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…]

Blood and Silver

3605998863_b9ea37f5c6_zBy Caroline Langston

I stood in the security line at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans wondering if I was going to be detained, and taken for dangerous. Hell, I didn’t know, was this something for which I could be arrested? Maybe I should’ve let my brother talk me into sending the glossy, fitted wood box on ahead via mail—though that would have been exorbitant. Plus, I didn’t want to let it out of my hands.

I couldn’t have packed it in checked luggage because it might have been stolen. And who knows? It might have been even more illegal to bundle it away in a packed bag. But I didn’t know about checked bags, since it’s a point of honor going back to boarding school days for me to never have more luggage than I can carry onto the plane, which had led to the spare travel wardrobe of a Greek widow, a succession of black dresses.

I could even feel myself sweating a bit, as I watched the box disappear into the X-ray and I walked barefoot through the scanner. I imagined how the bulky square edges of the box would appear on the monitor, the metal inside in skeletal form.

But not a word from security. There was a small problem with the necklace I was wearing, but that was solved by swinging it behind my neck. I slipped back on my pewter Cole Haan wedges, grabbed my bags, and felt protectively for the heavy tray of sterling silver flatware at the bottom of my suitcase. [Read more…]

In Defense of Air Conditioning

95478259_bd71d6011f_zThe summer after my freshman year in college, I made the mistake of signing a lease without noticing that the place had no air conditioning. The lease was for a bedroom in an informal boardinghouse set up by the widowed owner of a large, falling-apart, turn-of-the-century house in Uptown New Orleans. (But of course!, you ’re  thinking, she is making this up for literary effect!)

If only I were making this up for literary effect.

I signed the lease because I was determined to live on my own that summer, and with my minimum wage job, I was sure that I could Do This Myself.

The landlady answered the phone, “Praise the Lord, it’s a beautiful day!” She slept on a sofa in the dining room with a shotgun next to her. Her oddly laconic, slightly creepy adult son didn’t live there, but often lurked in the yard.

But it was the lack of air conditioning that was really the problem. I didn’t realize that there wasn’t any until the day I moved in, and my bedroom’s giant windows—which were hung with ancient tulle sheers that once had been white, but which had grayed to the color of insect wings—had to be left perpetually open. [Read more…]