Three-Minute Memoir

October 9, 2017

Witchcraft

By Florence Newman

(Click image to enlarge.)

One Halloween night, when my friend Ellie and I were about eight or nine, we went trick-or-treating door to door around our neighborhood. This was in those dangerous days before parents hovered protectively behind their costumed children to make sure that they didn’t get snatched by predators posing as genial homeowners or receive apples lanced with razor blades. Back then, we two girls were alone as we approached a stranger’s house where a glowing porch light beckoned. I recall the house being set back among some trees, with a long, serpentine brick walk leading to an old-fashioned gabled portico, but such “memories” are no doubt later embellishments conjured up to match the eeriness of what happened there.

Ellie rang the doorbell. We were dressed as society ladies in our mothers’ long gloves and pearl necklaces (we loved playing dress-up), or maybe I was Peter Pan and Ellie was Wendy, as we were one year for a class play called “Midnight in the Library,” in which characters escaped from their books and frolicked on the stage. The light from the doorway must have fallen over a charming picture of childish expectation as we stood there with our innocent, upturned faces and outstretched paper bags. “Trick or treat!” But the woman who had opened the door didn’t offer us candy. Was she short and silver-haired or young, willowy, and brunette? I guess I’ve forgotten. Or else it was hard to make out the details of her figure, back lit in the frame of the door. Certainly we were dazzled when she leaned over and told us, conspiratorially, that she was a witch.

“And I have a gift for each of you. Hold out your hand.”

Of course we did. Into my palm she pressed two copper pennies, then two more into Ellie’s.

“These are magic pennies. Promise you won’t lose them.”

We nodded solemnly, conscious of the awesome power with which we were being entrusted. As we left, Ellie and I looked at each other: she was grinning and her eyes had a mischievous twinkle. Did we believe the pennies were really magic? I, at least, believed they might be. After all, we had read about magic in the Narnia stories and in The Hobbit and The Time Garden and The Enchanted Castle. And before those, there had been fairy tales, like Jack and the Beanstalk, which taught us that the world was filled with magic that one could stumble across at any time and that only grown-ups foolishly rejected. Now here was a grown-up who not only believed in magic but was herself a witch, proving what every child secretly wishes to be true.

I never put the pennies to the test: what if they failed, shattering my fragile faith, already under assault by life’s steady barrage of the banal and ordinary? But neither did I lose them. Every now and then, 55-odd years on, when I’m looking for something else, I come across a battered leather box in a bureau drawer and discover inside it an ornate, antique key, badly tarnished; several unmatched buttons; and a square plastic container, about one inch by one inch, through whose top I can see two copper pennies. All thoughts of my original purpose are crowded out by recollections of that night, my friend Ellie (does she still have her pennies?), and the remarkable woman who claimed to be a witch. I am old enough now to be such a witch—a short, silver-haired one—though, as I mentioned, it’s hard to catch children alone on Halloween anymore. Witches were probably scarce even in those long-ago days. Still, I can aspire to be the rare woman who passes along that truly magical gift.

Florence 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 © 2017, Florence Newman
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Penny Postcard

February 1, 2017
postcdf-b-blog(Click image to enlarge.)

This poetic Valentine’s Day card was postmarked Perry Ill., 4 p.m., Feb. 13, 1911. The man who mailed it could expect that his beloved, “Birdie,” would have it in her hand the very next day—Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. In those days, first-class mail was delivered morning and afternoon and postcards required only a one-cent postage stamp. Note also that in this case the card was mailed and delivered sans street name or number. Small town—everyone knows everyone else—therefore, no street address required. What ever happened to that wonderful postal system? Well, for one thing, Time happened.


Today’s Quote

January 6, 2017

vance-4“I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill-workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

Harper Collins, New York, 2016


Evolution of a “Gag” Idea

December 20, 2016

The above sketch is the first sloppy glimmer of a cartoon idea, one I thought worth developing. (Click images to enlarge.) Note that in this early stage I’m already making edits to the caption. By the end of the process, the idea suggested by the doodle will become something else altogether.

Once I have a visual idea, I use tracing paper to refine the image. My goal is to sharpen the drawing without losing the vitality of the original, something I find difficult to achieve. Here I’m also using the side of my pencil lead to freely suggest a possible shading scheme for the final drawing. (I use blue pencil because it’s cleaner to work with than graphite.) Meanwhile, I’ve also begun to play with a very different idea for the caption. It’s not unusual for one of my cartoon ideas to change by a word or two, but for the caption to do a complete flip — as happened in this case — is rare.

Back to the drawing. In stage three of the process I go over the lines, this time in ink, still trying to keep the image as “spontaneous” as possible. My line work generally fails to express the illusion of volume and shape that I’m after, so I add shading with a black Prismacolor pencil. After working a bit more to sharpen the new caption, I scan the inked image into Photoshop for the final cleanup. My goal is to make the corrections, additions, deletions, size changes, etc., appear to be as “natural” — as un-computer-like — as possible.

And finally, here’s the finished cartoon. You’ll notice that I’ve decided to go with the second, “too old for me” version of the caption, which I’m convinced is the better punchline. But I could be wrong. What do you think—did I make the right choice?

This is an edited re-post from March 6, 2013
Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore.

Halloween Poem

October 14, 2016

The Physics of Pumpkins

By Florence Newman

Pumpkins1
“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

Three-Minute Memoir

September 18, 2016

Birdwatching

By Florence Newman

rainier2

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

Today’s Quotes

July 22, 2016

Excerpts from a letter by Adam Smith, LL.D., to William Strahan, Esq., about the death of David Hume.

November 9, 1776

DEAR SIR,

adam-smithIt is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behaviour or our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness . . . . His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying . . . . But, though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require: it was a subject indeed which occurred pretty frequently, in consequence of the inquires which these friends, who came to see him, naturally made concerning the state of his health . . . .

thThus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.

Adam Smith