Recent Work By Judy Prince




We’d spent five years dodging the wedding bullet. Now, though, after picking me up at the UK airport and bringing me to his rented house, dear Rodent was down on both knees and talking seriously about something.


Me: “It sounds—and looks—like you’re proposing marriage. Are you?”

Rodent: (Lots of words we don’t remember.)

Me: “But I thought we didn’t want to get married.”

Rodent: (More words we don’t remember.)

Me: “I had no idea you wanted to get married. Did you just think of it now or something?”

Rodent: “Oh no, I told my kids a couple months ago, and they were quite pleased.”

Me: “But you didn’t tell me! Why didn’t you tell me?!”

Rodent: “I guess I just forgot.”

Me: “Forgot?? You FORGOT to tell me?! How could you forget—“

Rodent: (Breaking in) “I wanted to ask you in person.”

Me: “Awww….”

Rodent: “But you haven’t answered the question.”

Me: (Swept away with joy and tears) “YES, OF COURSE!!”

 

After much discussion, we decided to get married in England before I had to return to the USA. I would need approval from the British government in order to marry in the UK—-unless we got married in an Anglican Church in England.

So we met with the vicar of the largest, oldest, most beautiful Anglican Church in town. Among other things, he told us we’d need to attend services once a month, so for the next few months we went to Evensong and very much enjoyed his sermons and the choir.

The vicar had also told us to go to our parish church and hear our banns read three weeks before the wedding.

Arriving at the parish church a few minutes early, we saw that no one had shown up yet. Since there seemed to be no church parking spaces, Rodent dropped me off at the door and went to find a parking place. I watched him drive off—and crash into the church’s brick wall—but he instantly rallied, backing up and driving off.

Minutes later he returned, but still no one had shown up. We waited for a half hour and then went to get groceries. Rodent happened to glance at the supermarket clock…..and saw that it was newly Daylight Savings time. We had turned up at the church an hour early! We rushed back and seated ourselves just in time, holding hands and smiling at each other as our banns were read.

Days later we moved into, and frantically readied, our newly-bought home for our children and grandchildren coming from L.A. and the East Midlands of England.

Meanwhile, I searched for proper wedding clothes since my usual garb is jeans, and Rodent found the suit he’d worn to his father’s funeral. I bought an antique wedding ring online which turned out to be too big, and Rodent found his father’s wedding ring which fit perfectly.

We were ready….and nervous….and it had begun to snow rather seriously. The entire family piled into two taxis, giddy that The Day had come. I was immensely relieved when we got to the church five minutes before the 2:30 ceremony.

The church was magnificent and silent, with large red and white bouquets on the altar.

The vicar smiled, greeted us, and said: “We didn’t think you were coming. The ceremony was to begin at 2.”

Horrified, I said: “OH, MY GOD!!!”

I glanced around, horrified again, and said: “OH NO, I JUST SAID ‘GOD’ IN CHURCH!!”

The vicar seemed amused but didn’t waste a second. He signalled to the organist to begin the processional, and gently started me walking down the aisle on my son’s arm.

We joined the waiting Rodent and his son at the altar and began singing a hymn, but for some reason there was a little red-shirted body between me and Rodent—-my grandson who’d decided to sing with us, after which he stepped back to take photographs. His blue-shirted twin brother had already begun to video the event.

As the ceremony continued, the vicar quietly said to Rodent and me that he’d picked up the wrong copy of the Bible, so he went to his office for the right one. The twins’ mother came up and asked where the vicar had gone, and I dug around in my pocket for our wedding rings, passing them along to Rodent to give to his son.

The vicar returned and read from the Song of Solomon. Then Rodent and I exchanged rings and said our vows. We were aware only of one another, as if no one else existed.

In closing, the vicar said he’d been told that happy couples laugh and read and talk together, and he felt that we were one such happy couple.

Thus the fallen-away Quaker and the lapsed Calvinist son of a Scottish minister were wed.



Vicar, Judy, Rodent









Signing wedding certificate






There I was in Islington, England, in 2004 BR (Before Rodent), my first time in the UK.

I had chosen Islington on the whim of it being Tony Blair’s as well as Sir Walter Ralegh’s sometimes home. My trip’s purpose was to visit sites I was writing about for a play about Shakespeare the woman.

After a brief night’s hotel sleep in Islington, I was down in the lobby awaiting a rental car to drive from London up north to Salisbury where I’d arranged a three-week stay in a B&B. The 2 ½-hour drive ended up taking 5 ½ hours—-and I was WAY alert the entire time.

The rental car deliverer handed me the key to a 5-speed Vauxhall, showed me where to put the key in the ignition and said: “You’re driving to Salisbury . . . and you’ve never driven on the left side of the road . . . seated on the right side of the car?” Exit a head-shaking rental guy.

Since the taxicabs behind me had begun blinking their headlights and honking, I did a quick seatbelt buckling, found the windshield wipers switch (it was raining, of course), headlights switch, heater switch, clutch, brake and gas pedals—-but not the gear shift lever. AH . . . on my left, of course! So I shifted up and left as the diagram showed for first gear, goosed the gas, and the car died (I later found out I’d shifted into third gear).

More big black taxicabs entered the little roundabout and piled up behind me. To get out to the street, the only way was to squeeze to the left. So I did, fully expecting a collision and arrest. Then I remembered The Rule: ALWAYS DRIVE ON THE LEFT.

Now I was at a traffic light with no car to follow and imitate. And I’d been told to turn right. Rolling down my window, I said to the poor man about to walk in front of me: “When the light turns green, can I turn right?” (I had too much pride to add: “Even though all the cars in those lanes are FACING ME!!?” He looked at the signs and said, “Yes, there are no signs prohibiting a right turn,” and walked past me as the light turned green. All I wanted was my mommy. Despite being dead, she encouraged me to proceed . . . perhaps so that I could more quickly join her.

The only way to avoid all those cars facing me on the right was to go beyond them nearly onto the pavement across the street—-which I did. I then was in the far left lane and at another light . . . again with no one to follow.

The car died again as I started up in third gear. Cars passed me (on the right) in frustration. A white van got ahead of me, and I followed its every move through central London (and several red lights) to Lewisham, where I lost it.

I’d gotten used to the strange first gear, but then became aware that I’d gone through Lewisham twice, so I stopped at a 7-11 kind of place for directions. A couple of men stood at a tall table drinking coffee.

“Does either of you gentlemen know how I can get to Salisbury?” I said.

“SAWLSBREE?” said the neatly dressed older man.

“No, Salisbury . . . spelled S A L I S B U R Y.”

“Right, Sawlsbree. I used to live there, but couldn’t tell you how to get there.”

“No problem,” said a much younger, work-uniformed man. “First take EYE TOY—-”

I had expected motorway letters and numbers, not body parts. So I pointed to my eye, and said, “EYE?”

He said, “No, no: EYE, EYE!”

“You mean “H”?” I asked.

“No, EYE!” he said.

“The first letter of the alphabet,” interrupted the other man.

“Oh! . . . ‘A’!!” I said.

“Yes, EYE TOY to M25 . . .” and the young man wrote very good directions on the back of my business card.

Then I asked where the loo was and thanked them.

On the way out I remembered not being able to get the car into reverse, so I stopped another man waiting to buy a bottle of soda.

He met me at my car and watched my futile efforts to shift up and to the left. We traded places, he fiddled around, then said, “Pull the shifter’s collar down, then do as you did.” Sure enough, it worked.

I then followed folks leaving the place (at the left exit) and aimed for EYE TOY.

I got lost several times and asked for directions, but at last, at nightfall and in vigorous rain, I was on the M1 motorway from London to Salisbury.

I hugged the left lane with huge lorries, and prayed, as cars speeded past in the right lanes. Lorries passed other lorries (on the right of course) and I continued to pray. At one point I thought my panic would overcome me, but I couldn’t imagine negotiating a stop on the side of the motorway. Then I noticed right in front of me a lorry with “NORFOLK” printed on the back. I knew it was Norfolk, England, but took it as a sign of hope representing my home in Norfolk, VA.

Nothing could break my optimism after that. I arrived safely at the B&B several hours later and had a marvelous three weeks in England.

I also racked up £200 in parking fines.



Rodent’s proposal for a scholarly paper had been accepted. 
 
For 4 months he’d been preparing his paper entitled “All’s Boman!” (“All’s Good!”) about cant language in London in 1724, which only 3 other people in the world would fully understand.  All 3 of them would be attending the lexicography conference at Oxford, carefully noting his research and discoveries about the language that criminals used to communicate with each other. 
 
I figured my role was as Adjunct Rodent—or, more precisely, Rodent Control, because he’s often unaware of other people, his mind preoccupied with research.  No one is more ruthless at research than dear Rodent.  No one.  He would cut his granny off his list of credible sources if he couldn’t corroborate her stories.
 
Before we left for Oxford, I began carefully calibrating my every word in order to advance dear Rodent’s aims, saying such things as “Perhaps the 4 pages explaining the difference between ‘hicked’ and ‘kicked’ could be shortened to a paragraph” and “It might be entertaining to include newspaper reports of Jack Sheppard’s arrest and hanging.”
 
As always, Rodent was way ahead of me, but he sweetly responded to every Rodent Control suggestion.
 
The week before the presentation, he had cut the paper down from 40 to 25 pages, but needed to lop off 5 more pages to meet the 20-minute time limit.
 
He sat at his desk with a kitchen timer and read his paper aloud, his sonorous voice describing 18th century cutpurses, pickpockets, whores and housebreakers.  After several read-throughs, he had chopped off the final 5 pages, and we were ready to go to Oxford.
 
Once in our Oxford hotel room, he again timed his speech.  A perfect 20 minutes.  We were completely satisfied with it. 
 
Because Rodent’s presentation was the last one of the conference, we got plenty of prior exposure to how the panels operated.  While the paper presenters analysed Ukrainian phonemes, definitions of slang, and OED historical citations, I sat and doodled, silently praying for an all-college electrical failure.
 
Thankfully, things picked up during Q/A sessions as attenders flamboyantly showed off their knowledge, often interrupting and arguing with the presenters. 
 
Finally, it was Friday.  We arrived in Room 7.  Two other panelists had also come early, as had the moderator, an expert at OED who collects examples of the earliest uses of words. 
 
In a few minutes, 50 attenders filled up the room.  They proved a lively group, throwing plenty of questions at pre-Rodent presenters. 
 
Then dear Rodent stood up and distributed 3 handouts.  He took his place behind the podium, placed his watch in front of him, and began reading his paper.
 
The last row was loudly mumbling as they reached for the handouts, but to keep to his allotted time Rodent neither stopped nor slowed his reading.  I turned around and gave the back row A Look as Rodent’s first paragraphs sailed by unheard.  At last things quieted.  In fact, the audience seemed unusually attentive, turning to their handouts at the appropriate times, their eyes on dear Rodent’s handsome face as they listened to his Scottish lilt. 
 
After 10 minutes, the moderator held up a big green poster to Rodent that said:  “YOU HAVE NO TIME LEFT.”  Rodent didn’t see it.  He then held up a bright red poster that said “STOP NOW”.  Rodent didn’t see it.  So he handed it to a woman seated directly in front of Rodent.  She leaned forward, and with both hands shoved it onto the podium.  He glanced at it, looked down at his papers, spoke two sentences, and stopped. 
 
The moderator stood, thanked Rodent, and asked if there were any questions.  Total silence in the room.  I prayed.  He repeated:  “Does anyone have a question?”  I waited for one of the 3 people in the world who knew what Rodent had been talking about to ask a question.  No hands went up, no one spoke. 
 
Desperate to spare Rodent embarrassment, I raised my hand and asked a simple question which he happily answered.  Then someone asked a brief question which Rodent gratefully answered, and the moderator pronounced the session over.
 
When most of the attenders had gone, the moderator began furiously typing on his laptop.  Rodent wandered over to see what he was doing, and they chatted a bit.  He came back, and I said, “So what was he doing?”
 
“Oh,” said Rodent, “he was checking up on the OED mistakes I had pointed out in my paper.”
 
That evening we went to the conference’s final celebratory dinner at St Anne’s College.  A fellow panel member waved at Rodent and sat next to him at the table, and they talked animatedly throughout most of the dinner.
 
Later, I asked who the man was. 

“He writes the Language column for the New York Times”, Rodent said.  “He’s buddies with the moderator, and said he had stopped his presentation early, too.”
 
Happy Rodent.  Happy me.  ALL’S BOMAN!

Stephen Moss, one of eleven candidates for Professor Of Poetry at Oxford University, has given TNB the following interview, just two days before voting begins on 21 May.

Moss is the Guardian‘s candidate for the P O P, and he’s a regular writer there.  A year ago, he explained to Guardian readers why he is standing for the Oxford poetry job, and in the article you can read or hear him read some of his poems:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/05/oxford-poetry-job-ruth-padel

Voting for the P O P closes 18 June.  The winner will assume duties in the autumn, primarily of delivering 15 lectures at Oxford University.

Last year, Derek Walcott, the front-runner, bowed out because the campaign had turned ugly. Ruth Padel won the election, but resigned after a few days, having admitted to alerting newspaper journalists about Walcott’s possible sexual misconduct with students.

The election campaign’s turmoil resulted in two new election procedures:  electronic voting, and voting for a month rather than a day. Previously, voters (only Oxford graduates who attended graduation) had to be present at Oxford to vote, and they had to wear their Oxford gowns.

Stephen Moss answers my questions in the following email interview:


1) Are you running for the position so that people will call you POP?

 

Yes, I have to admit the title does appeal. Even poets have ego.

 

2) What kinds of arguments are you having with the other candidates?

So far, all very good-humoured. Only slight disagreement was with Roger Lewis. I asked him to spread sexual innuendos about me to generate some publicity, but to my surprise he said no.

3) You’ve said that you will give the POP stipend to “needy poets and writers, and to good literary causes” as well as establish a yearly two-week poetry festival in Oxford (not Oxfam) and buy anyone who votes for you a drink. How will they prove that they’ve voted for you—–or is that a minor issue?

I will of course trust them. I’m assuming my vote will be so small, the round will not be too expensive.

4) When you deliver your 15 lectures (not all on the same day, we hope), will you be accompanying yourself on the lyre?

No, I will employ the London Philharmonic.


5) Will you need an assistant POP?

No, I want it to be completely dictatorial.

 

6) Would you recommend the meals at any of the colleges at Oxford U?

I was at Balliol in the mid-1970s and the foods was fine: spag bol for about 31p, I seem to recall, and nice desserts for 12p. I got very fat, and still am a bit on the puddingy side.




7) Which of the other candidates has the most attractive haircut?

An important question. I have not looked closely, but like the severity of Geoffrey Hill’s style.

8) Which previous POP most intrigues you?

I like Auden’s lines – the lines on his face, I mean. His poetry I can take or leave.


9) Are you wearing a sandwich board?

Not at the moment. Conventional jeans and short-sleeved summer shirt.


10) Would you live in/at Oxford or commute?

I would have a suite at the Randolph. I will be in Oxford on 3 June for an event at the Phoenix Picture House featuring other candidates (starts 8pm) and will be checking in then, fully expecting to be in residence for five years. Thank you so much for your interest and support.

Yours in poetry, SM






Eatiquette

By Judy Prince

Humor

When dear Rodent said, “I fancy a crumpet,” I realized for the first time that I had fallen in love with A Foreign Person.

How could I tell this darling brilliant man, this magnet of my heart, that he sounded like Mary Poppins?

Instead, I asked, “What’s a crumpet?” Thus ensued five minutes of UK/USA comparisons of biscuits, cookies, pancakes, flapjacks, bread, toast and crackers. I concluded: “OK, a crumpet is an English muffin.”

Then Rodent said, “I’m feeling peckish,” and I maidenly blushed—until I found out that “peckish” means hungry (something to do with chickens?).

Rodent not only talks funny about food, he eats funny, too. On our first date I didn’t notice how oddly he ate because after he’d taken several bites and stopped to talk, I said, “Are you going to finish your spaghetti?” and commandeered his plate.

Many meals later, though, I could see that Rodent handles his cutlery like a pro—-a really strange pro. Three times a day, he performs food surgery at the dining table, and I get to watch, fascinated.

Rodent’s a cutlery wizard. He never puts down his knife and fork, never shifts them from hand to hand. He slices sausages, broccoli and potatoes into tidy bits and knifely smooshes them onto his fork in layered packets. The more food groups on the plate, the more layered the packets.

“Does everybody in the UK eat like this?” I asked.

“I suppose so. What other way is there?”

Clearly, he hadn’t been watching me, bowl in hand, spooning up my meal like one big stew.

Which brings us to the Spoon Conspiracy and the Eyes Down Conspiracy.

There’s a kind of cutlery conspiracy going on in the UK, but like other grand old conspiracies, the perps’ progeny have forgotten why they’re conspiring. Actually, it’s more of a discrimination than a conspiracy. People in the UK have an unconscious hatred—or fear—of spoons. And, being UKers, they don’t talk about it (thus, the Eyes Down Conspiracy).

My first night out with dear Rodent’s grownup kids, we dined at a terrific Thai restaurant. It became evident that spoons were outcasts or outlaws in the hierarchy of eating implements. They were brought only with some of the “puds” (i.e., puddings, meaning desserts).

Before we ate, and seeing no spoon at my plate, I raised my hand to signal the server. Instantly, Rodent and his children cast their eyes down, not really focusing on anything in particular. They were apparently occupied with some thought or feeling.

The server, smiling, came quickly, and Rodent and his children looked up courteously. I asked the server for a spoon, at which everybody looked down again until she returned with one.

I said to the server, “This is a tablespoon. Could you please bring me a teaspoon—a smaller spoon?” All eyes went down again until she returned with a smaller spoon and took away the tablespoon.

“What’s up with this no-spoon thing?” I asked Rodent.

“We don’t need them—-except sometimes for puds.”

“But how do you scoop up food juices and gravies and such?”

“It just isn’t a problem,” he said.

When I pushed the topic further, he said, “Hmmmm…..I guess sometimes we use bits of bread to soak them up.” And that was that.

The meal had been fabulous, but I couldn’t finish mine, so I stuck my hand up for the server. All eyes cast down until she appeared. I said, “Could you please bring me a doggie bag?” All eyes down.

I had to explain to the confused server what a doggie bag was (apparently UK restaurants don’t do doggie bags), and several minutes later she brought a brown bag and a plastic bag. My loading the food into the brown bag caused considerable anguish for Rodent and his kids whose eyes had to be down for the entire uncomfortable procedure. With no eye contact going on, I found it impossible to talk until after I’d loaded the doggie bag.

The next time we had a night out with Rodent’s kids I considered taking a spoon, but refrained. This time we were at a huge, busy Chinese restaurant. It proved the best possible place for an extraordinary Eyes Down event.

Once fitted out with two spoons next to my chopsticks, I tucked into the chicken-cashew entrée—-and came up with a spoonful containing a little blue square ceramic tile.

“Good God! Look at this! I could’ve broken a tooth on it!” I passed my spoon to Rodent who inspected it with shock and horror and passed it along to his kids.

My hand shot up for the server. All eyes cast down. I felt betrayed. Wouldn’t any of the family come to my defense? Did I have to handle this all alone? Would any of them ever look up so I could see their expressions? Why wouldn’t anyone look at anyone? And why didn’t anybody talk?

The server appeared and I showed her the ceramic tile on my spoon. I had to repeat that it might have chipped my tooth or even caused me to choke to death. She excused herself and said she’d be right back.

She returned with the manager who solicitously listened to me and gave considerable thought to the situation. At last he pronounced: “We are so sorry for what happened. We don’t know how it happened, and it never has happened before. Of course, you’ll not be charged for your meal, and we will bring you another entrée of your choice.”

Everybody at the table was happy now. We talked about my “free” meal and how delicious their entrees were, and I was delighted with my replacement dish, an abundant helping of crispy duckling which I couldn’t finish.

I signaled for the server. Eyes Down.

She came (Eyes Up), and I said, “Could you bring me a doggie bag?”

In Chicago, back in 1998 BR (Before Rodent), I needed a little hole filled in my lower front tooth. My dentist had retired, so I finger-walked through the local phonebook for another one. Parkside Dental Group on 57th Street sounded just fine. I got an appointment with Dr Yank, as I will call him.

Dr Yank was a happy, chatty guy, and needed only to make a plaster cast of the tooth. While he prepped the plaster and tooth, he asked, “What do you do for a living?”

I began to respond, but he continued, “I love to interpret dreams. How about you? Do you interpret dreams?”

I began to respond, but he continued, “Last night I had an incredible 3-D Cinerama dream . . .” and he described what seemed like an MGM musical peopled with cows—grazing cows, talking cows, singing cows, dancing cows, lots of cows—and his ex-wife. “Now, just what do you think those symbols meant?” asked Dr Y.

I declined to comment on the obvious, but he didn’t seem to notice. Then he said, “All set now. You just relax for a couple minutes while the plaster hardens, and I’ll be right back, OK?” He disappeared, probably to whiff some painkiller, I decided.

Years passed while I memorized the wallpaper.

I glanced at my watch and noted that Dr Yank had been gone for ten minutes. My jaw ached from the awkward cast.

I yelled: “WHEH ISH EH EH-ISH??!!”

Dr Y popped right into the room, happier than ever, grabbed the cast’s edge, pulled . . . and it didn’t budge.

Time was not our friend, and we both knew that my tooth and the cast might never be separated. Grabbing again and again with no result, Dr Y reached for what I’d call Really Big dental pliers, and clamped them to the cast.

For a heart-churning second or two, I thought he might plant his foot on my chest for better leverage, but he just—with every muscle, sinew and nerve—YANKED, and, despite my best efforts, my head rapidly followed his direction.

I felt a TREMENDOUS suction, heard a “POP”, and expected to see him holding my tooth nicely embedded in plaster, looking like the ashtray my son had made in kindergarten. But, no, Dr Yank was holding the cast, and I still had my tooth.

When I’d amply rinsed my mouth with water, and my shaky fingers had somewhat calmed, I said the first words Dr Yank had ever heard me say (articulately, at least): “I don’t think we want anybody to know about this, do we? You surely realize that you’ll never see me again—nor my money to pay for this little visit.”

Dr Yank seemed overcome with exhaustion, and, uncharacteristically, said nothing.

When I called Parkside Dental Group a month later about the bill I’d never pay, they told me that Dr Y was “no longer with us”, which I took to mean that he had found, or been forced to find, greener pastures, or that he had died.

Consider this amazing fact: Cookbooks and diet books are equally popular.  It’s like some kind of compulsive reading-guilt:  “Make the perfect carrot cake!” and then “Watch inches vanish while you read the tabloids!”  I guess it’s inevitable that reading cookbooks leads to reading diet books.  Makes perfect sense, actually.

I’m convinced, as well, that there’s a causal connection between Do It Yourselfing and divorce.  If you and your partner start upgrading your kitchen or bathroom, you’ll find yourselves washing dishes in the bathtub and peeing into ziploc bags, at which point you realise that major house projects are as nurturing of your relationship as “open” marriages and regularly flossing together.

Similarly, I think that supermarket shopping screws up our love lives.  It’s a more potent weapon of love destruction than the silent and stubborn debate about which one of you will install a new roll of toilet paper on the springy thingy or whether a man remembers to put down the toilet seat so his wife doesn’t crack her coccyx when she sits.

I’ll go so far as to say that supermarket shopping destroys our sex hormones.  It may have something to do with the automatic doors.  I mean, if automatic doors are so harmless and wonderful, why don’t we have them installed in our homes?  Is it because the dog would be freaked or the cat would perversely walk by the door every two minutes?  Well, yeah, but…I think it’s also because the electric chicanery in automatic doors frays the nuclei of our estrogen and testosterone cells.  Folks get edgy and irritable, especially since they’ve already swallowed their anger in the supermarket parking lot while furiously wanting to flip the bird at someone taking 12 minutes to maneuver out of a parking space or somebody coming the wrong way and swinging neatly into the place they’d been signaling to get into.

The fact is, people get all weird at the supermarket, and it starts in the parking lot.  Gossip has it that a secret supermarket CEOs club has committed to regularly shrinking the size of each parking space.  CEOs got the idea for this while seated on airplanes in Business Class and glancing back at squished passengers in Coach writhing under their seatbelts, their knees crushed to their chests.

Here’s a scary thought: Now that airlines don’t provide meals except to Business Class folk, what will this mean, equivalently, for your average supermarket shopper when the CEOs advance their aims?  One hates to imagine.  Maybe there’ll be a Business Class section in each supermarket.  It would definitely have no queue, just a spritely “helper” to roll your Business Class cart to a mini-spa and enter your grocery items while another “helper” administers a pedicure and provides aromatherapy. The rest of the shoppers will be herded into pens like sheep, shorn of their valuables and clothing, then chucked out and tossed down a conveyor belt with their grocery bags hung around their necks.  They’ll be able to buy back their clothing the following week at a “VINTAGE CLOTHING–HALF OFF” sale.

Early in your supermarket-shopping experience you’ll find that a leisurely stroll down the aisles will have you swerving to avoid temporary cardboard displays seeking to attract your attention.  Like we need more attention-attracting.  Just let me hang on to my grocery list and cart and roll up and down old familiar aisles of old familiar items hoping nobody stops in front of me–ever!

There’s another truth that pains me to say, but it needs saying.

Here it is.  You see, dear Rodent is actually a menace–but only at the supermarket, and mostly with “trolleys”, as they call shopping carts in England.  One can only marvel that this sweet, ever-patient, ever-generous paragon of all virtue has developed a blind spot for everything about trolleys.  To put it more precisely, Rodent has a blind spot for everyone and everything EXCEPT HIS trolley.

I found it my civic duty to stay close to him, starting at the early stage of trolley selection, gently policing him as he plowed through the aisles causing folk to leap out of the way in horror, grab their little kids and Englishly pretend not to notice the Trolley Beast in their midst.

Eventually I insisted on pushing the trolley myself while Rodent ran around the aisles gathering and clutching tomatoes, shortbread, oatcakes and tinned tuna.  He was not a happy camper, though, as he tried to find me, a leisurely shopper, and the trolley.  I tended to drift over to the lingerie, socks, and “$1 for everything” displays, despite promising to meet him at the “Wet Fish” counter.

At last we could see that for me supermarket shopping was a kind of “night out”, whereas for Rodent it was an hour-long descent into Hades, after which he’d have to smoke his pipe for 80 seconds rather than 20, then he could face unloading groceries from the boot and carrying them into the house–after which, running on raw nerves, he’d help me put things into the fridge, freezer and pantry, and then he’d flee upstairs with a carrier bag of sour cream ‘n onion crisps, Fry’s Orange Cream bars, brownies, and new packets of pipe tobacco.

Supermarket managers in England have analysed the personal chaos and tragedy that grocery-shopping has caused, and they’ve cleverly started home deliveries that are quick, efficient, cheap, and as effective at saving marriages as babysitters and massage (exempting cases of folks who’ve massaged the babysitter).

Finally, dear Rodent and I decided to get groceries delivered, thus eliminating weekly Supermarket Hell.

Then we found out when we got to the USA three months ago that supermarkets here, as I’d thought, don’t deliver.  They refer you to Meals on Wheels, a service for which we’re not qualified…yet.

So for three months now Rodent and I have been shopping at the supermarket again.  I think he’s happily adjusting to the experience because they bag your groceries–a service not offered in England, and one which he found distressing, especially the torture of trying to open those white plastic bags.  I told him to just spit on his finger and rub the top of the bag.  No luck.  Turns out he’d been trying to open the bottom of the bag.

The real reason Rodent has relaxed about shopping, though, is that now I just drop him off at the door, turn a blind eye to his wild trolleying, and am amazed at how soon he’s back in the car, all the goodies tucked neatly into the trunk.

It’s a trifle worrying that I don’t recognise most of the items he has bought, but that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and happy hormones.

I was staring at Rodent’s kitchen floor and hating the broom, not yet having found the kind I like, which is a Chinese fan-shaped broom that takes lots less effort than any other shape of broom.

“Where can we get a Chinese fan-shaped broom that’ll make sweeping easy?  I never see them at Tesco—is there a Chinese store around here?”

Rodent’s kitchen is in his house which is in England.

He looked confident.  I was suspicious.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

This was a millenial shift from his usual, “We’ll see.”

I carried on hating the broom and his kitchen, especially since it needed painting and a new floor, as well as new lighting, stove, fridge, sink, countertops and cabinets.

I hung up the broom on the side of the cabinet next to the wonderful “Shit Happens” apron hanging near a never-used DustBuster, dead-batteried “torch” (flashlight) and two sets of keys that worked nowhere.

Did I mention that dear Rodent is a native of Scotland, and for many years has lived in England?  That qualifies us, since I’m a native USAmerican, as a couple divided by a common language.

Months before, he had recoiled immediately, and uncharacteristically, when I’d told him to change his pants.  We debated the UK and USA meanings of “pants” long after he had actually changed them.  I had meant his khakis; he’d thought I meant his briefs.

These word debates have stretched throughout our loveship and tend to happen at inconvenient times, such as the first time I wanted to bake an apple crumble, and he said the oven is part of the cooker.

“Where’s the cooker?” I asked.

His reply, God help us, was: “In the kitchen,” followed by, “and the cooker is the cooker.”

“OK,” I said, settling down for a long debate:  “Where’s the oven, then?”

“It’s inside the cooker, of course.  Where else would it be?”

I took a seat and wondered just how to commit suicide using a gas oven which seemed present but unidentifiable.

An image came to me of the Chinese cleaver, ever handy in the Slicey-Choppy drawer next to the thing I had thought was the stove, on top of which were things I had used as burners but which were called “hobs”.

With inordinate patience and creativity, I said, “I’m going to the toilet now, that little room next door which contains no bathtub.  If it contained a bathtub, I would have to call it “the bathroom”—not “the toilet”—or the Building Society would be forced to condemn the house and its occupants for lack of Englishness.  When I return to the kitchen, please have the door of the oven, which is in the cooker, open, so that I can put the apple crumble in it.”

When I returned from the toilet, I noted with immense satisfaction that the door of the oven was open and there was no sign of a cooker anywhere to be seen.  In went the apple crumble followed by a 15-minute explanation of Gas Marks 1 to 8, as distinct from Fahrenheit-designated oven temperatures.

It didn’t take dear Rodent long at all to provide me a broom for the kitchen.  He’s a man, after all, and men have to Do Things in order to continue qualifying as men.  This I guess is the case in both our countries.

He appeared, grinningly pleased with himself, in the kitchen, holding a push broom.

Seconds passed, grin still strong.  I waited for a move of some kind, some sign as to why he had brought a push broom into the kitchen.

“You got a job sweeping Tesco’s car park, and you want to practice?” I offered.

“This is your broom for the kitchen,” Rodent said triumphantly, his mission accomplished.

“It’s a push broom, and it’s usually used out of doors or in the garage, but not in the house.”

“You wanted a broom—and this is a broom,” he insisted.

“I agree:  It is a broom.  But as you can see it bears little resemblance to the broom that I usually use in the kitchen,” and I grabbed the derelict kitchen broom.

“That’s a brush,” Rodent countered.  “You didn’t say you wanted a brush.  You said you wanted a broom.”

“What does a kitchen brush look like, then?” I asked.

“Like what you’re holding,” he said.

“Are there any kinds of brooms other than the push broom you have brought?” I wanted to know.

“No, just that.  It’s the only kind of thing we call a broom.”

“So, if I want something to sweep the floor in the kitchen, I will call it a brush—not a broom.”

“Or you could call it a broom, and here it is,” he said patting the push broom.

No doubt because he’s a man, he began Doing Something.  He began using the push broom.

I couldn’t stand it.  He was pulling the push broom, not pushing it.  Over and over again.

I called it to his attention.  He explained: “That’s because I’m inside the house trying to sweep up some dust, obviously—not outside trying to sweep up some leaves.”

There’s a special kind of laugh-weep reserved for UK-USA couples.  It leads to big, floppy, weak hugs and kisses.

This laugh-weep keeps the Queen’s English alive alongside its dimly reflecting colonial vocabulary, and it assures us of our places next to one another as partners in ongoing ignorance.

It also breeds patience.

My beautiful daughter-in-law threw her arms up and yelled:  “Thank God!  Not a moment too soon!” when I told her Rodent and I would fly back to Norfolk the next morning.   We’d delayed our flight three days due to bad weather.

A winter storm tortured DC, Boston, Baltimore, NYC and a wide swath of the Louisiana Purchase, and Delta Airlines had tempted folk to reschedule three days forward by rescinding its change-fee, so we readied to leave LA on 13 February, a holiday-packed weekend.

For only the second time in 15 years, my son volunteered to drive us to LAX.  His six-year-old twin boys shrugged goodbye and turned back to their Legos.  What did we care?  It was sunny, it was noon, it was a short flight, we were racking up our frequent flyer miles, and I had a couple bananas and a baggieful of red grapes in my carry-on.

Row 33 was the last row on the plane.  Advantages:  we were Really Close to the toilets and to the stewards’ gossip.  Disadvantages:  we were Really Close to the agonied, foot-shifting toilet queue, and we overheard the steward’s intercom messages to the Captain.

Rodent and I quickly got used to pans whacking in the galley behind our heads, but we paused dramatically at a steward’s cryptic message to the Captain:  “We need someone to talk about what’s going on here.”

I’d been happily counting my grapes, not noticing that we’d been fully-planed and sitting for 15 minutes after scheduled take-off.

The Captain came on the intercom, saying:  “There’s a leak in the Business Class toilet.”

The combined brains of Coach passengers held the same thought, or worse:  “Let ’em pee in Coach.”

The Captain continued:  “Mechanics are working hard and understand the time factor.  Though it sounds like a small problem, if the leak continues it might cause the water to go below to the Black Box and electrical systems which could—with the much colder temperatures during flight—freeze and cause problems.”

Forty minutes later we launched, and a happy tailwind had us in Cincinnati just in time to board our flight to Norfolk.

Cincinnati is not LA.  It is a hellhole of chill.  Not that it’s the only place in the USA that patiently provides four months of sub-zero temps and snow.  Oh no.  But this particular evening, near the cusp of St. Valentine’s Day, we had really ached for some sign of spring—Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction notwithstanding.  Hunkering down into our winter coats, caps and gloves, we tramped up and down a byzantine (ok, Rube Goldberg) passageway, stairway and bridge to our silver bullet, and—incredibly—comfortable seats in the fourth row.

My bum generously gripped in soft leather (was this Business Class?), I smiled at Rodent who looked a bit pale but game for the rest of the ride.  For the first time ever, I gave careful attention to the Safety directions.  At last someone had printed up a leaflet with bright, simple cartoons for each Safety step.  I am now able to explain how to grip the levers of exit doors A and C at the front of the plane, though not how to actually open the doors.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Captain announced, “I might as well explain what is going on.”

Had I been counting grapes again and not noticed that we’d been sitting 20 minutes past take-off time?

He continued:  “The external air cart that starts the engine isn’t getting air.  It’s frozen.”

My brain decided to go walkabout and sit with the man behind us who, according to his female seatmate, was her husband and an airplane pilot.

He was explaining to her:  “An external air cart blows air into the engine to get it started.  It needs heating up.  Some private planes have an auxiliary power unit that bleeds off air to start the engines, to move it to the side of the engine.  It doesn’t take much to move the air.  But the unit’s expensive.”

I thus intuited that some commercial airlines choose to have external air carts, one which was being heated so that it could blow air into our lifeless engine.

I decided to worry about whether the Norfolk police would have towed my outdated-license-plate- stickered car from the driveway, as they had told my neighbour two days before.  This was a worry I could get my head around.

The plane began moving in reverse the way my now-dead 13-year old stick-shift Datsun B210 felt and sounded when going in reverse whilst the emergency brake was on.

The Pilot Behind Us was saying:  “That’s one of the pushers.  They use pushers so they don’t have to use reverse thrust.”

Right, I thought, and wondered if I’d really rather have reverse thrust, and whether the pushers themselves needed external air carts to get us down the runway at a lively speed.

As luck would have it, we were now moving forward, and the Pilot Behind Us was telling his wife about the signficance of full flights and terrorist attacks, and the comparative power of ship engines and airplane engines.

Announcement from Captain:  “During the wait, we seem to have got a little icing on the wings, so we’ll just shoot over to the de-icing fluid.”

Pilot Behind Us:  “Smaller planes have heaters on them, but they’re expensive.”

Possibly a bit mad with his info-power, he added:  “Hope they don’t do like they did in Greensboro where they sprayed so much de-icer it cooled down the engine, so we had to wait for the engine to warm up.”

Rodent was asleep, doubtless dreaming about the pipe he hadn’t been able to smoke for the last ten hours.

And then Cosmic Birther Of All Radiance And Vibration smiled.

She had us up in the air staring down at a silent lava flow of jewels, the Cincinnati night traffic.  Then we were beyond the city and into space, contemplating a sky smatter-rich with stars.  Next we knew, the PBU was identifying a glitter of bracelets below:  “Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel……Hampton Bridge Tunnel….”

We were home to an airport of lush green potted plants all along the walkway and a sign cheerfully announcing:  “Underground Parking.  Lots.”  (I assumed that meant Norfolk Airport has lots of underground parking.)

We were about to undertake the most dangerous trip of the day:  the cab ride home.

 


Briefly, how would you characterise yourself?

Stubborn.


Could you expand that a bit?

Intransigent, bloody-minded, immovable—


Any positive spin to it?

—unswayable, willful, unmanageably selfish—


Let’s try another tack.  Could you list other qualities that characterise you?

I’d rather not just now.


Have it your way, then.

Quite.


Interview ended.

Wait—I want to talk about how stubbornness is a trait of poems.


Be my guest.

You’ve got an attitude now.


What else could you possibly expect?

Here it is, then:   Each poem’s like a little stubborn person.

[5-second pause]


Would you like to expand that thought?

Why don’t you expand it?


Because it’s your interview, darling.

I hardly think your thoughts would be hugely different from mine.


Look, why don’t you just take over the interview?  You’re not the least bit serious.

Quite the contrary.  I’m into seriousness and plan to stay there for an hour or so.


Well, I  don’t plan to stay here for an hour or so!  Quite frankly, we’ve gotten off to a bad start, not to mention your rudeness.  Quite off-putting, that.

Each poem is a little willful being.  Like a person, a poem is conceived as a bristly, bursting whole.  It wants flesh and daylight.  The poem may not be understood or welcomed by the poet.  Nevertheless, poet and poem find themselves searching one another…..immersing themselves in themselves…..plotting, bucking, wiggling, debating.


I don’t quite get this.

I mean—like us—poem and poet feel that they are two beings, but in their best wrestling times they work together as one.  They adjust to being one, midwifing the poem, getting it to breathe on its own.  The poet has lost an ego in those glorious moments.


Why do you write poems?

Among other reasons, to winningly distill wisdom.


Is poetry your first writing love?

It may be becoming that, though I love the publicness, the sociableness, of plays, and I yearn to write wise plays.


You’ve previously said that you came to writing poems in order to write better plays.

Yes.  And it has been thrilling as well as sometimes frustrating.  Fortunately for me, research for a play set in Elizabethan England has freed me somewhat from the constraints of present-day word use.  That is, several Elizabethan poets and playwrights stretched and flexed the use of words.  They imagined words playing wildly with one another in order to fix a point in hearers’ heads.  An example from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, scene ii:

Cleopatra:

Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.

From Merchant of Venice, Act V, scene i, Lorenzo to Jessica:

Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.


Other writers or poems that have thrilled you?

Oh yes.  Michael Alexander translating Beowulf [Alexander’s The First Poems in English, Penguin Classics, 2008].  Here, lines 208-217, page 77, of Beowulf:

The prince had already picked his men
from the folk’s flower, the fiercest among them
that might be found.  With fourteen men,
sought sound-wood: sea-wise Beowulf
led them right down to the land’s edge.

Time running on, she rode the waves now
hard in by headland.  Harnessed warriors
stepped on her stem; setting tide churned
sea with sand, soldiers carried
bright mail-coats to the mast’s foot,
war-gear well wrought; willingly they shoved her out,
thorough-braced craft, on the craved voyage.


Other poems, poets?

Definitely.  Yeats.  For the lift, passion, lilt, music and messages.

And Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill—leaping with joy and sharp regret, looking back and into his life.  Excerpts from Fern Hill:

And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away
. . .

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder
. . .

I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
. . .

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days  . . .
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.


Beautiful!  Thank you very much, indeed.

No, thank you!



Old English makar word-hoards
hear blowing branches
a catch in the swan’s neck
a top cloud throwing down wisdom
to weathered men, sharp-eyed
for nature’s needs, political turns
 

all must know the old
the ships and oars and leaving—
wife on the rock who turns sharp, dry-eyed
pulls carrots and fear from the earth
 

none can be blind to heroes’ sacrifices
or unborn babies die and die
until they come to term
through a knowing womb
 

how to give, how to hear, how to see
how to tell the trestles of listening folk
who plow and dig, who turn the earth back
to a new seed

 
 

(MAKARSMAKERS OF POETRY, published in Poems2, Phantom Rooster Press, 2009.)

 
To buy Judy Prince’s Poems2, please email Robin Hamilton, publisher of Phantom Rooster Press.

 
In photo of Judy Prince, the “Sunset I,” oil painting is by Patti Meyers, at London Square Gallery, Norfolk, VA.

on a castle-cliff
St. Kilda’s sharp drop to the sea
I am wrapped in my wings
watching men climb, gather our eggs,
400 soon-birds in every basket

before this, ruled and ruling,
I led men from mountaintops
to sail above floods and floating roofs

I used my mother’s telescope
father’s resignation
Hitler’s ignorant cave of choices
for my rocket-bombs

I wanted space

now I fold the sun underwing
spin clouds and valleys
but am earthed in the commonest aim
to evade the fowler who reaches for me
my body for winter food
bones for tools

we test ourselves on sliding rock
at the edge, at the top
for we must live and breed
let go and walk space

we are all St. Kildans today
a timeless cosmos
the experiment’s first stage
without explosives or fuel
—gliders, silent

© by Judy Prince.  Poem was originally published in Poems 2 (Phantom Rooster Press, 2009)