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Queen of the Fabricated Memoir

18 Oct

When I see news stories of faked memoirs, I remember that I was once taken in by a memoir so persuasive and transporting that I would forgive the author anything.  “Write another!” I would tell her.

I found a copy in a second-hand store when I was 14, but already bookish enough to note that it had been printed in 1929 and was a first edition, and to assume, from the endpapers and the name on the spine, that it was the story – the adventures – of a girl I would like to be.  She grew up on a clipper ship in the South Pacific.  Just the life for me!  I would not learn for almost 50 years that the book was regarded as a great hoax – a book that was presented as autobiography, but was, in fact, pure fiction.

In the early weeks of 1929, Joan Lowell, 26 years old, was having the time of her life.  Her publishers, Simon & Schuster, had told her that the first run of 75,000 copies of her debut book would be followed by another 75,000 before the month was out.  It was receiving ecstatic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and best of all, the fledgling Book of the Month Club had announced its March choice: “Cradle of the Deep,” the story of a girl raised on the China seas by her sea-captain father.  The public embraced the story and it was selling briskly – the Great Depression was just a cloud on the horizon.

Simon & Schuster gave a publishing party for Joan and 500 guests onboard the Isle de France in New York Harbor.  Among those invited was director D.W. Griffith, who announced that he would film the story and star Lowell as herself – not a stretch, actually, because Joan had been an ingénue in Hollywood and landed a bit part in Charlie Chaplin’s “Gold Rush.”  Perhaps her mentor Edward L. Bernays was among the guests.   And surely her new – fairly new – husband, playwright Thompson Buchanan, was by her side.  They had left Los Angeles together to come to New York City to become successful writers, to become stage actors—to become famous.

Birth records show that Joan was born in Berkeley, California, in 1902 and that her birth name was Lazzarevich.  Later she would supply the 1936 edition of Who’s Who with the information that her father was Captain Nicholas Wagner and her mother was Emma Lowell Trask (she would act under the names Lowell and Trask).  Candidates for Who’s Who traditionally supplied their own data, including DOB, and the publisher took the subjects’ information at face value.  Joan’s birth name and date of birth are often missing in biographical data.  Much of Joan’s information on Wikipedia is wrong, especially the account of her early childhood, which is taken straight from her book.

Joan attended Berkeley High School and the Munson School for Private Secretaries in San Francisco, but she must have been dissatisfied with her prospects because around 1923 or 1924 she went for a visit to Los Angeles, where she was soon cast as an unnamed saloon girl in Chaplin’s film.

She was in two more silent films, “Cold Nerve” and “Loving Lies.”  She got third billing in the last, a melodrama about seafaring lives which was written by writer/actor Thompson Buchanan.  After meeting on this project, they decided to go east together and seek their fortunes.  While they were both acting in a traveling troupe, they secretly married.

In New York City, Joan tried her hand at acting, playwriting and journalism.  She came under the wing of Bernays, known as the father of modern public relations.  It was he who encouraged her to put her “yarns” into a book.

In “The Cradle of the Deep,” Joan, raised from infancy to 17 onboard her sea captain father’s clipper ship, comes of age in an unusual and exclusively male environment.  She learns domestic skills from the sailmaker and the cook; she learns arithmetic by calculating her father’s course; she studies cultures when the ship puts in at exotic ports; and when she asks about sex, her father allows her to assist in the dissection of a pregnant shark.  Joan was every girl’s heroine; feisty and adventurous, following the sailor’s code: Never squeal on anyone, take punishment without a squawk, and never show fear.  My code as well.  And although I lived totally landlocked, it seemed important to me, too, to learn to spit into the wind.

Lowell’s immediate success blew up in her face.  The questions began, including whether a girl who had demonstrably lived most of her life in Berkeley, attended Berkeley High School and a San Francisco secretarial school could have racked up 100,000 nautical miles on the open seas.  Most vociferous were sailing experts who questioned her savvy – gained, they claimed, “20,000 leagues away from the sea.”

There was a powerful backlash against the book, and it was said that members mailed it back by the thousands to the Book of the Month Club, which paid in full.   It was not that readers hated the book, or hated the author.  It was that they had loved the book extravagantly, and were heartbroken to learn that it was fiction.

In England, where the book was popular, readers laughed at what they called “an absorbing scuffle in Printer’s Alley.”  They labeled it autobiographical narrative, perhaps another term for what recently is being called fictionalized memoir.  “We on this side of the water are less concerned that our light reading should be veridical.  All we ask is that it should be reasonably well written and amusing enough to carry us . . . so that we shall not mind a stretching of our credulity now and again,” said the Observer.

Lowell’s own response – the only relevant quote I could find – is the claim that “Truth is contained as much in the dreams and legends of people as in the factual chronicle of their lives.”  The book continued to be categorized as nonfiction.  In “80 Years of Bestsellers From the New York Times,” it is listed as No. 3 of the top 10 bestsellers of 1929, with the note “The sensational spit-in-the-wind ‘Cradle of the Deep’ followed in ‘Trader Horn’s’ footsteps.”  That reference is to the book by Alfred Aloysius Horn recounting his youth as an ivory trader in Central Africa – supposedly a true story.

I knew nothing of this controversy, I hadn’t been born yet.  My family in St. Clair County, Alabama, made an annual trip to Birmingham to visit the dentist and do Christmas shopping.  I had very early discovered the city’s second-hand bookstore.  There I found a battered copy of “Cradle” and it became my favorite book, for years my most revisited book.  I was especially thrilled by the scene in which young Joan witnesses childbirth on a Pacific isle.  I  knew nothing about sex or childbirth.  This girl was boldly pursuing the subjects that puzzled me.

Years later, when my children were young and we spent summers on Big Cranberry Isle in Maine, at the church bazaar and yard sales old copies of “Cradle of the Deep” would turn up for a quarter or even a dime.  Copies were still plentiful,  because between them the publisher and the book club had run off thousands.  I bought copies for my girls and for their friends.  These young readers loved the book  as much as I had.

Twenty years later, when my oldest daughter decided to try her hand at turning the book into a screenplay, I had to pay a bookfinder $60 to locate a copy.   To help expedite the screenplay, I volunteered to try to track the copyright renewals.  A few lines on the Internet alerted me to the book’s history as a hoax, and my focus switched from the book to its author.

On a trip to California, I searched the Berkeley Archives and visited the Alameda County Courthouse and its museum room.  The Academy library in Los Angeles came up with her film credits and a publicity still that showed her as a classic beauty, with the strong  jaw, nose, and brow of beauties of that time – Irene Dunne, Joan Bennett.

I also searched magazine and newspaper archives.  There was another disappointment in 1929, after her book was dragged through the mud.  In September, Thompson Buchanan opened a play at Christopher Morley’s Hoboken Theatre with Joan in the lead role.  The play closed two weeks later.  A New York Times reporter tracked the author to his apartment at Washington Place and asked him directly about a report that the couple might file for divorce because of what their spokespeople had called a “recently discovered incompatibility of temperament.”

Buchanan told the reporter, “I did not know what temperament was until the failure of my play ‘The Star of Bengal,’ in which my wife was starred.”

Undaunted by these reversals, Joan sank what was left of her book money into writing and filming “Adventure Girl” (1934) in the West Indies and Central America, with the vague notion it would prove that although “Cradle of the Deep” was not true autobiography, it might as well have been.  After all, she added, “Any damn fool can be accurate – and dull.”

In this “fact and fiction” talkie, Joan plays herself as she is buffeted by a hurricane, battles a boa constrictor and an octopus, and is nearly burned at the stake by hostile  natives (“most of whom are smiling in amusement,” noted a review).  By now, she was billing herself as a globetrotting explorer, skilled mariner and deep-sea diver … don’t laugh, the movie turned a profit for RKO.  She was finally living the life she had imagined for herself.

That life continued to be one of high adventure.  In 1935, on a cruise, she fell in love with the ship’s captain, who inspired her with his ambition to carve an empire out of the Brazilian jungle.  He didn’t believe she could do it; to prove she could, she lived on a remote beach, where he was supposed to pick her up a year later.  He didn’t show up.  She tracked him to New York City, where he’d been offered the job of director of the Port of New York.  Persuading him to follow their dream, she married her captain and they went to Brazil, with little capital but lots of energy.

They took on the job of building a 100-mile road into the jungle in the state of Goiaz.  After three years of backbreaking labor, along with the workers they could find, they finished the road.  The reward: Land.  Thousands of acres.

Even her death in the Brazilian jungle in 1967 was dramatic and mysterious and unexplained.  Her obituary in the New York Times declared that her book “created one of the most sensational literary controversies of its time.”  I looked over my clips and notes and photocopies again after the James Frey affair had run in the press and on TV for longer than seemed justified.  I picked up her book again.  How important had it been to me as a young reader to believe that the book was true?  At the time, I was convinced – the endpapers alone are convincing, with their map of Joan’s adventures, her portrait and the reference to her as Joan Lowell, the Captain’s daughter.  I would not have wanted to be told that the story was not authentic.  Nor would I have wanted my money back.  I would keep the book.  In spite of its history, it is one of those cherished books, read and reread and passed on.

You eat WHAT for breakfast?

10 Aug


“Bulgar,” I respond, “an ancient grain from the Middle East that’s still eaten everywhere. In Turkey it’s been a staple for more than a thousand years–in pilafs, soups and side dishes, sometimes served instead of rice or potatoes. And it’s delicious.”


In the photo, along with the cooked grains I’ve added a Portobello mushroom and a couple of ripe tomatoes, roasted on the stovetop in a little hot olive oil ὰ la Alain Bourdain.

I learned to cook bulgar from famed  anthropologist John Murra when he came to Florida  to walk through the Everglades with me and my friend Loeffler, who had once been his student.

John, retired, still carried metal in his body from the time when, barely out of his teens, he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigade, at one point leading a contingent of wounded men over the border to a safe camp  in France. I cornered John in my kitchen one morning because I wanted to grill him on Loeffler’s former wives and girlfriends—he had known them all—but instead found myself learning how to make bulgar.

Murra’s Bulgar Recipe

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a pot. Add 1 cup bulgar and toast the grains, stirring, two or three minutes. Add 2 cups of broth (chicken, beef or vegetable) or water. Cook with lid on for about 20 minutes. This makes enough for three or four servings. I always make enough  for breakfast 3 or 4 times a week. (1 serving = 150 calories.)


I have a whole role of film of our Everglades walk, John and Loeffler with their eyes down and  heads together, talking, talking, oblivious of the tropical jungle around  them, strange cypress knees poking up, a gray heron flying overhead.


John’s great contribution to Andean Studies was his model of “vertical archipelagos,” the organization by which the Inca Empire ruled and communicated and  the system  by which it  moved and distributed vast amounts of goods across distances separated by mountain peaks. He received many honors, including the Great Cross of the Order of the Sun by government of Peru.

Here’s my favorite story about John  Murra.

When he was teaching at Vassar College, the school defended  him against the US government’s effort to deport him for his time in Spain and his leftist politics. Many flocked to his defense. One character witness was a US Navy Admiral—John’s former father-in-law.

Murra won.

The Perfect London Walk

24 Sep

perfect London walk book jpg

When Roger Ebert died, I realized that I was grateful to him for two things.  First, he was the most interesting communicant on my Twitter feed and I always looked forward to his Tweets. He was generous with his film reviews and thoughts, and when he found interesting sites, he always shared the links.

Thinking I would miss them, I remembered an earlier gift from Mr. Ebert. The year his little book THE PERFECT LONDON WALK came out in England, I picked up a copy when I was in London for a few days to see my daughter, an archeology student. I was staying at Brown’s Hotel, where I was treating myself to a couple of nights before moving to my usual B&B at the side of the British Museum. As I recall, I decided to do the walk with the book held open in front of me.  I had a day to do this; why not? I remember …

I wake up, eat an English breakfast, and take the Underground to the Belsize Park stop, studying the map on the way, then exit onto Haverstock Hill and start walking. “Cross the street and turn half-right down Hampstead Green,” I read.  Half-right? O.K.  I pass a pizza parlor that was once a bookstore where George Orwell had worked.  I’m excited to be approaching Keats’s house, but to my disappointment, it’s closed.  I can’t remember if I am there on the wrong day or at the wrong time. I can at least go up the walk to the gate and look through the window at the serene parlor; I can stop under the plum tree where Keats heard a bird singing and wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.”

I pass the ponds—my daughter swims in one when she is working on a dig nearby and living in a tent; on this trip she and her friends from the dig will drop in on me while I’m still at Brown’s Hotel and take advantage of the tub, shower, towels, and endless hot water.

Ebert’s book leads me to the summit of Parliament Hill, the highest place in London, where I can see the skyline of the city. I sit on a bench and enjoy the view. Of course there is someone flying a kite.

Then I strike off across The Heath, warned by the page in front of me that I might get lost, but the book tells me to look for a tree with a curious knob on its trunk; I look up and there it is. “It will be beside a little ditch, which you should hop across.” I keep going and soon I’m at my lunch stop, the Spaniards Inn. If I dined there, I don’t remember, but next I come to the Great House of Kenwood, which is open to the public. I have an appetite for Great Houses. I devour the smallest details—do the chairs look comfortable, what are the titles of the books on the shelves in the dim library we’re not allowed to enter, is that rock music coming from the second floor? I’m amazed to look through a huge window to see an ancient oak—a specimen tree, perfectly formed and perfectly framed—and yet it must have been a twig when it was planted. How did the architect—or the gardener—know that it would grow to be perfectly centered in that window? The most important thing in Kenwood House, by the way, is a late self-portrait by Rembrandt, and I’m a big fan of Rembrandt selfies.

Onward—getting closer to my real object—I pass through the gates to Highgate Cemetery, walk straight along until the path forks, turn left, and in minutes I am looking up at the massive bust of Karl Marx. My first job—no, my second—when I arrived in New York City fresh from my state university was copyeditor-proofreader/ at The Weekly People, the broadsheet newspaper of the Socialist Labor Party, published since 1891, a paper I’d seen  at the top of subway stairs being sold to commuters on their way to work. The editorial and business offices of the party along with the linotype machine and the printing press itself were in a cavernous warehouse at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the tanning district, where I stepped over discarded hides on my way to work. In my spare time there, I read the archives—articles written on travels across the country to recruit and give speeches by the party’s intellectual, Daniel DeLeon, and accounts of actions by the party’s legal defender, Clarence Darrow. For a 21-year-old reader of John Dos Passos, it was heaven.  I am probably the only person you know who once a year proofread the annual publication of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx.

There are always flowers on the grave.

Tomb and Statue of Philosopher Karl Marx, marking his resting place in Highgate Cemetery, London.

Tomb and Statue of Philosopher Karl Marx, marking his resting place in Highgate Cemetery, London.

Leaving Highgate Cemetery, I pass through Waterlow Park and its shaded paths and ponds, to hear, as is halfway promised in the book, a concert in the band shell. Certainly everything I have seen has been detailed in the book. Now, thank goodness, I read that it’s time for tea, and I find a teashop very near Fisher & Sperr bookshop, where I pay a short visit.

I’m given the option of walking down Highgate Hill to the tube to take the Northern Line back to my hotel, which will allow me to pass the spot where Dick Whittington, sometime before Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, sat down and heard Bow Bells bidding him to return to London, where he will be three times elected mayor. The stone he sat on and a bronze statue of his cat mark the spot.

It was a perfect London walk.

Remembering Marian Seldes

10 Oct

—N.Y. Times Obituary, October 8, 2014

This obit reminded me that a few years ago I took my play to Edward Albee’s Last Frontier Play Lab on Prince William Sound in Alaska. It was a chance to direct my own play, attend playwriting workshops, and mingle with other writers, but after sitting in on a discussion in which actress Marian Seldes took part, I, like a duckling imprinted with a stranger’s shape, followed her around tirelessly, crashing her lectures, listening in on her panel discussions, and even eavesdropping on her social moments. She was one of those people you’d never get enough of. At the end of the week I went to watch a scene prepared by two young actors for her critique. After they’d finished, she took them aside and talked to them, patting them on the back, stroking their necks, whispering in their ears. They came back and did the same scene again–only this time strangely different, with more wild energy, shouting, prodding, throwing themselves on the floor, and spending a long time tying their shoelaces. What on earth had changed?
I followed the two actors out and begged them to tell me what Seldes had said to them. They refused. I told them I would be discreet. “Just tell me what she whispered at the end.”
They looked at each other, nodded, and said:
“She said to play it as if we were five-year-olds.”
So that was the difference.


24 Aug

Some years ago I let a co-worker talk me into trying my luck on a TV game show. Everybody in the office was doing it; every week, two or three people went over to the studio from our division of a medical publishing house to submit to the qualifying interviews. I didn’t know anyone who applied who wasn’t selected; it seemed easy. People came back with a check, some of them winning big. And the ones who didn’t claimed they’d had “fun.”
This was the last year of the war, which was winding down but not before taking the life of my young brother. I was an activist, demonstrating in the streets, tithing to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, arguing, writing letters. But I couldn’t talk to my brother, who was on his way to Vietnam. He didn’t talk to me either, especially after OTS. He went before he heard the statement “We had to destroy the village to save it,” but the OTS prepared him to understand its sentiment. I wanted him to ask me questions. I had an argument against that war, but I hesitated to argue with him. He might, I thought, have to fight for his life, and what could my argument do for him then?
At that time, I knew the country’s geography; I knew names like Phu Bai and Danang, names I’ve nearly forgotten, although they say that Vietnam is now a big tourist destination. There’s a travel magazine devoted just to Vietnam. That summer, I wanted to get out of my own country, just get out. If I won some money, I reasoned, I could take my two kids and leave as soon as school was out.
So I went, with another editor, to sit in a waiting room and listen to a cheerful, conservatively dressed man with a buzz haircut tell us about the show and how much fun it was going to be. We filled out forms with our names and occupations, and we stood in front of a camera and said a few words as a test.
We were passed on to the next stage, where we sat in a small studio where the assistant producer explained the rules to us. Two contestants and a celebrity made up a team. The team would be asked a question. We must each write (in large print) an answer and, when asked, hold up our chalkboards to display our answers. When all three gave the same answer, we won money. It didn’t matter what we wrote on the chalkboard. To win, we must, without consulting, be in agreement. The opposing team, two contestants and another celebrity, would try to outscore us.
“You see, the point — the point of this whole wacky game — is that there’s no ‘right’ answer!” the assistant director said, making a funny face.
I punched my co-worker in the shoulder. “You didn’t tell me about this. What does he mean, there’s no right answer?”
“Shhhhh!” she poked me back.
“But how can that be? If I’m asked a question, I try to — to come up with the right answer. It’s my nature.”
“Here’s the classic example of the way to play the game,” the assistant director was saying. “Suppose I ask you to name a kind of pie. A . . . kind . . . of . . . pie. What would you say?”
The word rhubarb came to mind. Rhubarb pie, tart and sweet, with powdered sugar dusting the top. When I was a child, rhubarb grew wild on the other side of the barn. I’ve never made a rhubarb pie, although I’ve got a great recipe and have thought about it. If someone were to offer me a piece of pie at this
moment, and I had my choice of any pie on earth —
“The answer is apple pie. See? There is no right answer, but if you all give the same answer, you win. Remember that. Name a pie? Apple pie!”
Not only was I not a performer, but I didn’t think fast on my feet, I went into paralysis when a camera pointed at me, I tended to lose my voice — but I also just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get my head around it. To win, I had to
think of what everyone else was going to say. No individuality, no quirkiness, no imagination. Just pronounce the cliché. Come up with the word everyone else is thinking of. But it was harder for me to think of the obvious thing than to think of a dozen other answers to the question. The obvious was the last thing I thought of.
But I was picked as a contestant, and I needed the money, so I signed the release form.
The master of ceremonies, pink and polished, his face full of color as if some assistant had slapped him on both cheeks just before he took the stage, turned to my team and sang “Hello!” We gave it back to him, and the audience laughed. He leaned over his lectern and said to me and my partner, a young sailor on leave in the city, “We have a surprise for you today. You’ll never guess who your celebrity partner is going to be! Oh, you’re in for a treat,” he promised and held his hand toward the wings.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Gloria Swanson!”
A thrill of fear ran through me. I was so sure Gloria Swanson was dead, must be dead, that I thought something had gone wrong with the people who ran the show; they had made a terrible mistake. But the audience was cheering wildly, led by the assistant director who stood out of range of the camera and urged them on.
A thin, bony, turbanned, heavily made-up and bejeweled woman took tiny steps onto the stage.
She came over and sat between me and my partner. I tried to look at her without turning my head. It was like looking at a mummy. Her face was almost without wrinkles, except for the deep lines that showed how the skull was formed.
She was not only alive — she was to live another seven or eight years, in fact — but she proved to be remarkably quick-witted. A leading question from the master of ceremonies gave her an opening to lecture us briefly and succinctly on fresh fruits and vegetables and apple-cider vinegar baths. When the master of ceremonies explained the game, she gave a quick nod and picked up her chalk. No right answer? She seemed to know exactly what he meant.
I can’t remember who the celebrity was on the other team — perhaps someone whose fame had passed me by. The questions came; we moved right along.
“Whose profession would you recognize anytime you saw one on the street?”
Policeman, I wondered? But sometimes they are plainclothesmen. A military man? But soldier, sailor, which branch? And they don’t have to dress in uniform all the time, do they? A nurse? A doctor? Only if he wore his scrubs on the street. The master of ceremonies pressed me — my partners were ready and waiting.
I scribbled something on my chalkboard and we turned our answers over in unison: Police, Police, Model, the boards said. You can always recognize a model, because they never wear makeup on the street, and they all carry a huge makeup case.
In the end, because of Gloria, Miss Swanson, we scraped through, and I came away with enough money to pay Icelandic’s airfare to Prestwick, and to live for two months in an apple orchard on a farm in the Firth of Clyde where Nubian goats were raised, gentle, sloe-eyed creatures. Every morning, a bird walked across our roof. The time passed slower than the tides below our cottage.
One day as the kids dug canals on the beach for streams to run through, we watched a submarine surface out on the Firth. It was, we learned, on its way to the American nuclear submarine base at the north end of the waterway. It seemed there was no place to get away from the war.
We came home to the soap opera of Watergate. “Why did I come back?” I asked my friends, but Watergate, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, was fun; I missed it later, when it was over. Or was it my marriage I missed — my marriage and Watergate ended about the same time.
There’s no right answer to that question, I guess. It might depend on whether anyone else agrees with me. Miss Swanson, would you come out, please?


20 Jan

In a lifetime of buying singles and playing them a hundred times in a row, I bought my last 45 on a day in the ’70s. Tower Records at 14th Street was crowded with kids. I walked over to the counter and in a clear, grown-up voice said: “Do you have ‘Please Go All the Way’ by the Raspberries?” In the silence that fell over the store, my words rang in my ear. One of the clerks, shocked into immobility, said, “Huh?”

I really wanted that song, with its crunchy guitars and luscious, athletic harmonies and suggestive lyrics. But now I was seeing myself in a movie: adult woman, dressed for the office; power rock in the air; young people stopping and staring. I couldn’t repeat the words. I turned and walked out.


The E-pistles of St. Paul

7 Apr


The E-pistles of St Paul are issued weekly by journalist Paul Bannister, a Brit and an old friend.  Feel free to read his entertaining archives online; in a recent development, you can listen to him read them on a worldwide webcast from the UK.

I’m running part of a recent posting because he mentioned me; but he does go on and on, and it’s all extremely enjoyable, especially for sentimental Anglophiles.

E-piphany e-pistle  #129.   Posted on Jan 6 2013

First of the year, some new readers, and a whole lot of new listeners on radio, so here’s what’s what:  you are receiving the ramblings of a self-appointed and decidedly dodgy saint, in the e-pistles of St Paul.These email -pistles began 128 weeks ago, that’s more than two years in old money, when I realized that standard paper and envelope post was no longer tumbling through the letterbox in the way it once did. People had simply stopped writing to each other. They were texting, twittering, tweeting, Facebooking  and  photomailing, lots of BTWs, LMAOs and LOLs but they were not actually writing  or exchanging what I consider real information, news or ideas. And I missed that.  So I imitated Saul of Tarsus, whose revised name I share, and began sending evangelical epistles to the faithful, and to those who have not yet been caught.  But, I didn’t want to push them to seek a website or scroll through pages of Facebook entries about what kind of sprinkles I’d ordered on my moose saliva latte.  I wanted to keep it simple. So I began sending a weekly email. Want to read it? Click. Don’t want to read it? Click ‘Delete.’ No offence taken,  and it’s easy.

This saint does not suffer from delusions of adequacy, and knows that his written efforts wouldn’t keep anyone awake for long, so invited people to respond, however briefly, to the weekly e-chat. And people did. His illiterate rugby friends took up their crayons, the erudite journalist colleagues tapped their keyboards and the psychics all sent telepathic messages. That input of opinions, anecdotes and insights launched a discourse and suddenly we’re in week 128 and have a regular readership, all for free, all for entertainment and you don’t even have to be this tall to go on the ride. And, under the deal outlined below, your name goes worldwide, too.

This week launches something new. The saint, in full mellifluous voice,  is reading the epistles on, on Alan Cox’s worldwide webcast  from the UK and he has set up a link on his site. You can read past e-pistles on   and can email the saint directly at if you’d like to share your own anecdotes or observations.


Mother’s Day Present

23 Apr

My Mother’s Day present from my oldest daughter is a real surprise–a live worm compost!

I’m thrilled.

Postscript: Yes, for Hurricane Isaac, I moved the worm farm to higher ground.


They don’t like citrus.

They don’t like sweets.

I’m pretty sure they don’t like coffee grounds, used tea leaves, and eggshells.

They like all kinds of greens and vegetables, even okra.

They like it if I occasionally make a layer or platform of dry stuff–sticks, dried bamboo leaves, or their favorite, cornshucks.

I’ve already (about the time of Hurricane Isaac) extracted my first batch of rich worm earth, and I’m growing jalapeno peppers, anaheims and cayennes in it.  I usually need a single pepper in a recipe, so it’s much better to pick one from the backyard than to make a trip to the greenmarket to buy one.