Comforts and Pleasantness

You would think all was wonderful in this sweet land

On November 3, 1946, my grandfather, Lou Hartman, was on a bus from Davis, California, to Berkeley, returning from an apparently blissful weekend with his fiancée and her family. The next morning, he wrote to my grandmother, Blanche:

We drove on through the night. Across the aisle an old gentleman and a soldier changed views on the country here and in Wichita. The old man gave the kid a cigar and you would think all was wonderful in this sweet land. But then they got on the Jewish question, repeating all the old lies about wealth and power, Hitler did one good thing etc. etc. In the past, when such things have happened in public and I was not immediately concerned, I would writhe and suffer—and say nothing. I was lying down on the cross seat and suddenly I was talking. I had never heard my voice like that before. Hard, biting, controlled. The old man, who had started the filthy talk, apologized and later tried to get palsi-walsi with me. The bus heard it, I guess, and he was mightily embarrassed. Not that it changed him, but if everyone would speak out and pass to the attack at moments like this there would be less of it.

In which I criticize nice people with good intentions

Some people made a banner. I had some quibbles.

My great-grandparents sang adorable leftist propaganda

The Workers Have No Vote In Alabama, sung to the tune of The Monkeys Have No Tails In Zamboanga. Recorded by Alan Lomax in Trussville, Alabama, I think (at their kitchen table, with much bourbon, I was told) in 1937, or thereabouts.

My great-grandmother’s accent is the best thing. (She sounded like that even after she’d lived in California for forty years.)

And to complete the picture, Virginia Durr’s description of them, from her oral history:

But I did go to see Joe Gelders . . . and there he was, tall and thin and I thought he was a good looking fellow and he looked like a Jewish prophet, kind of beautiful blue eyes and with lovely manners. Then, he had this darling wife named Esther Gelders, who was Esther Frank and came from Montgomery. She was very lively and cute and very pretty and a typical kind of southern belle type, chatty and made you feel at home.

Ten years later, they looked like this:


In which I look for strength from my ancestors

My grandmother has not been gone a year. Here I invoke her memory in the face of the election.

The problem with permaculture

To my irritable eye, permaculturists appear to approach the world like a superfancy lego set: once they get all their perfectly modular pieces in place exactly the way the instructions specify, they think the whole thing will light up in rainbows and play cute music. Hah. Plants and soils and streams and bugs are alive, folks, and radically complicated and not at all modular. They don’t care about categorized plant lists or imaginary “guilds.” And I, for one, am glad: a world made out of interchangeable lego bricks sounds like a pretty horrifying place to live.

A thing well said: Christopher Beha in the New Yorker.


Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex.

Thanks, Christopher Beha.

In which I excoriate hipsters who pantomime in ruralface.

I did another post for the Daily Yonder, this time in response to the response to the weird, weird hipster “pinup” chicken-killing photo spread at Modern Farmer:

Speak Your Piece: Performing in ‘Ruralface’

Hipsters are easy targets, I know. But the fashion for playing rural has gone on just about long enough.

What’s your favorite example of ruralface?

What is it about Kanawha County?

Am I the only one who’s been thinking of the Kanawha County Textbook Wars while reading the coverage of the abstinence speaker debacle in Charleston last week? There’s no story about tonight’s school board meeting up on the Gazette site yet, but the tweets are interesting and suggestive. Also Ms. Campbell herself decided not to go to the meeting, due to “concerns about her safety.”

So when I have time (ha!), I want to look at the statistics: is Kanawha County really the most economically / culturally polarized place in West Virginia?

Writing with hands

I love this, and want to read his book. (But don’t you think the UK cover design is SO much better?)

Is writing even writing anymore?

Writers are fussing about cursive again. Is this the end? Will be we able to read our historical documents? Our grandparents’ letters? How much does that matter?

I think the more interesting question is not whether we will use cursive when we write with pen and paper, but whether we will continue to write with pen and paper at all. Does our tactile, visual, and auditory experience shape our thoughts as we write? My instinct says so. I worry about what we could lose if we lose the lovely (to me) sensory experience of paper and ink.

As an experiment, I tried to compose this blog post on paper. I couldn’t do it. It turns out that to compose, I need to see my letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs clearly defined. I need to re-read them to myself over and over as I compose. I need to shuffle them sometimes, and re-read again. I need to see them in type, the way people will read them. I need to see the shape of what I am writing. A good piece of writing has a definite shape; to build that shape, I have to experience it as the reader will experience it. To build a piece of writing that can stand on its own, I need to see it as it will be seen.

Pen-and-paper writing feels very personal to me, like a diary entry or a letter. I can give it my stream of consciousness, I can use it to chat, but I cannot use it to compose clearly.

So now I wonder. Should I even call it writing anymore?