Kudos for “Carrie”!

 

It is so gratifying to see the good reviews come in for “Carrie Welton.” There are 23 reviews now at amazon.com with an average rating of 4.9 stars out of 5. You can see them here.

Most recently comes a coveted “Editor’s Choice” designation from the Historical Novel Society. The last paragraph of that reviews reads:

“Let me assure you that this is not a poor-little-rich-girl sob story, but a textured, penetrating portrayal of real persons and actual events. Charles Monagan writes a terrific tale in Carrie Welton, one of the smoothest reads I’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Monagan’s career as an award-winning writer and editor spans decades, but this is his first novel. I hope it won’t be his last. Highly recommended.”

You can find the entire review here.

I have a vagrant dream that “Carrie” will somehow be discovered by a larger audience and that the HBO TV series version of her life will be played by Saoirse Ronan in an unforgettable performance.

ronan.jpeg

Important Question: Can Saoirse Ronan ride a horse?

For for anything like that to happen, lightning must somehow strike. And I don’t mean me getting electrocuted on the golf course.

CAM: Author Interview

I was recently given a host of questions by a reader’s website called seriousreading.com I guess so they could publish a little content along with a review of my new book “Carrie Welton.” The review didn’t amount to much (although it was 5 stars out of 5!!), but I thought you might enjoy the Q&A.

A common misconception regarding authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?
Not at all true in my case! In fact, I can give the impression of being quite outgoing and socially smooth and suave – especially when answering a series of written questions while safely at home, seated alone at my desk.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
Probably “Goodnight Moon.” The simple magic in those pages has always bewitched me and made me drowsy.
When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?
On the first day of 1st Grade, the teacher opened up a big book in the front of the class, and all it said on the first page was “Look.” And I remember thinking that I could do better than that.
Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?
With “Carrie Welton,” the ending was in large part predetermined by actual events, but how she ended up on that stormy mountainside was, from the beginning, always in doubt. When I began, I had no idea she would do the crazy things she did or travel to the places she went.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
Sitting down, shutting out the world and pounding it out.
What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?
Re-reading a paragraph that turned out really well.
Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
There are so many in my personal pantheon, but those among the living include Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Haruki Murakami, Edna O’Brien, Anne Tyler, Amy Bloom, and recently I loved books by Ben Fountain and Chad Harbach. In the realm of nonfiction, I am looking forward with the greatest possible anticipation to Robert Caro’s final volume on Lyndon B. Johnson. “Towering” doesn’t begin to describe it.
How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?
That happened to me once, at a library in Connecticut. I had driven an hour to get there and I was angry at the person in charge. “You asked me to come,” I said to her, “and that carries with it a certain responsibility to gather an audience. It doesn’t have to be a large audience, but some people do have to be here. There can’t be no one.” She seemed to have no idea of what I was talking about.
Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?
Yes. I don’t see how anyone could not. Most writers are hungry for feedback. They work in seclusion, or something approaching it, they finish with a great sense of elation and sometimes emptiness, they go through the publication process, and then the book gets tossed out into the world like a stone skipping across water. Will anyone notice? Will anyone care? How many skips will it get before it sinks? Such are some of the writer’s typical insecurities. Any feedback, good or even bad, helps fend them off. So go ahead and write that online review or comment.
Does a bad review affect your writing?
No, just my mood.
Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?
No one cares as much about what you write as you do.
Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read?
The first one that stuck with me was “The Lost City.” It was a Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story in the manner of the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, aimed at young boys. Very 1947, although I didn’t get to it until around 1960.
When you were young, did you ever see writing as a career or full-time profession?
I did, but as a newspaper reporter, which is how I began my career. I then transitioned into writing for magazines, then editing magazines, then writing nonfiction books, a musical and finally a novel.
Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?
I once wrote a book called “The Reluctant Naturalist” that basically enumerated all the bad things that can happen to you once you get out of bed. However, I will say that staying in bed all day in a foreign country can make for a nice change of pace.
Did any of your books get rejected by publishers?
That happened to one of my books, “How to Get a Monkey Into Harvard,” which was rejected by about 30 publishers before Grove took it. And then even after it was accepted it was rejected. My editor left and no one took the book up. It languished. Sad.
Have any of your books been adapted into a feature film?
No, but one of them was translated into Flemish.
How did it feel when your first book got published?
There used to be an event in Manhattan called Book Country. They’d close down Fifth Avenue on a Sunday afternoon and line the sidewalks with book stalls, one for each participating publisher. Atheneum was the publisher of my first book, “The Neurotic’s Handbook,” and they decided to feature my book on that day in 1982. Not only did I get to man my booth and trade witticisms with the passing crowd, but one of the windows of the adjacent Scribner’s Bookstore was filled with my book. I’ve had few better days.
Has it ever happened to you that someone published your story in their own name?
It happened to me once at my college newspaper. I’d written a humor piece only to have it see print under someone else’s byline. That was bad enough, but what was worse was that I came back five years later for a campus visit to see the paper had reprinted my story as a kind of classic – and it still carried the wrong byline!
Do contemporary writers have the kind of animosity that competitors in showbiz seem to have?
It’s probably a little odd, but in my life I have virtually no contact with other writers. I don’t know if this is good or bad. I suppose it keeps me from feeling any great animosity toward anyone else. But it keeps me from feeling collegial love, too. I will confess to strong feelings of competitiveness, even with those I don’t know personally, but that’s probably a healthy thing and good for the writing.
Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or you can just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?
While writing “Carrie Welton,” I found my sweet spot at a nearby library (in Southbury, Connecticut) that was large enough for me to hide away happily and undisturbed in various nooks. The hushed ambient noise of the patrons and HVAC system was perfect as I toiled away with my ballpoint pen and yellow legal pad. I mentioned the library in the book’s acknowledgements.
What’s your favorite movie which was based on a book?
So many! Strangers on a Train, All the President’s Men, The Godfather, Tarzan and His Mate, Carrie, Schindler’s List, Donnie Brasco, From Here to Eternity, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, The Magnificent Ambersons, Goldfinger, Goodfellas . . .
Which literary character do you most resonate with on a personal level?
As a young man (and maybe still), it was Nick Carraway, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby.” He was bright and earnest, keenly observant, a nice, peaceable guy but not a pushover, diplomatic when he needed to be, but still somewhat callow and unformed. And of course all those beautiful sentences were said in his voice!

Book Excerpt: Trouble at the Ball

In the weeks ahead, I will run on this website several brief excerpts from “Carrie Welton,” my novel that will be published in April. I hope they give you a taste of the book as a whole as they introduce you to several of the key characters.

This first excerpt comes fairly early in the book. Carrie is 18 and still living, miserably, in Waterbury, CT. Her mother, Jane Welton, is a consummate party-giver, and here we look in on her greatest triumph, a Thanksgiving ball (1858) modeled after a famous gala thrown by the Duchess of Richmond in Belgium in 1815, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. For this ball, Jane has had constructed an impossibly lavish temporary pavilion on the grounds of their estate, Rose Hill. She has even hired young men to dress as soldiers and mingle with the crowd. The narrator is Frederick Kingsbury, who lives across the street from the Weltons and who, with his wife Alathea, has taken a special comforting interest in Carrie and her troubles – such an interest that they have just been warned in the most threatening terms by her father, Joseph Welton, to stay away from her. Here, Frederick Kingsbury has just spotted Carrie across the ballroom. She has been away at a school in New Haven since summer and he wants to rush over to greet her, but he’s afraid of family repercussions if he does. Then he sees Joseph Welton’s brother, George, in the crowd:

 

“I say, Welton!” I shouted, putting an arresting hand on his arm. “Do you know where your brother is? I want to congratulate him on this miraculous achievement!”

“He is gone!” George Welton shouted back. “Called away at the last moment to New York on business!”

“Called away on Thanksgiving?”

“So it would seem!”

He moved off into the crowd as the orchestra started up a reel and the dance floor quickly filled with swirling petticoats. I remained uncertain about what to do. I did not doubt that Joseph Welton was not present, but I could not be sure he was truly away. He could be lurking somewhere, standing just outside the building in a spot where he could see but not be seen. Alathea caught me deep in my considerations.

“You are not dancing, Freddie,” she scolded me. I could tell by the way she’d addressed me that she’d had a second glass of wine. “Surely we have not grown so old that we cannot dance!”

I held up a hand.

“Look over there to the left of the staircase, a little in its shadow, and tell me what you see,” I said, indicating the way.

She followed my gaze and watched for a moment.

“She has just spotted us, and me looking at her, and yet turned away,” said Alathea. “We must go see her.”

“Mightn’t that put her in danger?” I asked. “Welton was very blunt.”

“Guests may speak freely with each other at a ball—in fact that is one of its primary purposes—and I have not spoken with Carrie in more than five months. I cannot believe we would not be allowed to go say hello to her.”

Alathea rushed off in Carrie’s direction, but I did not follow. I held back, looking out for Welton or even his wife, although Jane was surely not thinking of her daughter on this evening.

Carrie did not flee at Alathea’s approach, but she regarded it uneasily. She held out a hand, which my wife took warmly. Carrie gestured toward her companion.

“Mrs. Kingsbury, are you acquainted with Gilbert Stocking? He is the son of Deacon Stocking and is now at Yale.”

Alathea and Stocking exchanged pleasantries.

“Carrie and I were schoolmates as children and it was she who recruited me and many of my classmates from the streets of New Haven into her mother’s regiment,” the young man said brightly.

Alathea smiled as she took his elbow and turned him gently, as if he were a toy sailboat on a pond.

“Do you see that man standing across the room watching us? He is an Eli, too. I’m sure you and he will discover much in common to talk about.”

She gave Stocking a little shove in the right direction and he went where he was told. She then turned her attention upon Carrie.

“Step out into the light and let me see you,” she said.

Carrie took a cautious step and then lurched forward and threw herself into Alathea’s arms, sobbing. The big room did not notice.

“What ever is the matter, child?” Alathea asked, drawing Carrie away and looking into her eyes.

“All has ended in failure,” Carrie cried. “And I am back at Rose Hill, where every minute is endless, to say nothing of the hours and days.”

“What about school?”

“Miss Averill was not what she claimed. Despite her promises, only two other students ever arrived, and she was not inclined to teach us anything of any use. I wrote to Mrs. Draper and she told me that this is a common scandal for educating girls. They charge enough to seem legitimate, but they are not. All they do is provide meals and a bed and a place to read. Eventually, of course, they are discovered and put out of business. Why is it that they don’t treat boys so poorly?”

“How long have you been back in Waterbury?”

“A week.”

“How have we not noticed you?”

“I’ve stayed in my room, I am ashamed to say. I painted a canvas of your house again and as I did so I thought of our conversation in your kitchen and envied the warmth within your walls. And I rode out very late at night so you would not know.”

“Why did you not come visit us, Carrie?”

She had regained her composure and now looked alertly around the hall, as if for spies.

“I have been forbidden. I had a terrible row with my father when I got back and another last night. My mother was involved, too. That is why he’s not here this evening.”

Carrie leaned forward to say into Alathea’s ear:

“He struck me last night.”

Alathea staggered and pulled away, and then took Carrie’s hand and led her to a side door in the big building. They went through it and stepped out into the bracing night air. The sounds from inside were muffled enough so they could also hear the creaking of carriages and shifting of horses standing in the drive.

“Tell me,” Alathea said.

“Across the face with an open hand,” Carrie continued. “It didn’t leave a terrible mark, but it’s why I’ve sought the shadows tonight. He was drinking heavily, as he does from time to time, maybe as a protest to this great bloated event.” She swept an arm back toward the hall. “And in truth I could not blame him for that. But when he drinks, there is a pattern. Without fail, he speaks of his hard work—no one has ever worked harder—and great successes, and of his making something out of nothing while others are born with everything given to them. If my mother is present, he damns her excesses, and if I am present, he resents my birth and my being, and that there will be no one to carry on his name or his affairs. And then last night he said I needed working, although I did not know what that meant, and that I had failed even in school, and that women are only good for one thing—that’s when he came at me and struck me. After that he set off for New York.”

The two women, one in a red gown, the other in mauve, shivered together in the dark as Thanksgiving at last began to draw down.

“I cannot stay at Rose Hill,” Carrie said in an echo of her summer lament. “But there is no place for me to go. Will you help me find one?”

“We will find something together,” said my wife. “But we will have to be wary. Your father is a dangerous man, and danger must be respected.”

They went back through the door and rejoined the ball. No one but I, and possibly my new friend, young Stocking, ever noticed that they had been gone.

“Carrie” Has a Cover

I’m still not sure about a publication date for “Carrie Welton,” but the novel now has a cover that I’d like to share:

Carrie Welton cover

The back-cover blurb will give some idea of the eventful life I’ve imagined for Carrie, both in Waterbury and beyond. As I noted earlier, there is virtually no record of her doings in the period between her late girlhood and her fateful trip to the Rockies at the age of 42. In Anderson’s great 1895 history of Waterbury, there is this: “Miss Welton had much personal beauty, was tall, erect, and of fine carriage and striking personality.” That’s a pretty spare frame on which to hang a novel, but I thought it would be fun, and a challenge, to fill in Carrie’s unknown years with my own ideas about where she might have gone, who she might have met, the adventures she might have had – and the heartache she might have suffered.

My Date with Carrie Welton

A little bit about the making of my soon-to-be-published novel, Carrie Welton.

Anyone who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, as I did, is familiar with Carrie Welton’s name, mainly because of the presence of a large drinking fountain for horses, humans, birds and even cats and dogs (topped by a bronze statue of her beloved stallion, Knight) located at the east end of the Waterbury Green. Carrie left the money for that fountain in her will, and it stands today as a lasting testament to her good name and her love for animals (and possibly her dislike for her own father, who was said to have been kicked to death by Knight). So, yes, indeed, Carrie Welton, the subject of my soon-to-be-published novel, was a real person – and a real enigma. If you want to look hard enough, you can find a few surviving paragraphs regarding her early life, along with several hints at her intriguing personality. In contrast, much was written about her foolish death while climbing in the Rocky Mountains and, later, even more was reported about the disposition of her will, which was vigorously contested by family members.

But what about all those in-between years?

My aim in Carrie Welton has been to imagine – to completely make up – her life during the

CarolineWelton(Hi-Res)

There are only two known images of Carrie Welton – one very fragile old photograph and this gorgeous portrait, by Abraham Archibald Anderson, which hangs in Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum. 

25 or so years between her mid-teenage years and her death. The story is a blend of fact and fiction. The life I have given Carrie in Waterbury, New York, Boston, Saratoga Springs, the White Mountains and elsewhere – her words and actions – comes from my imagination rather than the written record. Some of the people I have put into her life, such as her own family members and the Kingsburys across the street, are based on real people, but the words they speak and the specific actions I ascribe to them are made up, or, as they say in Hollywood, dramatized. The same goes for the events in the book. Some, such as Jane Welton’s glorious Thanksgiving Ball at Rose Hill in Waterbury, are pure fiction; others, such as the cataclysmic Barnum Museum fire in Manhattan that I have Carrie witnessing, really did happen. I even took some actual events and twisted them to my purposes. Anderson’s portrait of Carrie, for instance, is real but it was painted after she died, not, as I have it, from life. I guess I was a bit like a chef rummaging through ingredients and existing recipes but mostly his own imagination to come up with something original and appetizing.

How did it turn out? You can decide for yourself when Carrie Welton is published in April.

 

Mind the Gap

age differenceHe thought the six years between his age and his wife’s would be nothing to worry about. Then he turned 65.

When my wife and I were married 31 years ago, I gave little or no thought to the difference in our ages. I was 34, she was 28. Six years. No big deal. I had beef bouillon cubes in my bachelor’s pantry that were older than that.

I wasn’t really 34 anyway – not unless you wanted to actually count the years forward from the day of my birth. In every other respect – my questionable career track, spotty sense of responsibility, lagging social maturity, failure to send thank-you notes, even my retreat into a “Bullwinkle” voice during times of stress – I was comfortably still in my callow mid-20s, if not considerably younger.

For years, this “slow to grow” tendency had been a conspicuous part of my make-up. My first serious girlfriend had been gravely disappointed to find that her new beau, purportedly 19, was in many important respects more like a precocious but quite frightened 11-year-old, and one not nearly as cute as Tom Hanks was in Big. A bit later, I still recall the day when, at age 25, I was seated with friends in a Boston restaurant and was struck with the realization that I was now old enough, mature enough, truly interested enough, to get the most out of a college education. Unfortunately, I had graduated three years earlier with little distinction and many regrets. And it wasn’t until I was 28 or 29 that I at last began to enjoy the many pleasures of adult interaction, of conversation rather than banter, of dining with wine, and of relationships that no longer took a back seat to meaningless midseason baseball games.

But by 1984, as a newly married man, I thought “slow to grow” would serve me remarkably well. It would render the gap between my age and my wife’s irrelevant. For further encouragement, I needed only to look at the 14 years that had stretched out between my own mother and father – he a gentleman of late Victorian refinements, she a Sinatra-adoring bobbysoxer, who together had managed 57 years of high-road happiness. I had no doubt that my bride and I could build a similar bridge of love and mutual understanding between us.

Of course, there were certain cultural gaps that had to be attended to right away. For one thing, my wife and I were demonstrably from different generations. Someone born in 1950, as I was, could not escape the feeling that someone born in 1956, as she was, had simply missed out on so much, good and bad, that had informed the mid-20th century. “You have no idea what a grim slap in the face Sputnik was for all of us,” I remember saying to her at one point. “And you were far too young to know the heartache, the actual pain in the chest, of seeing the NBC peacock unfurl its feathers in black and white.”

She of course took a different view. “I picture you sitting in your college dorm room, hair down to here, listening to Black Sabbath at top volume, hoisting a box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers, and I just want to rush in with a handful of wipes and intervene,” she said to me more than once. More than a hundred times, actually.

So we made peace. I granted her the apparently very real pleasures of The Brady Bunch and “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,” she gave me my Kukla, Fran & Ollie and disturbing Conelrad flashbacks, and we crested the ensuing years together, through the upbringing of three children and the rise and fall of cats and dogs, college bills, car accidents, cash-flow crises and ill advised permanents. Smooth sailing all the way – or at least smooth enough.

And then 65 happened. It’s not like it was a surprise, of course. Anyone who knew how to count could see it coming. The thing is, only a year earlier, 64 had been so warm and fuzzy, what with everyone calling up and singing, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?” and making good-natured “One more year till Medicare” comments. But 65 was decidedly different. Sharper. Harsher. Less friendly. It was as if I’d stepped from a giddy, skylarking altitude up to one where the breathing was actually difficult and a little painful. There are no bouncy McCartney songs about turning 65. The Medicare card came in the mail. My wife remained in her 50s. The gap, like a long dormant movie creature, began to stir.

Its most evident manifestation came in the course of our daily routines. While my wife continued to commute to her job every day and work very hard (oh, and supply medical benefits), I had left my day-to-day job for the endless vagaries of a freelance writer’s existence. At breakfast every morning, she was dressed for work while I was barely dressed, and her “What are you doing today?” felt as sharp as a poke in the eye with a piece of toast. I felt so insubstantial, so retired and out to pasture, or at least headed toward the pasture gate. But I was 65! I was entitled, wasn’t I? I wanted to say, “Just wait six years and see how you feel about things,” but I didn’t. Then one morning I tried what seemed to me a more persuasive approach. “Back in 1972, when I was already in the workforce full-time,” I said, pausing meaningfully, “you were still a sophomore in high school, making gum-wrapper chains.” The connection I’d hoped to make there was not at all successful. My words hung briefly in a shaft of morning sunlight and then fell and shattered noisily on the kitchen floor as my wife, choosing not to comment, got up to leave for work.

The worrisome gap now arises in other ways as well. I am, for instance, increasingly conscious of “keeping up” when we go out hiking or dancing or even when we stay in and try to re-create the will-o’-the-wisp mood of a Cialis commercial. I don’t say anything, of course, it’s not a big deal, but close observation might reveal the beginnings of a grim set to my jaw that hasn’t always been there. I’ve noticed minor but actively gapping differences, too, in sleep patterns, food preferences and restrictions and health complaints. In a possibly related matter, our arguments don’t seem to have the power and conviction they once had.

These are all things to be chewed over in the course of what Kipling termed marriage’s “long conversation.” Where necessary, of course, any serious differences will be dealt with and overcome, while unserious ones will be chuckled away as in the end of a “Honeymooners” episode. Even so, I will be very happy, delighted even, when my dear wife turns 60 this spring. I will be 66 only days after, it’s true, but at least we’ll be playing once again in the same ballpark decade-wise. We’ll be in our sixties together. Here’s hoping the gap begins to recede again at that point, at least until I hit 70 and she’ll be wanting needing and feeding at dear old 64.

Honey This and Honey That

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, here’s another from the vault:

Right up until the moment it began to happen, I never thought I’d end up calling anyone “honey”—or, for that matter, being called “honey” by anyone. Although I secretly craved the affection such a nickname spoke of, I just never thought of myself as the “honey” type. The word smacked of quiet and complacency, of His and Hers towels and mild sitcom days and nights. It wasn’t me.

Nevertheless, here I am now, married just over a year, honeying and being honeyed at a rate that would leave even Rob and Laura Petrie of the old “Dick Van Dyke Show” struck dumb with wonder. Indeed, my immersion in the charms of “honey” has been so thorough that I’m today prepared to declare it a remarkable word, clearly the champion of all the terms of endearment.

honeyFirst in its favor, “honey” is a pleasant and mellifluous word to mouth; with just a little practice it can be made to spring forward naturally on the tongue as a ready ally in the maintenance of domestic peace. (On the other hand, it can just as easily be withheld, its sudden and very noticeable absence having an effect more withering than a blow to the head with a rolling pin.) Also to its credit, “honey” is an elastic word, as fluid as the substance it names in nature. In conversation it can be used lovingly, imploringly, ironically and soothingly. When used sweetly, it is a word that can be exchanged by two people in a public place without arousing undue attention.

The other classic endearments are not so versatile, I think. “Dear” seems too curt and patronizing, with an enormous potential for sarcasm. “Darling” is theatrical, not suited for use ten times a day, except by Bette Davis or someone of comparable self-possession. “Sweetheart” is lovely but Victorian, redolent of romance on a bicycle built for two. “Sweetie” seems to me not very well suited to the throes of passion, let’s say.

Still, any of these classics is greatly preferable to many of the other reputedly popular pet names people apparently deploy. For instance, would anyone really wish to be called “duckywucky” is public, or even in private? Do people truly harbor a desire to be called “lamb’s lettuce”? Is there a love so deep and sure that it can survive repeated whisperings of “poopeedoodle” or “snugglepups”? Probably not, you’ll say, and yet all these endearments have earned a place in The American Thesaurus of Slang—along with cud, fiddledeflumps, izzum-wizzum, nozzle-nozzle, oodlum, ooky and scores of improbable others.

It seems that lovers have always been willing to call one another virtually anything in the name of love. The names arise from a broad range of sources, of course, but for some reason many are evocative of the larder. Lambchop, dumpling, muffin and pumpkin lead this grocery list, but there’s plenty for dessert, too, with cupcake, sugar, puddin’ and various kinds of pie on the menu, not to mention all the possible combinations (sugar dumplin’, cutie pie, etc.).

In addition to these standard offerings, most of us probably know of people who’ve dizzily struck their own course in the realm of intimacies. I know a husband and wife who called each other “honey bunny” (she) and “funny bunny” (he). I’ve also heard tell of a “cookie face,” a “stud mobile” and a “jerk face” (this last entry opening up a whole new world of offensive endearment.

As I recollect, it was my wife who dropped the first casual “honey” into an otherwise unremarkable sentence, but it was I who took the new name in stride and ran with it. There was a sweetness and a naturalness to it, and when the first opportunity presented itself, there was no hesitation on my part.

So now it’s honey-this and honey-that all day long. If marriage can occasionally dissolve into periods of errands and logistics and favors, the “honey” reminds each partner of the deeper resonances afoot. In its way, “honey” is the Pavlovain pleasure bar of marriage. We tap it repeatedly and we are rewarded beyond measure.

Wayback Machine: The Great Blizzard of ’78

Given the way that people never seem to tire of talking about snowstorms – anticipating them, experiencing them, remembering them – I thought it might be suitable for me to publish here my journal entry from a time, 38 years ago, when a big storm swept through Connecticut. Today, people tend to tweet back and forth during a storm, and after it, but back in 1978 we took a more contemplative approach and spent a little more time in the writing. Anyway, here is what I wrote about the Blizzard of ’78 as it began to wind down outside my window:

I know this sounds like the perfect commercial for lung cancer, but I ran out of cigarettes today in the middle of this blizzard and I cross-country skied four miles to get a pack. It is still snowing as I write, and for all I know it’s never going to stop. It’s coming down in defiance of all known weather reports as it is. We were supposed to get another inch or so this morning and then it was supposed to stop. Instead, we’ve been hit with seven or eight additional inches and now the sun is going down like an eerie white smudge behind billowing banks of snow clouds. I don’t know how many inches they’ll claim to have had years from now (“And then the economy lurched to a dead stop as if stuck in one of the great snowdrifts the Winter of ’78 produced.”), but I’ve got around 26 inches in my front yard.

x-xountryBack to the cross-country skiing. I got the skis for Christmas four years ago and I haven’t used them much since, but I’ve enjoyed the sport when I have gone out. I can get around on them. So, early this afternoon I sized up the situation. I had five cigarettes left. I knew five cigarettes wouldn’t last me beyond 5 p.m., or maybe 7 if I stretched it. Bad. I looked out at my car and saw a little bit of the grille and some of the front-right door. Everything else was covered with snow. No plow had touched my driveway or the main driveway, and the town plows had made only a couple of passes on the street beyond. Even if I could get the car out I’d probably get tossed in jail, anyway. It had been made illegal to venture out in a car today, except in special cases. I wonder how long it will be illegal. I just heard on the radio that the storm (named “Larry”; too bad the “C” storm wasn’t called “Curley” – then they could name the “M” one “Moe.”) was stalled southeast of Nantucket and it would keep snowing here until Larry got moving again. (That’s why they need Moe.)

I live in Wolcott, Connecticut, by the way. We’re a proud little town. We’re on a ridge on the northeast corner of Waterbury. The people who live in Wolcott are the ones who saved enough money to move to the suburbs of Waterbury, but not onto the rich side of town where Middlebury, Southbury and Woodbury are. These Wolcott residents were once perhaps the most pessimistic of all Waterburians, but the longer they live here the more straightened out they get. And they’re the types who really shine during weather emergencies. You don’t feel bad about going out alone in a blizzard with them around.

And out I went. The first people I met were trudging up the main driveway. They were hard to recognize at first because they were completely bundled up, but they turned out to be two young women who live nearby. They said they’d gone down to the road to see what kind of shape it was in. I didn’t ask why. One dove into the snow and began flapping her arms in and out, making an angel. The other was sitting on the hood of a buried car. “This is the first time I ever sat on a hood and my feet touched the ground,” she announced cheerfully. They wished me well after I told them where I was going. It was good to be out.

The store, named E.Z. Pikins, is 1.9 miles away. I know that because I’ve measured it off in the car so I could give someone exact directions once. The first .8 miles is uphill, but after that things aren’t bad. I’d called a friend (The phone lines are being overtaxed, they say, but I got through on the second try.) who lives practically on the way and told him I’d swing by. The hill wasn’t as tiring as I thought it’d be. The town trucks had cut a plow-wide path down the center of Lyman Road, but even the path was a good 7-inches-deep with snow. I stayed mainly in the smaller, more recent paths that the snowmobilers had been making. There was no traffic and it was still snowing hard, but it wasn’t blowing and it wasn’t unpleasant.

After about a half-mile I came upon a man shoveling out his driveway. He’d made good progress but I noticed he’d shoveled all around the two cars and forgot to swipe the snow off of them. There was about a foot of snow on each car and when he finally did brush it off, he’d have to shovel some more. He wore a dazed expression. “I never expected this,” was all he said. I passed some woods on my right, looking in as I skied by. Way down deep, almost obscured entirely by the falling snow, walked someone in a red parka and also a dog. I watched them walk 10 steps or so (the red so cheery in the black and white) and then the dog suddenly ran ahead and out of sight. The parka disappeared five steps later. Further along, I passed by more houses. All the houses around here have short driveways leading to the garages. Some of the driveways were cleaned out and the cars looked all ready to go. Others hadn’t been touched and looked like they never would be. Apparently, the garages are so full of other stuff that they don’t have room enough to store a car, much less two.

As I crested the hill, a snowmobile zoomed past me and its driver gave me a “thumbs-up” salute. I wasn’t quick enough to wave back. The road now sloped down in front of me. It was clear of cars and trucks, but with varying degrees of clarity I could see people out and about. They’d been inside all morning, and all day yesterday for that matter, but now it was time to visit neighbors and talk over the storm. The skiing became easier and I began to pick up speed. I wanted to show these people something. Suddenly, though, I heard the sound of a motor and, a moment later, a car crept out from behind the white curtain, headed toward me. It was a 1962 Volkswagen Beetle, all dented and falling apart. It crawled along in second gear, as noble a machine as I’d ever seen in my life. It stopped as it drew abreast of me and the driver, a dark, mischievous-looking man about 35, asked me how the hill was. I said it didn’t seem to be too bad. He thanked me and drove off. I’m sure he would have proceeded even if I’d told him the hill no longer existed.

blizzard of '78Clear skiing down to the Volunteer Fire Department at the corner. The firehouse driveway had of course been cleared and a number of men were hanging out in the parking lot (also cleared), waiting for an emergency. They all had their vehicles with them, mostly four-wheel-drive Jeeps and pick-ups. The men were watching another man put chains on his tires. Then someone pulled up in a snowmobile and as they turned to greet him, they saw me. For a moment I felt a little insubstantial, flailing along as I was, relatively unprepared to face up to a crisis. But that feeling passed as I swung onto Potucco’s Ring Road and hit my first real downhill stretch. I sped down the grade, nodding casually to a resting shoveler and performed a neat snowplow stop in front of my friend’s house.

The friend, Tom, has a black Dodge pick-up, but it’s not four-wheel-drive, and it was deep in his unplowed driveway, its bed bearing a heavy payload of white stuff. I removed my skis while still on the road, planted them and the poles out by the mailbox and trudged, with great difficulty, toward the front door. Tom greeted me with a glass of wine. He told me his roommate, Rob, had been caught in the storm while driving home from work the night before. He’d abandoned his car and found refuge at a friend’s house in Waterbury. I took off my parka, hat, gloves, shoes and pants and sat down. Tom produced a joint and we smoked and drank and talked about the storm. Neither of us had a very clear idea of what was going on elsewhere in the state or along the East Coast. We’d heard it was worse in Rhode Island and Boston, but that was hard to believe. We tried to imagine under what circumstances one could get stuck in the snow and die. The conversation rambled and the afternoon began to darken around us. After the third glass of wine I decided I’d better go, with the promise of cigarettes and two bottles of ginger ale, for Tom, to be dropped off on the way back.

It seemed sharply colder when I got back out and into the skis again. A wind had sprung up out of the northwest. It was coming on dusk and I decided to ski for speed. Back up the hill and down to Wolcott Road. From the corner, as I turned up Wolcott Road, I could see the lights of E.Z. Pikins. The store, the only one open for miles in any direction, had become a gathering place of sorts. As I skied closer I could see a couple of snowmobiles parked out front and another approaching from the opposite direction. There was also the very odd sight of people walking down the middle of Wolcott Road, usually a very busy state road. The falling snow, the darkening afternoon, and, above all, the remarkable silence blessed the scene with a lovely old-fashioned grace. The walkers moved with the stately ease of strollers on the grounds of a sanitarium. Not a single car intruded. Normal commerce had been all but stopped completely. For this one afternoon, anyway, we had stepped deep into the friendly, unhurried past. It would be a few hours to store away, to remember later and savor when things got back to normal.

I cruised up to the front of E.Z. Pikins, once again removed my skis (happily a simple process) and went inside. The store was crowded, but most everyone was standing around and talking. The place was badly in need of a few chairs and a potbelly stove. There didn’t seem to be any major piece of news (personal tragedy, rescue, remarkable coincidence) being exchanged, so, wanting to get back before dark, I bought my things and hustled back out.

The temperature was dropping very quickly now and the wind continued to pick up. As with many trips, the homeward leg was mere drudgery. I raced back up Potucco’s Ring Road and shouted for Tom, who came out to get his Kools and soda. Then I turned and retraced my tracks back home. The people who had been out before were now back inside, where lights blazed warmly. An occasional whiff of woodsmoke filled me with an indistinct longing. The wind was now in my face and, for the first time, I was feeling tired. They day had suddenly become unpleasant. I skied harder, even poling furiously down the last hill to the main driveway below my house. I pushed up the driveway and into my yard, flung off the skis and ran inside.

For a moment I couldn’t do anything but stand, leaning against a wall, and pant. My head was light, my heart was pounding – it was the closest I’d come to passing out since Bernie Carbo hit that home run in the sixth game of the ’75 World Series. At length, though, I was able to regain my composure enough to sit down, and eventually to write these words.

Now it’s night. I just stuck my head out the front door. The wind is making the only sound. For a moment, because of the blowing snow, it was hard to tell if the stuff was still coming down. Then the wind stopped briefly and I had a chance to check the nimbus of a streetlight down on Lyman Road. It’s still snowing. But they said on the radio that the storm center has just now begun to move away from Nantucket and head slowly for the Maritimes.

 

Personal Signatures: Decline on the Bottom Line

The decline of handwriting among Millennials has been much lamented, including in a passage in my own How to Get a Monkey Into Harvard, but I haven’t seen too much about the decline of personal signatures among the same generation. The subject of signatures and their importance, and the reasons for their decline in general, deserve fuller treatment, but for now, here’s an email I sent yesterday to my own three Millennials:

Dear Children,
I have always admired a fine signature – the flourish of John Hancock, the humble simplicity of Abraham Lincoln, the classic cornfed beauty of Mickey Mantle – but above all it is legibility that I love most. I have always tried to keep my own signature solidly readable. After all, it is mine and mine only, my persignaturessonal stamp. As a writer and editor, I guess I’ve always wanted to be clear and easily understood. In this regard, I must also subconsciously take my cue from my own mother and father, whose signatures leave no doubt as to whom they belong. Therefore, dear children, you can imagine my concern when I saw the squibs and scrawls with which you signed your recent holiday checks. I hardly know what to say, except that I hope none of you is ever called upon to affix your sign to a declaration of independence or a baseball – years later people will look at it and wonder, “Who could THAT person have been? Impressive in life, no doubt, but lost to history because no one can decipher who it is.” Do I think you should change? Well, that’s up to you. You never took penmanship (it was never offered), so you lack the fundamentals upon which to build a legible signature. Maybe you are stuck. Probably you don’t care. Anyway, it is always interesting to see how a signature emerges from childhood into adulthood. John’s and Claire’s turn out to be more like the initials you sprinkle onto a rental car agreement, while Matt’s doesn’t seem to contain any of the actual letters in his name. But hey kids, whatever. Carry them proudly forward into the rest of your lives. Adjust as you see fit. Embellish as you wish. And now please feel free to go ahead and resume the rest of your working day.
Love,
Dad

Now They’re Coming for Thanksgiving

Following an unbearably protracted election season of negative campaigning and raw-throated public “discourse” in which the emphasis always seemed to be on some form of taking, getting, needing, wanting, denying, deploring, demanding and deceiving, isn’t it nice, at long last, to enter the season of giving and thanking?

The simple virtues always disappear at election time. Even basic decency goes out the window, as candidates circulate the most hideous images of their opponents they can find. The opponent is usually depicted in grainy black-and-white, either with a mug-shot sneer or captured at an off moment with eyes closed to slits or mouth wide open, laughing inappropriately.

By now we are ready to move beyond all that and into the sweetly innocent realm of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday of the year, a time of blessedly simple rituals and little fanfare. That the holiday has survived in such an unspoiled state seems almost miraculous to me. It’s like a piece of pristine land—surrounded on all sides by the encroaching, half-crazy commercial sprawl of Christmas—that has yet to succumb to the bulldozer’s blade.

But now, at last, the great day seems to be in real danger. For years, retailers have been nibbling away at the barrier between Thanksgiving calm and Christmas madness. For a while they were content to open at 6 a.m. on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. Then the opening crept back, earlier and earlier. It was camped for a couple of years at midnight. But now the stores have made a brutal leap, like zombies breaking through the doors and windows of a farmhouse. Target has announced it will be opening at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Tanger Outlets in Westbrook followed with word they’d be opening at 10 p.m.

Clearly, it won’t be long before the sprawl of Christmas is utterly triumphant. All the stores will open all day on Thanksgiving. It will be a move, like all the other encroachments, that gains the retailers very little (after all, we still buy presents no matter when the shopping season begins). But it will cost the rest of us—especially those who value family, home, peace and quiet—a great deal.