Sunday, November 02, 2008

    More Than Just "Some Pig" With "Cheese in the Eye"

    As I ease back into living in New Orleans, and life itself, I am equally joyful and hopeful; hungry for new experiences; happy for the fall sun that cinematically shines through our kitchen and hall windows; delighted to again be able do simple things like sit on the floor and scrub until the front of the oven is free of grime; and look forward to one day soon, when I can finally unpack my books, including E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and other childhood favorites like Anne of Green Gables; The Girl With the Silver Eyes (a young girl with extraordinary yet misunderstood abilities); Bella Arabella (a young girl turns into a cat and is taken care of by her own pet cat); Little Women; and Where the Red Fern Grows.

    Clearly there's been a theme in my literature taste since a young age: unusual or strong female protagonists, and remarkable animals. (The most moving book I've read as an adult is The Dogs of Babel. Years later, I can't look at the cover without choking back a sob). I recently had a serious medical issue, and lived post-Gustav in Dallas for 2 months to regain my health, hence the extra dose of nostalgia and emotion, excitement while cleaning the toilet today, and thrill of getting dressed up for Halloween, even if I could only stay out for an hour.

    A few years ago I read a story about "Andy" (better known as E.B. White), as written by his stepson, the author of a quintessential piece in The New Yorker. I've never forgotten it. As a kid, I had no idea White worked regularly with William Shawn at The New Yorker -- all I read of my family's subscription was the cartoons. If I'd known, the future Journalism major in me would've been so envious. Shawn, father of the also famous Wallace Shawn of "My Dinner With Andre" and the inconceivable "battle of wits" scene in "The Princess Bride" fame, is a publishing legend.

    Neither did I know that Andy is the "White" of Elements of Style's Strunk & White (again, as a J-schooler, I doff my hat to Mr. White) and that in 1945 he was involved in a ridiculous war of words, upon publication of Stuart Little, with the New York Public Library's Dept. of Work for Children Superintendent, a former fan who believed White's writing the character of Stuart as a mouse was the work of a "sick man" (at least 4 million copies have sold to date).

    The article also talks about how White was a hypochondriac, and it recounts that one evening, "he clapped one hand to his face in horror...'Got anything for cheese in the eye?' he cried indignantly. The crisis passed and the moment was affectionately filed away, joining...the thousand-odd spoonfuls of soup...forkfuls of salad...that were suddenly halted and inspected midway to his mouth, with the same 'Any clams in this?' A clam had poisoned him once...and the cooks and hostesses of the world, including my mother, were out to lay him low again by the same means."

    Finally, and of utmost importance to me, I now know that White lived on a farm. In the article, his stepson writes, "When the war came, he even took on a cow—the first time he leads her out to the pasture, he writes, he feels 'the way I did the first time I ever took a girl to the theatre'—and his production goals for 1942 were four thousand dozen eggs, ten pigs, and nine thousand pounds of milk."

    The story says that Andy waited to write Charlotte's Web (pub. 1952) "until he had the country stuff in it down by heart. He knew how geese sounded when they were upset, and on what day in the fall the squashes and pumpkins needed to be brought in and put on the barn floor—which is to say that he’d still be himself in writing about it, and would not put in a word that might patronize his audience."

    As a fellow animal lover, during my recent health crisis, I often remembered my experiences as a caretaker for my cat Schuyler. Though I eventually made the difficult but humane decision to put her to sleep, she and I worked together for many years to provide her with a normal feline life. The small victories I achieved (like learning to expertly administer allergy shots), but really more so the mistakes I made (the hypo-allergenic food that was better for her, but which she barely touched in the end), helped me to know what to ask for from my own loving caretakers. (Dark chocolate bars; grilled cheese sandwiches with pickles; Special Sprite, aka Diet Sprite poured into a glass with ice by one of the many somebodies who love me; Sprinkles cupcakes [they really are worth the money; the red velvet are the best I've ever had!]; taco salads; and strawberry/chocolate shakes made with Blue Bell ice cream, for starters).

    As I continue to heal (and cut back on the cupcakes and milkshakes), I'm again starting to think about cat adoption. I'm also on the verge of launching a cat and small dog sitting business, Jellicle Pet Sitting. I'd like to think Andy would have appreciated the T.S. Eliot allusion. That bivalve-fearing man really was, "Some Pig."

    1 comment:

    Liz Tascio said...

    Jennifer, that's so good to hear! You're going to start your own business?! Congratulations. And thank you for all the tidbits about Andy. While it was so illuminating to hear about how he prepared to write "Charlotte's Web," I think I got more pleasure out of knowing how terrified he was of clams ;) Cheers to you and your new venture, and perhaps to a new feline friend in your life.