Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Difficult Spring

Dear Family & Friends (& especially those of you who are wondering why I never answered your e-mail),

It's been a difficult spring.

(Forgive me if I repeat myself.)

Jack turned 80 on April 7, which is like turning 50 if you've been in your 40s for a decade, or turning 21. A monumental birthday.

The first thing he did was wreck his car. A typical 80-year-old crash. Running late for his doctor's appointment, he was driving 35 mph (almost) on a 30 mph residential stretch when he began to wonder how late he was. His side of the road looked empty except for a white car a ways ahead of him, so he shook his sleeve off his watch and looked at the time. Ten minutes late. He looked up. The white car had stopped dead in the street and Jack couldn't. 

He did turn a bit so the car smashed at an angle. Took out his headlight, etc. The other driver, who had stopped to turn left illegally across double lines into her driveway, wasn't hurt. Nor was her car (not much). Nor was Jack. But his ancient red Volvo station wagon sighed and insisted on a tow truck ride to Dingman's. Dingman's offered to fix Jack's headlight, etc., for more $$$ than he'd paid for the vehicle. So Jack bid his beloved wagon a reluctant good-bye. He had loved the old dump. As for me, I wouldn't drive the boat. Its only virtue, from my perspective, was the passenger seat that could be heated in the winter. I'll miss my seasonal hot seat.

So, BOOM, we became a one-car family.

The next thing Jack did, to avoid a fine for hitting the car, was take a police class on safe driving. As the teacher talked, Jack recognized himself: an occasional runner of red lights, a driver who spaced out and missed Interstate exits, etc. An Unsafe Driver. So he stopped driving.

BOOM, we became a single-driver family. Suddenly I chauffeured Jack everywhere, but especially to doctor's appointments way across town, where I waited in TV-dominated rooms, struggling to read my NEW YORKER. Every time we needed anything from the grocery or the hardware store or the pharmacy, I was behind the wheel again. I became an ardent MOBY supporter, and in time, Jack was okayed to ride that special bus. This helped.

One of his many doctors convinced Jack that being on a low-salt diet did not mean eating humongous chunks of cheese at most meals. So we got serious, eyeballing sodium in deli cooking, frozen foods, and fast foods. (Oh, we had occasionally eaten real food. Jack cooks a mean chicken soup and I can do a now-and-then stir fry.) 

So Jack picked out a couple "good" foods and began eating corn tortillas and no-salt peanut butter. He cried whenever he thought of cheese. I remembered cooking, so I got down my JOY OF and cogitated. We agreed to eat one solid meal (protein, carb, veggie) a day, so I shopped for it and cooked it. (And ate it: pork chop, corn on the cob, and yam isn't too bad.) So now I've become the resident chef. BOOM.

Then about ten days ago, I woke at 5 a.m. feeling uneasy. Eventually I went upstair to check on Jack. He was in the bathroom.

"How are you?" I hollered through the closed door.


I'd never heard him admit to sickness before. "How sick?" I asked. "Bad sick?"

"No, honey, I'm okay." Jack lurched out of the bathroom and staggered to a dining room chair. 

I only half heard him because I'm dialing 911. The ambulance guy tells me, "Contain your pets," so I'm herding cats, opening the front door, dashing downstairs and dressing in street clothes, in the time it takes for the big black-rubber-suited boys to get there, put Jack on a stretcher and head to the VA Hospital.

I'll spare you some of the details. Jack, who has a sub-par immune system, had caught a urinary infection that was about to infect his blood stream. Had it, I might be writing a post-cremation notice. 

But that's not all. Jack wore a pacemaker for a decade. Indeed, he should have replaced it last year, but he didn't notice that and neither did his doctor. So at the hospital, the heart doctors feared that his pacemaker would die--and so would he. 

The doctors wouldn't replace his pacemaker until the urinary infection cleared up, so Jack was in the hospital for nearly a week. The infection did mend, the pacemaker exchange was successful, and he came home.

Until the surgery heals, Jack can no longer move his left arm, so BOOM I take over his jobs: hauling out the garbage, cleaning the litter boxes. I refuse to make pancakes his way.

During all this time, I'm writing--would you believe! Working on a revision of my Dorothy Parker Writing Case piece. Managing to snatch an hour. Taking a 40-page printout to the hospital and editing all 40 pages there. Getting ready for the Saturday reading from MAIL-ORDER KID at the Nebraska Book Festival in Lincoln, NE. 

Friday night, in my peejay's, planning my Saturday morning shower, I notice the toilet running. I call my trusty handyman.

"Oh, I can fix this easy," Jack says. He puts his good arm in the tank, starts squirreling around, and breaks some seal. Now the toilet's REALLY running. Nothing to do but turn the water off for the entire house, he says, and he does. 

"You can turn the water back on any time you need it," he says.


If only I knew how.

Instead, I haul out my great grandfather Zachary Taylor Kemper's thunder jug and use it during my middle-of-the-night run. Saturday morning, I wash my hair with my special No Rinse Shampoo, used by NASA's astronauts on their space flights; makes me feel so modern. I don't tell Jack how sleepy I am for fear he'll talk me out of driving to the book festival some 50 miles away. Instead, I gulp many cups of coffee and challenge Fate.

Now that Jack's turned 80, we're talking marriage.

WHAT? I hear you say. PUT HIM OUT ON THE ICE, the way any sensible Eskimo would do.

But I can't do that.

Where would I find another like him, big and bushy and gushing with language. Who would sing old 1930s songs to me? Who would laugh at my stupidest jokes? Who would accept hugs and kisses at the drop of any old hat any old time of the day and night? Who would call me his Gracie Allen? Lather me with love?

So we're talking marriage.

And we plan to drive right down to city hall for a license and a judge just as soon as I can gas the car, take the garbage out, clean the litter boxes, cook lunch, put food on the table, wash dishes, do the laundry, drive Jack to the hardware store--and finish my Dorothy Parker piece.

Warm wishes,


Marilyn June Coffey
BitterSweet Rebel


Enlightened by $$$

I don't know how frequently your thoughts pitter-patter beneath your cranium, but mine sometime rat-a-tat-tat for hours. On bad days, I'm at their mercy, brought to my knees by their morose battering.


"Pay no attention to them," Donna, my meditation teacher, says. "They're just sparks of electrical energy." But I find electric sparks difficult to ignore. They so often mimic my mother's voice, silent now two decades but still alive in my head. "You're too generous." "You should try harder." "Are you going to wear THAT?"


So when I spotted Sandra Ingerman's book, How to Heal Toxic Thoughts: Simple Tools for Personal Transformation (Sterling, 2007), I grabbed it.  "This one's for me," I thought.


But it wasn't.


"Start by just breathing deeply into your abdomen," Ingerman writes. But I've been belly breathing for years. For a while in the Sixties, I even taught slow, deep inhalations in Yoga classes. I still breathe deeply. It takes the edge off my anxiety, I'll say that for it, but my thoughts go swaggering on.


Ingerman pitches meditation, too. Again, I agreed, nothing beats meditation for dropping clear down deep into the blank space that precedes thought, but some days the electrical energy goose-steps so briskly I can't find my way there.


So, disappointed, still needing a way to deflate the constant rapping of my mind, I set the book aside.


Meanwhile, out of unrelated curiosity, I paged through Shira Boss's Green with Envy: A Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness (Warner, 2006). Her examples were funny. The U.S. congressman who wants everyone to think he's arrived, but sleeps on a cot in his office. The 50-year-old baby boomer with kids in college, no retirement fund, and the clock ticking. And Boss's own jealousy at the "couple next door" who paid cash for their condo and go on shopping sprees. How can they afford it?


Green with Envy had a nice gossipy quality; I raced right through it. However, Boss's conclusion surprised me. All of a sudden, hoping to avoid her preoccupation with money, she's training to run a marathon. In doing so, she learned to train her mind. The phrase Boss used to train her mind, "But it doesn't matter," sounded purely American, not like the Hindu mantras I know. But she used the phrase like a mantra: at the grocery store when the line inches along, in her hallway when she hears her neighbors talk about jetting to Tahoe for the weekend.


How can that work? I wondered. It's too simple.


Denise Cassino of "Perspectives and Ponderances" awarded my blog for "exemplary writing and interesting entries," August 24, 2008. She called it "a chronicled commentary on life, literature and the ironies that surround us" full of "humorous anecdotes and ponderings of daily life." Take a peek at my blog, Marilyn Coffey, Great Plains Writer. Or at Denise Cassino's blog , Perspectives and Ponderances



Checked out the Midway at Omaha's SeptemberFest. What a blast! A large colorful invasion of plastic since I had been on a Midway, especially in the children's section. My favorite: huge green dragons whose round bellies opened to swallow a child.

I rode the merry-go-round. I always do. It's my favorite. That and the Ferris wheel. I love the view from the top of the wheel, although Omaha's wheel was nothing compared to the first Ferris wheel, the one that Mr. Ferris designed and built for the 1893 crowd at the World's Fair in Chicago. His stood 26 stories tall and could carry 2,160 passengers. Ferris meant his wheel to rival the Eiffel Tower. What a gas it must have been to ride! Took six stops to load all the passengers; then the wheel revolved just once. But what a revolution! I expect it hardly mattered that the wheel rose to only a quarter of the height of the Eiffel Tower.

I wanted to ride one of the ponies, but the sturdy little beasts wore no stirrups. The man who circled them around also lifted the young riders onto the saddles. I didn't think he'd lift me, so I watched. One little boy got positively glassy eyed, imagining himself wheeling across the prairie, I supposed.

Purchased an Italian ice, the first I had eaten since I had left New York in 1989. It was much bigger than the New York version, not as lemony, and the tiny chunks of ice had been ground into something like a pudding. I spooned away and watched all the rides I avoid: dropping from a great height, locked in a cage and tumbled around, spinning upside down and the like.

Then I bought a tiny cup of critter food and began feeding the goats. How they spotted me coming! They butted their tiny two-horned heads against each other in food frenzies. The Australian kangaroo was much smaller than I expected, and the tortoise much larger than my little box turtle but just as inclined to ramble. The zebra was neat, but the camel was awesome, his big bushy heady swirling much higher than the fence. This camel did not look content, and I had heard that the beasts spit, so I edged past him quickly. (To watch a camel spitting at a transvestite, go to

Wandered the huge grounds, listened to live music, and eyeballed the antique cars and trucks lined up for a contest. The older the vehicle, the more preposterous the design, it seemed. A truck so low its skirts almost touched the ground. A car with a grill so huge it looked like the entrance to a fun house. All of them seemed positively spit polished.

Figured I was due one new experience, so I bought a Chicken-on-a-stick, all warm juicy white meat inside and horrible peppery high-cholesterol dough on the outside. A fly and I fought over nibbling rights, so I left my nibbled stick high in the garbage for the fly and went home.

 How about you? What is your favorite midway memory?

Jared, the Subway Guy

Jared, the Subway Guy

When I read the words, "Subway Guy," on the cover of a nonfiction library book, I grabbed it. Naturally, I assumed the book was set in New York City's subways; I'd lived in New York nearly thirty years. Later, at home, I realized the book featured the guy who lost 250 pounds eating sandwiches from Subway. 


I never would have bothered if I'd known that.

Then I began to wonder what force led this young man to adopt such a strange solution. Curious, I began to read. I followed Jared into the doctor's office when he weighed 425 pounds. The doctor gave him a death sentence. Lose weight or else. This motivated Jared. Just a college student, he didn't want to lose his whole life.

Using his doctor's diet booklet as a guide, Jared went to the grocery store and filled his cart with okay food, shopping in sectionslike producethat he'd hardly ever visited. Then he went home to cook, a rare activity, and to eat smaller portions of food than he ever had. But he just couldn't hack it. Two days later, he scrapped the doctor's diet booklet.

Boy, did I empathize! Now what?

Next he brought home frozen foods, low-calorie, complete meals. The only problem was taste. Lasagna like chalk. Cheese like melted plastic. Dry turkey with bland stuffing. You get the picture.

After that, he began chasing the promises of commercial diet plans. He tried out diet shakes, but ended up pigging out at a buffet. Still he dreamed of weighing less than 200 pounds, he dreamed of being without the health problems that his weight caused him. So he continued to read, but the other diets he encountered made no sense: don't eat protein, or eat only fruit or just rice.

Fortunately, Jared lived in a building with a Subway in its corner. He dropped in for a sandwich. While he waited, he picked up a Subway dietary guide and realized he could lose weight with a careful selection of Subway food. So, as you may know, that's what he did. Black coffee for breakfast, Subway for lunch and for supper.

How clever! I thought, even though I knew Jared's program would never work for me. Eating the same thing day after day after day would bore me. But I admire the way Jared stuck to his goal and, through trial and error, figured out a way of eating that worked for him. He still eats at Subway, so he not only lost weight but he maintained his loss.

Reading Jared, the Subway Guy felt invigorating. I not only satisfied my curiosity, I put down the book with the sense that I'd met a winsome young man. Nice to pass his way. 

And these days, I pass his way frequently. Every time I drop into my local Subway for an illicit dish of Goodrich ice cream, I see Jared, thin as the cardboard that holds him up, displaying a pair of pants nearly as wide as he is tall. I tip my hat. "Nice going, Jared."

Book Review: Bagels & Grits: A Jew on the Bayou

Title: Bagels & Grits: A Jew on the Bayou
Author: Jennifer Anne Moses
Publisher: Terrace Books
ISBN: 0-299-22440-6
Price: $26.95, Publication Date: 2007, Page Count: 166

I do not know what I thought I was getting when I picked this memoir up. Something humorous, perhaps. The title of another Moses' book is FOOD & WHINE. Something Jewish, of course. So many of my lovers were and friends are Jewish that I am perpetually attracted to that subject. And the bayou? That uniquely Southern/French combination. New Orleans is my favorite, but hey, Baton Rouge is close enough

That is what I expected, but what I got was the author, Jennifer, a terrified whiny young woman who wants it all (including God) for herself but does not know how to get it. Her beloved scattered family, people dying of AIDS in St. Anthony's where she volunteers, her rabbi, and her therapist all influence her. She writes, "God alone knows what the folks at St. Anthony's would think of me if they knew that not only do I cry buckets at the drop of a hat, but also that I actually pay money to someone to listen to me when I cry."

Early reviewers aptly use words like witty, honest, probing to describe Bagels & Grits, which lives up to its reputation. The book opens with Jennifer driving a minivan, listening to HIV-positive patient, Lorraine, with skin "like polished mahogany" describe, again, how she shot her husband "right in the head" when she found him in bed with her auntie. "My favorite damn auntie." The book pads quietly on from there, word by word, day by day, slowly changing into a moving memoir of spiritual growth

Jennifer questions much of what she sees. Of the Christian God she encounters repeatedly in St. Anthony's she writes, "This is the God Who forgives you every last nasty thing you've ever done, and all you have to do [is] ask. So you've killed a few folks? No problem! Just call on Him at the very end and presto!you get into heaven. Whored around? Don't sweat it! Cheated on your income taxes? Come on down!"

"At  St. Anthony's, not only did He exist, but also, at times, He came down to earth to say howdy or give a thumbs-up. He was so present, so everyday, that you almost expected to bump into Him at the grocery store."

I love this book. It brought me to tears, which books rarely do. Indeed, I loved the book so much I could not bear to put it down. So I didn't. I turned right back to page one and read it over again. Knowing what would happen, I focused on the wealth of detail Jennifer supplies, like this description of Geraldine, one of the AIDS patients: "she was pretty the way a bird is pretty, with small jutting bones under smooth skin and quick, darting movements." 

Read it if you can. Whether you are Christian, Jewish, or (like me) something else, this odd, detailed, delightful spiritual journey is bound to touch you.


Slipping into the Gap

When I turned thirty-one and realized I might never grow younger, I decided to get in shape. However, I hated to exercise.
My mother, who loved things cultural but not physical, bequeathed me that attitude. "Look at her legs," she cried as the ballerina floated across the TV screen. "Aren't they ugly? All those bulging muscles."
A speeding volleyball that struck me in the face during recess reinforced my dislike. That the accident was my faultI had been daydreaming when the ball arriveddid not stop me from hating to exercise.
I also despised sweating. 
Nevertheless, now thirty-one, I combed through bookstore shelves, determined to find some exercise book  to help me regain my fleeting youth. I chose a small unimposing paperback entitled, Yoga for Physical Fitness by a Richard Hittleman.
Hittleman's book worked just fine. I taught myself any number of yoga postures, and I never sweat. So I was startled at the vehemence of my recently acquired boyfriend, Jon, who declared, "Oh, you don't want to learn yoga from that guy. He doesn't know a thing about it."
And here I thought I was doing so well.
Never mind. Jon, a decade younger than I, had just turned twenty-one, while I was in that horrid 1960's category of "over thirty." We were both hippies, but Jon came by hipness honestly while I slummed. So when he came home and announced that he had discovered a "real" yoga teacher, I tossed Mr. Hittleman and followed Jon into Boston. There a housewifely woman, Mrs. Lind, held a small class every week.  
Mrs. Lind taught us slow, fluid stretches; I seemed to move under water. Her sweet melodious voice modulated our activities. After we stretched every muscle in our bodies, we hit the floor. Corpse pose. Flat on our backs as Mrs. Lind lit a candle and switched off the electric lights.
"Don't think of anything," she said. "Just rest."
In the near total darkness, we placed our attention on our toes, our ankles, our calves, etc. until we reached the tops of our heads. Then all fell silent. After we rested a while, Mrs. Lind's gentle voice called us back into our bodies.
I loved these classes, especially the way I disappeared in that final pose. I did not know where I went, but I knew I was not sleeping or thinking or daydreaming. I felt as though I had shot right out of the top of my head into a thick black luscious embracing space.
However, I took Mrs. Lind's classes for granted. This is how a yoga class is supposed to be, I assumed, until Jon and I moved to New York and I began to shop for another Mrs. Lind. I never found her equal, although years later in Charlotte I came close. On the Hindu temple grounds, doing yoga with Pradip, I watched the sun inflame my eyelids as I melted into stretches the way I once melted with Mrs. Lind.
Only recently did I discover a name for what I experienced in the restful darkness of Mrs. Lind's class: Deepak Chopra calls it "slipping into the gap," that moment sometimes experienced in meditation when you forget your monkey mind and you forget your mantra and you slip into the welcoming arms of Old Mother Universe. Ahhhh!

Re: On Diagramming (& the Art of Being Right)

Title: North River: A Novel

Author: Pete Hamill

Publisher: Little, Brown

ISBN-13: 978-0-316-34058-8

ISBN-10: 0-316-34058-8

Price: $25.99, Publication Date: 2007, Page Count: 341


When I realized that Pete Hamill wrote North River, I almost let the book lie. Hamill seems more journalist than novelist to me, although a top-notch journalist whose writing has graced the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York PostThe New Yorker, and Newsday Still, his early novels seemed too flat for my taste, more journalese than fiction, so I stopped reading his books.


However, the jacket of North River featured a New York City skyline. An ex-New Yorker, I love stories about the Big Apple, and that's exactly where North River is set: New York in the 1930s with gangsters, Tammany hot shots, World War I vets, and prostitutes. Sounds just like Hamill, I thought. Then I noticedNorth River was his ninth novel. Maybe he's improved, I thought. So I took the book home and read it, just to see.


Hamill has improved. He still uses his plain, almost flat, journalistic style of writing, but what a story he pens! It features tall lean Dr. James Delaney whose closest World War I buddy is a hood, Eddie Corso, and that spells trouble. So does Dr. Delaney's daughter, who dashes by on her way from South America to Europe, dropping her three-year-old son, Carlito, in the doctor's vestibule. Naturally, the doctor has to hire a caretaker for his grandson so Dr. Delaney can continue to treat the stream of broken, downtrodden patients that makes up his practice. He hires Rosa Verga.


Both Rosa and the doctor have pasts. He is mourning his wife, Molly, long disappeared and presumed drowned in the North River, which is what New Yorkers called the Hudson then. Rosa, who cracked her husband's skull wide open with a baseball bat, is hiding her past. And the story steps briskly on from there.


Hamill's characters are believable; I particularly enjoyed Rosa. But I loved most the way Hamill recreated the doctor's 1930's Manhattan world. When Dr. Delaney and his grandson, Carlito, begin to explore together, this old world rises right up off the pages. I could just see antique cars spinning their tires on the street, the paddleball purchased in the toy store, Angela's restaurant in Little Italy. And the experience, near the end of the book, of the doctor and Rosa dancing in Roseland.


If you enjoy a story jam packed with persons and places, try North River. Like any good story, its tension increases as you approach the end. The book's resolution is strong, both certain and uncertain until page 340 when Rosa's "God damn you, Dottore" tips the balance.


Marilyn Coffey is an award-winning writer of poetry and a widely published author of prose. Visithttp://www, to purchase her work: Great Plains PatchworkMarcella, or KANSAS QUARTERLY Vol. 15 No. 2.

The Funky Chicken

The Funky Chicken

My beloved husband Jon, twelve years younger, danced like a professional. I loved to watch his lithe body glide along. I danced, too, but I was too self-conscious to move with ease. "Honey," he teased me, "whatever dance you dance, you're always doing the Funky Chicken."

That made me laugh. I'd never heard of the Funky Chicken. I thought Jon, born and bred in New Jersey, was spoofing my Midwestern roots. 

I forgot about the Funky Chicken until recently when I read Alice Sebold's Lucky, an account of her brutal rape. "In high school I began as a geek," she writes. "A geek because I played the alto saxophone and...was in jazz band, where, as second alto, I jammed on such tunes as the "Funky Chicken" and "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

Goodness! Funky Chicken existed? Beyond Jon's imagination?

I hit the Internet and found instructions for the Funky Chicken dance, posted by Ben Zuidwijk & Sandra Boer. As I watched them dance, I saw that, yes, I do a mean Funky Chicken, but  I never incorporated advanced moves like wiggling my knees a la the Charleston or scratching the floor with my feet and clucking.

Then I found Blues Legend Rufus Thomas, Jr., billed as "The World's Oldest Teenager." He did a mean chicken scratch, as only the son of a sharecropper could.  I admired his red cape. It made great wings as he rolled his eyes, clucking, crowing. scatting. I read about Thomas's famous performance at Wattstax, a Los Angeles festival in 1972 to commemorate the Watts riots. He led a crowd of 40,000 there in the "Funky Chicken."

Jon's been dead more than a decade now and Rufus dead since 2001, but I'm still dancing. Since I realized that dancing is a particularly pleasant way to rack up steps on my pedometer, I dance nearly every day. I'm delighted to know that when I dance, I'm part of this impressive tradition. After watching Thomas in action, I'm thinking of adding a red cape and sound effects. Definitely clucking and scatting. Maybe even scratching the floor.

You can listen to and watch Rufus here.

Book Review: Poster Child: A Memoir

Title: Poster Child: A Memoir
Author: Emily Rapp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN-13: 978-1-59691-256-4
ISBN-10: 1-59691-256-1
Price: $24, Publication Date: 2007, Page Count: 230
Reviewer: Marilyn Coffey

I love to read memoirs, especially "little guy" memoirs. Celebrity memoirs are okay, especially if the celebrity is a writer, but time after time I'm drawn to books written by ordinary people. I find it easy to imagine myself in their lives. So it was small wonder that I gravitated to POSTER CHILD with its cover picture of a pert red-headed girl posing with her training bike. It's warm out. She's wearing shorts. Her artificial right leg looks like it's made of plastic; a bulb in its knee joint lets her pedal.

Emily Rapp, the author and the poster child, turned out to be a remarkable writer. She told me her story in such detail, including emotional detail, that I was swept into her anguish of being a child and a young woman who had a portion of her leg amputated when four. I had no idea, really, when I picked up this book what living with an artificial leg would be like. But soon I felt I was alongside her as she went through dozens of operations to replace her artificial leg as she outgrew it.

Listen to how clearly Rapp writes. "For my first fitting, I stood barefoot on the dirty floor of the changing room while the prosthetist took measurements of my stump. The stink of the healing wound was finally gone; the limb was clean. Now that the left foot had been removed, or "disarticulated"the sharp sound of the word matching the rough nature of the action itselfI had my natural heel at the end of the short leg."

But no wonder Rapp writes well. A Fulbright Scholarship recipient educated at Harvard, she is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Antioch University Los Angeles.

I highly recommend this book, primarily for the skill with which Rapp leads us through the first thirty years of her life, showing us what it was like to live with her "grievous, irrevocable flaw."  Unflinchingly honest and sometime darkly humorous, POSTER CHILD is written without sentiment. I watched her struggle to keep up with her fashionable friends, her agony about making love to a man (should she leave her prosthesis on? off?), her final, tenuous, gift of acceptance.

An elegant writer, an amazing book.

January 31, 2008

Marilyn Coffey is an award-winning writer of poetry and a widely published author of prose. Visit her website, for a sampling of her writing. Or read her work: Great Plains Patchwork, Marcella,or KANSAS QUARTERLY Vol. 15 No. 2.  

GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Carole Rosenthal

I give you a high recommendation of a book I read this summer in both gulps and sips, Robert Roth's HEALTH PROXY.  It's not a long book, but I found myself often putting it down while I thought about its ideas, even as I was gripped by its urgent self-questioning voice. Roth's observations about life and death, social and economic hierarchies, and the nature of our responsibilities to each other form a jittery, loving, and conscience-ridden record of his fierce engagement with the lives of friends and family from the 1980's to the present. "In ways deep and often constant, I engage other people's pain, their panic. Never letting myself fully be touched," Roth writes. "What at once shields me, simultaneously allows me to be open. But my openness also creates a constant state of low-level trauma that further creates . . . distancing in myself from myself."

Creating its own form, halfway between a memoir and a chronicle, this is a book of tremendous immediacy that begins with Roth's appointment as the "health proxy" for a friend dying of AIDS, a role he also assumes for his gravely ill aunt. A sixty year-old socialist/anarchist who consciously defies the limits of convenient labeling, Roth narrows the space between narrator and self--a space which can only be narrowed, never eliminated. For this narrator, all issues are intimate and personal; all issues are moral questions. Yet HEALTH PROXY is playful in part, or at least ironic, in its examination of what we see and how we are seen in large and small scale. The author discusses his low-status job delivering the largely unread New York University student newspaper, the hearty unrecognized condescension of academics reassuring themselves of their own good will towards laborers, the tacit institutional scams furthered by the printer and the distributors.  He introduces his own bemused reaction to his waning good looks, his health fears, his lusts for women, his identification with socially and sexually disavowed segments of society.  Despite the gravity of Roths central material, lives dwindling ("I watch myself age/before my friends very eyes,") while "friends socialize each other into old age," the real subject matter of this honest, unpretentious, freely associative book turns out to be an affirmation of  life ongoing.  In this more celebratory  vein,HEALTH PROXY concludes with a section called "Wild Berries Singing," which is about the writing and performing of an exhilarating children's opera in Great Britain. (HEALTH PROXY is available from Yuganta Press, 6 Rushmore Circle, Stamford CT 07905-1029 or

Contact Carole.

On Diagramming (& the Art of Being Right)

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey released a flood of memories for me.

In high school, we had a somewhat dour old-maid school teacher named Miss Mackey. She took her English seriously and of course taught all of us freshman how to diagram sentences. Diagramming sentences was in the air. In those days, the 1950s,  it seemed that every school child learned how to diagram, although I hear it's not much of a sport these days.

I loved to diagram. In that regard, I was in good company. Gertrude Stein loved to diagram sentences, too. "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences," she writes. I agreed. It was one of those activities I understood instantly. Soon I felt I could do no wrong.

And I couldn't.

I found this out when our school acquired a young coach who, to our amazement, taught us English. He assigned a research paper. I selected as my topic, "Miracles," and researched it thoroughly in my mother's stacks of Reader's Digest. I turned it in, expecting an "A," my usual grade when I wrote a paper. But when the Coach returned mine, the "A" was crossed out and replaced with an "F." He explained to me that he'd taken off a point for each time I'd misspelled "Miracel" [his correct spelling]. But when I could find no Miracel, only Miracle, in the dictionary, I demanded my A back which, of course, he had to return. Reluctantly.

After that, the Coach seemed to look for ways to take me down a peg, as we said in those far off days. I bristled, too. When he started teaching us to diagram sentences, he went backhesitantlyover the same material that Miss Mackey had covered so efficiently. I knew it well, and must have squirmed in my seat, because the first thing I knew,  the Coach had grabbed my textbook, opened it to the very back, and said, "If you're so smart, let's see you diagram this!" His finger landed on a sentence half a page long. Then he pointed to the blackboard.

I began to diagram, drawing lines here and there, copying the words onto the lines. I loved it. It was a joy. When I used up all the blackboards on one wall, I went right on to the next wall and used all those boards, too. Maybe Henry James wrote that sentence. He's known for his capacity to "construct convoluted but still perfectly lucid sentences." writes Kitty. But he wasn't the champion. Marcel Proust is even more famous than James for long sentences. His longest, 958 words in translation, is the subject of a poster whereupon it is diagrammed. It's a sentence with no subject.

"I'm finished," I said.

The Coach picked up his text and turned to the back where all the answers were printed. But he found no answer for that particular sentence. I guess it was too advanced. He looked at what I'd done, then read the original sentence, then looked again. At last he went out and asked Miss Mackey if she'd come in and see if I'd diagramed that sentence correctly.

I had.

He must have hated me.

Anyway, all this is just a preliminary to explain why I was so delighted to find Kitty Burns Florey's book on diagramming sentences. It made me long for a blackboard and a piece of chalk. It made me long for those days when I was always right.