Why We Dread the Election

A few weeks ago my husband sat down for breakfast and told me the latest gloomy bullshit. “Trump might not leave if Biden wins.”

“Where did you hear THAT?”

It was in one or perhaps a dozen of our nation’s venerable newspapers.

Naturally, we were appalled, and we voted for Biden as soon we received our ballots in the mail. We would have voted for him as soon as the ballots came anyway. But I slowly realized the hysteria about Trump’s not leaving office is probably bullshit. He may have said it in a tweet–that’s what I heard–but who in her right mind is on Twitter these days? And on Twitter it’s one thing today, another the next. I could get behind a law that forbids tweeting, period. It is one of the most hysterical super-spreader media of all time.

The truth is, there is a lot of bullshit before a presidential election. Not just before an election–for years before an election. The polls said Howard Dean would be a shoo-in in 2004. No, he did poorly at caucuses and primaries. We all thought Hillary would win in 2016. I had reservations about the candidacy of the always-unpopular Hillary, but I am hardly a pundit. Guess what? Hillary didn’t win.

When the whole rat race for the 2020 nomination began (two years ago?), journalists had many favorites. They loved Sherrod Brown, an experienced, pro-Labor, progressive, and yet not radical senator. Since he has a degree in Russian Studies (which probably includes literature), I would have voted for him! And surely he would have gone to a humanities festival and participated in a reading of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. (Such marathon readings are popular, and support the humanities.)

Biden, too, has a liberal arts background. He has a B.A. from the University of Delaware (not too fancy, so I can relate), with a double major in history and political science, and a minor in English. Then he went to law school–which so many of them do. But forget that. Let’s concentrate on the liberal arts!

We do not know the future. Really, we do not. Get the vote out, then worry.

And skip the more hysterical editorials that will reduce you to tears and may or may not be based in reality.

The bottom line: Vote!

Read the editorials after the election!

Meanwhile, carpe diem!

We Will Wear You Out with Our New Positivity (and Emojis)

Gentrification of the fridge

The new me is unrecognizable. One note from the doctor, and I whirl the chi into balance. Exercise is now my favorite activity: It’s out of the shower and into the streets for a brisk walk. (Does getting up at noon take the virtue out of it?) When I tell you I ate oatmeal for breakfast, you will fall off your chair. “Amazing, Kat!” And the unbelievers will sneer, “Her? I don’t believe it.”

Believe it, people. I’m on a new health regimen. I do not eat pop tarts anymore. You are going to miss my negative self very, very soon. We all will when I eat kale for dinner tonight. Kale and couscous–I wonder if I CAN eat such a combo. And you will not like my tote bag with happy faces on it, either. It was ironic, but now I have to use it. And I may join Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club. Why not? The books may have positive messages. But first I will dash off a note to her publicist, “Who came up with that witless name?”

I will not write that note, of course, because it will disturb my chi, or is it qi? Besides, it is time to meditate. Which I do in corpse pose, because it is more relaxing than sitting cross-legged.

Then I exercised for another hour. You know why? I couldn’t face plain yogurt with fruit for lunch. I have no doubt it will make me a better person, because how could sugarless food not bring me joy? At least yogurt is dairy: that’s one up over kale.

Dave figured out if he added green food coloring to his milkshakes everyone just presumed he was drinking a kale smoothie.

And, here’s the best thing of all about my new positivity: I became a responsible citizen of the United States when I VOTED EARLY! We sat down and filled in the bubbles on the ballot. Wow, a lot more candidates for president than we thought. We went with the traditional Democrats, Biden-Harris. No , not the Green Party candidate… no writing in of Bernie–just a prayer to the gods to get the pandemic under control, and then everything else may follow.

And now I must read something irreverent by Mary McCarthy. Because, you know, I’m human, and though I do plan on being SOOOOOO healthy, I need to read literature. Later I plan to discover the best healthy junk food. It is not sugarless Swiss Miss! I already tried.


And positive emojis:


On Wellness, High-Tech Thermometers, & “War and Peace”

I went to the clinic to get a prescription renewed. In the lobby, I filled out a form attesting to the absence of cornonavirus symptoms. “Have you had contact with anyone with Covid in the last two weeks?” No. Then the tech tried to get a temperature reading on me. I did not respond to the thermometer gun aimed at my head. She tried three different thermometers. BLAP! BLAP! BLAP!


“Perhaps I do not exist,” I said brightly. A scowl in return. She did not know I was joking. You can’t get past the foyer unless you have a normal temperature. They waved me in with no temperature, though. I thought of Twilight and Interview with a Vampire.

Anyway, I got in. Fabulous! What fun. ALL the blood work is bad. Thank you, pandemic, for keeping me inside for most of seven months so I don’t get Covid but get generally run-down. All the numbers went up, even my blood pressure, which used to be low, and now is normal. That can’t be good! I faithfully promised to exercise…long Emily Bronte-style walk on the moors–and took an exhausting bike ride with my husband the same day to get all the numbers down, down, down. If I biked like that very day, I would be healthy…but asleep by 8 o’clock.


War and Peace is my favorite novel, even more brilliant than Villette, my other favorite. But the other day I came across a W&P character list and name pronunciation guide, and learned, by God, that I have mispronounced the names of my two favorite 19th-century Russian families for years.

Who wouldn’t love to live with the charming Rostovs? I especially like the company of Nicholas and Natasha. Rostov is pronounced Ros-TOV, not ROS-tov, which sounds better to me. And I adore Pierre Bezhukov, but it is Bezh-U-kov, not BEZH-u-kov.

The Maudes (my favorite translators of Tolstoy) would be disappointed in me. Louise and Aylmer Maude were meticulous translators, knew Tolstoy, and it is their character and pronunciation list. But I’ll always call these characters the ROS-tovs and the BEZH-u-kovs. We have our linguistic biases. I once knew a Spanish family who called their cat Gatsby “Gots-by.” The same thing.

And now…

Stay well!


“Can You Make Me a Cup of Tea?” & Lady Chatterley’s Lover

10th November 1960: Two women in London, with copies of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, after a jury decided that it was not obscene.

I have never been more exhausted. The pandemic has aged me ten years in seven months.

At least that’s how it seems.

I do not dwell on my looks. I am talking about vitality in everyday life. No wonder. The country is falling apart.

“Could you make me a cup of tea?” I wheedle my husband. I used to make my own tea. Now I collapse on the divan with a pile of books, practically a small library. Tonight my choices are an Arnold Bennett, Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel (one of my favorites), a novella by Anita Desai, and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. My husband charmingly brings me a cup of what we call “purple tea.” The tea comes in a purple package.

Tea and reading help. I have been reading, of all things, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I never thought this was one of Lawrence’s better novels, but after The Plumed Serpent and Kangaroo, it is a masterpiece.

This is not Lawrence’s best novel but it is his most famous, banned for obscenity from 1928 until 1960. People read it nowadays as a curiosity rather than as literature. Although there is little in Lady Chatterley that a modern reader, or particularly a cable TV watcher would find pornographic, there are several sex scenes, and some are more explicit than I’d remembered. Lawrence wrote three completely different versions of the book, and I wonder if I read an earlier version before. I am inclined to think I did. I remembered his referring to genitals in terms of ‘”John Thomas” and “Lady Jane,” but did not recall his use of more explicit language.

Lawrence begins this controversial novel:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future

The situation is tragic: Lawrence writes elegantly of the heroine Connie’s marriage to Clifford Chatterley, who returns from the war a paraplegic; their non-sexual marriage; and her desire for a child.

The plot is simple, but the prose is sharp and unflinching, and the characters are vibrantly alive. After the war, Connie and Clifford live at Wragford Hall. Clifford becomes a writer of what Connie’s father calls “dead books.” Connie is responsible for the care of Clifford, and becomes run-down. Her sister Hilda tells Clifford he must hire a nurse to relieve Connie.

Until the nurse is hired, we were not aware of all the physical tasks Connie has done for Clifford. Finally, she is free to do what she likes, and spends hours walking in the woods, appreciating nature. She and Mellors, the taciturn gamekeeper, embark on an affair, only it is more than that. Their intense relationship leads to an unusual sexual, intellectual, and spiritual rapport.

Like Rupert in Women in Love, Mellors lectures on the dead mechanical society, and the subjection of men to industrial culture. He also talks about sex: he tells Connie she is the only woman he knows capable of a “real” orgasm, rather than clitoral (though he does not use that word). She ignores this, focusing on their love, while Mellors darkly predicts that the human race will destroy itself after depleting the planet’s resources. (Is he right?) Connie keeps him balanced, thinking that much of what he says is unimportant to the future of their own relationship.

Lawrence loves his characters to discuss ideology and philosophy. Some of it is fascinating, some a bit tiring if you know his other books. But the first half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is brilliant. Perhaps all that rewriting tired him out.

The Problem with Initials

Vintage engraving of Woman reading newspaper, Late Victorian, 19th Century

“Your TLS subscription is about to expire,” the e-mail says.

Well, perhaps I will re-subscribe. I glanced at this week’s issue, and dutifully read two essays on classics, one on The Odyssey, the other on Pliny. Both articles seemed, well, facile.

Then the new N.B. columnist, M.C., was snotty about Louise Glück, the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize since Toni Morrison in 1993.

M.C. says pompously,

… it’s not an amaranthine mandarinate in Stockholm that matters in the long term; it’s the writing. And time itself, they say, will be the judge of that.

Yes, the Nobel Prize in Literature may sometimes attach itself to a writer who seems worth reading – regarding this year’s laureate, the American poet Louise Glück, you might have surmised as much by noting the modest accolades she has already garnered: the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Poet Laureateship and so on.

M.C. concludes that the Nobel Prize for Literature does not matter to posterity. It matters to me! I love Doris Lessing, Peter Handke, Yeats, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun, Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, Heinrich Boll, Garcia Marquz…. So many great Nobel winners!

I did enjoy M.C.’s previous two (or three?) columns. We need our book columnists, and they are rare these days. But I have decided there are too many initials in the TLS: N.B., M.C., and J.C. (James Campbell), the former writer of the N.B. column. It might be better to rename the column, so we do not compare M.C. with J.C.

I am thrilled that I haven’t seen the “singular they”in the column. There are standards to uphold!

Four Songs to Keep You in the Moment: Carly Simon, Van Halen, Tears for Fears, and R.E.M.

Carly Simon singing about staying in the moment: “Anticipatin”

Namaste. Stay in the moment. Okay, try again.

In the seventh month of Covid we are frustrated: if only politicians listened to doctors and scientists, they could reduce the terrifying number of new cases here ( 1,200 a day) and unnecessary deaths.

I had to go three places to get a flu shot.

Live in the moment, we say. Appreciate this time without worry (or at least too much worry) about the future. “These are the good old days,” Carly Simon says in her lovely song, “Anticipation.”

Here are four songs to keep you in the moment, make you laugh, and feel joy.

Carly Simon’s wise and charming “Anticipation”

The joyful “Jump” by Van Halen

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by the whimsical Tears for Fears

The outrageously funny, sweet “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M., with Kate Pierson from the B-52s.


What Do I Really Think of Virginia Woolf?

Virginia Woolf

“What do I really think of Virginia Woolf?” I asked myself in 2018 during a snowstorm.

I asked myself, because the city was deserted. I was sitting in a nearly empty restaurant, reading The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf on an e-reader. I was happily perusing The Common Reader, On Being Ill, and The London Scene. That morning I had actually seen a portrait of Woolf at the nearly empty National Portrait Gallery.

I used to love everything about Virginia Woolf. In my twenties, I thought I’d never read anything more brilliant than Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I do love most of her books. But in 2018 I went from ecstasy to disillusion and even disapproval while I read her partly-autobiographical second novel, Night and Day. I was irritated by the snobbery and classism, by the patronizing attitude of Katharine Hilbery, the patrician  heroine. To be fair, she does change during the novel. But I resolved that in future I would only read Woolf’s nonfiction, having a hunch her novels may not have been as astonishing as I’d thought.

Last week I overcame my petulance over her snobbishness during a breathless rereading of her vibrant novel, Between the Acts. Once my favorite book by Woolf, it was posthumously published in 1941. Although it is Modernist and experimental, it is entirely accessible to the common reader: the characters’ voices are seamlessly interwoven in a traditional narrative that highlights a domestic drama. And the history of England is commented on by a Greek chorus of villagers during a charming village pageant. The pageant is held on the grounds of Pointz Hall, owned by the Oliver family–for only 120 years.

Woolf knew a little about homespun theater, and the pageant reflects her experience. In 1922, she attended the rehearsal of a play by a women’s theater in London, which was written by a friend and directed by the famous Edy Craig. Woolf’s play, of course, has very different content: it is a history of England, told through verse, song, allegory and ribald dialogue. Like the play Woolf saw in London, this one is wirtten and directed by a woman, here the anxious Miss Latrobe. Woolf shares with us not only the comic performance of the play, but the reactions of the sharply-etched characters in the audience between the acts. In this odd novel, Woolf analyzes the subtle threads that bind the characters together, as the play portrays a changing England.

Poetry and verse permeate the narrative. We become well-acquainted with the central characters, the Oliver family, who live at Pointz Hall. Isa, the bored wife of Giles Oliver, secretly writes poetry, and walks around muttering verse to herself. Giles, a stockbroker who would have preferred to be a farmer, feels he has sacrificed everything to support the family, and is aware that Isa has a crush on someone else (it is, ironically, a gentleman farmer). And Giles is irritated when their wild neighbor, Mrs. Manresa, drops in for lunch with an unprepossing friend from London, William Dodge. Giles wonders, “What for does a good sort like the woman Manresa bring these half-breeds in her trail?”

The two older Olivers are as important in their way. Giles’s father Bartholomew laments the modern movement of history away from the civliization and etiquette of his youth; but his sister, the much more vivid Mrs. Swithin, sees the world from an entirely charming, whimsical perspective. In the following lyrical passage, we hear her thoughts about history.

But it was summer now. She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the daw like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favorite reading–an Outline of History–and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the inguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

What a lovely book! And now I will reread Virginia Woolf. Yes, she is a snob, but she understood the changes in history, and recorded the changes as well as the feelings and thoughts of her characters. And so I now have both the fiction and nonfiction to read.

Scenes of a Pandemic

There must be a good side to the pandemic. What it is, you cannot say. You spend more time with your dog or cat. You appreciate the simple things, like embroidering masks or expeditiously ordering them online. You’ve learned one thing: there is more to do in a five-mile radius than you imagined.

It mostly involves walking.

Let’s see, you can stare at the political signs.

But there are other pandemic scenes. Let the masked ball begin!

1 Your neighbors entertain 50 unmasked people at a luau, just to make sure they infect everyone in the ‘hood. Covid is airborne, people! When will they learn?

A vintage Gothic novel. Has anyone raad it?

2 During Zoom meetings, you can now binge on e-book copies of cozy Gothic novels by Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart, and Dorthy Eden. The plucky heroines quote poetry (at least in Mary Stewart) and visit a castle or a glamorous foreign country where they meet two eligible men, one of whom one turns out to be a killer or a jewel thief. They find the culprit, but do have to be rescued.

3 You acquire a huge collection of post-its, paper clips, folders, expensive fountain pens, and stationery. It is the equivalent of other people’s baseball cards or Barbies.

4 Since you didn’t follow Marie Kondo’s advice, you look through your old clothes and discover many are perfect for “loungwear.” Everyone loves the oversized Gap sweater from the 20th century, though the baggy fatigues may be too much.

6 After a hard day’s work, you decide to improve yourself by reading 20th-century American poetry. You binge-read Plath’s Ariel and decide her hymns to suicide are not her best work. You recognize Ariel for what it is–the book that captured the attention of Second Wave feminists. I do like her more elegant, formal ’50s poetry, though.

6 You spend more time than ever on the phone with the tech people, who give the same advice as the characters on The IT Gang: turn it off and on. But what if that DOESN’T work? You’d be amazed what they can walk you through.

The IT Crowd

7 You rediscover the joy of walking on sidewalks, after months of walking in the perplexingly less cushioned asphalt street to avoid other people’s spit. Now you’re too tired to walk on the street, so you hop off the curb if you have to.

Oh, and my favorite thing about the pandemic? We’re still here (as are you if you’re reading this).

Rock, Paper, Scissors

First, anchor your papers with a rock. Our notes flew off the table on the veranda of our favorite cafe. It was tiresome, because we are expert social-distancers, and had scootched our chairs as far away from the other tables as possible, and now the wind had scattered our papers. Should we race around to retrieve them?

And then a man who looked as if he belonged on the cover of a Regency romance, though he kept his shirt buttoned, stomped on the papers so they wouldn’t fly away. Thank God, though they were only notes, and looked more impressive than they were, because there were post-its stuck on the pages. I happen to love post-its, so it means nothing. But we’re all maskless (drinking coffee), and as he approached, I wondered how to signal we are social-distancing.

“Thank you so much!” I leaned back in my chair. And then I absent-mindedly rummaged through my bag.

My friend, horrified, whispered. “Don’t tip him. He’s not a waiter.”

I knew that, but I did need another cup of coffee. So I put on my mask to go indoors and get one.

Fun in the age of Covid!

Winding the Watch: A Few Notes on Sylvia Plath

In the fall of 2020, we are appalled by how little we remember the work of Sylvia Plath. And yet I distinctly remember reading Ariel at Hickory Hill Park.

“Did Daddy wind us up like a clock?” We thought that was the opening line of “Daddy.” No, we apparently made it up. We were thinking of the first line of “Morning Song.”

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

I wish I could remember the poetry, because my paperback of Collected Poems is more than “slightly foxed.” And I do have to reread at least the Ariel poems to prepare to read the new biography by Heather Clark, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. The Plath legend has been rehashed plenty, but I am interested in the 21st-century interpretation. Is there more to say?

Rereading Sylvia’s poems now, I find them striking but uneven. Much was made of the bipolar inspiration behind her masterpiece, Ariel, a collection of poems written in the weeks before her suicide while she was struggling with her illness. The madness added a tinge of drama for her readers. She was not separate from her art. But I admire”Morning Song” less than I used to. The second stanza seems bumpy, awkward. Not her best. And yet I remembered the watch (though I thought it was a clock).

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Suicide fueled interest in her poetry. Some speculated that her husband Ted Hughes was her murderer, though this makes little sense: he had left her and was living with another woman. I finally read some of Hughes’s poetry a few years ago, and he certainly is a brilliant poet. I used to think reading his work would be a kind of betrayal. That is not the way I think now.

Sylvia’s image of “a fat gold watch” will remain with me now. Poor Sylvia, too ill to cope, too much to cope with, not winding the watch.