Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jet Lag and Culture Shock

Yesterday I left the sunny South for snowy Hoboken (actually that picture was taken a month ago of my daughter in her back yard in Kingston, NY) and am layering myself for a trip to the post office to pick up the mail they've held for me for a week. Whereas I didn't even need a jacket most days in Fairhope, I'll have to wear long underwear, a tee shirt, sweater, jacket, gloves and a cap just to walk to the bus stop and take a bus nine blocks and walk three more to the post office, then three back to the next bus stop to walk another three blocks to my apartment. Must stop off somewhere and pick up a few groceries too.

Friends from Alabama will read this and ask "Why? Why does anybody live like that?"

I can understand the question, but I can answer it too. Not sufficiently so that they could really understand, but I've answered it many times on the blog. This is the place I'd rather be. I'm relearning how to deal with cold weather, and if that's all the adversity I have to cope with, I can handle it. It's a different kind of a life and I feel revitalized coming back to it. The relaxed, warm life of Lower Alabama is seductive, but to me the rewards were less. The highs were nowhere near as high, and the lows were way lower. Everybody who knows me there knows some of the stress I endured--and of course some of it was of my own making--so that sorta goes with being me. There will be some of it here, but for now Hoboken is still a vacation for me, slapdab against one of the greatest cities in the world, and in a pleasant, busy community that has a lot going on. Hoboken has the best of both worlds. It's a small town with a vibrant history (and you know how I love history) and easy access to anything I want to do in the city.

Across that water, it ain't Mobile. It's Manhattan.

Now, just give me a couple of days to get over my jet lag and culture shock. And don't bother me while I put on my long johns and get dressed for the cold.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Long Way from Hoboken

The eastern shore of Mobile Bay is a long way from the western banks of the Hudson. The weather is in the 70's some days at this time of the year, and the view is the opposite of urban.

I'm here promoting The Fair Hope of Heaven, and today Fairhope does seem a little heavenly. I'll join a party of friends for brunch at 10:30 and take a walk on the beach in the afternoon. Yesterday I signed books at the local bookstore. In all I've sold about 40 books so far, and a few reviews are slated to appear on if they're not already there. I've given book talks at both the Fairhope Museum of History and the Marietta Johnson Museum, and am enjoying that feeling of being welcomed home. If that doesn't warm me up, nothing can.

Which means I'm readying for re-entry into Hoboken Tuesday night, preparing to layer for the cold, don boots for the puddles amid the snow, and steel myself for a bitter six-block walk to the gym rather than a brisk morning jog in the neighborhood. But there's time for that. Let me enjoy my break. I'll get back to my city adventures in the North next week.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Better Than Woodstock

January 19, 2009

I participate in lots of things these days by watching them on television. You have to guard against that as you get older.

But for the next couple of days, even though today most of my day will be spent in airports, I expect to be gluing my eyes to any television set I get near. Scenes like the above--the crowd at the "We Are One" concert for the incoming administration in Washington--have me and the rest of us on the outside looking in both euphoric and apprehensive. Is it as good as it looks?

It's hard to put words to the elation that seems to pervade the land at this particular changing of the guard. We don't want to expect too much, but just to have a strong hand at the helm and a sense that the country is at last united in wanting to do the right thing is so encouraging. The sad thing is that we had veered so far from that in the 20th Century that we had become cynical, and until we were told it was okay to hope and promise to do better (and mean it) that we could actually do better. The sense of optimism and change reminded me of Woodstock, which I also didn't attend, but saw in film clips on television.

Dan Rather, not usually my favorite pundit, said an oddly interesting thing on the Chris Matthews Show yesterday. He said that America was ready for the kind of leader who landed that plane in the Hudson the other day. I think he was right. That weird event became somehow symbolic of what the country is hoping will happen with Barack Obama as president. In the plane crash, tragedy was averted by a steady hand on the helm, a wise and prepared professional who did everything that could be done and prevailed, saving lives and giving the whole world confidence that competence and wisdom were still alive in the U.S.

Woodstock may have been fun. But it was nothing like this.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Winterize Me

January 17, 2008

Yesterday I was up against it. I had go to outside, even though the weather forecast for the immediate area gave the chance of a temperature above 18° as slim to none.

It's my second winter in Hoboken and I've been trying to acclimate. Nineteen years of living back in Lower Alabama (aka L.A.) had dimmed my memories of having to wear long underwear, layers of sweaters, a coat, boots, mittens, a hat over my ears and a woolen scarf every day for about three months. In Fairhope, winter doesn't arrive until late January, and it usually consists of a few nights when the temperature goes below freezing and a few days when the highest the temp goes is up to the 40's. A real "cold wave" can last as long as a week, but it will be followed by afternoons when a cardigan is sufficient.

I had forgotten how beautiful snow is. When it snows, it's nothing like rain. I observe it like an enchanted infant. Falling snow is gentle, as if choreographed to float on light, freezing breezes sinking to coat the surroundings in something like 7-minute frosting. But when it melts in patches, as it usually does, and the air is cold enough to freeze the puddles, it is no fun at all. You are forced to walk with extreme care while dressed like an overstuffed mattress, and the beauty and elegance of the new-fallen snow is soon forgotten.

But yesterday I had to be across town, and downtown from 9th to 1st--which means a mile from my apartment--and I had to walk three and a half blocks to wait for either a bus or a taxi. Accustomed as I am to walking everywhere now, that three blocks in 18° is nonetheless daunting. But sometimes it must be done. I had had all week, watching the weather channel and hoping to no avail that the forecast would change, to steel myself for the inevitable.

I layered the requisite number of apparel items and set out to brave the outdoors. I had walked two blocks before I said to myself (prematurely) "This isn't so bad. This isn't bad at all." There was a longer wait than I had hoped at the bus stop for either bus or taxi. It seemed like about 45 minutes but was probably about 10 before a cab showed up and whisked me, all thawed out, to my destination.

The mission accomplished, getting home was more difficult. I saw no cabs on River Street, so I headed back to Washington via 4th. There is this block as you near Hudson where the wind comes out of nowhere from the west--Jersey City, no doubt--and as this wind hit me inner commentator said, "Wind chill factor of minus five. Well, now you know what minus five feels like." I put my bemittened hand on my knit cap, because with arms full of packages and hands covered with mittens, I didn't want to have to chase it down the block to God knows where in that weather.

Lo and behold, my bank is on the corner of Washington and 4th, so I ducked in there to warm up. Oddly, I saw no taxis and two buses had passed just as I rounded the corner. Never mind that I would only ride three blocks, when a bus finally came I got on and rode three blocks. I'm old, it's cold, and I deserve it--and it only costs 65 cents at my age. Three blocks in a warm and cheery bus was long enough to unfreeze me again and get me ready for the three-block walk back home.

Toasty-warm at last, I'm sitting here at the keyboard looking forward to what I know will be a jumpstart for the spring thaw. I leave Newark Liberty Airport Monday at 11 A.M. for a week Lower Alabama. I just hope there are no flocks of birds who have the same idea.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Upton Sinclair in New Jersey and Fairhope

January 15, 2009

Upton Sinclair was a novelist who yearned to live in a perfect community. So much so, that he started one of his own in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1907. Helicon Home Colony was founded to demonstrate a way of living that Sinclair deemed to be the path to perfection: free thinking, free love, a cooperative form of self-governance based on his commitment to socialism, and no drugs or alcohol.

Less than a year after its beginning, his colony’s home burned to the ground, leaving the author still seeking a community of like-minded idealists where he wanted to live. One stop on his journey was in the single-tax utopia of Fairhope, Alabama, where I was raised some fifty years later. The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years After Utopia, my book, describes the fortunes of the little town from its inception through the 20th century and tells the story of Sinclair and his year in Fairhope.

Sinclair was not atypical of the type of people who were attracted to early Fairhope. A successful writer and dabbler in health foods, he had a stressful marriage and a backlog of anger at the way things were in his times that kept him writing constantly. Known as a muckraker, he wrote to change things and people. He and his wife Meta spent some time in Fairhope, where his son David was enrolled in the radical School of Organic Education.

Following is an excerpt from The Fair Hope of Heaven.

“Upton Sinclair found solace in writing. He wrote compulsively; whenever he perceived something in the heart of man that wanted correcting, he wrote a book about it. He would move to a cabin in the woods to write, or to the mountains,
Upton Sinclair and son David or to the beach in the islands or in Florida. He had dreams of creating a Utopian community in which mankind would learn to behave in ways acceptable to him. So moved was he by Thus Spake Zarathustra in the original German in 1902 he wrote a short novel (The Overman) asserting man's ability to experience "rapture and unutterable holiness." Nietschze inspired in him an almost-religious conversion to the political doctrines of Socialism.

“His most well-read book, The Jungle, was published in 1907. It dealt with the meat packing industry in Chicago, describing the lack of sanitation in the packing plants and the miserable conditions of the workers in those plants. As always, he felt he was producing art, and indeed The Jungle was a sensation, but more because of its revelations about the inhumane practices in the industry it portrayed than for its merit as literature. President Theodore Roosevelt was so moved by The Jungle that he made contact with its writer and drafted the first Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair met with the President on several occasions, and their letters back and forth show an amusing clash of egos and ideas of how to get things done. Roosevelt had no patience with Socialists or muckrakers, but he was determined to right the wrongs of the meat-packing industry as outlined in Sinclair's book.
“It was about this book that Sinclair stated, ‘I was aiming at the heart of America, but instead I hit it in the stomach.’

The Jungle provided enough money for Sinclair to live his long-held dream of utopia. He started a colony of like-minded idealists in an old private school building on the Palisades in New Jersey. The building was called Helicon Hall, named for the Greek muse of the arts, and his settlement was called the Helicon Home Colony. This idyll was to last for only six months. However, during that time it attracted some 100 people; some, like educational philosopher John Dewey, who were to have an impact on Fairhope. Even the "other" Sinclair, (Lewis), a Yale student at the time, helped out with janitorial duties at the Hall.

“Helicon Home Colony burned to the ground in March 1907, and with it went the hopes of Sinclair to realize his own personal ideal world. He and his wife and baby traveled to Carmel, California, where he experimented with health foods and wrote books and plays intended to convert mankind to their use as well as to the cause of Socialism. Again under the stress of great poverty and the growing difficulties in his marriage, Sinclair had developed health problems which he found he could solve using unorthodox diets – raw foods, fasts, vegetarianism. Again he wrote to solve the problem, a book called The Fasting Cure. Upton did experience some relief from the headaches and stomach troubles that had plagued him during his days of deprivation and ignorance of nutritional requirements. As he wrote in his autobiography, 'I had been reading literature of the health cranks, and had resolved upon a drastic experiment; I would try the raw food diet, for which so much was promised. I ate two meals a day, of nuts, fruits, olives, and salad vegetables; the only cooked food being two or three shredded wheat biscuit or some graham crackers. The diet agreed with me marvelously, and for the entire period I never had an ache or pain.' As he became more converted to this nutritional regimen, he was very strict with his wife and child about what they ate, and was probably as much a tyrant on a personal level as he was where any other of his crusades might be challenged.
He and his wife Meta spent some time at the establishments of Kellogg and of health guru Bernarr MacFadden in Battle Creek, Michigan, and then traveled to Cutchogue, Long Island, where he hired a personal assistant named Dave Howatt, who took care of his house as well as much of his business affairs. Howatt was very compatible with his employer, and shared his commitment to the Spartan diet..."

The Fair Hope of Heaven goes on to outline Sinclair's life for a year in Fairhope, including Dave Howatt's bringing a young bride to live in the little community. The book contains excerpts from the wife's diary describing vividly the life in the little offbeat colony on Mobile Bay.

The early 20th Century in America abounded with utopias and the dreamers who lived in them. It has been said that New Jersey was an unlikely spot, yet it was home to some six or seven of them at one time. I would think southern Alabama was far less hospitable, yet it held the place called Fairhope.

The Fair Hope of Heaven is available from or on my website.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reading Matter

January 11, 2009
Do you like stories set in the late 1800’s, stories of brave souls who uprooted their families to move across the country to tame the wilds and create a community? Do you admire nonconformists, oddballs, intellectuals and eccentrics? Do you have trouble believing that the world was once full of people who thought a new idea was so good that it would change mankind for the better?

My book The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years After Utopia might appeal to you if you answered even a mild yes to any of the above.

The small city of Fairhope, Alabama, now a thriving tourist destination and home to boutiques, antique shops and expensive haberdasheries, was founded in 1894 as a utopian colony to prove Henry George’s theory of single tax.

In its 115 years of existence, Fairhope was a magnet for people with ideas. It had begun as a way to demonstrate the efficacy of the single tax theory with an overlay of what Fairhope’s founders called “cooperative individualism.” Its political philosophy attracted people like the visionary educator Marietta Johnson, who started a school based on the radical theory that learning itself is natural to children, and by nature they should love to do it. Socialist writer Upton Sinclair spent a year there after his own dream colony in New Jersey burned to the ground. There was a nudist camp nearby in Fairhope’s early days; many residents practice subsistence farming, and a few engaged in free love.

In my own youth in Fairhope, in mid-20th-century, there was an odd looking old lady who wrote books about spiders and was arrested more than once for canoeing in the nude in the middle of the night. There was a woodcarver who had gone off to Alaska for a time in the 1930’s and returned claiming to have ice-skated with Mae West and sold hooch to Bing Crosby. There were cranks and quacks and amusing people, and Fairhope took them all to its heart without batting an eye.

The unusual school Mrs. Johnson started became home to artists, musicians, and poets. Its students, who were indoctrinated into its unconventional system, grew up to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, dancers, actors, and writers.

Today much of its bohemian dust has been shaken off, and Fairhope exists as a floral dream of a retirement village with sunset views and pleasant, relatively stress-free citizens. It retains shadows of its single tax past, but everything has been modified to fit the times. From time to time it is named by national publications on their lists of best places in America to retire.

The Fair Hope of Heaven explores this dichotomy and places the little community in the context of the two visions of utopia—yesterday’s and today’s—with a smattering of history, a handful of sketches of more than one generation of characters who made Fairhope unique in ways unanticipated by its idealistic founders at its inception.

The book will be on sale in Fairhope when I get there next week. I’ll be signing at the local bookstore, The Page & Palette, on Saturday, January 24, from 2-4 P.M. I’ll read from the book at the local museums during the week, and donate a copy to the library.

Those of you who live too far away to get to the signing or the bookstore can find The Fair Hope of Heaven online at and on my website.  I wrote it under my nom de plume, Mary Lois Timbes, which is also my maiden name. I’ll publish excerpts here in the coming weeks, and hope the little snippets will interest some of my regular blog readers enough that they’ll buy and enjoy the book.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rainy Day Excursion

January 8, 2009

Yesterday was one of those cold, rainy days when the big decision is whether to do anything or just stay home and think about how uncomfortable it would be to go outside at all. As usual, I went against the normal inclinations and took a bus to a place I'd never been.

Knowing my Alabama driver's license would expire on the 12th, I took it on myself to trek to the department of motor vehicles, which in New Jersey is known as the NJMVC. The nearest office to Hoboken is in North Bergen which is not very near. It would be an educational excursion, and if I couldn't find the place, at least I would have been to a new place.

Six months ago my friend Alex got his license transferred and he assured me that if I still had a valid license from another state, the process was simple and he would even drive me to the office. In the meantime, he has left Hoboken and now lives in Princeton. Cristina has dropped out of sight since before Christmas. She hasn't answered my emails. I assume she's sunning herself on a tropical beach somewhere and would not have been in New Jersey in time to get me to the NJMVC before my Alabama license expired.

It is urgent that I have a driver's license as I intend to fly to Alabama on the 19th for a week and will need to rent a car.

All these things converged, making yesterday the day--rain or not--to find the way to North Bergen and take care of the matter.

I went to this handy place on the Internet that offers maps and directions to places you need to find. It indicated that there is a bus from Hoboken to North Bergen that drives right to the NJMVC office--well, not to the door, but damn close. So the challenge was simple, meet the bus, which should have stopped at Washington and 9th at about 2:10 P.M.

It was drizzling lightly at 2:10, but I had a hood on my coat plus an umbrella, so that shouldn't be a problem. For some reason, the only thing that held me back was not the rain, but the fact that I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before and didn't want to look terrible for my picture. Finally I realized that I almost always look terrible in ID pictures and no amount of makeup, restful sleep, or lighting tricks will help. Just get on the bus and get the license. The picture couldn't look any worse than the one on my current license.

The bus ride was depressing. Mile after mile of junky streets, low-rent businesses, and intriguing restaurants advertising a variety of ethnic food I've never tasted but somehow wanted to try. It was a side of New Jersey you don't see much if you live in Hoboken. I passed the little clinic in West New York where my favorite doctor worked when her offices in Hoboken were closed due to somebody else's nervous breakdown. I was headed for 90th Street; this was about at 25th.

As we neared the end of the line, I was the last person on the bus. I approached the driver and told him I would be getting off at 90th Street. When he stopped there, I asked about the location of the NJMVC, and he said, "One block back."

Sure enough, there it was, tucked in aside a strip mall. Friendly receptionist gave me the forms and told me where to sit. I didn't have much of a wait, had all my necessary ID, actually had a pretty good picture taken, and was out of there in 20 minutes. Stopped in the Dunkin' Donuts at the strip mall to get exact change for the bus, and was home in another 45 minutes.

It won't rain today, but it will be colder. My big outing for the week has been accomplished. I wonder what will happen next.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

So It's a New Year

January 1, 2009

I just love those montages of world events they put on tv at the end of every year, even the inevitable memorials to those well-known people we lost during the year. Don't you?

A review of the past year is somehow cathartic, and perhaps even necessary to the prep of facing the incoming one. We never know what lies ahead, and at least once a year we think about that fact.

The year 2008 was one of the most momentous of my lifetime. In my day I've seen more than the advent and exit of Detroit bombs like the Edsel, above; I've seen the end of a "great" war; the beginning of many infamous ones; a trickle of lackluster election campaigns; a parade of decent presidents and a few scoundrels in the job--but none of these compares to the impact in my life of the presidential election year of 2008, in which a true talent emerged and convinced enough people he could do the job that he vanquished some formidable opponents and actually won. It was good to know that the man in the White House might undo some of the pain wrought over the past polarizing eight years.

Whenever I see the memorials, however, I am saddened: Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Suzanne Pleshette, George Carlin, Heath Ledger, Bernie Mac, and all the others whom I shall miss. I remind myself that they remain with us in their films, but we all know that isn't the same. We know that others will succeed them, but they will not truly be replaced. We know that 2009 will bring some rewarding and excellent movies and books, some unanticipated artists in any number of fields, but knowing that these people are not on the earth any more triggers the inevitable sense of loss and wonder.

As we retrain ourselves to put a "9" where we had become accustomed to putting an "8" at the end of the date, we will add a hopeful sigh, knowing that another year is beginning. As with the birth of a baby, we anticipate the best and have some apprehension that our hopes may not be met.

Happy New Year.