The annual dinner meeting of The Samuel Johnson Society of Southern California was held on Sunday night, November 23, at the Huntington Library. It was the 25th meeting of the Society, and I think I’ve been to most of them: there are no, or few, member interactions during the year, but I look forward to the annual dinner as a reassuring and very pleasant part of the holiday season. It’s like making friends in stop action sequence, however, with each episode a year apart. I’ve watched the same people grow older (and they me) over a quarter of a century while regarding them through a haze of benign holiday spirit, but without knowing most of them very well!
As I always do, I drove Bob Klein, owner/proprietor of the legendary Sam Johnson’s Bookshop and my friend Sheila to the dinner. “Our own especial set,” as our late Johnsonian friend Gloria used to call it, was further represented by reading group members Richard and Magda, and others. During the social hour preceding the dinner, I talked with the visiting Australian John Byrne, a major Johnsonian collector who somehow combines being a Governor of Dr. Johnson’s House, London, and a director of Johnson’s House in Lichfield, with being a barrister in Perth.
Lichfield in Johnson's Day
He spends a good deal of time on airplanes, and came to this meeting especially to get to know members of the Society of which he will take his turn serving as President next year, when he gives the annual Daniel G. Blum Lecture. He was a most approachable and genial gentleman, and I greatly enjoyed chatting him up, and looking at the exhibit of books and prints he had brought and laid out. I was most struck by a fine old map of London in Johnson’s time, and some particularly crisp and beautiful Hogarth prints. One curiosity was the first Chinese translation of Rasselas, which looked oddly like one of my grandmother Onoto Watanna’s books!
This is the tercentenary year of Johnson’s birth, and so there are plenty of celebrations in the works – here in Southern California, the events I’m looking forward to the most are the exhibition “Samuel Johnson, Professional Author,” arranged by O M “Skip” Brack, which will be at the Huntington from June through September. He will also give a lecture on May 27, and Richard Wendorf, author of Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society will lecture on the Portraits on June 8, while Paul Ruxin, a major Johnson-and-Boswell collector, will talk about Johnson and Boswell on September 15. So I’ll have reason to drive out to the Huntington a few times.
The "Blinking Sam" portrait, donated to the Huntington by Loren Rothschild
Tonight, though, was a particularly friendly and jolly affair. I was lucky enough to sit with antiquarian book dealer Robert Allen, and his wife Brownie, whom I’ve known as Johnsonians and Janeites for years, and I also chatted with his book partner and his wife, with whom I have many friends in common, and who share my new love for Northern Ontario – they visit Manitoulin Island often, and told me all about new places to explore!
We settled down to dinner, which centered around roast prime rib with cracked black pepper and whole roasted garlic, Yukon gold and fennel puree and green peas with fresh mint. At our places were the traditional gift, in this case a replica of a Catalogue of Choice Books by Michael Johnson of Lichfield, edited by Robert deMaria, Jr. Dinner was followed by the lecture, “Johnson’s London: London’s Johnson,” by Michael Buntock, a barrister specializing in maritime law, who is editor of The New Rambler, a governor of Johnson’s House, and working on a life of Francis Barber (I wish I’d had a chance to talk to him about that). He showed slides of the Rambler old and new, of Johnson’s scrofula medal, and a particularly beautiful engraving of London showing how St. Paul’s and the city’s churches dominated the skyline in Johnson’s day. Also some statues of Johnson, including a particularly hideous one that people say, truly enough, looks like a figure of a retired gladiator meditating on a wasted life.
Johnson as Gladiator
Buntock’s talk was liberally laced with suitable Johnsonian quotes, beginning with “One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thought,” and then wording one of the most famous quotes as, “By seeing London you have seen as much as life can afford.”
After this visit to a conjured-up 18th century London, we drove back to Santa Monica feeling very much cheered.
Statue of Johnson's cat Hodge, sitting on the Dictionary
My favorite Group of Seven painting at the Faculty Club
Peter and Mary at the Faculty Club
Well, we're home - after such a trip, you'd think we were returning from China. First there was the hurry to clean up the cabin and deal with our luggage before the Temagami taxi driver Romeo came (he turned out to be an ancient, chirpy little man whose mother had many sons and hoped for a daughter called Juliet). We waited on the station platform in cold rain, as the pretty little station is closed for the winter, but the train came chugging up on schedule, and fortunately the conductor helped us get our luggage aboard. We had four small but heavy suitcases with wheels, thanks to the necessity for Peter to lug seven weeks' worth of weighty tomes (what would he have done without the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, or Alexandrians Under the First Three Ptolemies, pray tell? There were also five heavy carry-on totes, too wearisome to enumerate their contents, but books squashing cookies would be a fair description. The conductor mentioned that we weren't allowed to bring more than two small bags, under 50 pounds, onto the train (must have been listed in extremely small print somewhere; I know I never saw it), but he would make an exception just this one time. This seemed an extraordinary statement as the train was almost completely empty. But we got comfortably seated and read and dozed for the awfully long 8-hour journey. Dull gray day, not much to see. Had an egg sandwich and tea in the dining car by way of diversion. As we approached Toronto, we chatted with a spry elderly man in a beautiful beaver cap, who was 92 years old and had traveled the world. He lived near Cochran, the train's northern terminus, so it was an 11-hour ride for him, but he said he'd never allow any of his three daughters in Toronto to pick him up at the station - too much trouble, he'd take a cab. He alit nimbly from the train and sprinted on ahead of us.
On the Northlander train from Temagami to Toronto
Peter on the train
We were slower than the 92-year-old man because at the Toronto train station, there was a truly grim amount of suitcase lugging; Peter ought not to carry or pull much, so he pulled one wheeled suitcase and carried one or two shoulder bags, while I - you guessed it - carried the REST. When we found my cousin Frank who'd come to pick us up, he seriously asked if *I* was having a heart attack! I was wondering that myself as my left arm especially was aching, but it turned out to be merely that half-pulled-out-of-the-socket feeling.
University of Toronto Faculty Club
Frank and his wife Jane (Frank's my cousin Tim's oldest son, a negotiator for the city) gave us a truly delicious dinner (pork chops, rice, brussels sprouts with garlic and ginger beautifully cooked, lemon cake), in their lovely Victorian Toronto home, but just as I was about to go to bed, I checked email - work had sent me a script, which I didn't dare not do right then! By the time I read it, wrote it up, and dealt with the wireless network it was 3 AM. Got up early to finish, to re-pack the bags, and get ready for Tim and Mary who were coming at 11 AM to take us to lunch at the University of Toronto Faculty Club and then to the airport. Our cousin Katie and her charming husband Ian came too. Katie very kindly brought short-acting insulin for Peter (we suspect his high sugar readings have been due to an infected tooth - he's been taking antibiotics and looks and feels better already). The lunch was lovely; I had roast lamb. At the Faculty Club you can see wonderful paintings by the famous Canadian Group of Seven, and I had a good stare at them and we sat by the fire after lunch for awhile. Tim and Mary are both 85, and not only look good but are still driving - it was so kind of Tim to take us to the airport!
Me and Mary
Katie and me
Once there, Peter and I had to deal with The Luggage problem again, which was so terrible Peter got ghastly tired and had to sit down before getting on the Customs line. Airline personnel even brought him water and asked if he wanted a wheelchair! (He macho-ly said no.) At one point I was hauling all four wheeled suitcases (it *can* be done, you drag them behind you two in each hand) plus three of the five carry-ons. (Book bag, pill bag, heavy miscellany bag, two laptops). Husky passersby helped a little. We were pretty much done in by the time we got to the gate, but I went and got Peter an iced coffee and a banana and he revived considerably. On the plane he felt fine again and spent some of the flight talking to our seatmate, a pleasant and intelligent German Toronto businessman.
But it was the bumpiest flight I've had in YEARS. Over the Rockies, we were hit by both bad weather and the jet stream bashing the plane from the side (I didn't know that was possible), and of the hundreds of flights I've taken in my life, this was one of the top three or four worst. The turbulence was so bad the plane RATTLED. I was rigid and white. Even Peter who is totally unperturbed by flying and considers it just plain safe, looked up and said, "Hm, this plane is taking an awful shaking, hope it holds together." The captain said very tensely, "We will be undergoing some mild to moderate turbulence for the next 15 minutes." The German said, "Oh, that's pilot talk for 'Hold on for the ride of your life.'" (Note to self: Moderate in this context means Extreme.) It wasn't any fifteen minutes either, it went on for at least half an hour, with another little spell later. I'd been watching Rebel Without a Cause, which I'd never seen in its entirety before, but I couldn't look at it, and never did find out what happened to James Dean in the end (does anybody know? Did he go to jail or did that car just take him home?).
When we finally landed, dear Jennifer was waiting. She does 200 sit-ups daily and whisked all our luggage onto a cart faster than I've ever seen anyone perform such a feat, and pulled it to her car. (There'd been no carts visible at the Toronto train station or airport. Probably fiendishly hidden behind pillars.) Peter, full of beans, wanted to be dropped at his coffeehouse to see his buddies, and Jennifer took me home where Paul was waiting, as we'd thought he wouldn't fit in her little car with all the luggage. Jennifer had brought us flowers! It was, to put it mildly, good to be home.
I was in Pifflechat today shortly after sunset, when I looked up and saw Venus reflected in the lake. The water was unusually still and glassy and you could see Venus's reflection clearly. I told Bevis (in England) that I was going to run out and take its picture and he said "Go for it." So I did. It was so dark that I had no notion it would come out, just my ordinary digital camera on no special setting, but it did. And five minutes later, I was showing the picture to Bevis and to his fiancee Helen in Australia. A very internet moment! I only saw stars reflected in a lake like that once before, at Lake May last summer; never thought I could actually take a picture of the phenomenon. But there it is.
As I'm writing about Piffle, I'll say I was completely charmed when another piffler, Farley's Footwear (real name Ian), wrote a haiku about me at Lake Temagami. To understand the poem, you have to know that my Piffle nom is Miss Schuster-Slatt, after the pushy character in Dorothy L. Sayers' Oxford novel, Gaudy Night. I relate to her in a similar way as I do to Mrs. Elton. (By the way, Bevis's Piffle nom is Vamping the Senior Common Room, and his fiancee Helen's is Leoville. I chat with them most days, and also with Sandy (Rachel Levy), Debbie (A Menace to Society), and others. Here's the haiku:
Cabin on a lake Snow at Lake Temagami; Miss Schuster-Slatt writes
It looks as though I won't be able to end my Temagami stay with a nice set of snow photos to contrast with the earlier ones, but we did get a little tickle of snow this morning. The "Two Chairs" by the lake and the boat dock had a rime of snow on them when I woke up, and through the morning there were snow flurries. Some were quite fat, and we thought the snow day was coming, but no: in the afternoon the clouds parted, blue sky appeared, and the weather report said the show was over.
I took a walk down the dirt road to the highway though, diligently photographing what fragile fragments of snow remained, and I liked the criss-cross effect on the trees, like lacy Cold Cross Buns:
And then there was the usual (yawn) gorgeous sunset. Indoors we didn't do much except fuss at what to do about Peter's short-acting insulin pens, which are defective, and fail on yet another day to start My Definitive Final Swan Song Novel. I read a pair of delicious Girls Own books, though - Rumer Godden's Song of the Nightingale, about a poor girl dancer, and Mrs. Molesworth's The Girl in the Black Dress. Tonight it's lasagne redux, which is no sad thing, when the frozen cook-from-scratch lasagne is as good as they make it here in Canada!
Woke up this morning to see snow flurries! So excited, but we didn't get a winter scene - even though the day is cold (35F), the snow stopped and the sun gleamed out, majestically lighting up the silver clouds over the silver lake. By afternoon the clouds had cleared and the sun was golden. Now, I've always wanted to walk around the lake a bit, but couldn't - the "first growth" Canadian forest is so thick, and there's a marsh you simply cannot cross. But last night I had a nice Skype with Claire, and she'd told me how to get around the marsh so I could walk on the other side. Not exactly easy, but I was prepared with my hiking boots, down jacket and gloves. From the road, there's a vague path into the bush. You then clamber up to high ground, which is by no means easy as it's a perfect thicket, with sticks poking you everywhere like it's the Blair Witch Project. You cross the marshy part, higher up, by jumping from one thick puffy moss blanket to the next, hoping you won't be swallowed up by them completely.
Then I was across the stream, and pushing my way through the bush, came out to where I could see the lake, the house, and the dock - only now all from the other side! By the edge of the lake the ground was fairly flat and I was able to push my way forward for a couple of hundred more yards. The sun shone golden on the house, marsh and water, and it was a magical moment.
View from the other side
Cabin seen from the other side
I clambered and struggled and poked and sodded my way back through moss, brush and forest, and got back to the cabin just as an especially pretty purple sunset was blooming. Photographed it generously, and then came into the cabin, lit the lamps, got myself a cup of tea and a Canadian version of a Mallomar, and settled down to write this, what we may grandiloquently term a Photo Essay. Frozen lasagne tonight, yum.
To Piffle: Now here I am in a beautiful cabin on Lake Temagami, and at this remove, I'm contemplating why I'm constantly stressed out and overwhelmed living at home in the city, and so utterly at peace here. I usually put it down to "oh well, it's having to work," but that's not it at all! The other night I received my work manuscript and settled down to read and write it up. And it was so easy, I realized that work has NOTHING to do with why I'm tired and frantic and miserable and depressed and harried when living in L.A. Working here is like an ecstatic dream and doesn't disturb the peace more than a ripple in the lake.
Living in remote places must have been revolutionized once you could have broadband in them. Every day since I've been here, I've spent a couple of hours in pifflechat with Menace and Vamp and Leoville and Rachel and sometimes Merdle and Ties and others - while gazing at the lake and the constantly changing sky and colors. They asked how I spend a typical day here, what the schedule was, and I said, "Well I get up around noon and go outside and look at the lake. Then I check my email. Then I make some bacon and eggs and tea. Then I go sit outside by the lake and read. Then I come back in and chat while looking at the lake. Maybe we go out for a little drive to the store. Then I take some pictures of the lake in the sunset. Then I look at my well-stocked fridge and think about toasting up a frozen Indian dinner or grilling steaks. When it's dark, I read or chat with Peter. Have toast with creamed honey and tea before tucking up in our cozy warm wood paneled bedroom with the patchwork quilt and comforters. "How can you stand the stress?" the pifflechatters asked. And this is a working vacation too! I'm relaxing by the lake today, but my weekend manuscript will be coming in a few hours. Just enough work to give me something to do!
So why is life so wonderful here and so terrible in the city? Well, for one thing, I stepped into this marvelous cabin, someone else built, organized, stocked, cleaned. I'd never be able to replicate such a home, myself...my home, though a good sized apartment near the beach in Santa Monica, is all dusty books, a heap. It can't be carpeted and painted because the books would have to be moved, which is impossible. I don't know why maintaining it badly is so much strain, while living in a beautiful cabin is so easy. I'm shopping and cooking and cleaning a little here, but just enough to be fun. It's no fun living at home. The day is a constant round of traffic, errands, and doctor's appointments. Is the answer to move someday to a cabin on a lake? I thought so at first but now I wonder. I know now I wouldn't get bored: oh no! Not with my laptop and books. I think the drawback is simply that I am not a homemaker, and could not create and maintain a home like this. I'm benefiting from the hard labor of others. I know Richard (the nice Englishman who owns the cabin) was amazed by Peter's and my unhandiness, though he politely tried to hide it. He thought it best not to even try to show us how to work the wood stove! (The weather's been in the beautiful Indian summer sixties, but snow is expected and temperatures in the 20s this weekend - it will be interesting to see the transition!) Bottom line is, Peter and I really are city people: raised in Manhattan, living in a car culture, we are over specialized to the point of uselessness. We are highly skilled at literary work, but at not much *else.* It's no wonder that our kind is dying out!
Perhaps you'll think I'm just lazy and disorganized, but I don't think so...I focus extremely intensely on my work, was able to write a scholarly biography in record time for instance, as well as many other successful projects. But we don't like doing what we're not interested in, and even though I like the *results* of living in a beautiful place, it's never been to the extent of wanting to create one. We're just life's renters, I guess...much easier to rent a cabin (or house-sit one as we are now), than to make one!