Posts Tagged ‘Katharine Grey’

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

See’s

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

sees

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Charles M. Schulz

Marcia and I are standing in line at See’s Candies in Santa Rosa, two days before Christmas 2014. See’s Candies is owned by billionaire Warren Buffet and has more than two hundred outlets throughout the west, most of them in California. Some of my earliest memories are of chocolate caramel lollypops from See’s. Hard as rocks and long lasting, those delicious teeth-rotting suckers were two for a nickel when I was a little boy—gateway drugs to a lifetime of chocolate addiction. Warren Buffet did not own See’s when I was a boy, and when he bought the business from the founders, he was wise enough to retain the winning formula: rich chocolate candies sold by matronly women in shops reminiscent of small-town bakeries.

We are in line here at this inopportune time of the year—the holiday season now synonymous with a mass fixation on buying warm clothing and useless crap—because Opal, Marcia mother, was given a gift certificate for one pound of See’s chocolate candy, all creams, please, and we said we would pick the pound up for her on our way to get takeout pizza for our supper with her tonight.

Santa Rosa, for those of us with weak psychic shielding, is a gigantic madhouse of malls and snarled traffic—a testament to stupidity, greed, and bad city planning, though people from Los Angeles find the place bucolic. And where is the pinnacle of madness in this insane city? See’s Candies.

As we wait our turn in the brightly lit shop with its black-and-white color scheme, we are accosted by a small hunchbacked lady in a blue granny dress with matching bonnet and thick-lensed glasses that magnify her bugging eyes and give her the look of an albino goldfish. With creepy urgency she asks, “When you leave here, if you’re going anywhere near the Flamingo Hotel, could you give me a ride?”

I defer to Marcia, not knowing where in Hades we are or in what direction the pizza parlor lies or that the Flamingo Hotel is only two blocks away.

“We’re going in the opposite direction,” Marcia explains. “Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” says the woman, turning to another recent arrival and repeating her request for a ride, to which the recent arrival says, “We’re not from around here. We don’t know where we’re going.”

The line is not moving. The three matronly women behind the counter are boxing chosen chocolates and wrapping the boxes in reddish orange wrapping paper that stands out like neon against the pervasive black and white. See’s is a full-service last-minute gift-fulfillment center for people who can’t think of anything else to get friends who already have too much of everything, but never enough chocolate.

An enormous woman is ordering large quantities of many kinds of chocolate candies. She tells her matron she does not want her candies boxed because, well, I only catch part of her explanation because she is speaking under her breath and glancing around furtively, ashamed to be so obviously ordering hundreds of dollars of chocolate candy for herself—helpless in the grip of her addiction.

Meanwhile, the weird gal in the granny dress keeps letting people go ahead of her in line because she wants to be waited on by a particular matron who clearly dreads the coming of the albino goldfish. When Goldie finally gains the counter, she makes a great show of buying four pieces of candy, demands a large handful of the club mix for her free sample, and writes a check for four dollars and fourteen cents before resuming her quest for a ride to her apartment two blocks away.

We finally reach the counter and meet our matron from whom we purchase four dark chocolate raspberry creams to go with Opal’s one-pound of mixed creams and a box of dark chocolate molasses chips. At the cash register Marcia says to our matron, “What a busy time of year for you.”

“Yes,” sighs our matron. “And I thought this would be fun.”

“I guess it could be,” says Marcia, “if the customers are nice.”

To which our matron responds with a sweetly sorrowful look that speaks of innumerable customers who are neither nice nor fun.

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Over pizza in Opal’s commodious apartment, I regale Marcia and Opal with the true story of how, if not for my great grandfather’s inferiority complex, I would be heir to a huge candy fortune. Here is the story.

My father’s mother’s mother, the novelist Katharine Grey, married at nineteen. Shortly thereafter, her husband left her pregnant in Oakland and ran off to join the Alaskan gold rush circa 1897. Nine months later, Katharine gave birth to my grandmother Helen, and not having heard a peep from her husband (who had vowed to come back rich within six months) bought a big sturdy wagon, piled it high with the fixings for making candy, and set sail for Alaska with her newborn child.

Upon her arrival in Skagway, she paid a man with two strong horses to pull her and her baby and her wagon full of candy fixings to Dawson City in the heart of the Klondike where she opened a candy shop and started making money hand over fist. Several months later, Katharine’s starving penniless husband came staggering into her wildly successful candy shop, and after partaking of a hearty meal, told his resourceful wife that the Klondike was no place for a woman (other than a prostitute) and insisted they return to Oakland. Katharine revealed her enviable profits to her hubby and suggested they would be rich if they kept the candy business going for another year, but her husband was humiliated by his failure to find gold juxtaposed to his wife’s remarkable success, so they returned to California.

Thus whenever I see a See’s, I imagine the sign says Katharine’s.