Today’s Quote

March 9, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard

From My Saga, Part 1, NYT Magazine, March 1, 2015

Translated by Ingvild Burkey from the Norwegian
Photo: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Rex Features

Karl-Ove1“When we drove out of Cleveland a few hours later, I was worried. I hadn’t seen anything yet that I could write about. To be able to describe something, you have to feel some kind of emotional attachment to it, however faint. The external has to awaken something within; nothing means anything in itself, it is the resonance it produces, in the soul and in the language, that gives meaning to the thing described. Cleveland meant nothing to me.”

Five-Minute Memior

March 1, 2014


Text and photographs by Florence Newman


We met on the single-lane road that runs straight out from the village of Halkirk to Loch Calder then takes a sharp left and meanders along the shoreline out to a hunting lodge at the foot of Ben Dorrery.  My morning walks only took me as far as the loch, about two hours round trip, timed so that I could have breakfast back at the Ulbster Arms Hotel with my husband before he and the other anglers set out for their beats on the Thurso. If I missed breakfast, I’d be unlikely to see Howard again until the late afternoon, when they’d all come off the river with the salmon they’d caught or at least with stories of the ones that had shown, leapt, spurned the fly, thrown the hook or otherwise gotten away. (Click images for larger views.)

Some mornings, Dunny would arrive in the opposite direction from me, appearing as a small dot on the distant asphalt, disappearing for a minute or two when the road dipped slightly, but approaching steadily, laboriously, on his rusty bicycle, his little dog running along beside him.  LandscapeDunny was short and may have once been stocky, but was now merely barrel-chested and wiry.  He wore a loose white shirt and a gold necklace, the shirt unbuttoned far enough to expose a tuft of grizzled hair on his chest.  His face was weathered, with cherubic red cheeks and blue eyes by turns mirthful and shrewd.  When he smiled, which was often, he displayed a set of teeth so incongruously complete and uniform that they must have been dentures.  His snowy hair curled at his collar.  That first day, we somehow fell into conversation, although given Dunny’s heavy Scottish brogue I only understood one word out of three and mostly grinned and nodded to cover my incomprehension.  I suspect that my primary appeal for Dunny was that I was female—never mind that I was in my fifties and had just hauled myself makeup-less out of bed and into my sweatshirt and windpants.  But also we shared an appreciation for the wide fields and low hills that spread out on either side of us, smattered with yellow and blue wildflowers and riven with trickling burnies. I remember that at that first meeting, Dunny said to me, clearly pleased, “I thin’ ye laik this pairt o’ the road,” which I took to mean “this part of the world,” though the literal meaning would have been equally true.

Donny McPhee was a gypsy, a fact in which he took great pride.  His first name sounded like “Dunny” in the local dialect, so that’s what I called him, splitting the difference between “Donny” and “Danny.”  His surname, McPhee, is apparently a common one among Scottish gypsies: it means (more or less) “of the fairies,” and I wondered if the gypsies had adopted the name to emphasize their distinction from ordinary people.  In addition to his rather raffish style, Dunny flaunted his ability with animals, purportedly a hereditary trait among Travelers (as Celtic gypsies often call themselves).  There was the terrier, Queenie, who sat at Dunny’s feet, gazing attentively at his face as if waiting for her next command.  Lady2Dunny also owned a white horse named Lady, who was staked out on a long rope on the grassy riverbank near the Ulbster Arms.  Lady, I was repeatedly told, performed tricks for Dunny, but I never saw any of them.  In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing Dunny and Lady together, though he must have led her into and out of the pasture morning and evening.  She was far from neglected, since I and fellow passersby would regularly coax her to the fence with an apple or other treat.  Nonetheless, like Dunny, she gave the impression that her better days, more active and more colorful, were behind her.  That Dunny prided himself on how well he’d trained his animals was evident from his chagrin one day when, stopped beside a tangle of brush at the roadside, Queenie plunged into the brambles and then refused to come out, despite her master’s increasingly frustrated calls, whistles, and remonstrances.  She had encountered some creature (a weasel, perhaps) that put up a fight—the bush thrashed about as if caught in a storm and emitted occasional high-pitched yips and squeaks.  Queenie eventually emerged from the briars, empty-mawed, but Dunny was mortified, having failed to uphold his reputation as an animal whisperer.

Queenie went everywhere with Dunny, trotting at the end of a leash tied to the handlebar of his bike when he rode.  Dunny was keenly interested in what wildlife I’d seen on my walk and perked up noticeably if I mentioned seeing rabbits.  The anglers joked that Dunny poached trout and salmon from the river; I don’t doubt that when no one was looking Dunny unleashed Queenie and sent her into the fields to find something to eat, legal or illegal.  It seems that Dunny had had a series of such canine accomplices, all named Queenie, over the years.  Maybe it was only with this particular Queenie that the gypsy mystique had not entirely taken.  At this stage of his life, poaching was probably just a pretext for Dunny to cycle the roads early in the morning.  He would tell me how different the countryside had been when he was young, how there had been no wire fences to prevent him from rambling freely for miles over the moors, how no one would complain then about trespassers, how there had been far more coneys and far fewer cars.  FencesAs an American, I had been astonished at Britain’s permissive policies toward hikers (don’t litter, don’t bother the sheep, and be sure to close the gate behind you).  A reluctant suburbanite, I reveled in the undisturbed natural beauty, the isolation and open spaces, of northernmost Scotland.  But I nodded sympathetically while Dunny railed against the changes wrought by progress, trying to imagine that even wilder, freer world he had roamed as a boy.  At least I think that was what he was railing against: his brogue was so rich and his diction so foreign that at times he might as well have been speaking Swahili.  I followed the general subjects of our conversation—the countryside in the past, the countryside today, the weather—but the specifics eluded me.  Once we were standing mid-road talking about what we’d seen that morning and Danny referred several times to “the vex.”  “Pardon?” I said.  “The vex,” repeated Dunny in that tone usually reserved for the hard of hearing or the mentally impaired.  “What?”  Finally, very loudly and with annoyance, “F-O-X. Vex.”  Now it was my turn to be mortified.

Although our relationship was entirely innocent, I was pleased that Dunny had recognized in me a kindred spirit, and I was protective, if not of him, at least of our special friendship, forged and for the most part conducted on the Halkirk-Loch Calder road.  Every July when Howard and I would come to Halkirk for his fishing week on the Thurso, Gorge1I could count on running into Dunny at least two or three mornings, and he would walk his bike beside me for a stretch if we happened to be going in the same direction or, if we were going in opposite directions, stop and chat with me (although I would fidget internally, feeling torn between lingering in the road and getting back to the hotel for breakfast).  Dunny always beamed when he saw me—“Ach, an’ it’s yersel’ again”—whether two days or an entire year had elapsed since we last met.

I was the one who spoiled the magic, I’m afraid.  Howard and his fishing partners knew about my meetings with Dunny, of course, but only because I told them. Queenie alone witnessed what transpired between us.  Then one year just after our arrival in Halkirk I happened to spot Dunny with his bicycle in front of the Ulbster Arms.  Without thinking, I ran over and gave him a hug, a gesture far more demonstrative than he was expecting or, I immediately realized, was appropriate.  He may have been tickled to have his machismo confirmed so publicly but I knew I had transgressed.  Moreover, Howard’s fishing group, who had watched the scene, started ribbing me over my “boyfriend.”  Their curiosity about Dunny did supply us with further information: he lived in one of the council houses (the British equivalent of public housing) on Crescent Street; there had been a wife, now estranged; his nephew, Danny McPhee,  had recorded several CDs of accordion music, available for purchase in the local shops.

A more complete picture of Dunny unfortunately led to further erosion of the barrier between our serendipitous but temporally and spacially limited friendship and the rest of our lives elsewhere.  One evening Howard brought back from the river a big, lovely brown trout, that most despised of all catches among anglers fly-fishing for salmon.  Instead of discarding it on the riverbank, as was the custom, Howard had the idea that Dunny might like to have the fine, fat trout for dinner, so off we went down Crescent Street looking for Dunny’s house along the row of council houses, identical except for the small, cement-walled gardens in front of each.  We eventually found one that matched the description we’d been given. An old bicycle leaned against the garden well, a likely sign.  Cliff2We knocked at the door and there was Dunny, rather startled to see us but gracious enough to invite us inside once Howard had explained about the trout.  We sat in a snug parlor rendered even snugger by overstuffed chairs, a t.v. set circa 1968, shelves full of bric-a-brac and framed photographs, and a wall displaying at least a half a dozen cuckoo clocks.  There was something very domestic about the room, a feminine touch, as if Dunny had just left things the way they were when the estranged wife walked out.  Howard asked polite questions, but he understood even less of Dunny’s speech than I did and mostly smiled and nodded when Dunny replied. Dunny’s smoker’s cough, which I’d noticed more in recent years, rumbled deep in his barrel chest.  The awkward exchanges alternated with awkward silences, exacerbated by the asynchronous ticking(s) of the clocks.  Dunny showed us a couple of his nephew’s CDs (“Danny McPhee, Star of the North”), pointing to his own accordion in a corner by way of translation.  Of course, Howard insisted that Dunny must play for us.  Dunny demurred, Howard cajoled, and Dunny took up the box and squeezed out a jaunty tune, fumbling occasionally and apologizing afterward that he was not nearly as good as his famed nephew.  Perhaps he had wanted to play all along, perhaps his performance was part of the grand Scottish tradition of music-making in private homes, perhaps I should remember the moment as especially intimate, the culmination of a long journey begun en route to Loch Calder.  But it felt all wrong to me—the unannounced visit, the charitable donation (rich Americans on holiday patronize local pensioner), the coerced accordion concert, the intrusion of the personal into the casual, the forced familiarity. The room was too close.  We should be outside.  Another transgression.

The following year, the weather was more dreary than usual, and I encountered Dunny only once on my walks: he preferred days when the haze lifted early, the sky showed blue, the cloud-cast shadows scudded swiftly over the hillsides, and the white-capped mountain peaks were visible on the southern horizon. Headlands To him, perhaps, my appearance on the road was an indication that summer had indeed come, like the blooming of the thistle and the sheering of the sheep.  Queenie still plodded along beside the bike, her tongue quivering with the effort.  Dunny seemed unchanged, except that the cough rolled a bit longer and more frequently when he laughed.  “Ye maun laik this pairt o’ the road,” he said with a grin before we parted.

The next year I didn’t see Dunny at all.  Queenie had been hit and killed by a car in front of the Ulbster Arms, I was told, where Crescent Street meets Bridge Street: losing his dog seemed to have broken Dunny’s spirit, he didn’t get out very often, Lady had been moved to a farm near Lybster.  The following summer when I arrived at the hotel, Howard’s fishing partner said he had some sad news: “Your friend Dunny McPhee has died.”  He’d died, it turned out, not long after we left Halkirk the previous July and had been buried in the Thurso municipal cemetery.

I missed my meetings with Dunny.  I missed even more the possibility that he would be pedaling his bike down the road between the fields, watching for rabbits and birds and foxes, with the sun on his back and the wind in his face and Queenie running alongside him.  Later that week, when I climbed the headlands above the Pentland Firth, it occurred to me that Dunny must have been there in his ramblings as a young man, so I plucked some daisies from the clumps that grew defiantly on the cliffs overlooking the sea, carried them back down in my fanny pack, and drove to the Thurso cemetery.  Dunny’s grave was in a newer portion, up against a white-washed wall, still topped with dirt through which some green shoots were beginning to grow.  A gleaming black headstone had been erected, a delicate rose etched in one corner. It was inscribed



Memory Of


WHO DIED 28th JULY 2007




Williamina’s name had the same prominence as her husband’s and there was room on the stone for her death date and age when the time came. Beloved Dunny.  I left my daisies on the turned earth and walked away.

© Copyright 2014, Florence Newman.

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.

Doodlemeister is looking for short first-person observations up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style, for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you saw, experienced—or simply thought about—please contact us by e-mail at


June 1, 2009

By Susan Middaugh

The dress hung in my mother’s attic for over 20 years and in my basement for nearly a decade. Crop4BlurThe heavy plastic, which protected the gown after its one and only wearing, had collected dust and grime from years of neglect. But the contents of the plastic bag, sealed tightly by a local dry cleaner, who may have been a curator in a previous life, retained the same winsome appeal that had attracted me in the first place. It was still a pretty dress, simple but elegant, with a single row of flowers down the front and along the bottom edge. The dry cleaner had even taken the trouble to shape the dress in a female form and fluffed it throughout with pink tissue paper, visible at the neck.

After my parents died, my brother and sisters and I divvied up stuff that had accumulated during our parents’ 45-year marriage. One of the items I became the custodian of was my own wedding dress. Although divorced for many years, I couldn’t bear to toss it. Maybe my teenage daughter, Liza, would want to wear it someday. When I got home, I threw the dress — gently — giving it plenty of room, into a basement closet, containing extra leaves for my dining room table, some curtain rods and an old suitcase, and promptly forgot about it.

With the approach of Liza’s 25th birthday, it was time for me to take stock of this still lovely size-nine dress that had hung in a closet for nearly 30 years. Although there were no nuptials in Liza’s forecast, the prospect of revisiting “something old, something new, something borrowed . . . ” was in my mind, if not in hers. Looking around for a family precedent, I found there was none. My own mother, who had married during the war, wore a suit, flowered hat, and modest furs for the occasion. Mom did not save her wedding garments for me and my four younger sisters — except in black and white photographs. What about my grandmothers, one married twice, the other dead by the time I was seven? With Mona and Nana, the subject of wedding dresses never came up.

As a rule, the women in my family don’t like hand me downs. Except for me, they don’t buy at thrift stores or consignment shops. They like to open a gift and see the tags. They like being first. They like new. Hand me downs weren’t an issue for me as a child because I am the oldest. As an adult, I like finding something of value in a second-hand shop — whether a sturdy bookcase for my office, a sweater in mint condition or a Dana Buchman skirt at a considerable discount. If in the first or second wearing, the clothing still carries another woman’s scent, I don’t mind. I breathe deep and for a moment pretend to be someone else — a woman from a different century perhaps, another race, thinner, younger, wiser, funnier. For whatever reason, this woman has cast off and recycled this garment instead of tossing it in the dustbin or wearing it herself till it is threadbare. I am the beneficiary. Secondhand is not necessarily second best so long as there is life and laundry detergent.

Given my own family’s preference for new, who are the women who pass down their wedding dresses to daughters, granddaughters or nieces and do so with an expectation of receptivity? Certainly there are practical aspects to this tradition. An obvious one is that the wedding garment fits or may be altered to fit the bride; another that she likes the taste or style of her relative. A more subtle consideration and perhaps the overriding one: was the donor’s marriage essentially a happy one? Did the man and woman truly love one another? It seems to me that women who have had happy marriages are more inclined to want to share those feelings in a symbolic way – through the gift or loan of a wedding dress.

What then of former brides like myself whose marriages ended in divorce? According to the statistics, we are one out of every two. Do we do our daughters a favor, do we have their best interests in mind if we expect them to clothe themselves in our past? Because I hope my daughter will fare better in affairs of the heart and in matrimony than I did the first time, I chose to donate my wedding dress to charity. It is my hope that a stranger will see the dress for what it is — gently used and with some history, but no baggage.

I can see her now, a young June bride very much in love and with high hopes, as she raises the plastic covering. “What a pretty dress. Simple yet elegant. Let me try it on.”

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Her personal essay, Turning Green, was published on this blog on April 21, 2009. To read it, check out the April archives in the sidebar. Also in the sidebar, under the blogroll, business and writing labels, there are links to Susan’s Have Pen Will Travel website.

Photo Illustration Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

Audrey’s House

June 16, 2008

Audrey Herman 1920—1999

When my friend Jacquie Roland read a recent “Today’s Pic” caption which mentioned the death of Audrey Herman, founder of Baltimore’s Spotlighter’s Theater (see May 26 post), she was inspired to write another of her epic comments. Of course I recognized Jacquie’s piece for what it was, a neat personal essay about her experiences as a community theater actress which—in addition to cartoonist, clown, painter, writer, etc.,—is another of Jacquie’s creative incarnations. Her memoir appears below, illustrated with several of my “Zorba” rehearsal images. In the photograph above, also taken at that production, I simply asked Audrey to “play to the light,” resulting in a wonderful “drama queen” pose. Behind her hand is a fragment of one of the wallpapered corner “poles” mentioned by Jacquie in her essay.

Having moved away from Baltimore a long time ago, I was unaware of Audrey Herman’s passing. People like Audrey, and John Waters’ “Edie the Egg Lady” and “Divine,” still represent Baltimore for me. Audrey kept her theater going through thick and thin, and sometimes—the thin times—there would be more actors on stage than out front. Once, we went on for an audience of three, but I also remember people doing the damnedest things to get in to see a show. During the “Zorba” production, for instance, an older Greek gentleman came to see the play who didn’t speak much English. Tom Karras, our director, and Greek himself, went out front to explain—in Greek—that we had no seats left. “Ahh,” the old fellow said, and nodded. He went away and in a few minutes he was back, all smiles, carrying one of those plastic and chrome kitchen chairs from the fifties. Tom placed the chair as close as he could to the stage without it being in the actors way, but for the rest of that performance we all had to “cheat”—that is, fudge our moves—around it.

Audrey was phenomenal as the older woman in “Zorba.” I remember another thing about her—the PERFUME. In the small Spotlighter’s theater we didn’t need to see her coming—her scent preceded her. One evening, when told that a newspaper reporter wanted a backstage interview with photos, Audrey said “sure Hon.” Without checking her hair, or adding more lipstick, she just splashed on more perfume.

The Spotlighter’s was a real theater with real actors who gave their all—and without pay. We had our stars, and some were as accomplished as any you’d find on Broadway, and sometimes as temperamental. Sharon Weaver rehearsing a song for the Spotlighter\'s production of \But if you had one of them in your show you knew you’d draw an audience for every performance. Joe Ciminio in “Zorba” or the “The Night of the Iguana,” his wife Audrey Ciminio in “The King and I,” Sharon Auerbach Weaver (pictured at right and below, rehearsing her featured song from Zorba) in any damned thing. More than a few went to bigger things in theater and film. Just three examples: Bess Armstrong worked in movies with actors like Alan Alda and Tom Selleck. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., starred in the films “Ragtime” and “A Soldier’s Story.” Josh Charles was in “Hair Spray,” “Dead Poets Society” and is currently working in a hit television show with Gabe Byrne. We always had two shows at a time at “Spots,” one in rehearsal and one running. The rehearsing show had the theater during the week and the latest production owned the weekend. Also on the weekend were auditions for upcoming shows (early afternoons only). Once or twice I was in a show, rehearsing for a show, and auditioning for another show—all in the same week. I also had a day job and worked as a freelance cartoonist on the side. For ten years I barely went home. When not rehearsing or performing, we all hung out in the local watering holes. A favorite spot in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon area was called “The Great American Melting Pot,” or “Gampy’s,” and we’d often share that space with local TV people. Like Oprah, for instance. During her years in Baltimore Oprah was a regular at Gampy’s after her evening TV weather spot. The casts of other shows would sometimes meet at the “Hippo,” a gay bar in Mount Vernon, or at a disco called “Girard’s,” which some claimed looked just like “Studio 54.” Once at Girard’s Oprah was a judge and I was her pick for the final costume parade. I was dressed as a naked transvestite dwarf wizard. (Don’t ask. Anyhow, I came in second.) Oprah even picked my music—”Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” by Rod Stewart. Add to all that activity the cast parties, birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween parties, and dining in the Inner Harbor area of South Baltimore, it’s no wonder I got the idea the term “party animals” was coined for us.

When we weren’t hanging out, or visiting each others shows, we were cementing our relationships by attending everything theatrical that came to Baltimore (we had season tickets). Trips to New York to see the “pros” act, were somehow sandwiched in. When a Spotlighter’s show closed you felt as if some part of you was lost forever. And sometimes it was. We all performed at other theaters, but the “Spot’s” was home. We were like each others family. (Wait, a minute—did that make Audrey the MOM?!! That sexy lady of a certain age would have hated to think so.)

We say that Spotlighter’s is a theater “in the round.” That’s a misnomer. The stage is actually square, with square, weight-bearing pillars—we called them “poles”—at each corner. Those poles were an integral part of the theater not just because they held up the roof. We walked around them, stood beside them, made them part of the decor. They were wallpapered, sanded, painted and tiled. They were stained from years of actors grabbing them to keep from falling off the stage, and blood stained at times from actors tearing into them at full force during dark entrances and exits. In one play Joe Cimino ran into a pole during a fast exit but no one in the audience knew because the lights were out. When Joe burst through the curtains backstage, however, his face was covered in blood. He had a cut over his eyebrow, and it bled like a—well, let’s just say it bled a lot. But, as some dingbat once said, “the show must go on,” and it did.

Accidents happen, problems occur, but for whatever reason theater people seem more adaptable than most. They can also be more volatile. Joe Cimino, for instance. In “Zorba” he was one intense, focused actor—he WAS Zorba. For one scene in that production Tom Karras hired, out of his own pocket, a real belly dancer to tempt Joe’s character. She performed barefoot, and in the preceding scene, Zorba smashes an old style vinyl record. The prop record had been preset—carefully broken into three pieces—then glued back together. At the scene change I was one of two women singing to, and taunting Zorba. Part of our job was remove the three pieces of vinyl from the stage floor so the belly dancer could come on and safely do her moves. No problem, until one night Joe—so into the moment—smashes the record into not three but what seemed like a thousand pieces. We were in big trouble, with no way to clear the shards before the barefoot belly dancer’s cue. I turned to the other Zorba “taunter” and said, “whatever I do, go with it.” When our song began I twirled straight to Joe, grabbed him and suggestively slid down his front. I spent the rest of my impromptu and self-assigned, “star turn” singing and “tempting” and at the same time sweeping the entire stage with my glittery net gown. I rocked, rolled and writhed, and swept the shards off the apron. Tom didn’t know WHAT it was all about until he got backstage and the crew told him. (Until that point, he thought I had lost my mind.)

Once I saw a Broadway play starring Carol Channing and Christopher Reeve. Carol’s part made her out to be meticulous in her person and fanatically clean in her home. At some point, a piece of crumpled paper not in the script had fallen on the stage. Channing and Reeve spent the entire scene kicking it out of their way and walking around it, which only pulled focus and made the audience stare at it. Neither of them would “break character” long enough to get rid of the damned thing. They were too “professional.” Well, that ruined the play for me. At the Audery Herman’s Spotlighter’s, we’d have picked it up with our teeth, if need be. We’d have made Audrey “Mom” Herman proud.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.