Five-Minute Memoir

October 23, 2016

A Bat Tale from Poe and Me

Jo-Ann Pilardi


“It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.[1]

Well, not exactly, but I hope I now have your attention.

On a mid-August night this year, August 15, 2016, in fact, a fierce and sudden thunderstorm broke loose as I drove the four blocks home from the Giant food market, my thirteen-year-old Chevy wincing under squalls of violent wind and heavy rain. I parked outside my home and waited in dread: was death more certain if I sat in my car (under an 80 year old sycamore whose branches sometimes fall in storms) or if I ran into the house (across my porch, whose ornamental iron fencing was sure to attract a lightning bolt)?

So, yes, “there are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell.” [2] In this particular hellish moment, I decided to make a run for it, from car to porch in the driving rain, as my heart beat wildly—and, I hoped, not for the last few times. Fingers clutching my house key, my body shaking at the encircling bolts of lightning and claps of thunder, battered by a strong wind from the north, I unlocked the heavy oaken door. And was blown inside.

As I entered, I felt a spooky, indeed ungodly, flutter of wind above and around me. Scenes of Young Frankenstein (Marty Feldman’s Igor, in particular) flitted through my mind, but I put those aside. Enter I did and happy I was, finally safe in my sturdy little home. I put away the groceries and, after that, enjoyed an extended phone talk with my daughter-in-law. I then turned off the large lamp, leaving on only a small one, and turned on the television, wanting to find Rachel Maddow defending all things good and right, a beacon of hope on this stormy night. As I did, a flutter appeared at the very edge of my vision, indeed at its outermost edge. Was there a large black moth in the room, or did I just imagine it? Or was it something else? Was there something—or was there nothing? Stay with me here, reader. “Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”[3]

Within the space of no more than ten seconds, I saw that flutter turn into a broadly winged creature: a bat! (So that was the spooky movement I’d felt above me as I’d entered the house! The flimsy creature was blown inside, as was I, both victims of an evil storm.) It fluttered near, then disappeared, then fluttered back again, and disappeared again, into the unlit back rooms of the house. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing/Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,“[4] so I grabbed a large broom and opened the front door, because I’d heard that was the way to purge one’s home of bats. But it was not to be. Once I even thought the accursed creature had left, so I closed and bolted the door, only to find it dipping and soaring around me a few seconds later. I was becoming quite agitated, and even may have cried out: “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” But predictably, “quoth the raven, bat, ‘Nevermore.’ “ [5]

Surely a call to my sister in California would help, I thought (because “the ingenious man person is often remarkably incapable of analysis” [6]), so I dialed her up and told her my story. Alas! Its telling was interrupted by my repeated shrieks, as the bat looped around me, its trumpery and deplorable self constantly mocking me. At times I could even hear a humiliating chuckle emanate from its mouth. All this and more I bore that despicable night. “The thousand insults of Fortunato the bat I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I swore revenge.” [7] I decided it was time to call out the cavalry: I would call 911! So I said good night to my sister. This next call would surely save me: Nine. One. One.

Me: “There’s a bat in my house and I can’t get it out. Could you send firemen out to remove it?” Visions of First Responders courageously rushing to my doorstep, bringing survival for me and death for the monstrous creature, filled my deteriorating mind; I could almost “Hear the loud alarum bells/Brazen bells!/ What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”[8]

911 Operator: “Firemen? Absolutely not. They don’t do that. I’ll send out a police officer.” (?) And she did. Not one but two. It was 10:30 p.m. by now, close to the end of their shift, and evidently, though I live in Baltimore, they had time on their hands. We talked and joked; I offered them coffee; we even looked for the bat sometimes, but never did we see it. Their visit was a nice relief, but pointless—except that one of them suggested I call City Animal Control the next day, because they were closed at that time. (I would learn later that Animal Control was on duty 24/7 and should have been sent to my house that night by the 911 Operator.)

That was all on Monday. On Tuesday I called Animal Control.  A nice man showed up, rather quickly, bearing a large net and an air of confidence, but the bat was in full hiding mode. Yet it flaunted to me its continued existence by leaving its “droppings” for the next two nights (yes, they look like mouse droppings). I slept uneasily each night, and the stress started to mount. Friends kept me company; some brought me nets and hats to wear, others (tall ones) came to search for the bat in the higher regions of my cupboards and windows. But little did it help and shockingly, “I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language.” [9] (This was not me!) On Wednesday, the Baltimore City Health Department (alerted by Animal Control) called to say I must run, not walk, to the nearest hospital E.R. to start a series of rabies shots, for “you’ve been living with a bat for three days!” My own primary care physician also insisted—and so, reluctantly, I started the shots. It was the week from hell, as I rotated trips to the hospital with trips home, where I donned a large-brimmed hat and clutched wooden tennis rackets (all hurriedly acquired at Goodwill—see accompanying photo). Verily it must be said that increasingly “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” [10]

Friends helped a great deal, in fact two of them insisted I not sleep at home and invited me to stay with them, which I did. But, sadly, once I overheard one saying to the other: “I was cautious in what I said before the young lady; for I could not be sure that she was sane; and in fact, there was a certain restless brilliancy about her eyes which half led me to imagine she was not.”[11] (I told myself this “restless brilliancy” might be blamed on the rabies shots, but even I doubted that.) Things got worse as the universe began to conspire against me and for the bat.[12] Whenever I turned on the t.v., there were bat movies on the screen. Whenever I answered the phone, friends and relatives reported unending stories of bats: bats in washing machines in Pittsburgh; bat bites in bedrooms in Baltimore and apartments in Texas; bat infestations in colonial homes in Connecticut; a bat birth in a bath tub in Belfast, Maine. Bat. Bat. Bat.

It was all becoming too much, so that “then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.”[13] I have been able to reject that thought so far, ever hopeful that truth and goodness still exist (cf., Rachel Maddow), even in the midst of the 2016 American presidential campaign, wherein I have seen a Creature infinitely worse than any bat. It is now mid-October, and the bat has never been spotted again. Assuredly, I will find its dried-out corpse some day behind a major appliance or in a corner of my moldy cellar, next to the case of Amontillado. Gradually, hope and confidence have re-emerged in me, for I remind myself that “all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream,”[14] but dream or not, Hillary will crush The Donald.

And as “literature is the most noble of professions . . . and there is no seducing me from the path,”[15] I hope you’ve enjoyed this bat tale wrought by a four-handed monster: Poe and me.

[1] Edgar Allan Poe, “Silence – A Fable” [2] Poe, “The Premature Burial” [3] Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” [4] Poe, “The Raven” [5] Poe, “The Raven” [6] Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” [7] Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” [8] Poe, “The Bells” [9] Poe, “The Black Cat” [10] Poe, Letter to G.W. Eveleth, 1848 [11] Poe, “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” [12] Bats are excellent for the environment, but not in my house! [13] Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum” [14] Poe, “A Dream within a Dream” (poem) [15] Poe, Letter to F.W. Thomas, 1849

Copyright © 2016 Jo-Ann Pilardi.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years.  A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.

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Halloween Poem

October 14, 2016

The Physics of Pumpkins

By Florence Newman

“The top’s too heavy, too much space below,”
my neighbor says. “’Spect she’ll start sagging soon.”
He’d lugged the massive thing out front for me.
I realize with horror that he’s right.
I’d carved my share of pumpkins through the years,
protected them from predatory squirrels,
from Mischief Night marauders: hubris had
at last undone me. A slightly wider grin,
an extra tooth or two—I should have known
the plan was flawed, the architecture tenuous.
Before too long the carriage will collapse,
sides slump, rind pit and wrinkle, pulp dissolve
and putrify. The oblique eyes, the arching brows,
isosceles nose are doomed to droop and molder.
Look on those overweening teeth, ye mighty,
and descry their graying edges fold and sear,
like the striate skin of a stitched cadaver.
Now soon a press of princesses, pop stars,
pirates, pixies, vampires, ninjas, sprites,
enchanters, supermen, and bumblebees
will throng the street, importunate to take
their turn, while my poor jack-o-lantern, claimed
by gravity, sits rotting at the door
before I’ve even got the candle lit.
Copyright © 2016, Florence Newman

Hip Shots

September 25, 2016


By Catherine Bruce




Copyright © 2016 Catherine Bruce.

Three-Minute Memoir

September 18, 2016


By Florence Newman


My twenty-five-year-old nephew James, who lives in Olympia, Washington, had never been to nearby Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, so while I was visiting him in August, we drove out to walk the Estuary Trail and see what there was to see. Part of the refuge had previously been a farm: Farmer Brown (yes, really) had drained the land for cultivation by building dikes to keep out the waters of Puget Sound. In 2009, the dikes were torn down, allowing the brackish water to seep back in and creating a variety of natural habitats.

As we walked the out-and-back trail, we passed through grassland, marsh, and finally a barren waste of mud and shallow pools, punctuated by dead trees, their branches bone white and stretched sideways and skyward, like half-sunk skeletons imploring aid. James said the scene reminded him of a World War I battlefield. I had been thinking of Tolkien’s Mordor or the Dead Marshes, which were said to have been inspired by the author’s experience in the Great War, so we were on the same page, sort of. The last, long portion of the trail was a boardwalk supported by pilings out over the muck, and along it were interpretive placards, picturing and describing the different bird species we’d be likely to spot around us. With my aging vision, I wasn’t seeing much of anything, except for some distant grey blots that could have been geese.

At lunch earlier, James and I had been talking about Pokémon Go, the online game that is all the rage, where players use their smartphones to view and “capture” virtual creatures that pop up in assorted locations chosen by the game’s programmers, often local landmarks or public buildings. On a whim, I said, “I wonder if there are any Pokémon out here.” “I’ll check,” said James, pulling out his phone. After a few seconds, he smiled. “You know that placard back there, the one about the ducks? Well, there was a Flibbertigibbet sitting on it” (he didn’t say Flibbertigibbet, of course, but one of those equally silly made-up names given to the range of Pokémon characters). Maybe the Pokémon Go phenomenon is a good thing, if it gets people—especially young people—off their duffs and into the great outdoors. Still, the game makes unreal beings appear in places they don’t actually exist. That’s assuming one has the right equipment—a smartphone—to see them. Why hunt for something that isn’t there?

Towards the end of the boardwalk, little rivulets of tidewater from the Sound began to meander among the muddy plateaus, and the boardwalk itself curved closer to a spruce-covered shore, before ending in an octagonal pavilion looking out toward Puget Sound. Our surroundings started to seem less of a dead zone and more of a living realm, with ducks that paddled amid the moving glitter of sunlit streams and with a Great Blue Heron (finally a bird I could identify!) stalking minnows in the shoals, its shoulders hunched about its head in that way that always reminds me of Richard Nixon.

The pavilion had more interpretive placards explaining what could be seen in each direction and a big metal telescope affixed to the floor and meant to rotate, although it did so grudgingly and only within a limited range. For me, the device merely made blurry images blurrier. I was embarrassed to admit to James how few kinds of birds I could see, here in the beating heart of the wildlife sanctuary: with his keen young eyes he was no doubt taking in all those terns and teals that the placards told us were out there.

We were still at the gazebo, me squinting hopelessly first one way and then the other, when a group of guys approached down the boardwalk. There were four of them, middle-age men dressed in greens and browns—one of them in a khaki kilt, of all things, showing his hairy legs—and they were strapped and belted with gear, satchels and leather sheaths and binoculars. Best of all, however, they were carrying tripods that, when unfolded, turned out to be telescopes. Birdwatchers! They were truly Serious Birders, as became obvious as they immediately began ticking off the names of species as they sighted them—“Caspian terns on the left,” “A pair of dunlins,” “Sandpipers, mostly Western, but a few Leasts”—all in a casual, matter-of-fact tone (Serious Birders apparently don’t squeal and and jump up and down when they identify a specimen, at least not in the presence of other Serious Birders). I still wasn’t seeing much, but now I had a better idea of where to look.

One of the birdwatchers, the bearded one, mentioned an abandoned eagles’ nest on the forested shore. I must have blurted out, “Oh! Where?,” because the next minute he was pointing out which spruce and which side and which branch. When I remained oblivious, he trained his telescope on the nest and had me look through the scope at the ragged platform of interlaced sticks and tree limbs balanced high up in the spruce. The birder informed me sagely that the young eagles had fledged and flown some weeks earlier, and ( just to prove I wasn’t a complete idiot) I ventured a comment about the two bald eagles (George and Martha) that frequent our property on the Chesapeake Bay. Soon another of the men was showing James through his telescope an osprey perched on a stump at the edge of the Sound. Afterwards, I got my chance, standing on my tippy-toes so that he wouldn’t have to lower the scope to my child-like height. As I did so, I noticed a cell phone attached over the telescope’s lens, allowing him to take digital photos of what appeared, capturing proof that he’d really seen a bird when he added its name to his Serious Birder’s Life List.

Another party was making its way out the boardwalk toward the pavilion, this one including some actual children, so I suggested to James that it was probably time for us to be heading home. As we put the broad expanse of the estuary behind us—terns, teals, dunlins, osprey and all—I considered how lucky we were that those knowledgeable and generous birdwatchers had come along when they did. Another thought struck me: There could be real beings—in this case, real birds—existing in a particular place but not immediately apparent unless one has the right equipment—a functional telescope—to see them. What to call this phenomenon? Reverse Pokémon Go, maybe.

flohdshot2Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

Copyright © 2016, Florence Newman

Hip Shots

September 5, 2016

The Door

By Catherine Bruce




The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames exposed the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Reply” section, below.

Copyright © 2016 Catherine Bruce.

Film Making in Quotes

August 20, 2016

DavidLeanDavid Lean was known to say this about the film making process: “I love making motion pictures . . . I love getting behind a camera and trying to get images on the screen. I love cutting and editing. I love putting all the parts together at the end: The sounds, the music, the dialogue. Making a movie is the greatest excitement of my life . . . I love life and I don’t want to die. I want to go on making movies.”

I’m no filmmaker myself, but Mr. Lean’s words give me a sense of what it must feel like to be one. A good quotation can do that. Here are several more small gems of wisdom from famous filmmakers, beginning with that genius Ingmar Bergman, who tells us what he thinks film isn’t: “Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and form of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings.”

RobertPennMeanwhile, movie director Robert Penn put’s his attraction to film this way: “In the theater, the reliance is on the verbal. Film is how one looks, as against what one says. On the stage, you can’t document that. You’re too far back. So what one says is what one is . . . You don’t have to say it in a film. A look, a simple look, will do it.”

Milos Forman, points out the difference, in terms of reality and unreality, between theater and film: “ . . . you know, in the theater you don’t pretend that what you see on the stage is reality. But in films. . . . automatically the photography enables you to pretend what you see on the screen is reality. So I am disturbed when in that reality I see theater.”

Bernardo Bertolucci seconds that: “My primary choice is one against the theater. I believe it is easier and better for me to shoot from reality, to take a position in the geography and environment of real space.”

ElaineMayDirector and former standup comic, Elaine May, also compared film to life, and found life wanting: “Yes, there is truth in movies. No, movies are not like life. They are constructed in advance. They have a beginning that has probably been rewritten several times, a middle that has been cut and reshaped, and an end that often has music over it. Most movies . . . have a confrontation scene that provides some kind of insight that affects the characters or the audience, or both. In life we have hundreds of such scenes, scenes in which we say the worst thing we can say, in which each person tells what he thinks is the whole truth. Two hours later we have the same scene again. Nothing has really changed. You can’t get any insights. You usually just get mad. Movies or plays can sound natural, or seem real, or have truth, but they can never be like life. After all, they’re not supposed to run over two hours. “

For some, film offers a unique opportunity to explore the unconscious mind. “I think that the nature of movies is images that are more concerned with our desires than any other part of reality. The nature of movies is to connect with our unreal selves. Freud said that every unexplained dream is a letter from the unconscious which is not opened. Dreams can put us in touch with deep realities, and films are very good nightmares.” Dusan Makavejev, Yugoslav director, offered that pithy opinion in Ciné-tracts, the Spring, 1977 issue.

That master of cinema surrealism and automatism, Luis Buñuel, agrees: “The screen is the superior way of expressing the world of dreams . . . . The cinema seems to have been invented for the expression of the subconscious.” But he thinks films often fail to do this: “My aspiration as a film viewer is to have the movie uncover something for me and this happens rarely.”

MilosForemanFor another straightforward comment, I again call on Milos Forman (that’s him at right): “For me film is a pleasure, a desire to tell stories. Everybody likes to tell stories.”

Director Arthur Penn, says: “Film offers the opportunity for constant contradiction between what is said and what is done. It’s closer to how we really experience life. I’m saying that, but I’m really feeling this. And these two things are going on at once. Ambivalence is closer to the human feeling than the simple Eugene O’Neil statement: ‘My father was a bastard.’ That sort of statement that says everything and nothing. Well, film is the exquisite medium for expressing ambivalence. A man says one thing, but his eyes are saying another thing.”

The great film director and former cartoonist—and therefore, beginning with the walls of caves, one of the original image makers—Frederico Fellini, adds this: “Indeed, what is it to make a film? It is naturally, a question of trying to bring order to certain fantasies and of narrating them with a certain exactness.”

Up to this point, our film directors have been dealing, mostly, with abstraction. Now giving his view on the story—the creative “spine” of the film as some might call it—here is actor-director Dennis Hopper: “I believe that you start a movie very slow, very slowly drag people in up to a certain point. Then, just as they get a little restless, you start socking it to them. This makes me favor the episodic structure, like music—something that moves along with short breaks in it: you keep giving people something new, keep building pressure. The you cut off, relax,  go for a ride.”

Robert Bresson claims he drags people into his movies: “As Dostoevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. th-1I think this is a good idea, because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you want to find out the reason.”

And finally, directly addressing our original question, former standup comic (with Elaine May) and award-winning film director, Mike Nichols, defined film most simply and perhaps best: “Movies are mood . . . . The thing about something that’s made right—whether it’s a novel, or an opera, or a film—has to do with being hung on a spine . . . The more solid it is, maybe the truer it is.”

Hip Shots

August 15, 2016

Street Design

By Catherine Bruce




The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames exposed the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below.

Copyright © 2016 Catherine Bruce.