REVIEW: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum (Penguin Books 2010)

9781594202438_custom-0b4b6f04142734d180d11b428295035e3dca4286-s6-c30Deborah Blum’s page-turning book about the rise of real forensic science in New York City during the Jazz Age is mistitled. It’s not a do-it-yourself tome on how to use poison (legally or illegally) but rather a history of how one medical examiner, Charles Norris, working with a very talented toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, began to bring strong scientific principles to bear on determining how people died–specifically, how they died of poison.

I became aware of Ms. Blum’s book after watching a PBS American Experience show of the same name and on the same topic  earlier this year. The author was interviewed extensively throughout the show, and, while it was a riveting hour of television, it left me wanting to know more. So I went in search of her book.

She’s a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and she sets the stage for her tale equally well. Prior to forensic science’s ability to determine the presence of toxic substances within a dead body, poison was a convenient problem solver for many a malevolent mind. So much so, in fact, that arsenic was dubbed “the inheritance powder.”

Eventually, scientists were able to conduct tests on tissues and organs that revealed deadly toxins in measurable quantities and helped point to those who might have administered them. But even as these scientific advances were marching forward, other obstacles to good criminal detection had to be overcome. Political corruption was one. Ms. Blum points out that, for many years, the position of medical examiner was a patronage job, given by politicians to favored friends. You didn’t even need to be a doctor to fill the position, and many who got it used it to line their pocketbooks–by accepting bribes in order to write a benign “cause of death” on a death certificate, by taking kickbacks from funeral homes to which they’d steer grieving family members of victims.

That began to change in New York City with the appointment of Charles Norris, a wealthy, ethical and determined doctor who then hired a man, Alexander Gettler, as toxicologist, who shared Norris’s ethos and work habits. Together, they began setting the standard for forensic work and police detection.

Ms. Blum organizes her story with chapters titled with poison names: mercury, chloroform, thallium, carbon monoxide, cyanide, and the inheritance powder itself, arsenic. She details how the poisons work on the body and then includes cases that Gettler and Norris worked on involving these poisons, often refining poison detection processes along the way. The individual cases are intriguing whodunnits, some of which have surprising denouements (such as one involving a man accused of poisoning his family with thallium, only to be exonerated by good detective/forensic work and the real culprit fingered).

Along the way, Ms. Blum also throws in a good amount of public safety history. In the days before the FDA regulated such things, poisons were regularly available, with no warnings as to their potential fatal consequences. In fact, many substances we know are explicitly harmful were touted as having life-enhancing qualities, leading to facial creams with arsenic in them, radium tonics, and even more dubious snake oil potions.

She opens readers’ eyes to why regulation of such substances was necessary. Not only were the items toxic, but often, businesses involved in their manufacture denied negative impacts to the point of delusion. In one incident, where workers were being poisoned into insanity by contact with an additive, tetraethyl lead (TEL), to gasoline, she recounts the story of Standard Oil’s rebuttal to concerns:

In answer to this new round of criticism, Standard Oil…brought (Thomas) Midgley, the TEL developer, to hold a press conference at its Manhattan offices. He assured reporters that handled properly there was nothing dangerous about his prize discovery. To prove it, he washed his hands in a bowl filled with TEL.

Eventually, unsafe TEL plants were closed or workers issued and ordered to use protective clothing. Mr. Midgley himself, Ms. Blum reports, went on an “extended European vacation” several months after his hand-washing press conference, “seeking treatment for the effects of lead poisoning.”

Another grim tale of corporate denial was the case of poor immigrant girls unknowingly poisoned by radium as they painted watch dials with the substance to make them glow in the dark. They’d often wet their brushes with their tongues to get a fine point, and this ingestion and exposure led to painful disability and ultimate death. Yet the company that hired them fought responsibility in court.

These and other incidents of businesses fighting regulation provide some useful context to today’s regulatory battles. That said, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for the company owners involved in these public safety debacles of the past. At a time when many poisons were used as “cures” and when Marie Curie herself carried around vials of radioactive isotopes in her skirt pockets to use in lectures, it’s easy to see how public safety concerns could be dismissed as alarmist jabbering. Madame Curie, by the way, eventually died of aplastic anemia, the disease that had claimed many of the radium-paint girls.

The government, however, has to take the prize for villainous behavior in this tale of poisonous activity. Ms. Blum points out that Norris and Tettler both regularly railed against Prohibition and its deaths due to wood alcohol poisoning, deaths that were surely increased as the government insisted on more and more poison being added to industrial alcohols to deter drinkers from using them as potable liquor.

Some online reviewers have criticized Ms. Blum for some sloppy scientific explanations here and there. For this nonscientist reader, those didn’t matter and weren’t the meat of the story anyway. Instead, the book is a very readable romp through forensic history, every bit as compelling as an episode of CSI.

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REVIEW: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-after-Life-The part I enjoyed the most about Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life was her note to readers after the book, in which she tells the origins of the story.

“I was born at the end of 1951,” she writes, “and grew up feeling that I had just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it.”

Much of Life after Life takes place during that war, following the protagonist Ursula Todd and her family and friends through some cataclysmic homefront events, most notably the bombing of London.

I can sympathize greatly with Atkinson’s feeling. Like her, I’m a baby boomer and a novelist (though nowhere near her league in popularity or acclaim), and the war called to me, too. So much so that I penned my own novel about it, and it served as something of a catharsis to write about what I’d only felt through others.

The problem with writing a novel about a war one has only known through the experiences of others, most notably our parents’ generation, is that you always feel you lack verisimilitude, no matter how much research you do, and you can worry that your story will have a certain thinness to it, even if the subject matter is serious and thoughtful.

So I understand the need, too, to dress up a straightforward war story with other devices. And Ms. Atkinson has chosen a doozy. In her story, Ursula Todd is born–or not–in 1910 with an ability to live again. She has premonitions of impending doom, of deaths experienced in the past, and she is able to “correct” her future by reliving pivotal moments.

The story is told as overlapping vignettes. Her birth itself appears numerous times throughout the book. And a shabby and tragic marriage to an abuser ends when she “dies” and is able to avoid the incident–an assault–that led her to be a passive victim to such a man later in her life.

If this sounds confusing, it is, at least at first. Once you grasp the book’s conceit, it’s easy enough to follow, and Ms. Atkinson is a skillful, beautiful writer whose prose truly does sing. You don’t just read of pre-World War I England. You feel its “prelapsarian,” “Arcadian” stillness, to use words she chooses when talking about the book in her Afterward. She’s one of those immensely talented writers who doesn’t just describe something. She yanks you by the scruff of the neck and puts you smack in the scene where you can virtually smell its scents. She does this, not with overwritten passages and purple prose, but with simple observations that have you nodding your head to the deja vu you experience at the scene-building.

All of this, though, is what leads me to disappointment. About halfway through the book, I wanted to give up, jump to the end to see how she wrapped it all up (Does Ursula manage to assassinate Hitler?). I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did–the last quarter of the novel is its best part, when she allows us to stay with Ursula for an extended period in one time period, during the London Blitz. It was only then that I began to care about Ursula and what happened to her…because she remained one person.

In the previous scenes, and their retellings, I felt as if I were reading several related short stories whose protagonists might share the name Ursula along with other plot points, but nothing else. The Ursula of those stories seemed flat, a “cipher” as one critic called her. And, even though she has one Groundhog Day after another, she doesn’t seem to learn a critical lesson, like Bill Murray’s character did in the comedic film of that name, that allows her to finally move forward. Instead, it’s as if we’re seeing a dramatic enactment of Ursula’s versions of those Direct TV ads that rest on “what if” constructs (“When you pay too much for cable, you throw things, when you throw things….”). At the end of each ad, the lesson is clear: to avoid disaster, dump cable. Ursula seems capable of only learning that simple lesson, as well: to avoid disaster, change X.

When readers are finally allowed to settle in with Ursula during the war years, the author begins to drop in some hints as to why she used this time-changing device:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
***
Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.
***

Dr. Kellet: Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”

You can almost see an editor’s margin note: Kate, this is all fabulous! But could you explain to the reader more explicitly why all the time changes?

A number of nonwriters whose opinion I respect read and loved Life after Life. A couple writer friends read it and either didn’t think much of it or didn’t finish it after getting the conceit and deciding it wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t surveyed all my writer pals about it, but I do wonder if some writers might have a lower tolerance for book “gimmicks” because they themselves have left them in their own toolboxes, unused.

At any rate, I salute Ms. Atkinson on a beautifully written story, one whose war year tales speak to this writer’s heart. But I would have preferred a more linear, less “shiny” telling without the time-shifting thread.

For those like me who want such a read about England’s homefront stories during the war, try Elizabeth Jane Howard’s excellent series on the fictional Cazelet family.

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BOOK REVIEW: “Grumpy-pants” Paul, the Apostle

Paul among the People by Sarah Ruden (Random House Image Books 2010)

Paul-Among-the-People1-192x300A week ago, the Sunday Epistle reading was Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, verses 10-18, in which Paul urges his fellow Christians to stop being so divisive, to stop focusing on who baptized whom. But in doing so, he tsks at one pont: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.”

What a cutting scold he sounds like in this passage! It’s as if he’s muttering under his breath, an irritated curmudgeon. And, according to classicist Sarah Ruden, in her excellent book on Paul, he was something of a curmudgeon–“grumpy-pants Paul,” according to a divinity student she knew. Ruden puts it thus:

“Sometimes after he preached, they whipped him…but he wouldn’t shut up. He had an uncanny gift, not only for inspiring and convincing, but also for causing riots. And with a pen that must have eaten through the papyrus like acid, he cursed his rival missionaries and made fun of his converts…He sat and stitched together pieces of leather tents with an awl to support himself and earn boat fare; there were easier ways for an educated man to make money, but they required cooperation, and in that sense he was probably unemployable. He found some sympathetic people and  started small congregations, but he seems to have been congenitally unable to share authority.”

Nonetheless, Ruden concludes from her study of Paul that he was a missionary for an “uncompromising message of love,” and that, despite his flaws, he managed to establish communities that ultimately ended up renewing the commitment to the Christian ideal.

But Ruden didn’t come to this conclusion automatically. In fact, the reason for her book was because of her acceptance of the divinity student’s — and so many others’ — opinion of Paul, that he was a grump, and maybe a misogynist, too, and, oh, yes, there is all that stuff he wrote condemning homosexuality.

For someone as enlightened as Ruden, these views were hard to get past. Until…she was in a Bible study class and someone started complaining about Paul’s admonitions against sorcery, which the student thought a bit silly. A classicist by training, she knew that in ancient times sorcery could involve torture. She knew that, within the context of his times, Paul was right to criticize such practices severely. This awakening led her to review all of Paul’s writing and his life within the context of the ancient world, and she discovered that he was more a champion of women than he is given credit for, and his views on homosexuality are vigorous condemnations of exploitation. In fact, she believes he is specifically condemning pederasty and pedophilia, so rampant in those times that families with good-looking sons would not let them leave the house without slaves assigned to look after them.

Ruden is no starry-eyed modernist wishing her way to a conclusion about Paul’s views on homosexuality. She is instead trying diligently to apply her knowledge of the ancient world to Paul’s experiences and view his words–which she carefully translates, distinguishing between similar words to find true meanings–as he might have intended them. She points out that he was raised in a traditional Jewish household that would have viewed homosexuality as wrong. But, she says, Paul discarded some traditional Jewish teachings. Would he have discarded this one?

She’s not as glib as some wishful interpreters who posit that Paul does not condemn consensual homosexuality; she finds these interpretations “politically correct disingenuousness.” She argues that we really don’t know what his view on consensual homosexuality was. But she does believe the exploitive sexual practices of pederasty and pedophilia would have colored Paul’s view of homosexuality, and that you cannot rule out the possibility that he was railing against these horrible abuses and, not only that, arguing that everyone is responsible for them if you do not speak up. In other words, those who like to use Paul’s writings as condemnations of homosexuality in general shouldn’t be so secure in their beliefs. The most we can claim about his views on this subject, Ruden says, is that he condemned exploitation. Period.

Be warned: her description of the ancient world is unsettling and made it difficult at times for me to keep reading. It was a barbaric place, which made Christ’s message of love, and especially Paul’s famous message to the Corinthians on love, a revolutionary idea.

Ruden’s case for Paul is compelling. She started her research with the typical contemporary view of him as out of step with enlightened times, and came instead to admire him. Writing this book, therefore, became her own conversion, when she saw Paul in a different light. “Jesus was my teacher. Paul was an embarrassment,” she writes at the outset of Paul among the People to explain her pre-research view. By the end of the tome, she’s taken you on her own journey to Damascus, having her view of the saint turned on its head.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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I love electronic medical records

Hubs and I are going out to dinner to celebrate a five-year anniversary. Not ours–we’ve been married mumble-mumble years now. A different anniversary.

In the fall of 2008, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had the whole treatment shebang — surgery, chemo, radiation. And now, a daily pill to suppress the hormones that fed my particular brand of the Big C.

This past week, I had my five-year mammogram and…all is clear! I wish fireworks could shoot off or confetti thrown…or something! At the end of each treatment step, there were little celebrations. The nurses in the chemo room had a funny wind-up doll they would make dance on your last day of chemo. The technicians in the radiation department had a bell that patients rang when they got zapped for the last time. Everyone in the waiting room would look up, smile and applaud. Those celebrations, silly as they seem, had great meaning. They were the outward manifestation of the huge internal sigh of relief as you stepped away from that part of the cancer journey.

The five-year all-clear is another big benchmark. Most cancer statistics measure those who make it past “year five.” It places you in the “survivor” category. So, instead of dancing dolls and ringing bells, we’ll go out to dinner. And that’s fine with me.

The good news on the mammogram came to me through electronic medical records, and I must say, I LOVE them. Instead of having to wait days until your doctor calls with the results, and then possibly playing phone tag if you’re not available when the call comes in, signing up for electronic records means…when they know the results, I know the results.

Mammogram in the a.m., and in the p.m., a note in my email box to check the electronic records website for test results. There it was, from the breast health center: “benign finding.” I have to smile at their evolution in communication techniques. Last year’s results were “negative.” Now, I know that “negative” in this test is good news. But I wonder if that word scared some folks into thinking it meant something bad–negative–and so they changed their wording.

A few days later, I got another email alert to go to the website, and there was a message from my doctor’s office saying “good news” with the same test results. She’d just had a chance to look at them, I guess. Which made me grateful again for the electronic records process–I hadn’t had to wait for her read on the results to get the news myself. For many cancer patients, waiting for test results is incredibly stressful.

So, hubs and I will toast this anniversary and each other. The American Cancer Society is right — these are “birthdays.”

Speaking of the ACS, here’s a tip for women facing cancer treatment of any kind. The ACS has a program called Tender Loving Care that sells, at extremely reasonable prices, wigs, head coverings and other items for cancer patients, especially breast cancer patients. Their site is at this link.

bluecapI bought a wig and several head coverings from them, including this sweet powder-blue hat that kept my head warm at night. My sister-in-law was able to share it and other of my head gear with a friend of hers undergoing treatment for cancer, and it turns out to be her friend’s favorite, as it was mine. I am glad the little blue hat found a good home, and I hope when she’s finished with it and ready to ring her bells and see her dancing dolls, she’ll give it to another woman walking the cancer journey.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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TGIW: A real Maisie Dobbs

by Libby Sternberg

For the past several years, hubs and I have tried to solve a puzzle: What started World War I?

I know, I know, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and then…stuff happened. But, what precisely was the “stuff” and in what order? It wasn’t as if the archduke was felled and the whole of Europe ran to grab their rifles from the attic like some Keystone Kops crowd swarming the scene.

What we’ve been trying to pin down are all the intervening steps from royal assassination to worldwide conflict. We know the assassination was the first domino to fall. What were the others?

Bridge over field of poppies-WWI Museum

Bridge over field of poppies-WWI Museum

So we’ve been reading books and even watched a rather grim documentary series on the subject of the war that we rented from Netflix. Still, our view is murky. Which is probably because the whole business was murky. People are still writing books about it, after all.

When we were in Kansas this past June, we took the time to go visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO. If you are ever in that neck of the woods, do not hesitate, go visit this museum. It was one of the best museums I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in most of the Smithsonians in DC. A Kansas friend of mine recommended it, and I’m very grateful.

What makes this museum so great is that whoever put it together seemed to understand how to keep you interested and how to actually provide information. I tend to be a gobble-it-all-up excited museum-goer. I want to just race through them, looking at this, grabbing that view and then decompressing before I re-view exhibits. Maybe I have an attention deficit problem. I dunno. Those were diagnosed after I was a young’un.

boat

Nurses boarding a British ship during World War I.

The World War I Museum allows you to sample or to amble. You can look and read and move on. You can linger. Either way, you’re going to get the picture.

The whole experience starts when you walk over a transparent “bridge,” below which is a field of bright red poppies, into the dimmer cavelike structure of the museum. It’s as if you’re walking into a bunker, a trench.

Wall displays give you a timeline–at last, the falling dominoes are made clear–for each year of the war. But at the bottom of each dreary list of battle bullet points there are other facts–things that were going on outside the war, video clips of Chaplin films, other notable events. This gives you context as you nod your head to events you’re familiar with, now seeing them happening against the backdrop of the war.

Listening booths let you sample songs and poetry of the era. Listening to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” after seeing the various exhibits is a sobering experience.

But, speaking of poetry and the written arts in general, World War I supplies inspiration for many a story. Pat Barker’s trilogy is set during this time. Regeneration, from that trilogy, is a haunting tale that includes the ill-fated Owen as a character. The popular television series Downton Abbey included a season in which the war played a pivotal role. And recently Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End was dramatized on film.

In commercial fiction, the aftermath of the Great War is captured in the popular Maisie Dobbs mystery series, written by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie is a private detective and adroit in psychological arts. She is deeply affected by the war, having served as a nurse to the wounded and losing her beloved to shell-shock.

For those who are fans of this series, let me make a recommendation: the biography of Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth. Brittain is very similar to Maisie (so much so that some astute mystery readers wonder if Brittain is Winspear’s inspiration). As a girl, she yearns to know things, to learn. She goes to university and becomes a nurse when the conflict starts. She has a beloved, too, who meets a sad end. And even though you know his fate when you begin the book, it cuts you to the core when you learn of his battlefield death through Brittain’s words. She suffers other losses, too, and by the tale’s end, you’ve experienced with her the complete devastation of this war to end all wars.

“For me, as for all the world, the War was a tragedy and a vast stupidity, a waste of youth and of time; it betrayed my faith, mocked my love, and irremediably spoilt my career.”

She became a pacifist and did find another love, whom she married. But World War I left deep scars that never really healed.

Armistice Day will soon be upon us. On the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918, the “war to end all wars” ended. Alas, as we all now know, it wasn’t really the end, but merely a tamping down of embers that would burst into flame a little more than 20 years later.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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TGIW: The looking glass of the hourglass

by Libby Sternberg

I watch soap operas, okay? I admit it. Well, I actually only watch one–Days of Our Lives. Back in the day, I also used to watch Another World.

That's Deidre Hall back in the day with her on-air love.

That’s Deidre Hall back in the day with her on-air love.

And now, a word from our sponsor: Another World had a feisty character on it, a redhead who dressed funky and made wisecracks and who ended up with the hunk (for a while, at least, before story demands meant heartbreak ensued). Her name on the show was Frankie Frame. I liked Frankie a lot. And that’s why I named the heroine Frankie in my romantic comedy My Own Personal Soap Opera (Sourcebooks 2010). (Subliminal message: Buy. The. Book.)

Back to our story...Days of Our Lives, like many soaps, or the few that are left, has some characters who’ve been with the show since it sputtered to life. Deidre Hall is one of these actors. She plays Marlena Evans Craig Brady Black, the resilient, much-loved, much-afflicted and actually bedeviled (yes, she was at the heart of an exorcism story at one point, a dazzling piece of storytelling that took one’s breath away, and yes, I’m serious) mother of Sami and Eric Brady, Belle Black, and stepmother to Carrie Brady and Brady Black.

Deidre Hall, like many leading actresses, is beautiful. Blond hair, fair features, gorgeous skin and figure.  The same is true of another soap heroine: the Young and the Restless’s Nicole “Nikki”  Reed Foster Bancroft DiSalvo Landers Chow Sharpe Abbott Newman played by Melody Thomas Scott.

Deidre Hall today

Deidre Hall today


I don’t follow the Young and the Restless, but I occasionally flip to it during commercials of Days. I hadn’t done so in a long time, so you can imagine my shock, my absolute horror, when I flipped over to Y &R and noticed that Nikki had…aged! I flipped back to Days and couldn’t ignore the truth–Deidre Hall has also aged!

It was like looking in a mirror and seeing what time hath wrought! If they’re getting older, then–egads–so am I!

Let me expand on this. It’s not that I think of myself as a spry, young thing anymore. I’m a Woman of a Certain Age. I like who I am. I’m (reasonably) comfortable with what I look like, even if I could stand to lose a little weight and exercise more. And there’s the rub. I keep telling myself that with a little more work, a little less-fattening diet, I can do it, I can be fresh-faced and firm-toned. I just need to get around to it. And I will, oh, yes, I will. You can count on it. I will get around to it some time…tomorrow.

But seeing these beauties show their years means it’s simply not possible to get around this aging thing. Forget the toning, the dieting, the botoxing. The Ravages of Time will find you faster than Vincent Price in a B horror movie.

Before you get the wrong idea, let me point out that Ms. Hall and Ms. Scott are still stunningly beautiful. They are really lovely to look at. They’ve been blessed with great features, and they’ve taken care of themselves. When I say they’ve aged, I merely mean that they look a bit older. They probably look a good ten or more years younger than their actual ages, but they still look older than the new young ingenues on their shows. And they have grandchildren now. Or rather, their characters do. (I have a grandchild, too).

Melody Thomas Scott caught in an unfortunate pose

Melody Thomas Scott caught in an unfortunate pose

But there’s no denying that taut facial features are a little softer now, and that high-necked blouses and scarves might be more about camouflage than fashion. I hope these ladies don’t have to struggle too hard to maintain their luminescent looks. When I see some of the anorexic gals in younger roles on their shows, I despair for the more senior cast members. Unfair, young nymphs! It’s easy to be skinny when you’re just twentysomething. You could stand to put on a pound or two.

Melody Thomas Scott in her yute.

Melody Thomas Scott in her yute.

My advice for the Actresses of a Certain Age: start leaving cinnamon buns and chocolate cake in those younger gals’ dressing rooms. Swap out the Splenda for real sugar at the coffee bar, the two-percent milk for heavy cream. Plump them up, while you breathe easy.  You’ve served well. Do not go gently into that good night.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Buy her books so she can eat (low-fat) chocolate cake and cinnamon buns.

When You are Old

by W. B. Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15526#sthash.wTrZLpZO.dpuf

When You are Old

by W. B. Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15526#sthash.wTrZLpZO.dpuf

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TGIW: Random advice

by Libby Sternberg

Nothing deep or even narrative today. Just some random tips and advice I’ve picked up along life’s journey. Some might be obvious, but they weren’t to me when I discovered them:

tablecloth rosetteShortening too-long tablecloths: I have a couple tablecloths that are a tad large. My tables shrank. Or maybe I kind of bought the wrong size. They’re okay when we have the leaf in the dining room table (just barely), but not so much when the table is its smaller size. I saw a caterer do this trick, though, and have tried it myself: gather a bunch of the tablecloth where it’s too long. Slip a rubber band around the “bunch” to create a rosette effect. See picture.  This is great if you’re worried about guests tripping over the ends of a too-long tablecloth during a buffet serving.

Grab a stool from the bar: Shopping at JC Penney with a friend and don’t have anywhere to sit while they’re in the fitting room? Grab a stool from one of their silly “jeans bars” and park yourself on it. You’ll probably be doing them a service. As readers know, I was no fan of the recently fired Penney CEO Ron Johnson. One of his “innovations” was to create these “jeans bars” within the stores with tables full of jeans and stools pulled up to them. (For what? The mind boggles.) Anyway, if we can get an army of folks moving these stools to places in the stores where people really do want to sit…it’s a corporal work of mercy, I tell ya!

Scrambled eggs: Listen to Ina–Garten, that is. Slow and low. She advises not cooking them too quickly, and I have to say this does result in a softer scramble. I also read somewhere that adding a little seltzer water to the mix can make them fluffier, but I haven’t tried that.

Put nutmeg in your pancakes: I’ve been doing this for years, ever since I figured out why a particular eatery’s pancakes tasted so yummy. Just add a sprinkle or two to your batter.

Dress your onions first: I like onions in salad, but I don’t like that raw onion taste that lingers. So, I slice onions very thinly, place them in the salad bowl and dress with vinaigrette first. They hang out while I make the rest of the dinner, then I throw the greens and other veggies in and toss right before serving.

Take your shoes off: You have a gorgeous pair of shoes, but they get a tad uncomfortable after a while. You wear them to a wedding or other gathering. The floor might be dirty but it’s not strewn with broken glass, so…just take your shoes off and dance. At a recent wedding, I was delighted to see many guests dancing barefoot (or in their stocking feet). I walked around after my beautiful, but rarely worn, silver shoes started to make my feetsies ache. Amazingly, no one commented on this.

Sparkle: I’m a big proponent of sparkly jewelry, sparkly apparel and sparkly…personalities. When I was younger, I favored chiffony clothes and sparkly jewelry, but then the sixties came along and ruined everything with their bell-bottom jeans uniform. Nowadays, however, I wear sparkly jewelry even with jeans. I have learned not to save nice things for so-called special occasions. Every day is special.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Buy her books so she can buy more shoes and sparkly things.

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