Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Writing Home

If he had been born eleven years later, I might’ve seen Jonathan Franzen across a football field on a brisk Thanksgiving morning. He would’ve been difficult to detect amongst the orange and black pompoms and face paint, but maybe the readable expression of distaste teasing his features would’ve distinguished him.

I’m being presumptive, but I don’t think Franzen attended the Webster Groves/Kirkwood High School Turkey Day Game in 1998, a yearly standoff between suburban rivals drawing generations of Statesmen and Pioneers. His fictional character, Martin Probst, did and took pleasuring in feeling both “anonymous and secure.” That’s not how I felt. I was adorned from waist to neck in red and white paint. I was the P and I knew where to stand, but, maybe like Franzen, I felt less certain about myself than my spirit.

I didn’t know that Jonathan Franzen grew up no more than ten miles from my parent’s home until a few years after I read The Corrections, a novel about a family in distress, for which he won the 2001 National Book Award. The book had come to me recommended and had gained an allure of controversy when Oprah Winfrey cut it from her cannon in response to the author’s disparagement of her club members. The story shifts its close third-person perspective between each uniquely funny and dependably tragic Lambert, cultivating enough entertainment and insight to make for an excellent read.

Franzen wasn’t much more than another impressive figure in a long lineup of writers whose work seems to inspire and dishearten my own ambitions in equal measure, until I read his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.

As is often the case when I’m bookshop browsing without a title in my sights, I bought the book because of its cover. There it was—that glorious monument that seems to overshadow all other aspects of our city’s identity: the Arch. Reading that novel was like discovering that the first eighteen years of my life had been secretly filmed, then spliced with visions of car bombs, civic unrest, surveillance and sex. It was awesome.

After Franzen finished reading from his most recent work, The Discomfort Zone, at the St. Louis County Library last Saturday, I asked him (nauseous with public speaking anxiety) if he thought the premise of his first novel, that an Indian woman could assume a politically powerful role as police chief of St. Louis City, was absurd. I wanted him to admit to a personally gratifying fantasy exploration or deep suspicions and elaborate theories regarding the St. Louis underworld. To my momentary disappointment, he said it was the former.

“Back then I was lucky enough to not know what I was doing, which makes it so much easier to write books. To not be able to see why you’re attracted to a subject.”

“It’s about somebody from the East going back to St. Louis and invading the place and trying to wrench some kind of story out of it.”

“I had a quiet childhood here in many ways. You know my parents did not hurt me. They had their problems as people, but they tried their best as parents and they were pretty good. And one of the reasons we were where we were was to protect me from anything really interesting. The whole premise of living at Webster Woods was—make sure nothing you would want to write a novel about will ever happen here.”

But as a setting and even a subject, St. Louis provided Franzen with a compelling framework, larger than his own relationship to the landscape of home. In the novel, he addresses the city’s disastrous succession from St. Louis Country and the brokering of power illustrated in a fictional real estate scandal that bears resemblance to a controversy embattling Northside neighborhoods today.

“I thought it was an interesting place and I thought it was, the city itself, a tragic city in many ways; that it had fallen harder, in a more humiliating fashion than a lot of other big American cities.”

The Discomfort Zone seems to have provided Franzen with an opportunity to again consider the world he grew up in without the posture and distance of fiction. The book riffs a bit oddly on his appreciation for the comic strip, Peanuts, and a consuming obsession with birding (as in he has identified 590 species of birds all over North America), but it does so with candor that is both ugly and stunning, funny and familiar.

The first line of the book, “There’d been a storm that evening in St. Louis,” and later moments like, “I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class,” resonate with me for obvious reasons, but I wonder how enthralling or relevant it feels for other readers. The issues of family, the writer’s favorite playing field, are probably universally stirring and the quality of his craft is enough reason to read.

Another library attendee on Saturday asked, “How does your family feel about all of this?” I don’t really like it when fiction writers are pushed to reveal connections between their work and their personal lives, but here it was appropriate.

“How do they feel? I think a certain resignation sets in at some point when you have a writer in the family. It’s like, okay, we’re never going to get that basement dry. And you just kind of learn to live with it. They’ve actually been wonderful.”

His brother, Bob, who has apparently campaigned for a cameo in the film version of The Corrections, has been a more tolerant sibling, Franzen said, than those of most writers who choose to dredge their personal histories for content. When sections of the novel first appeared in The New Yorker, Bob and other family members had to endure fact checkers clarifying the details of intimate and even humiliating experiences.

“There are certain aspects of the book, particularly the portrait of the parents that cuts sort of close to home. My dad had an illness related to what the main character, the father character, in The Corrections had. And I said [to Bob], ‘You know, you may hate the book. You may even hate me…’ on the phone to him one time and he interrupted me to say, ‘Hating you is not an option.’”

“And that’s actually one of the two or three nicest things anyone has ever said to me.”

St. Louis doesn’t seem to hate Jonathan Franzen either, despite some embarrassing portraits and his choice to live in New York City. At least the room I was sitting in with a hundred or more people appeared happy to claim him.

The Discomfort Zone is now available in paperback. If familial strife doesn’t appeal, Franzen also recommends the following novels: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oë, The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, and Independent People by Halldor Laxness.

I’m attempting to form my own list of favorites in the “personal profile” section at the top of your screen. I love to know what people read, so I thought, in the spirit of contest, I would give my hardback copy of The Corrections (a collectable as it bears the now rescinded Oprah seal of approval) to the first person who posts a comment declaring a few of their favorites.

Let the fun begin.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Gooiest

Nothing lightens up a blog like a heavy breakfast pastry. After losing myself to visions of colonial atrocities and the exploitation of my fellow humans, butter seems a salve for the soul, powdered sugar a celestial pollen. I choose to believe that heaven, as it concerns earth-bound beings, resides within. After a few days of intensive research, I understand that it also lives beside me on Saturday mornings, riding shotgun in a white bakery box.

If you’ve ever found yourself interned for a period at Lambert St. Louis International Airport, a sanctuary for underprivileged carpet and disheveled business travelers, you may have slipped, out of boredom, into a heated argument with a local resident over the merits and significance of your home metropolis or rural settlement as it compares with that minor civilization just beyond the tarmac.

You might’ve struck first with an award-winning contemporary art gallery or national archive, to which any St. Louisan, regardless of gender or age, would’ve replied, “We’ve got Pujols!” You could’ve countered with an affordable and extensive mass transit system, only to be interrupted mid-sentence by, “Provel cheese!” Just when you thought you were sweeping the debate, you might’ve attacked mercilessly with an excellent bagel or temperate climate conditions. The fallen local would’ve looked up at you from that sullen excuse for floor covering with what you might’ve assumed to be an expression of surrender. Then she or he would’ve pronounced three words—gooey, butter, cake—before you boarded your plane in defeat.

According to a local legend that I have made no effort to verify, this miracle of modern baking was just a mistake. I’m not sure how anyone, particularly a professional baker, mistakenly adds an entire box of powdered sugar and several extra sticks of butter to a basic cake recipe, but God bless that supposedly German-American baker, supposedly living in St. Louis in the 1930’s.

My mother says the best gooey butter cake used to be found at the Lake Forest Bakery in Clayton, but apparently her support wasn’t enough to keep their business afloat. Last Saturday I dropped by the Clayton Bakery, which is actually in Des Peres, to claim my family’s breakfast.

A traditional gooey butter cake starts with a foundation of yellow, bready cake. That’s the part you start discarding once you’ve moved beyond your third or fourth helping. The goo is what earned St. Louis its widely unrecognized distinction as the greatest baking city on the continent. In my grandmother’s recipe, it’s made of cream cheese, eggs and confectioner’s sugar (one freakin’ pound!).

If you’re worried that you’ve sprinkled on too much powdered sugar, take note that extended coughing fits are a natural consequence of accidentally breathing too close to the product.

For gooey butter purist, what I’m about to reveal may alarm and offend beyond all capacity for open-minded tolerance, but there is a café in proximity to Lafayette Square that serves fifty-seven flavors of our city’s holy weekend sustenance. Forbid!

The place is called Park Avenue Coffee and is located on Park Avenue. So as not to overwhelm, they offer eight variants daily, with a cake in traditional form keeping them respectable. My mother, Aunt Sally and I shared only two pieces as it was the middle of the afternoon and we were inappropriately dressed in non-pajama clothing.

The triple chocolate chip was very tasty, but had shed its principal gooey traits in the evolutionary process.

The white chocolate raspberry, on the other hand, rocked, blending novel expressions of flavor with the essential viscous delirium.

Braver souls might choose to ford wider, more harrowing streams by sampling exotic riffs like banana split, root beer float, chocolate chip cookie dough (consult a physician first) or the thankfully seasonal, eggnog.

Regardless, if you're out of bacon and feeling famished, St. Louis provides.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Middle History – Pygmies in St. Louis

For eighteen days in the year 1906, a pygmy tribesman from the Congo Free State named Ota Benga, a person, was caged in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo. When people saw him in his loincloth with his handmade arrows and chimpanzee, they laughed and applauded. A week after opening day, forty thousand attended.

According to Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, authors of
Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, “He didn’t have to do much. He just had to be short and black.” The complexity of the act lied in the construction of the stage, a collaboration between Darwinism and Barnumism. The frame was built by King Leopold II of Belgium. St. Louis, Missouri paid the first commission.

In my initial lunge at history, I wrote about the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, an event I had never once heard mention of in my fifteen plus years of residence. After writing the piece I talked to my father’s colleague, Rich, who said, “You know about the pygmy, right?”

Pygmy? I knew that the World’s Fair Committee had concocted the Aboriginal Games to parallel the display of world-class athleticism, thereby securing the trusses of an established racial hierarchy. I didn’t know that after the plaster of paris towers and fountains of the Ivory City were torn down and carted to an Illinois landfill, that after every other African representative/specimen was returned home with the double task of explaining what they saw and how they were seen, the story continued. I also didn’t fully grasp how that narrative spiraled backward, entangling itself in the jungles of colonialism and genocide.

Phillips Verner Bradford is the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner, missionary, explorer, anthropologist and the man who bought Ota Benga out of slavery and ushered him west. Bradford’s grandfather told him, “No one, including you, gets to choose their parents.”

“Perhaps,” Bradford writes, “it was a reminder that I was bonded to him, whether I liked it or not.”

When he visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the curator presented him with a letter addressed to the museum from his grandfather, dated before Bradford’s parents were even married. “It stated that someday a descendent of his would come to the American Museum to set the record straight.”

With this task, Bradford was also bound to his grandfather’s trophy, the man Verner might even have called his friend. Bradford describes his book as “a memorial to one of the bravest men of this twentieth century.” He is referring to the pygmy.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, fourteen European countries and the United States granted King Leopold II a portion of the African continent seventy-six times larger than his own country. This was not a gift to the Belgian people or their parliament, it was the area of land that Leopold had hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to help him claim, and it was his.

Assisted by the chicotte, a whip made from hippopotamus hide, and a militia known as the Force Publique, infamous for its collection of victims’ hands, the king would tax the natives of his Congo Free State for a personal fortune in rubber and ivory. In 1908, he conceded his private colony to the Belgian state, largely in response to the century’s first international protest movement led by Edmund Morel, but not before approximately three million people had been killed (other estimates place that number higher).

Ota Benga stood four feet, eleven inches tall. He weighed about a hundred pounds. His teeth were sharpened to points. He hunted elephants, sometimes alone.

After succeeding in one of these solo pursuits in either 1903 or early 1904, Benga returned to his camp to find nearly every member of his tribe slaughtered, including his wife and children. He was captured by the Force Publique and placed in the possession of the Baschilele tribe, one known for its slave trade success.

That is where Special Agent Doctor Verner procured his first pygmy for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. He had an order to fill and a deadline. W.J. McGee, president of the American Anthropological Association, had given Verner eight thousand five hundred dollars and a shopping list that included a pygmy chief, a priestess, two infants and a medicine man. They were to be delivered before the opening ceremonies of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in April 1904.

Verner ended up with Benga and four young adult males from the Batwa tribe, related but culturally distinct from Benga’s people. The men were offered the opportunity to travel to the land of the muzungus (westerners) and they accepted, but only in response to the enthusiasm of Benga himself.

Benga had joined Verner because his world and the worldview that framed it had been destroyed. As Bernard writes, “Atrocity brings with it the added anguish of disbelief, the shattering of faith,” and Benga assumed this white man was leading him to the land of the dead. It turned out he was also curious.

Between the territory of King Ndombe and a stop on the Mississippi, the pygmies experienced many firsts—an ocean liner, a train, a city, and men who ate meat three times a day. Verner arrived in New Orleans on a stretcher, cut down by malaria. His living exhibition traveled ahead of him to their destination—a fair that dwarfed all previous fairs, spread out over nearly two square miles. They resided alongside Eskimos, inhabitants of the conquered Philippines, the indigenous people of Japan (the Ainu), natives of South America, Zulus and representatives of fifty North American tribes.

Geromino, the Apache leader and United States prisoner of war, who had become a regular on the exhibition circuit, presented Benga with a stone arrowhead. The twenty-six year old African learned quickly that American crowds were often aggressive and to demand a nickel before bearing his teeth.

Verner won a grand prize for his presentation of the pygmies and the tribesmen received eight dollars and thirty-five cents worth of gifts that included a barrel of salt for King Ndombe and a fake pearl necklace. Verner also honored an unprecedented promise. He had taken indigenous people to the land into which so many Africans had disappeared, and he brought them back.

For the spectators and Batwas alike, the World’s Fair experience, a social movement to be negated by world war, showed them something they would never see again.

“It was as if the high point of their lives had already elapsed while they were still teenagers or children. Never again would they experience so many lights, hundreds of thousands of them, concentrated to such effect. Never again would mere electricity bear down upon their imaginations like a magical force.”

Ota Benga wasn’t finished. He threatened to drown himself in the Kasai River if Verner didn’t facilitate his return to the West. He wanted to read and speak English and continue his own study of the muzungus. Though the journalists, spectators and scientists were “impervious to the fact that their attention was returned. Ota wanted to know with equal intensity and a greater necessity what a Westerner was.”

They arrived in New York in 1906 with a monkey, a deadly snake and crates packed with tribal artifacts. Verner intended to sell his goods to the Smithsonian or the American Museum of Natural History for the highest bid and secure himself a well-paid position within one of those institutions. Transactions were made, but Verner’s reputation as a man unhinged by the ravages of tropical disease was dismissed. With his funds depleted, he set out on a lecture tour, arranging a deal with Director Herman C. Bumpus to have Benga sheltered amongst the exhibits at the Natural History Museum.

At first Benga enjoyed interacting with the guards and stealing away to his favorite spot atop a giant meteor that had plummeted to Earth hundreds of years before. He became restless, though, as life inside the building “deepened an impression he had formed at the fair; the muzungus swallowed other beings whole. What they couldn’t digest they deposited in fairs and museums.” His anxiety led to mischief and eventually revolt, culminating in the form of a chair sent whizzing inches from Florence Guggenheim’s head.

Hounded by the Guardian Trust Company for a two hundred and sixty-two dollar check, with his animals sick and the sheriff having confiscated half of his crates, Verner contacted William Temple Hornaday at the Bronx Zoological Gardens and transferred his snake, monkey and man into Hornaday’s care.

For two weeks, Benga wandered freely in western clothes, occasionally helping the keepers with their chores. He displayed interest and affection toward an orangutan named Dohong and was permitted to visit the animal at any time. Hornaday encouraged Benga to string up his hammock in an empty Monkey House cage that opened to an enclosure shared by Dohong and the chimpanzees. On September 8th, a target was constructed out of straw and Benga was cheered into demonstrating his skills with the bow.

Although this turn of events seemed to occur circumstantially, in response to Benga’s need for supervision and shelter, the result satisfied an initial intention. In 1899, Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History and zoo trustee, had promised in his opening-day remarks that Bronx Zoo visitors would soon find New York’s original inhabitants, including elk, moose, deer and beaver, restored to “their old haunts” along with “all other noble aborigines of Manhattan.” Benga was not a member of the Delaware, Erie or Iroquois tribes, but, again, he became a spectacle.

One man who took interest in the zoo’s newest exhibit was Reverend R.S. MacArthur of the Calvary Baptist Church. He brought a delegation of African-American church leaders to visit Benga and assess the conditions in which he lived. MacArthur declared that, “The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African,” but Benga appeared neither upset nor angry. It was only when Benga’s behavior again grew unpredictable that Hornaday wrote to Verner, expressing concern about the situation. The man responsible for Benga’s presence in American society suggested a sedative.

When Verner finally made his first appearance at zoo he said, “I heard you had a little trouble, Ota.” Benga responded, “Noise, Fwela, noise.”

On September 27th, Benga moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in New York, a black-run institution directed by Reverend James Gordon, wearing a pair of canvas shoes that the Bronx Zoo crowds had believed was his first and the white duck suit he had been given at the Museum of Natural History. Benga’s teeth were capped and he studied English while working on local farms to earn his board. He remained at Howard for three years, but Reverend Gordon, unable to fully convert Benga to the culture of his institution, ceded his mission.

“Ota was willing to learn English; he was not willing to unlearn the ways of the forest. He was willing to study the beliefs of the muzungu; he was not engaged in forgetting his own. What it came down to was a test of wills, or rather forest stealth versus a four-square Baptist approach.”

In 1909, Benga went south to Lynchburg, Virginia to continue his studies at a local seminary. He lived mostly outdoors, but integrated himself partially into the African-American community that knew him as Otto Bingo, teaching children as young as four to hunt and gather food in the forests.

After seven years, Benga was ready to go home. He inquired about the price of a trans-Atlantic ticket and realized he would never have the money. By this time, Verner was working as a medical officer on the Isthmus of Panama and had long fallen out of contact.

Bradford writes, “Ota never intended to remain abroad,” but what he hoped to return to remained unclear. Benga’s family and tribe were gone and, though Leopold II no longer held claim over the region, much of the brutality and exploitation persisted under the Belgian state.

On March 20, 1916 at five o’clock in the afternoon, Benga built a fire. He removed the caps from his teeth, danced, sang and shot himself in the heart with a revolver.

It would be difficult to argue that Ota Benga’s life suffered from his journey into America. He had escaped slavery and torture, and he remained inquisitive and open toward the westerners he encountered. Maybe, as Reverend MacArthur insisted, it was the men who displayed him as well as the admission-paying public who were truly degraded.

“Something about the boundary condition of being human was exemplified in that cage. Somewhere man shaded into non-man. Perhaps if they looked hard enough the moment of transition might be seen.”

The hunger for spectacle that placed Ota on his stage was and remains a powerful cultural force—humanity, a condition both stolen and fought for.

Principal source: Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1992).

Related texts: King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo by Michela Wrong.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

B.J. Leimgrubler (August 7, 1949 – August 27, 2007)

B.J. is my friend Nick’s mother. She is also Erich’s mother. She is a mother to Jeremy. She is Tim’s wife. She is many things to many people, over a hundred and fifty of whom attended her memorial service at Eliot Unitarian Chapel last Saturday, but that is how I knew her.
Betty Jeanne Leimgrubler, was born in Los Angeles, California, the second of four children and the only girl. The family moved several times during her childhood, living in both Michigan and Texas. Her mother, Catherine Griswold Donnelly, suffered from manic depression and was institutionalized before B.J. entered the eighth grade. Her parents divorced that year and she started the fall semester in California, living with her Uncle Bud. Her father, Michael Edward Donnelly, remarried shortly after and took B.J. and his other children to live with his new wife’s family in Houston, Texas.

B.J. attended the University of North Texas in Denton, but transferred to Tulane University to be with John Thomas Leimgrubler, who she would marry. She graduated with a B.A. in Art History and the couple moved to St. Louis, where she got a job teaching art in the Parkway School District. Tom was a chemist.

In 1975, B.J. gave birth to her first son, Erich Leimgrubler. A year later, Tom died suddenly of a brain tumor. Months after her husband’s death, B.J.’s friends brought her to Eliot Unitarian Chapel.

Tim Gardner, also a member of the congregation, noticed B.J. on the first Sunday that she attended. He asked a friend about the “beautiful brunette with the childbearing hips” and how to pronounce her last name. They went on a few dates and Tim visited her when she was admitted to the hospital for mononucleosis and a bladder condition on separate occasions. He brought her daffodils, which became their flower.

B.J. and Tim got married two and half years after their introduction, in 1979. B.J. gave birth to her second son, Nicholas Gardner, in 1980. She began working at Community School, an independent elementary school in Ladue, a St. Louis County suburb. She liked working with young learners who seemed open to the creative process.

Shortly after she was hired, B.J. began experiencing the initial symptoms of multiple sclerosis in 1984. She continued teaching, but her speech became increasingly difficult for others to understand and the school eventually asked her to retire. Within three or four years of onset symptoms, B.J. demonstrated cognitive losses, an extremely advanced development in such a short period of time.

On July 11th, 1998, she was hospitalized with complications and on August 7th, her forty-ninth birthday, she was transferred to a skilled nursing care facility. She lived at the West County Care Center in Ballwin, Missouri for four years, then moved to the Lutheran Convalescent Home in Webster Groves for five more. There she received excellent services from a dedicated and compassionate staff.

On August 27, 2007 she died of complications related to multiple sclerosis in the presence of her husband, Tim. She was fifty-eight years old.

I had never been to a Unitarian Universalists’ church before Saturday. With the help of Wikipedia and Tim, I’ve learned that these Unitarians make up a theologically liberal community that champions a “creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.” They believe in the universality of salvation for all people. They trace their roots to Protestantism, but do not necessarily identify themselves as Christian.

This is, perhaps, one reason that the sanctuary at Eliot Chapel is striking and beautiful. There are no crosses or icons. The walls are white and the arched supports are darkly stained. Behind the pulpit, a set of windows frame a large pine.

My family and I arrived on time, but took seats in the last three rows as the sanctuary was already full. Others settled in the balcony or stood in the aisles. B.J.’s family entered and sat in the first row. A quiet piece was performed by flautist, Robert Charles Howard, who had played at B.J. and Tim’s wedding, and pianist, Sue Goldford. There were readings from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (49-52). Members of Tim’s former a capella ensemble, Random Access, sang Bobby McFerrin’s arrangement of the 23rd Psalm, which he arranged in the feminine declension in honor of his mother. Reverend Khleber Van Zandt also performed a song by Steve Key with Kathleen Mead and Sarah Reutter on backup.

“If my wheels skid in the rain / and you’re left alone to consol and explain, / tell ‘em that I / didn’t really die.”

“Don’t buy a grave, a box or a stone / Just buy everybody an ice cream cone / and tell ‘em that I / didn’t really die.”

Tim spoke after Nick, but I’ll share some of what he said first.

He began by describing B.J.’s commitment to life and her determination not to let go. He said he started singing gospel songs to her, like “Crossing Over” and “The River Jordan.” He said she finally succumbed out of self-defense. This inspired cathartic and much needed laughter throughout the chapel.

Tim went on to illustrate how B.J. had struggled and demonstrated her resolve even before developing M.S. She was diagnosed with dyslexia at the end of her college career. She confronted police officers in Texas who pulled over and detained her and her friends because she was the only white person in the car. She guided a stubborn Tim on a float trip down the Meramec River Basin. She communicated gracefully and compassionately with the children she taught, including Tim’s four-year-old son, Jeremy, who initially fled from her, screaming.

B.J. and Tim were married on a Super Bowl Sunday, and their minister, Reverend John Robinson, allowed them to write their own vows. Tim described John as a tolerant man, perhaps overly in this case as Tim chose to balance his composition on a metaphor about soup.

“What does that mean?” Tim asked. “‘I have tasted the soup, and it is good.’ What kind of a vow is that?”

“To have and to hold. For richer or poorer. For better or worse. In sickness or in health. That is a vow.”

“And thankfully, I believe, I’ve always believed, John was prayerfully chanting those vows as I droned on about tasting the soup. Because I kept her and she kept me. She is daughter and sister, aunt and cousin, mother and lover and dear dear friend. I have tasted the soup, and it is good.”

I didn’t know B.J. until I sat through this service. I only spoke with her a handful of times, and the majority of those interactions occurred when her disease prevented her from responding. I knew her as my friend Nick’s mom. I knew that she defined Nick, both in the way that she struggled and the way that she thrived.

I am grateful to know B.J. through the people that loved her and to have been present for a service as exquisite and loving as she.

I’d like to share what Nick said on Saturday about his mom. You should consider that he was addressing a packed sanctuary and that he was fighting to hold his composure. There is no need to qualify his words, though. His eloquence was with him.

This is what he said:

There’s a lot of people here. It’s really nice.

A lot of you knew my mom a lot longer than I did. And I just want to share a little bit…maybe. I just want to share a little bit about what I know, what I learned from her in her living and in her dying.

A few years ago, my grandfather, Martin Gardner Jr. (I’m sure many of you knew him) passed away in the same facility my mom lived in these past few years. He was ninety-six, and it was the most I could’ve imagined a person dying on his own terms. He was ready. He decided he was ready and we allowed him that opportunity. And it was powerful to see a person so ready and so able to embrace the next step.

During that time, just a floor away, was my mom, living in the same building he lived in. Fighting to live.

I think it’s easy for many of us to be really happy for my mom because she’s free. What’s harder is to consider her fight. Her unequivocal kindness, the whole time. The way that she lived and the way that she died. Her absolute defiance of what was happening to her. Unlike my grandfather just a floor away, she never accepted what was going on.

But coupled with that fight, that defiance, she had a tender, giving spirit. Anybody could walk by and say, “Hi B.J.” and she’d say “Hi” and smile. Just always smile and people loved her for that where she was because it was so rare. So many people there just wanted to go, you know. Just wanted to let go. She didn’t want to let go, but she never made people deal with that. That was hers. She just wanted people to be happy around her and for them to share her spirit.

And so, while I, as much as any of you, might be relieved that my mom is no longer suffering, I think that what might be better for us and what I think would be better for me is to learn from the way that she lived and the way that she died. And that might be more appropriate than to be happy for her that she’s no longer going through what she went through for the last twenty or so years. I think it might be more an honor to her to fight harder for what we all deserve in life and to not accept what’s just given to us. And to expect more for us and for everybody around us. And constantly, constantly give. More than you have or that you owe or anybody deserves. To the people around you. Because that’s what she did. She never wanted to die. No matter how hard it was. How bad. She wanted to live. And she lived with kindness. Every day.

Donations can be made in B.J.’s honor to the Lutheran Convalescent Home at 723 South Laclede Station Road, 63116, Gateway Area Multiple Sclerosis Society at 1867 Lackland Hill Parkway, 63146, or the Women’s Alliance of Eliot Unitarian Chapel at 216 East Argonne, 63122.

Friday, September 7, 2007

These Middling Masses – Eric Saitta, L.Ac MSTCM

Eric began with ten questions.

“How’s your appetite?” he asked.

“Fierce,” I said.

“Any bloating or discomfort?”


“Do you ever experience loose bowel movements, diarrhea or constipation?”

His line of questioning was less surprising than the experience of entering his office. At the penthouse level of an eleven-story building in the center of Clayton, a St. Louis County suburb not far from Downtown, Eric’s clients are treated to what must be a health-enhancing view of maple-lined neighborhoods and the city’s infant light rail system. Past the gurgling fountain, a Buddha and the black leather chairs at reception, three treatment rooms outfitted with new massage tables and rolls of sanitary parchment invite sufferers from every camp.

I know Eric from high school. He’s no longer eighteen or uncertain about his life’s trajectory. He’s a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbologist. Having earned a master’s degree from the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in St. Paul, Minnesota last January, he opened Upper Star, a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic, less than two months ago.

“You’re tongue is kind of pale and your pulse is a little weak, but, generally, you seem to be pretty healthy.”

I was wasting his time.

When I first contacted Eric, I thought I’d play the guinea pig (or “sea pig” as they called them in Russia) and also ask him how it felt to leap from the ledge of dreams. I didn’t realize that without an ache or disorderly organ, acupuncture wasn’t for me.

“Traditional Chinese Medicine does work very well as a preventive medicine,” Eric said. “In ancient times, the doctors were only paid if their patients remained healthy.”

He didn’t charge me for non-services, but did offer to help my sister, Katie, a fiber artist of the finest stitch. She’s been suffering from chronic back and shoulder pain for the past eight years. It started when she was running cross-country in high school and has been compounded by two or three car accidents and a very poor massage recently administered in Savannah, Georgia.

Eric indicated that a series of acupuncture treatments would be most effective in addressing her pain, but, as she was scheduled to leave St. Louis in less than a week, a Chinese-style massage would provide temporary relief.

He asked her to rate the pain on a scale of one to ten, so Katie, with her middled heart, said five. Eric led her into one of the treatment rooms and asked her to lie down. She didn’t have to remove any clothing and massage oils were not involved.

I hovered for a few minutes, taking photos until I felt weird, then returned to the reception area to chat with Eric’s girlfriend and head receptionist, Sunisa, about life in the St. Louis suburbs. She’s originally from Nakhonsawan, Thailand and is currently working towards a master’s in Advertising and Market Communications at Webster University. The suburbs are, “okay.”

After the treatment, Katie looked like she’d plunged eight stories into a large down pillow. Eric had worked with an acupressure point just below her ankle and Katie said that some kind of energetic response had traveled all the way to her head. Her shoulder felt righteous.

Eric and I left Katie melting in reception and went into a corner office where he conducts consultations at a glass table. I asked him how he discovered acupuncture and the steps that led him to his own practice.

At age nineteen, Eric met a chiropractor who introduced him to natural medicine. Though Eric took an interest in the profession, he eventually wanted to pursue a “more holistic” approach to medicine and health. While living in Columbia, Missouri, he checked out a book documenting a series of clinical studies in acupuncture that he described as “boring.”

“I just fell in love with it, right then.”

Having completed his four-year study, Eric has treated patients with conditions as serious as cancer and advanced mental disorders stemming from brain damage. Though he is currently working with a patient who suffered a stroke five weeks ago in an effort to overcome the resulting motor impairment, the majority of cases, like Katie’s, are related to chronic pain.

With, according to Eric’s estimation, only ten to fifteen practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine currently serving the St. Louis Metropolitan area, he believes that bringing his skills home was the right decision.

“It’s a really good time to get started here. As the trend towards natural medicine continues in St. Louis, as it has in other cities, I’ll have more opportunity to expand and help as many people as I can.”

Eric is scheduled to speak at a forum in October hosted by the Arthritis Foundation of Eastern Missouri, which could attract more clients, though Eric puts most of his faith in the word of mouth.

“It just takes the right patient to come in and have success and then they’ll tell everyone they know.”

Though Traditional Chinese Medicine continues to be practiced in an alternative market, Eric believes it’s just a matter of time before its potential is acknowledged as an important component of the healthcare industry.

“Right now, Western science and medicine are having a hard time recognizing why acupuncture works. They see that it does work because of controlled clinical trials, but they can’t explain why.”

“So,” you might ask, “what have you really learned from your visit to Eric Saitta’s ultra sleek and professional office?”

I’ll let Eric field that one.

“In Chinese Medicine, the kidney is the most important organ in the whole body. That’s very strange from a Western perspective, but the kidneys regulate growth and development. They also regulate sexual function and the body’s yin and yang. By treating the kidney, you can treat every other organ.”


If you’d like to visit Eric for consultation and treatment, he’s located at 200 South Hanley Road, Suite 1103. He’s also got a website and a phone (314 727-2463).

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Language Lessons

My friend Edan Lepucki isn’t from here, but she has invested several key developmental years in two “heartland” states, Ohio and Iowa. Out of all the people I know, Edan is the best fiction writer. Out of the whole world, she’s like number five. She teaches Creative Writing in her living room and is working on her first novel. She lives with her husband, Patrick, and Omar Little, a dog.

In this installment, Edan examines the disparities in dialect that keep people from recognizing the “me” in “you.”

Once, after poking fun at my friend Molly’s Kalamazoo, Michigan accent, she said, “At least I don’t sound like a speech therapist.” Perhaps she had a point—maybe growing up in Los Angeles leaves one sounding like a bland newscaster. Maybe, just maybe, I have a non-accent, and I should shut my mouth.

But, how can I not share with you the strange speech patterns and word choices of the residents of Iowa City? This Angeleno spent two years in that fair city, and, boy, did I hear a lot of nutty stuff.

For one, at the Hy-vee on Dodge (that’s the local supermarket, people), the check-out girl in braces will ask if you want your milk in a sack. “A sack?” you might ask. She means bag.

Once when I asked, “Why do you always ask specifically about the milk?” my cashier gave me a shy smile, straightened her yellow and black Hawkeye tie (ties being part of the unfortunate uniform) and said, “Because the container already has a handle.” Oh. Of course.

Also: If you’re a native Iowan, you probably giggled at my use of the word supermarket. My students fell into a roar when I dropped that bomb. I remember one kid saying, “Supermarket? What’s so super about it?” Apparently, the word is grocery store, or just plain “market”.

Once, during office hours, one of my favorite students came to see me about her nonfiction piece she was working on. We discussed various revision possibilities, her nodding all the way through, and at the end, she said, “Can of corn, cool, can of corn!” What? Apparently, that means something along the lines of, “Easy as pie.” My husband Patrick tells me this is a somewhat common phrase in sports, but it was news to me.

On my last day of teaching at the University of Iowa, my students and I threw a class party. It was a potluck, and I brought bagels and cream cheese, always a crowd pleaser. One student brought Puppy Chow…that is, Puppy Chow, Iowa style, a party snack made with Crispix cereal, chocolate chips, and other sweet and sugary ingredients. It’s not bad, actually. But get this: One of my students had never tried a bagel! (Also, he pronounced the first syllable as if it rhymed with “hag” but with a more nasally, flatter “a”). I couldn’t believe it; I mean, hasn’t everyone eaten a bagel, even a crappy Lenders one? When I expressed my surprise, another kid piped up, “You should talk, Edan, you’ve never had Puppy Chow!” True, so true.

Now that I’m back in California, I miss Iowa, and its Iowans, with their big smiles and their game of Bags (pronounced like “begs”, and rhyming with the second syllable in “nutmeg”), a spring and summer past time of tossing beanbags into a box with holes. A good people, for sure. I look forward to living and teaching in Ohio next spring, to see what new Midwestern speech patterns puzzle and awe me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tinned Eats

In 2006, Hawaii BBQ on Olive Boulevard claimed an uncontested victory in the “Best Use of Worst Meat” category in the Riverfront Times’ “Best of St. Louis” competition. The blue ribbon dish was “Spam Musubi.” According to our local free weekly (though “local” here meaning “owned by a New York-based media company”), “Hawaii leads all states in per-capita SPAM consumption.”

Upon reading this statement, I went straight to the official SPAM website for confirmation. What I found was some of the most disturbing web content on the Internet. The main page apparently over-taxed my wireless connection, breaking down the opening montage into a David Lynchian horror show. The “What is SPAM?” question and answer section features the voice of an actor playing God who fields tough ones like, “What does SPAM taste like?” and “Is SPAM only for emergencies?”

This aimless research started with my own query, “What can a restaurant legitimately include on its menu?”

At the Tin Can Tavern and Grille, located south of Tower Grove Park, the answer lies between the rosemary gravy-covered pot roast and the grilled cheese served with sweet tomato bisque. For $5.25 diners can either relive frugal childhood years or sail into uncharted waters with the fried bologna sandwich presented on Texas toast with American cheese.

When I checked out “The Can” last weekend with my friends, Tim and Beth, I opted for the “Bottom Dweller,” a cornmeal-encrusted, fried catfish sandwich. It was good. Tim said his pork steak was a little dry and Beth guessed that the salad dressing was bottled. I was more taken with the ambiance. Despite some dodgy outdoor seating, the place pulls off a well-lit medium between diner and bar.

To the right of the entrance, personalized can cozies await several hundred regulars who I assume are not drinking draft.

This may seem excessively odd, but, then again, nothing offends the sensitive palate more than a tepid wine cooler.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Concept Check

A number of Middled readers do not live in the Midwest. By birth or calling, they identify themselves with what locals here might consider the outlying regions. You know—New York, Hollywood and the like. While these dispersed peoples understandably crave insight into Midwestern culture, they may find themselves distracted by local issues or trends completely irrelevant to the Central States. Possibly, the decline of the subprime mortgage market or a recent splurge on affordable children’s toys has kept that St. Louis or Dubuque getaway weekend just out of reach. Between dips in the Hudson and cruising the Orlando strip, these readers might feel crunched for Internet time and therefore pestered by the question, “What does Middled do for me?”

Think of this blog as an armless emergency poncho. In this comparison, the filmy plastic represents Middled’s thematic capacity. Though, reasonably, only one head can utilize the head hole at a time, there’s plenty of room for several bodies under the poncho’s minimal shelter.

One theme is that I live in St. Louis and need to eat. I also need to have conversations with interesting people and probably exercise. This theme has geographic parameters.

Another theme is that I’m twenty-seven and troubled by the inkling that generations of twenty-seven year olds before me had a firmer hold on those purpose/identity-forming tools used to rig up the suspension lines of adulthood (mysterious things, those). My own meandering has been enabled by privilege and opportunity and I’m thankful for it, but I sense that I’m not the only one in this radar-less boat. This theme is willing to cross the state line.

Regardless of age, professional talents, convictions or race, people get middled. Some more seriously than others, but the stickiness has a familiar pull. It’s hard to know how to move or where to move to. That’s what I’d like to explore—how people get moving.

What I do know is that if you get a flat tire on the highway during a thunderstorm, you need you’re poncho. Once you take it out, it’s really hard to repack into tiny pillow form, so you might as well wear it all the time.