Friday, January 31, 2014

Bowling Alleys & Toilet Paper

Tangled up on the sofa wrestling with the dog two nights ago, television playing in the background, my attention was caught by a commercial wherein a woman in a bowling alley threw her ball for a resounding strike, bringing the product name Cottonelle to the screen as she turned to the camera and said, “I need a clean alley all the time.” My mouth was still gaping in surprise when a quick cut brought up another toilet paper commercial, this one presenting a lovely housewife in pearls and low heels announcing that Charmin is, “another way to keep your underwear clean.” I had to look out the window to make sure I hadn’t drifted out of orbit and landed on planet Mars.

It appears that freedom among advertisers has evolved to include a kind of low-brow tabloid language exemplified by Cottonelle and Charmin in selling their toilet paper. Or am I just behind the times and seeing another case of technology leading us down a road to where nothing is left unsaid or unshared, where social networks have encouraged the sharing of every thought and action and where people say and show anything and everything? Or maybe I’m simply going off on a rant about nothing more than a few graphic details about toilet paper and how we use it. Apparently a great many people are curious about it because the very first website I clicked on stated at the top that the number of questions concerning toilet paper was amazing. Well heck, I’m gonna jump right into the mix.

Long before the luxury of ultra strong and uniquely balanced triple ply, snowy white toilet paper enriched with aloe, people depended on an assortment of devices to handle the problem. We’ve all heard the corncob and Sears catalogue stories but they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Vikings used discarded sheep’s wool, coconut shells were the choice in early Hawaii, lace was popular with French royalty and snow and tundra moss did the trick for the Eskimos of yore. Mussel shells were useful for coastal peoples and one source describes the ancient Greeks using stones and pieces of clay. The Romans had a good idea with sponges on the end of sticks kept in jugs filled with salt water. Probably the worst choice in history was my own. Out in the woods on a camping trip as a kid I grabbed up a handful of leaves that turned out to be poison ivy.

It was the Chinese in about the year 600 who first came up with the idea of making paper especially for use behind closed doors. It must have been intended for people with large bottoms because it was made in sheets measuring 2x3 feet. In the US, “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper” was the marvel of 1857, a paper of pre-moistened sheets of manila hemp medicated with aloe and dispensed from a Kleenex-sized box. The name Joseph Gayetty was printed on every sheet and Mr Gayetty claimed for his toilet paper the bonus of hemorrhoid prevention. The toilet tissue on a roll familiar to modern culture came about around 1880, but since toilet paper was still a sensitive subject, out of embarrassment the Scott Company left their name off of it, deciding instead to customize, or name it for their customers. As a result the Waldorf Hotel gained fame in the toilet paper arena. Scott didn’t take credit for their product until 1902.

Getting people to buy toilet paper was a uphill battle, in large part because Americans were embarrassed by anything pointing to bodily functions. Customers didn’t want to ask for it by name. Germans had a similar embarrassment about the subject and one company came out with advertising copy saying, “Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won’t have to say toilet paper!” Widespread acceptance of the product was slow in coming, but eventually boosted by more and more homes with sit-down flush toilets and indoor plumbing systems. The Hoberg Paper Company hit a bullseye in 1928 with something called Charmin. Once again, the key was advertising. They gave the package a feminine logo depicting a beautiful woman, conveying softness and femininity. This allowed the avoidance of talking about actual purpose and merely asking for a package of Charmin. It wasn’t until decades later that the beautiful ladies on the package were replaced by babies and bear cubs.

Twenty-six billion rolls of toilet paper, worth about 2.4 billion, are sold yearly in the US alone. The average American uses 50 pounds (23 kilograms) per year, fifty percent more than the average of other Western countries. All around the world, in place of toilet tissue, water is still one of the most common methods of cleaning. India, the Middle East and a number of Asian countries continue to rely on a bucket and a spigot.

And Japan? The future does not look too rosy for the now familiar roll of toilet paper. Supermarket and drugstore shelves are piled with the stuff but a growing number of Japanese people have come to depend upon something called the Washlet, and it won't be long before homes equipped with this convenience outnumber those without. Attached to seat and tank, the Washlet works like a bidet, but includes a heat controlled air blower for drying, a heated seat and even a sound device to cover embarrassing sounds. After many years of using a Washlet in Japan, the return to toilet paper was an uncomfortable lesson in my reacquaintance with American life.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Dream is the Truth

‘Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.’ — first line of Their Eyes Were Watching God

She was part of the Harlem Renaissance at its height. She held a degree in anthropology from Columbia University, published four novels and over fifty short stories, essays and plays and received a Guggenheim Fellowship twice. At one time her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was being taught in seventeen different courses at Yale University, a book she wrote over the course of seven weeks in Haiti. 

Twenty-three years later Zora Neale Hurston died in a Fort Pierce, Florida County Welfare Home, quickly buried among weeds in an unmarked grave and just as quickly forgotten. 

She was born in a small Alabama town in 1891 but grew up in Eatonville, Florida, an all black town located just six miles west of Orlando. She published her first story in 1921 and in 1925 arrived in New York at a time when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak. Hurston quickly became an integral part of that movement, collaborating with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Over time, Hurston fell out of favor among prominent black writers for her reluctance to take a political stance in her writing and for her use of black dialect for her characters. In 1937 she published her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a work destined to become a classic of African-American literature. Her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee was published in 1948, but for reasons that remain cloudy, her work more and more went unpublished. An essay, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism” published in American Legion magazine in 1951 was the last work published before her death. 

In 1975, after a research trip to Florida, Alice Walker published the essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. The article ignited a revival of interest in Hurston which has continued to flourish with re-printings of her books and stories, biographies, films and PBS documentaries, as well as a resurgence of her place in university classrooms.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, set for the most part in the black Florida community of Eatonville tells the story of Janie Crawford, a black woman in search of true love and her true self. A voice like none other, Janie sparkles with wit, beauty and wisdom as she narrates a life through the trials of poverty, three marriages, repressed ambition and the ultimate and freeing discovery of romantic love. Described by many as an African-American feminist classic, the description is much too bland for a novel both vibrant and achingly human, one that transcends labels. The story follows Janie Crawford’s ripening from a spirited but voiceless teenage girl into a woman with strong convictions about her destiny. Though written in a brief seven weeks, Their Eyes Were Watching God pulses with the blood of rich experience and is possibly the most widely read and highly praised novel in all of African-American literature.

One of the most contentious aspects of Hurston’s writing has always been her unique use of language, specifically a mastery of the rural southern black dialect, criticized as making her characters (and southern blacks in particular) cartoon-like, Brer Rabbit type personalities that support a stereotype. What cannot be missed though is a narrative structure that divides the flow of language between polished literary narration and idiomatic dialogue. In the afterword to modern editions of the book, Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests that Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned with ‘…finding a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.’ This is seen in her relations with husband Jody when he stifles her speech and prevents her from talking, a clear suppression of her individuality — “Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.” 

The opposite is seen in Janie’s later relationship with Tea Cake, who engages her in conversation, putting her on equal terms with respect for her individuality, and it is from this respect that her great love for him springs. For Janie language is both the source of her identity and her empowerment.

Putting aside the argument that Hurston’s language supports an unflattering stereotype, would it not be better to take Alice Walker’s suggestion and view the writer as an artist and not as the artist-politician that most black writers have been required to be, that in the case of Their Eyes Were Watching God it is a more fulfilling read to see it as a fervent human quest rather than a distinctly black one?

Hurston was often the butt of criticism from fellow black artists who disliked what they saw as a  subservient adoption of the “happy darkie” persona for benefit of a white audience in search of stereotypes. Langston Hughes gave example of that in his autobiography, The Big Sea
‘…Zora Neale Hurston was certainly the most amusing. Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books—because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself. In her youth she was always getting scholarships and things from white people, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the Negro race for them, she did it in such a racy fashion. She was full of side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragicomic stories, remembered out of her life in the south…She could make you laugh one minute and cry the next. To many of her white friends, no doubt she was a perfect “darkie”, in the nice meaning they gave that term—that is a naive, childlike, sweetly humorous and highly colored Negro.’

Like me, perhaps others find this picture of Hurston not altogether distressing for at the root of it all is Hurston’s desire and problem as a writer to communicate faithfully the cultural wealth of a black folk tradition. She was after all a mix of writer, folklorist and anthropologist.

Sometimes the case with even the biggest names, I came to Zora Neale Hurston late. A name familiar from conversation and books, it is my loss that her stories and novels came to hand only in the past weeks. Frankly, I am astonished at the power of her words and her themes. Much too unsophisticated to set Hurston among African-American feminists and leave it at that, readers will discover in her writing a treasure house of humanity, passion, magical realism, folklore and wisdom. Eight stories and one novel are enough to convince me that the name and writing of Zora Neale Hurston will be around for a long time to come.

Monday, January 6, 2014

French Bread for Dogs

January 3, 2014

Woke up to frosted windows, a first time sight in this country house. The old plastic thermometer hanging on a back porch post read 46° (8°C) and the gloomy sky made it seem even colder. Didn’t stop the dog from diving through her door and hitting the yard at a run but she obviously realized something was different because not ten minutes later she was back inside curled up on the bed. Most times her early morning outside-inventory takes at least an hour before coming inside for a bowl of food.

One more day without thoughts drifting to a wider world where the view is filtered through Safari windows. The situation will likely be different tomorrow; a repair technician is on his way with all the necessary replacement parts. Meanwhile, I sit bundled on the back porch with a new dog cookbook, The Culinary Canine, figuring which of the thirty recipes will work for Farina. At first glance, one or two show a list of ingredients that this country kitchen can’t afford, but others show food that I already use frequently in stirring up the dog’s dinner. The dog owner who thinks dogs should never be given human food, that a bowl of dry kibble serves a dog’s needs just fine, then stop reading here. If the thirty-one dog owners, trainers and veterinarian who added recipes and opinions to this book are even halfway right, a dog will be healthier with a mixed diet that includes a whole lot more than kibble. But I realize there is another side to the question and I’m certainly not qualified to endorse either side wholeheartedly—just an ordinary guy who loves his dog and wants her to both enjoy her food and grow stronger because of it.


Let’s start with a few suggested ingredients in the making of fido’s dinner, or in some cases treats or snacks. Not one recipe but a scatter shot of several: half of a French baguette, a sweet potato, spinach, goat or lamb shanks, Spanish chorizo, parsley, blueberries, green beans, celery, quinoa, filet of bluefish… I’m more of a mind for something along the lines of chicken, carrots, rice and peas, so what does the cookbook offer along those lines? Here’s one…

1 pound chicken breast (skinless and boneless)
4½ cups chicken broth
1½ cups brown rice
3 medium carrots
6 blueberries
(The original recipe specifies organic everything, but regular works fine out here in the country.)

Directions: In one saucepan, poach the chicken in the chicken broth until tender. In another saucepan, cover the brown rice with water and let it cook slowly. Juice 2 of the carrots and slice the other one. Cook the carrot slices in the carrot juice until soft. Drain the carrots and add them to the cooked rice. Cut the chicken into small pieces and add it to the carrots and rice. Mix and let cool. Serve topped with blueberries.

Sounds pretty human to me, and also very tasty. I would also pour about half a cup of the chicken broth into the mixture because I know my dog likes chicken broth.

Bone appétit.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Random Thoughts from Another Orbit

January 2, 2013

My fourth day in an orbit far from the Internet began with an almost bark. Nothing apart from bed and a warm blanket interested me. Still sleepy and needing another hour in bed, from somewhere inside a fuzzy head it came to me that I didn’t have to get up. The dog now had her own door to go and come as she pleased. I still had to lead her to it and point out once more the door installed just for her but she caught on quick and was off and running across the backyard. I crawled back into bed and drowsed for awhile. 

An hour later I sat on the back porch with coffee and toast, at ease in what is…well, call it my spot. This time it was much of a damp green, the trees dripping streaks of brown and the light too weak to uncover detail. I drank my coffee in the small sounds of morning, thoughts roaming over things to do, outside chores necessary to keep my small acre an Eden. An imaginary fountain pen, small notes in my head about things to do…

Prop up that leaning palm tree out behind the compost enclosure.
How the hell did that tick come to be wandering across my desk?
Tired of peanut butter on toast for breakfast.
Thank God for neighbor, Randy.
Heinous crime…extorting the demented elderly.
Man once told me in all seriousness that the truth about Japanese whaling could be found in comic books.
Thought the liverwort would be revived with the rain…maybe next time.
Dog dug another hole, an almost foxhole.
Wish I had some of that apple butter they make at the Camelot Diner up by the flea market.
Better make a trek to Walmart for Farina’s chicken jerky…Hate leaving her in the car.
What do things look like through Farina’s eyes?
Fallen limbs out there, need to drag ’em to the firewood pile.
Long train. Manny must be holding on to his bed straps.
Wonder if he can cut the grass tomorrow…last of the season.
Like that rake D gave me for Christmas. Makes things easier.
How is that gossip rag going to prove that Prince Charles is a Secret Lesbian?
Red ants are unstoppable…thinking next might be a nest in the house.
Manny down the road is a good neighbor. Like no other.
Stupid to worry about Farina not eating her food…
She’ll eat when she’s hungry.
Shivers up my spine…that the Queen could be mother to a deviate.
Maybe drive over to True Value, see if they have the door strip I need.
Funny, the name of that TV porno film, World War Whore.
Hughes Net Internet provider…disappointment.
Run to Publix for half & half, and maybe some take-out from the rude Chinese.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New Year’s Hobby Box & Red Chalk

January 1, 2014

Unable to say much about the look of things beyond the tees but the first day of 2014 along Old Dixie Lane is cloaked in a twilight of semi-darkness with all the damp of a falling mist. Does it reflect my mood of still being denied Internet access? Not hardly. Even on a less than sunshiny New Year’s day there are simple pleasures apart from gloomy weather and no Internet. Some might even get a kick out of watching their dog search out and eat fallen acorns as skillfully as any squirrel hiding in the tall trees. I happily occupy myself for a good hour digging up more empty shell casings discarded by the long ago owner-gunsmith. A puzzle just why he didn’t either reload the shells—a gunsmith, after all—or throw them in the trash. Instead he chose to throw them day after day onto a plot of ground to the right of his firing stand. And now I dig them up, no less than a hundred a day, in all sizes and caliber. 

Farina on the Picnic Table

I passed a frustrating hour on the telephone yesterday trying to get some help with a newly installed modem that lit up only halfway and left me still unconnected to the world wide web. As I suspected all along, the problem is not going to be solved by me or a tech support person on the telephone—even one with understandable English skills. Next step of the plan is a visit from a technical expert on January 3. The woman on the phone explained, “He come, you pay twenty-nine dollar.” She must have understood when I said that I wasn’t paying twenty-nine cents for a failure of their equipment because she put me on hold and came back later to say the fee would be exempted this time. Obviously, the supervisors instruct telephone representatives to try passing a charge off on customers. Similar to the methods at AT&T, one more amoral attempt at exercising greed. 

A couple of tidbits for the fountain pen aficionados wandering into these pages… Along with a new modem, yesterday brought a new issue from Japan of the magazine Stationery Hobby Box (Shumi no bungu bako) This issue (No. 28) is devoted in good part to ink from around the world, with attention to everyone’s favorites, Iroshizuku, Herbin, Montblanc, Pelikan, Sailor, Diamine and a few dozen others. I expect that many American enthusiasts will wonder if Noodler’s ink is included in the magazine’s coverage, and it may come as a surprise to learn that Noodler’s, while available in a few Tokyo stores, is not a popular brand of ink in Japan. I have friends there who won’t touch it. 

Apart from various articles on ink, one I found especially interesting is a piece on the magazine’s choice of the Top Ten fountain pens of 2013. As a great fan of Pelikan fountain pens, my reaction to the No. 1 Pelikan Souverän M800 was something like, “Naturally. What else?” Numbers two and three on the list are respectively, the Montblanc Meisterstück 149 and the Pilot Custom 743. Rounding off the list at No. 10 is the Platinum #3776 Series and except for the Lami Safari at No. 8, the most inexpensive pen on the list at about $165.00. I believe because they are popular with Japanese, all fountain pens on the list are either German or Japanese made.

Montblanc is releasing this month a new design in the Great Characters (Famous Names) Limited Edition series, this one the Leonardo 74. The 74 reflects the number of pens made, but at the price listed, there aren’t many able to afford a fountain pen costing over 3,633,000 yen. I'll leave the yen to dollar ratio to those with a big calculator. Montblanc is also releasing at the same time another Da Vinci model, the silver Leonardo 3000. At $39,000 this one is slightly more affordable…for some.

I think I can afford the new Montblanc ink being released along with the two pens. The color is taken from Da Vinci’s sketchbooks and is called Red Chalk.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Beyond the Blackout

December 31, 2013

With the Internet connection gone AWOL, Tuesday took a different turn and if nothing else renewed my appreciation of how full and engrossing a day can be without the distraction of an Internet presence tapping the shoulder like a bothersome addiction. In the moments after an errant vacuum cleaner nudged and killed the modem resting in its neutral corner, my first thoughts were a near panic of what would happen if a phone call to tech support didn’t bring the plastic box and its winking blue lights back to life. 

I should have guessed it. The tech support representative 10,000 miles away did her best to remain calm and collected despite a panicky insistence that she repair my broken Internet connection in the next five minutes. Didn’t take long to realize that with a helper whose English skills were a handicap, solutions were a long way down the road. We battled on and she finally determined the modem was dead from its confrontation with my Eureka and she would dispatch a new modem to be delivered in the next two to three days. As any addict would, I complained, wanting the new modem delivered and installed by a company technician that very day. (The tech support rep should be commended for not laughing at me.) The best anyone could do—with minimal English—was a next day delivery with the installation in my hands.

All this forcibly altered my usual early morning computer routine and instead of spilling coffee and dropping crumbs on my keyboard I carried toast and coffee out to the back porch, then stepped outside to hang the bird feeder in the camphor tree. I got the first thrill of the day when Farina came bounding through her newly-installed dog door all on her own, no encouragement needed. With the help of my kindly neighbor, the door went in easily but with zero interest from the one it was intended for. She wanted nothing to do with it, saw something suspicious about it, barking and snapping at the plastic flap, swayed by neither peanut butter or chicken jerky. That was yesterday and after sleeping on it, I suppose it all came together in her doggy brain, bringing her leaping out this morning without a pause. Made me forget all about the Internet and its decadent enticements.

With the heat and most of the mosquitos on hiatus, life out on this dirt road country patch is a close second to paradise. Despite the shotgun booms of duck season, the quiet is close to perpetual, a steadfast companion during the hours I spend fiddling in the yard, raking, trimming, and these days filling in holes dug by Farina. The garrulous rooster over through the trees is never a bother and somewhere out there the goats will on occasion bleat in a chorus that sounds eerily human. Once a day the white truck passes on its way to the bee hives down the road, but traffic is minimal. New to the soundtrack are the barks of a playful puppy cataloging the rich smells of an environment seething with wildlife. Puppies are curious about most things and it’s a relief that mine has quickly learned to avoid the here and there humped nests packed with silent but ferocious red ants.

It didn’t require an Internet blackout to coax me into some chapters of a new book on my desk. James McBrides’s National Book Award winner, The Good Lord Bird is a wonderful read that would dull any techno-driven thoughts revolving around email, tweeting or updating a Facebook page. McBride’s book tells the story of 12 year-old Henry Shackleford, a slave boy in the Kansas Territory of 1856 kidnapped out of slavery by the legendary abolitionist John Brown. The old man mistakenly thinks Henry is a girl. Trying his best to survive, the boy spends the next few years dressed in a skirt, fooling nearly everyone except the black women he tries to imitate, following John Brown right into the thick of Harper’s Ferry. The book is narrated in the voice and dialect of Henry (Henrietta) and hearing a sample of the audiobook I thought I had inadvertently stumbled onto an old Amos and Andy broadcast. The story brims with colorful language that I expect is very close to what was common coin in the Kansas Territory of that time. The passage below comes from the early pages and describes Henry’s first encounter with John Brown.

‘…an old, tottering Irishman teetered into Dutch Henry’s and sat in Pa’s barber chair. Weren’t nothing special ’bout him. There was a hundred prospecting prairie bums wandering around Kansas Territory in them days looking for a lift west or a job rustling cattle. This drummer weren’t nothing special. He was a stooped, skinny feller, fresh off the prairie, smelling like buffalo dung, with a nervous twitch in his jaw and a chin full of ragged whiskers. His face had so many lines and wrinkles running between his mouth and eyes that if you bundled ’em up, you could make ’em a canal. His thin lips was pulled back to a permanent frown. His coat, vest, pants and string tie looked like mice had chewed on every corner of ’em, and his boots was altogether done in. His toes stuck clear through the toe points. He was a sorry looking package altogether, even by prairie standards, but he was white, so when he set in Pa’s chair for a haircut and a shave, Pa put a bib on him and went to work. As usual, Pa worked at the top end and I done the bottom, shining his boots, which in this case was more toes than leather.’ 

Refreshing to drape a sheet over the computer, forget about it, pick up a book and find a chair with a view out to the trees.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America