Archive for January, 2012

Sinbad and us

She is probably the only teacher I had whose name I cannot recall, which is a pity because she brought me together with hands down the best young adult mystery book I ever read. Her classroom at Enatai Elementary in Bellevue was at the south end of one of the halls and on the west side. She was an older woman with a pile of gray hair and glasses and lots of chins and a scowl. I don’t remember her as unkind, just serious. This was sometime during fifth grade, I believe, and it may be that by that time we had a homeroom teacher and then got shipped out for particular subjects. If so, this grand old dame was my “language arts” teacher. Her name might have been Smith.

The way I remember it I was having trouble choosing a book to read for a particular assignment, and Mrs. Smith, if that was her name, assigned me Sinbad and Me by Kin Platt. I remember that the first thing I thought when I went to the Bellevue Public Library to check the book out was that it was intimidatingly thick. I was lazy and didn’t want to read that much.

But Mrs. Smith had read me right, and Sinbad and Me turned out to be thoroughly my book. It had everything I wanted in a story: a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old mystery, the ghost of a sea captain, a spooky old house on a cliff, pirate treasure, secret passages and secret codes, riddles written on gravestones, a friendly but sad old lady with a secret past, a dangerous tidal cave, and invisible ink! And the hero was a twelve-year-old boy. Actually the hero was his pet English bulldog Sinbad. They solved the mystery together.

An old friend.

The edition I read was a hardback with a library binding in which the jacket illustration had been pasted or laminated permanently on the front. The illustration showed a caricature of a boy who reminded me of Ron Howard — Opie from The Andy Griffith Show — hunched over an old tombstone writing something on a notepad with a big bulldog at his feet.

Years later I wanted to find that book again, for auld lange syne, because I’m sick that way. After the Internet came out (“the Internet! Is that thing still around?!” — Homer Simpson), but long before I had children — even before I was married — I looked it up on the pre-Amazon Bibliofind and discovered that it was out of print. Way out of print, like if you could find a ratty paperback you’d pay sixty to seventy-five dollars, and if you wanted the hardback copy with a tattered jacket you’d have to lay out upwards of three bills. Too steep for me.

I decided to wait until it was reprinted. It would have to be reprinted, right? Why wouldn’t it be? As soon as comments were invented for the Internet (“the Internet!…”), I learned that everyone who ever read the book shared my fondness for it. Everyone asked when it would be published again. People said they had children that were ripe for it and they were desperate to find an affordable copy. By lurking on eBay in the days when I had time to do that, I managed to snag first edition copies of two of the sequel books, The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t (1969) and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street (1980), but these were not cheap, and still Sinbad eluded me.

Life got busy and I forgot about Sinbad for a while, but by chance a year or two ago I encountered a website run by Christopher Platt, son of the author and the inspiration for Steve Forrester, the dog-owning narrator of the story. His posts chronicled the sad tale of his unsuccessful attempts to get his father’s books reprinted. Apparently he holds the rights to most of them (the author died in 2003), but publisher after publisher has turned him down, saying that the Steve Forrester and Sinbad books wouldn’t be big sellers today, despite the apparent legion of people my age who are looking for them and the fact that Sinbad and Me won the 1967 Edgar Award for best children’s mystery. Some good news came eventually from Christopher that some of Platt’s long-unavailable adult crime fiction was going to be reprinted. But that just made the wait for Sinbad and Me that much more intolerable.

Steve and Sinbad at it again. This one I don't have to return.

I recently did searches in the Seattle Public Library system, which doesn’t list the book, and in the King County Library system, which supposedly had one copy, but as a Seattle resident I am ineligible to borrow from the King County system, even if the book were sitting on the shelf. Which it’s not. It’s in some warehouse hold bin somewhere — probably an underground vault watched by armed guards and a three-headed dragon. It’s probably perpetually checked out. I imagine that the book is listed as “missing” on a lot of library databases.

I asked a librarian blog-pal for help (tip o’ the hat to Librarian Girl), and she suggested I try an interlibrary loan, in which Seattle Public Library would send a rider on a fast horse out to all the libraries in the land, asking if they had the book and if SPL could borrow it for a teensy bit because they had a patron with a fever. If the quest was successful, I would pay a fin for their efforts, if not, not.

Five bucks for a chance to read Sinbad and Me to Mara seemed like a good deal, so I signed up right online (“the Internet!…”). More than a month and a half went by and I had honestly given up hope, but the book eventually turned up in the Danville Public Library in Illinois.

!

Danville was willin’, so a few days ago I got word from SPL that my book was waiting for me behind the counter at the Central branch and that I could have it for a month, no renewals.

I’m reading it to Mara and she loves it. She’s a little young for it, but by the time she’s twelve the book may have completely vanished from the earth. The narrator’s best friend is a girl named Minerva who’s smarter than he is and can run faster, so there’s a good female role for her to identify with, but she would do fine even without that. She has an uncanny ability to absorb the meaning and import of things read to her that many kids wouldn’t be able to listen to for five minutes.

The best part? The version they handed me at the library is a first edition and so has the original jacket on it, which means we get the whole, unadulterated experience. It’s a library book, but even so it’s the most valuable book in our house at this moment. But the real thrill for me is simply having access again to the text of a story that I remember so fondly, and being able to share it with Mara.

I wish I had thought to go back to Mrs. Smith, or whatever her name was, years ago and thank her for turning me on to such a brilliant read. I’m still waiting to hear the news that Sinbad and Me is coming back into print. Meanwhile, once we finish Sinbad and Me, it’ll be on to The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street, neither of which I ever read, even after paying through the nose for them on eBay. Or wait…maybe I won’t say anything about them yet. They’re safe on the shelf, and it might be more fun for the girls to just discover them there on their own.

Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt #10 (and important bulletin)

Below all this talky-talk you’ll find installment #10 of the Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt. At this write GSGH #9 remains unsolved, which doesn’t surprise me, so I’m backing off a notch on the difficulty scale. This one is pretty noticeable and pretty widely celebrated, but after this they just get harder and more obscure.

For rules of play see the first entry, here.

I’ve created a new blog to archive all the GSGH gargoyles, and I’ve done this for several reasons. First, I felt that these gargoyle posts and their attendant winner limerick posts were starting to clutter up my blog. I can’t be sure, but it seems that a majority of people who visit this blog intentionally are not interested in the GSGH, or at least do not sustain an interest that warrants all the room it takes up. I didn’t realize it would go on so long or constitute every other post.

Secondly, I wanted a place where the whole shebang could be archived, in case future citizens might like to take up the challenge (hey, it cou’ happen). The way I’ve organized the dedicated blog the solutions remain hidden from the main page, so future hunters can knock themselves out and then visit the solutions when they’re ready.

If you’re curious, it’s at http://gargoylehunt.wordpress.com. I’m not yet sure where I’ll post new gargoyle hunts and the solutions/limericks going forward. My idea was to no longer post them here, but the full versions won’t really fit the new format I’ve created over there, so I still have to figure that out. Bear with.

So where is this Indian head? Use the comments to submit your answer. The face in the image below is not Chief Sealth’s, by the way.

I doubt this Indian would like to be called a gargoyle, so let's label this one Decorative Element #10. Hmm, come to think of it, that's not very flattering either...

The world seemed beautiful

The world seemed beautiful to me this morning as I clomped through the snow on my way to a nearby coffeehouse to work remotely. We’ve had a few inches in the last few days and this morning a layer of below-freezing air beneath a layer of air warm enough to provide rain created the rare phenomenon of freezing Seattle rain, adding icy complexity to the already treacherous driving conditions that were keeping most people off the roads.

The quiet of a world besnowed always surprises me. There was only the sound of my boots crunching the thin icy crust over the snow on the sidewalk as a steady beat. As I approached NE 50th Street from a distance I heard the occasional swish of a car far ahead of me passing in the brown, sanded snow, what I call snud. My mind started turning over a work problem, a white paper on image server technology that I am on the hook for. For awhile I walked on without noticing much.

The quiet little things come into the fore on snow days.

I snapped out of it when, south of 50th, I heard what I at first took for music being played outside or from inside an open window. I realized it was a large and sweet-toned set of brass wind chimes, and finally identified them suspended near the eaves of an old green house — a typical Wallingford Craftsman — voicing a slight breeze in a soulful baritone. I had never heard such pleasant wind chimes before.

Thus rescued from the inside of my head, I saw what was to see. The dark grays of landscape boulders and Douglas firs and pavements (where they showed under places where cars had recently been moved in attempts at travel) and roof shingles, and the dark green of rhodies and junipers and escallonias and ceanothus and rock rose all dropped back into the background as a kind of grayscale chiaroscuro with the invisible white of the snow, so that other things hailed my vision that I don’t normally notice — the auburn highlights in cypress and cedar boles, the copper glow of house numbers, the understated colors of the houses — green, blue, ochre. An eggplant-colored garage door. Tiny, bright red berries on bare, thorny twigs.

A smile unfurled across my cold face. Snow may have the incidental effect of buggering the commute around here, but for me its primary effect is that it makes me focus on simple things, thus serving as a recalibrator. Snow makes me religious. For one thing, I am one of those who believe in an actual God, invisible but not abstract in any way, and not just a power but a benevolence. It has not escaped my notice that snow, far from damaging plants, acts as a protective blanket on their roots and bulbs, keeping them safe from the extreme cold that would otherwise kill them in the course of winter. The beauty of this, which is patent to any skeptic, and the apparent intentionality of this process, which cannot be proved, ignites a little firecracker of joy in my heart. God is looking out for us herebelow. Despite troubles that weigh on human hearts, or rather in the fullness of those troubles could we ever see such fullness, everything will be okay.

Not much snow, but on Seattle's hills a little dab'll do ya.

The coffee shop (Mosaic) was open but empty. I had first pick of croissants and outlets for plugging my laptop into. I sat at a big wooden table with lots of chairs around it. The place is a ministry of the Nazarene church whose basement it occupies, but there is no hidden agenda and no assumptions are made about the state of your soul or your relationship to a creator, a higher power, or whatever you relate to. The point is to foster community. The menu and prices are decoratively listed on a big board above the counter as in many coffeehouses, but the prices are merely suggestions for donation. If it weren’t for this unusual pay-what-you-can ethos and the fact that it is located in a church, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a regular coffeehouse. In addition to the large and uncrowded central space with its dark wood posts and dark wood tables and chairs and benches and sofas there is also a playroom for children and their families.

The music overhead, a shuffle of Adele, Steve Miller and the J. Geils Band, suggested a three-disc CD player somewhere in the back room or behind the counter. A half hour after I arrived, a young couple shuffled in and after looking over the pastries, took up residence a little ways across the room on a couch near a fireplace console and began kissing. The young woman did not remove her hat, which had a long bill on it like a baseball cap, and in fact it was the strange, slow, circular undulations of the upturned cap bill and its close proximity to the young man’s head that caught my eye and told me they were engaged in that bizarre ritual of earthlings, which always seems to me more bizarre when two people in public can shut out the entire world from their intense focus on each other.

I watched them kissing for a moment, his glazed muffin perched on the arm of the sofa. It seemed like the only thing I could imagine a young pair doing on a day like today when the world was covered in snow and not going anywhere in a hurry.

Boxcars, hard chili and the long walk to forever

Angela made chili for dinner last night. Like everything she makes, it was delicious, but I noted to myself that the beans were a little al dente.  After dinner we were both moving around in the kitchen and Angela frowned slightly and said, “the chili was…”

She paused. Without thinking it over thoroughly I blurted out “hard”.

“Hard?” she asked. Her slight frown turned into an unslight frown. I saw instantly that that was not what she had been about to say.

I considered making use of that much-used-by-me piece of equipment, the backpedal. Then I just thought, what the hell. We’ve been married forever and we’re going to stay married forever. Might as well just run with it.

I gruffed up my voice to sound like Sam Elliot doing his “beef, it’s what’s for dinner” schtick and said as if to advertise it to cowboys, “Ang’s Hard Chili! Made with hard beans, the old-fashioned way.”

It struck her funny. She added “Hard to come by!” and “Hard to resist!”

“Hard to chew!” I tossed in.

So we put it all together and had a good laugh:

“Ang’s Hard Chili. Hard to come by. Hard to resist. Hard to chew. Made with hard beans, the old fashioned way! A hard chili for a hard ride.”

This reminds me of another food story, one that is responsible in a way for my being married. Before I knew Angela, I knew Kelley. I met Kelley contra dancing and because she was both a knucklehead and a good dancer, I took an instant liking to her. She too me. Turned out I lived just a couple blocks from where she and her husband Marc raised their smoke. Her husband didn’t dance but preferred to stay home and work on the addition he was building on their house, and because she wanted to share some of her new dancer friends with him, she started entreating me to come over on Thursday evenings and break bread with her and Marc, then she and I could drive to the Thursday-night dance together. Halve the gas use, double the fun. I have never been one to return a blank stare to someone offering me a free dinner, and I was a wolfishly hungry bachelor in those days. It became the Thursday routine.

One evening Kelley told me she’d invited another “dinner orphan” to join us, a woman named Angela who lived on the East Side and could never manage to fix herself anything to eat before setting out for the dance.

I frowned. I only knew one Angela, and while I thought she happened to be the most fetching woman in the folk-dancing community, and one of the best dancers, I had not had pleasant experiences with her. Or rather, my strong impression was that this Angela didn’t like dancing with me. The nature of contra dancing is such that if someone of the opposite sex is anywhere in the same contra line as you you will eventually swing them. I had swung Angela many times, and had managed to secure her as my partner a few times — she was always promised two or three dances out — and I knew that her swing was silky smooth. When she twirled, her yard-long black pony-tail, banded several times along its length, would swing out behind her, terminating the élan of other dancers within its radius. She was beautiful and light on her feet, but she always seemed to be eager to be out of my grasp. Angela hates it when I tell this, and usually interrupts about now to insist that when she first met me her mind made “an association” of my face with someone else’s whom she disliked.

I told Kelley I only knew one Angela and that dinner would certainly be interesting if it was she.

She it was. We sat on paint buckets for dinner because Marc was in the middle of blowing up the dining room, and Marc, as resourceful a man as you’d ever care to meet, had rigged us up a little table of some of the flotsam in the new addition. It was a bright evening and we had a good time, the four of us, in that bright new room. In person, and with food in my mouth, I found favor in Angela’s eyes. My wit and charm somehow came through with the aid of Kelley’s cooking and the ambiance of new beginning that Marc had created by remodeling their house.

The Thursday night dinner evolved into a full blown pre-dance feast, to which Kelley would invite some subset of the dancers she wanted to get to know better, a different guest-list every week. She experimented with seating known conservatives next to known liberals, shy persons next to windbags, just to see what would emerge. We would eat and make merry, and Marc would get to meet all Kelley’s friends, and then we’d all go off dancing. Angela and I were each grandfathered in and had standing invites to the table, and we came almost every week. The dinner became something of a legend for a while, and it was the aegis under which Angela and I embarked on a deep and enduring friendship, even as we each brought dates and significant others over the course of those years. Riffing on that Costner movie about the wolves, Kelley and Marc and I began referring to Angela as “Swings Her Hair and Many are Slain.”

Marc and Kelley, whom I bless forever, eventually took it on as a kind of project to get Angela and me together. It was obvious to them that we belonged together. It was not obvious to me until much later. It became obvious to Angela one night at Kelley’s table when I told the story of my grandparents and the biscuits and the boxcars. This was a story my mother had told me, and I told it one night to the full table when I happened to be seated at one end, we’ll say the foot, and Angela happened to be seated at the head. So it seemed to her as though I was telling the story down a long corridor of witnesses directly to her, witnesses to the rightness of what she was suddenly aware that she’d been feeling toward me for some time.

For me, it was just another gleeful moment among friends when my mouth was open and food was going in and some silliness was going out.

The story? Oh, it was just a little ditty. On the morning after my grandparents’ wedding day, my grandmother made biscuits for breakfast, hoping her culinary effort would please her new husband. But the biscuits were rock hard. This was during the Depression, and they didn’t have money to go anywhere, so they had risen and breakfasted in their own apartment, beside which there happened to run some train tracks. When my grandfather was unable to do any injury to the biscuits with his teeth, the two of them started laughing. Far from a marital catastrophe, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable memories of their lives, because they took the biscuits out onto their little balcony and threw them at a passing train. They sounded off the boxcars with a hollow metallic tong!

Angela sat at the other end of the table beaming at me. I still remember the look on her face, a softening, maybe a surrender, though at the time I’m sure I only imagined she was working on a burp. She has never been able to explain to me satisfactorily what it was about my telling that anecdote that sealed it for her, but it was something about how I valued the story and the image of my forebears in that small and beautiful moment, and my enjoyment of telling it. After that, she just never stopped being near me, like Catherine in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story The Long Walk to Forever, who keeps insisting to her old sweetheart that she has to prepare for her imminent wedding, but acquiesces to a walk with him even though she doesn’t exactly know why, and knowing somewhere in her heart that the walk will never end.

Well, I don’t expect you to fall in love with me just because I related this tale. It doesn’t surprise me that magic like that would only work once. But that’s fine with me, because once turned out to be enough.

Wistful

This morning Mara lounged around in bed even later than she usually does. Her little sister Millie, who now shares Mara’s room, wakes up early when she hears me knocking around in the kitchen or the bathroom and she is eager to be free of the double prison of the crib and her sleepsack, so she makes a lot of joyful or unjoyful noise until somebody gets her out. But Mara has reached the age where she appreciates that groggy sleep-in time and so does not leap out of bed anymore the way she used to. This Christmas even the Advent calendar with its cubbies containing gifts only got her out of bed early a few times before the urgency faded.

Although I don’t worry about this (and also, I know she is sleepy in the morning partly because Millie is a noisy sleeper during the night), I do feel some sadness. It’s like Mara’s a teenager already. Is she really so world-weary? I guess I’d like to believe that waking up should be an exciting prospect. I want that for my kids. Because I wake up already feeling old and tired and full of worries and regrets. I have to stop that train of self-slaughter before I get out of bed, reframe my existence, switch the dial of my mindset over to Gratitude, because no matter how often I set it there it soon finds its way back to the default, which is Pessimistic Discontent.

Trouble at the royal ice cream parlor. The improbable world of Playmobil.

So Millie and my wife Angela were up and about, but Mara had remained in bed. I was hoping to catch the Early Bus, so I was eager to interact with her a little before heading off for a day in the salt mines. I poked my head in her room and saw that Angela had opened the blinds when she got Millie out of the crib, and the dim, bluey light of a cold clear winter morning fell gently over the form of my older daughter, who lay on her side facing the window, looking out at the young day.

“Hey sweetie.”

“Hi.” The word was a drawn half-note. She sounded upset, despondent in that kidly way.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

I walked over and climbed onto the bed beside her, moved some wisps of her hair and hovered over her adorable moon-round face. “Are you upset? Are you angry?”

“No.”

“Are you sad?”

“No.”

“What is it then, can you tell me?

She thought for a moment. “Well…” She was quiet again. I thought something must really be digging at her. I wasn’t sure if she was about to cry or complain about something. I stroked her shoulder, waiting, trying to seem like it was not superimportant to me whether she spoke or not, just as though I were merely available.

And then she said, “I’m just realizing…”

Here she paused, and in that moment my head flipped over twice and made cartoony gibberty-flibberty sounds. I’d never heard her say exactly this before. Sure, she’s said “I just realized” before, but that’s not the same phrase. When I say “I’m just realizing…” it’s usually when something has been dawning on me for months or even years and I’m just now beginning to see it. A sort of wisdom is encroaching on my perennial short-sightedness. As an example, I’m just realizing that I have a habit of being kind of cursory and clipped in my pleasantries with people when there’s something that I want, but I am only just realizing this because I recognized a look of mild but sudden disorientation on the receptionist’s face at work the other day when we had been talking for a few minutes and she’d given me the information I needed from her and I suddenly said “okay thanks” and left. I probably have been doing this to people for decades and I am only now beginning to assemble from long, subconscious analysis of facial expressions an idea that people may still be enjoying a sense of conversation and camaraderie when I suddenly cut off my half of the mutuality flow.

But Mara is six. Hearing her say “I’m just realizing…” threw me for a loop. Part of me wanted to laugh, but another part of me was intensely interested in what she could possibly be beginning to sort of start to kind of have a dawning of a realization of, at six. I waited. In her right eye the brightening blue day gleamed. She smelled like youth, and some cornbread or something in her hair.

“I’m just realizing…that I have so many things. I don’t have anything more to wish for.”

“Really?”

“I have so much Playmobil. I mean, there are a few Playmobil sets that I want, but I have SO MUCH of it. There isn’t that much more to wish for.”

I was momentarily confused into thinking this was an expression of gratitude, of the satisfaction of having a plenty, but then I thought that she was experiencing a species of economic angst, intuiting the potential for a slowing of consumption as the Playmobil catalog failed to sufficiently outpace her attainment of its offerings. Her natural acquisitiveness, aggravated perhaps by the Christmas season’s whirlwind of wrapping paper torn from gifts, was being threatened by the fact that she could not imagine there being enough stuff to covet. In the post-Christmas anticlimax, this was a hard hit.

“Well…” I patted her shoulder and got up to continue my morning routine. “If you keep living life, I think you’ll find plenty more to wish for as you go. I wish I had more time. And more energy.”

In the kitchen I told Angela with a chuckle about the conversation I’d just had with Mara, and Angela pointed out in a whisper that the line about ‘nothing left to wish for’ was straight out of “Escape to Witch Mountain“, the old Disney movie we’d rented last weekend for our traditional dinner-and-movie in the living room. It was true. The character played by Kim Richards, a scratchy-voiced young actress I was extremely fond of in my young TV-watching days, speaks that line after she and her brother, orphans without relatives, are taken in by a millionaire. Mara was just trying on the phrase, said Angela.

It dawned on me then that, yes, Mara was probably testing how it felt to be wistful, to have that particular, Solomonian dilemma of satiation. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that she was also responding to her own experience of a meltdown in consumer confidence.


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The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt


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