank Stuever. [Read more…]

The Curse of a Good Memory

Good_Letters_Curse_Of_Good_MemoryFirst of all, it makes everyone hate you at parties. We all know that it’s downright rude to correct the person who’s standing next to you holding a glass of white wine when she says, “for him and I.”  Grammar is one thing.  But sometimes the problem is facts, and facts matter.

I was in a situation recently where someone noted that film director Douglas Sirk’s magnificent film Imitation of Life—the heartbreaking story of the saintly African-American maid, Annie Johnson, whose light-skinned daughter grows (rightly) envious of the casual privilege of her white employers—was made in 1934.

Yes, there happens to be a version of Imitation of Life that was made in 1934, with Claudette Colbert. But there is no way that anybody who knew anything about Douglas Sirk could think that he would have had anything to do with it. (I know, I know: casually-dismissive disdain: I’ve told you I am the chief of sinners.) [Read more…]

Hamster Hospice: Caring for God’s Tiny Creatures

HamsterFor my son, Alex

In the final months before our hamster died, I would lie in bed late at night, wondering if he was still alive. In the quiet of the house, after my husband had left for work at 3:00 a.m. and my children were asleep in their beds, I would strain my ears to hear if there was any sound of movement from his cage.

Lying there in the dark, I would find myself holding my breath, straining to listen to whether—just one more time—I might hear the sound of him running on his wheel. But for the last several months that Fluff was alive, there was no sound from the cage at all, aside from the slow occasional rasp of his claws on the cage’s bedding as he painfully turned and the bubble of the water tank as he sucked a few pitiful drops down.

Hamsters, you remember, are nocturnal creatures. When Captain Von Flufficus arrived in our family in August 2013—the result of our nine-year-old’s persistent begging, I, for one, did not want to own a rodent—that was our family’s instantly rueful realization, as we all lay in our beds on our small second floor, unable to sleep, while he ran on the wheel all night long. [Read more…]


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