Monday, April 30, 2007

Wine, Women and Shoes

That defines every woman I know. I’m not sure why so many women have an obsession with their collection of uncomfortable shoes. I own six pairs of shoes and two pairs qualify as boots and one as sneakers. I have a pair of deck shoes, one pair of brown everyday shoes, a pair of black shoes, hiking boots, a pair of Wellington boots I put on when I have to shovel snow and some sneakers I got for Christmas that I’ve never worn because they are too white to wear in public; I’ll have to get them fashionably dirty in the back yard first.

A woman I know is an aspiring Imelda Marcos. Imelda Marcos was the wife of the former President of the Philippines whose proclivity for shoes was legendary. She had tens of thousands of shoes. My shoe-loving friend has a much smaller collection of shoes but with a room of their own. Each shoe is kept in the original box with a color photograph glued to the box end and arranged alphabetically by color. There are separate sections organized by heal height with a special section devoted to sneakers, yes sneaker.

Apparently the operating philosophy of the women I know is to buy the accessory first then find the item it will accessorize. This philosophy applies to jewelry as well as shoes. My daughter’s corollary to this rule (pronounced when she was still in college and still economically sensible) was that the price of an accessory should never exceed the item it accessorizes. Women have little apparent guilt when buying the little things like shoes and, after all, expensive jewelry can go with almost anything or so we are told until we discover that she has absolutely nothing to wear. Which is every time she needs to put on clothing. We have to pay to get them naked and again to get them clothed. Who knew?

All of this prater was inspired by a very shi-shi event I was dragged to called, oddly enough, “Wine, Women and Shoes.” The facts are that proceeds of the event help support The Virginia Thurston Healing Garden in Harvard Massachusetts, which is almost a hospice for women with breast cancer. It is a noble and beautiful place I have been assured, worthy of financial support.

I don’t go to many shi-shi events for a lot of reasons; I’m not invited for one but chiefly because I’m not known to be embarrassedly rich. To be shi-shi you have to be rich enough to throw money at problems with panache. The more panache the more assuredly “in” you will be. Donald Trump, known for perpetual bad hair and kitchey bad taste is “in” by virtue of showing up at every shi-shi event in Manhattan and throwing chump change around like confetti. Or so I’m told, I’ve never been to a shi-shi event in Manhattan and it’s unlikely I will be invited any time soon.

There is good news and there is bad news: There are no Donald Trumps in Boston. I can say this with some assurance since the shi-shi event I attended was “the only event in town” and if there were glamorous people there I didn’t see any. This is not to say that there weren’t hundreds of very nice and even some very wealthy people there. I didn’t know or recognize anyone famous except, perhaps (and I say this in generosity), for a local news anchor for a TV station I don’t watch. It took me an hour to remember her name. I said hello to her and she immediately mentioned an absentee husband – a newly wed or I was leering more than I remember. What struck me the most was how old and wrinkled the glamoratti of Boston are. Contrary to our opinion of us Boston is really a small backwater when it comes to the higher arts. Anyone seriously glamorous, talented or otherwise notable has long since moved to New York or LA. Plays don’t open in Boston anymore and what “serious” publishers remain are only petty rumps of international media conglomerates.

I don’t volunteer for these things but I’ve got an “other” who would love to be on everyone’s “A” list if we could afford it. She volunteered me to be a photographer. I’m not sure if that was our price of entry or a reason to keep me occupied since otherwise I would have been bored out of my skull. Do I really have an interest in Wine, Women and Shoes, well wine and women perhaps? I was dressed like most of the men at the event, suite and tie, no big deal, my camera couched in my left arm like a newborn baby.

“I want a picture of them,” she said pointing to a couple we know. After a glass or two of very delicious wine I was compliant. A funny think happens when you point an expensive camera at people at a shi-shi event: They pose automatically. Another glass of wine and I was into it. Someone asked me what magazine I was from, “Famous Magazine” I could say with a mild tone of distain. People love it when you’re slightly rude to them. I learned that lesson when I was a very proper waiter in college. The more “correct” the better the tip.

Photographing people poising has its limits, however, and it eventually gets boring and I had hours to kill. Shooting the cleavage of women far older than I am has little appeal so I had to find some theme that might challenge the tedium of the evening. I decided to photograph only men wearing pink or purple ties. It takes a modicum of courage to wear a gay tie when you’re not and while Boston may fancy itself a sophisticated city there are few who would consider themselves to be metro-sexual. Clearly anyone wearing pink or purple were either colorblind or had wives dressing them. I was wearing a pink and purple-stripped tie.

Shooting purple ties made the evening fun but my crap-shooting approach to photography made the evening worthwhile. A good friend of mine taught me the U.S. Navy approach to photography, which put bluntly, is there will be one good shot in each roll of film. The rest will be crap. Here is the one good shot:

OK so lots of people had a good time and most of us went home fatter. Anyone who wants to look at men with purple ties can look here: - you can also buy any photo you see.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Rose Café: Love and War in Corsica
By John Hanson Mitchell
Shoemaker & Hoard, $25.00, 243 pages
ISBN 978-1-59376-095-3

Review by Steve Glines

John Hanson Mitchell is a man on a permanent quest.

Go out to the wilderness and find out what you are made of. There is always seminal event that forms the body of a great man (or woman’s) character. For men it has often meant going off to war where the soul is stripped of the possessions of youth and reformed on the anvil of Thor. For most of us this transformation, if we have it at all, takes the form of a quest and there is a time-honored tradition of quest literature dating to antiquity.

For urbanized Americans youth this quest often involves Europe or another exotic location and if you are lucky, both. My daughter’s quest was orchestrated by her college, about the only thing about the place for which I am grateful. She was dropped in Aix en Provence in France with 24 classmates and instructed to walk, which they did for 4 months, camping by the side of the road as they went. She left America an angry, lost teenager and returned a driven adult determined to find her place in the universe. After 2 months on the road she called me from Syracuse in Sicily to announce her epiphany: She could be 30 and wish she had her architects license or she could be 30 and have her architects license but she was going to be 30 anyway. She came home and made the deans list.

My own quest took me to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland Canada where I hiked and hitchhiked for almost five months after High School. I slept in a fish-packing shed on the northern tip of Cape Breton Island where I cleaned fish and shoveled ice for a month for beer and food. When I grew restless I moved on to Newfoundland.

The harbor a small fishing port named Fortune was filled with half a dozen tramp steamers, Liberty Ships, left over from WWII. In the bar of the only restaurant in Fortune I met the captain of a ship that continuously made the circuit from Fortune to Iceland, Ireland, England, France, Africa, Bermuda, New York City, Halifax and back to Fortune. His ship and its predecessors had been making the run, with obvious interruptions, for almost 100 years. It was a three-month journey. I needed a passport. Did I know how to cook? Would I like the adventure? It paid Canadian minimum wage. It has bothered me ever since that I said no.

Later I was hitchhiking to another small port to catch a boat ride back to civilization. It was 9 pm. I looked at the map and realized my destination for the night was 25 miles down the dirt road in front of me. I walked all night through the fog, my flashlight useful only for illuminating the edge of the ditch. About 4 am the fog lifted and the first hint of daylight appeared in the sky. I walked up a steep hill, a switchback, climbing out of a deep dark valley. As I walked over the crest I saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen: a ship, perhaps 300 feet long, with multi-colored lights draped from bow to stern, passing up through the rigging of the tramps crane and mast. The town itself was smaller, just ten or fifteen small pastel colored shacks. I walked onboard, found myself a bench and went to sleep. An hour after the boat left port the bursar found me. I paid for a ticket to Port-aux-Basque and went back to sleep.

For the next two days we drifted along the south shore of Newfoundland stopping at one village after another. At one village I got off to explore while the ship exchanged cargo. An entire town had moved from one side of a river to another to accommodate a larger pier. I asked a local what the cost of a house was there. He blinked at me in disbelief then said, “We have lots of houses here, pick one. We’ll outfit it for ya!” A foghorn lament announced the departure of the tramp so I hopped back onboard and watched the little village that would have welcomed me slide slowly into the mist. So many “what ifs.”

John Hanson Mitchell’s new book “The Rose Café” is the tale of a quest. He is a young student studying in Paris in the early 1960’s. He is bored and uninspired, in other words, a typical French student filled with ennui. He is both unable and uninterested in writing although he carries an empty notebook with him wherever he goes. A chance offer takes him to Corsica where he ingratiated himself with the owner of “The Rose Café” who offers him a job for the season cleaning fish and sweeping up for room and board. What follows is a wonderfully charming account of the local characters. Mitchell’s ability to delve into the characters of the local town is reminiscent of Dickens. The collection of characters is wonderful and we get a small town full: There is Le Baron, the aristocratic patron with a very shady background, the agonizingly French tease Marie and classic French lovers Jean-Paul and Micheline to name just a few.

Mitchell has always been adept at describing Place. His “Ceremonial Time” covers the details of one square mile of land in Littleton Massachusetts where living characters provide an anthropomorphic dimension to the geography. With “Living at the End of Time” he explores both eccentric people and the detail of his environment in a Waldenesque shack. We dig deeper into the quest experience with “Walking Towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place” where “Place” still takes prominence. In Mitchell’s book “Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Reimagined Life of an African American” we finally see what he can do with character development. Place is replaced by Character.

“The Rose Café” is the crescendo of Mitchell’s quest. While we get his usual treatment of the geography in intimate detail where necessary, it never overwhelms the characters that bring light to the scenery. The description of a dilapidated farmhouse surrounded by semi-wild donkeys is just enough to illuminate the eccentricities of the farmer/donkey herder who tells us fantastical stories about the locals. We get to know the people of Corsica and the arid scrub they inhabit through Mitchell’s eyes.

At the end of the tourist season Mitchell leaves Corsica and returns to school. In a final brilliant tease, Mitchell’s last sentence says more about Corsica, its society and his characters than all the rest of the book. It’s marvelous and you’ll put the book down after a good knee-slapping laugh.

When Mitchell left Corsica he began to write. His quest had only begun and we hope will never be over. A very charming book recommended to all.