“The Land of Counterpane”

I Remember This Illustration from My Childhood

The first poem I remember was “The Land of Counterpane” from Robert Louis Stevenson’ A Child’s Garden of Verses. I was in grade school and sick with some childhood disease. While Mom and Dad were off at work, and I was being cared for by my great-grandmother Lidia Toth, I was allowed to lie in their bed. Mom had gotten be a library book with this poem in it—and with the above illustration. I don’t know which impressed me more, the words of the poem or the illustration. In any case, the memory has stuck with me through the years. Here’s the words of the poem:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Now, many years later, I am rediscovering RLS, especially his last years in the South Pacific. I wonder if, somehow, my memory over the great gulf of years, has anything to do with my wanting to go back to Stevenson and reacquaint myself with his work. In any case, that’s what I’m doing … and I am enjoying every moment of it.


The End of Tusitala

RLS (Seated Center, Rear) and His Household in Samoa

His nickname in Samoa was Tusitala, “The Teller of Tales.” He had gone to Oceania for his health. It is not known what the exact nature of his illness was, but it seemed to be hereditary. His mother died of an apparent stroke at the age of 38. When he died on on December 3, 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson was only 44.

I have just finished reading the letters that RLS wrote to his friend and sometime editor Sidney Colvin between November 1890 and October 1894. They have been published as The Vailima Letters, named after the author’s estate in Samoa. In them, he writes about his frequent illnesses, his involvement in island politics, and his intense efforts to make money by writing novels and stories. In those last four years, he wrote:

  • Catriona (1893), aka David Balfour, a sequel to Kidnapped
  • Island Night’s Entertainments (1893), aka South Sea Tales
  • The Ebb-Tide (1894), co-author Lloyd Osbourne
  • Weir of Hermiston (1896), left unfinished at the author’s death
  • St. Ives: Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England (1897)

At times, Stevenson’s letters rise to the level of poetry. In March 1891, he writes:

I said I was tired; it is a mild phrase; my back aches like toothache; when I shut my eyes to sleep, I know I shall see before them—a phenomenon to which both Fanny and I are quite accustomed—endless vivid deeps of grass and weed, each plant particular and distinct, so that I shall lie inert in body, and transact for hours the mental part of my day business, choosing the noxious from the useful. And in my dreams I shall be hauling on recalcitrants, and suffering stings from nettles, stabs from citron thorns, fiery bites from ants, sickening resistances of mud and slime, evasions of slimy roots, dead weight of heat, sudden puffs of air, sudden starts from bird-calls in the contiguous forest—some mimicking my name, some laughter, some the signal of a whistle, and living over again at large the business of my day.

In May1892, this description of clouds appears in the letters:

As I rode down last night about six, I saw a sight I must try to tell you of.  In front of me, right over the top of the forest into which I was descending was a vast cloud.  The front of it accurately represented the somewhat rugged, long-nosed, and beetle-browed profile of a man, crowned by a huge Kalmuck cap; the flesh part was of a heavenly pink, the cap, the moustache, the eyebrows were of a bluish gray; to see this with its childish exactitude of design and colour, and hugeness of scale—it covered at least 25°—held me spellbound.  As I continued to gaze, the expression began to change; he had the exact air of closing one eye, dropping his jaw, and drawing down his nose; had the thing not been so imposing, I could have smiled; and then almost in a moment, a shoulder of leaden-coloured bank drove in front and blotted it.  My attention spread to the rest of the cloud, and it was a thing to worship.  It rose from the horizon, and its top was within thirty degrees of the zenith; the lower parts were like a glacier in shadow, varying from dark indigo to a clouded white in exquisite gradations.  The sky behind, so far as I could see, was all of a blue already enriched and darkened by the night, for the hill had what lingered of the sunset.  But the top of my Titanic cloud flamed in broad sunlight, with the most excellent softness and brightness of fire and jewels, enlightening all the world.  It must have been far higher than Mount Everest, and its glory, as I gazed up at it out of the night, was beyond wonder.  Close by rode the little crescent moon; and right over its western horn, a great planet of about equal lustre with itself.  The dark woods below were shrill with that noisy business of the birds’ evening worship.  When I returned, after eight, the moon was near down; she seemed little brighter than before, but now that the cloud no longer played its part of a nocturnal sun, we could see that sight, so rare with us at home that it was counted a portent, so customary in the tropics, of the dark sphere with its little gilt band upon the belly.  The planet had been setting faster, and was now below the crescent.  They were still of an equal brightness.

I could not resist trying to reproduce this in words, as a specimen of these incredibly beautiful and imposing meteors of the tropic sky that make so much of my pleasure here; though a ship’s deck is the place to enjoy them.  O what awful scenery, from a ship’s deck, in the tropics!  People talk about the Alps, but the clouds of the trade wind are alone for sublimity.

I could easily come up with another half dozen passages that impressed me. And I am all the more impressed becau8se today is my father’s birthday. Were he still alive, he would be 108 years old. But, alas, he died at the age of 74—which, to be precise, is my present age—a fact which makes me ever more conscious of my own mortality.

Draining … Drained

I Felt Hurled Back into Childhood

When I was a child, I suffered intensely from allergies. My nose was frequently blocked, so that I had to breathe through my mouth, making me feel as if I had ingested a bucket of fine sand. My mother would boil up a big pot of water and add salt to it. She had me cover my head with a towel and bend forward to inhale the salty steam. Not that it did me any good.

For decades now, I have not had the experience of having my nasal air passages totally blocked … until this last week. I got a cold which in itself was not that bad, but as soon as I climbed into bed, my nasal passages shut down a la my youth. My doctor recommended something akin to my mother’s remedy: Shoot distilled water up my nose that contains powdered salt with sodium bicarbonate. This actually works, and I am finally able to sleep in bed again.

My cold was not that bad, but the long recovery is a pain. It seems as if I fill endless handkerchiefs with mucus that has the gluey texture of rubber cement. At the same time my cold began, my eyes started to water and itch again. I have spent the better part of a week draining in various ways—and that has tired me out big time. I attribute this illness to a cold snap that has hit Southern California right after I returned from Guatemala. It seems that the temperature has not climbed up to 70º Fahrenheit (21º Celsius) since the start of the month.

Eventually the temperature will rise and I will have drained out the last cubic centimeter of mucus as well as whatever is discharging from my eyes. Until that time I will just have to be patient.


Old School

Side View of Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio

I started Chanel High School as a freshman in September 1958. It was a Catholic school run by the Marist Fathers (Society of Mary), whose quarters were on the third floor of the school. Its unusual name was owing to the existence of a Marist missionary to Oceania from the same family as Coco Chanel who was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954. It is possible—though I have not been able to prove this—that when he was martyred by the natives of Futuna Island (north of Fiji) in 1841, he was eaten by his tormentors.

The Marist priests who taught me were, almost to a man, dedicated and knowledgeable teachers and all-around good human beings. I was in the school’s second graduating class (1962), when I was not only the valedictorian but the recipient of the Mr. Chanel award as the best all-around student in my class. The good fathers wanted me to become a priest and were disappointed when I said I did not see that in my path. Considering that I was suffering from excruciating pain the whole time I was there due to a brain tumor that was destroying my pituitary gland. It would have been an expensive move on the part of the religious order to pay for my operation and continuing care.

What, Girls at My Old High School? (Yay!)

From the time I graduated to the closing of the school a couple years ago, there were a lot of changes. Although the school still remained Catholic, it was under the control of the Diocese of Cleveland. The Marists were no longer in charge. And not only were there black and Asian students, there were also girls!!! (When I was there, the student body consisted mostly of assorted Central and Eastern Europeans and a handful of Irish and Italians.) Also, the name had been changed to St. Peter Chanel High School.

Except for my brain tumor, my years at Chanel were happy ones. I do not have the frequently encountered anger at the Catholic Church for having screwed up my life. Physically, I was a mess; but I still managed to look forward to my life with hope.



Hill Street Blues

I Am Talking About the Real Hill Street—Not the One from the TV Series

I Am Talking About the Real Hill Street—Not the One from the TV Series

Basically, I should have stayed in bed. I have one of those nagging, persistent summer colds characterized by a raw throat and coughing. Still, I decided to go downtown to the Central Library, have lunch at the Grand Cenral Market, and even stop in at the Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring.

It all started as our train approached the second last stop before getting to the 7th Street Metro Station. We were all let out some 15 blocks south of our final destination because a train from either the Blue or Expo Line was stuck in the tunnel. By the time I got to the Pico Boulevard station, I noticed that the trains were running again; so I boarded and made it all the way to the 7th Street Metro Station.

So far, not too bad. Then, after stopping at the bookstore, I took the Dash bus to Union Station. Instead of boarding the Santa Monica #10 Freeway Bus, I decided at the last minute to take the Red Line subway to 7th Street Metro and transfer to the Expo Line. But that was not to be. As the Red Line approached the Pershing Square Station, an announcement was made that because of “police activity,” the Red Line would not be stopping at 7th Street Metro.

I jumped off at Pershing Square and trudged several blocks south on Hill Street, even as I felt my sore throat becoming rawer and more insistent. When I got to 7th Street Metro, I saw that the whole area was cordoned off by the LAPD and that included the Metro Rail station.

That precipitated the second part of my afternoon trek. I knew that the Santa Monica #10 bus would have to make a detour around the police cordon, so I walked down to Grand Avenue and 9th Street, where I waited … and waited … and waited. Finally, a bus came and I got on, actually getting a seat, and made it home about an hour and a half later than when I planned—and in rush hour traffic.

When I searched the Internet for the nature of the police action, I discovered that someone had left an unattended package in the station, probably some homeless person jettisoning a part of his junk load. It figures.

In the Swamp

I Thought This Was a Desert Here!

I Thought This Was a Desert Here!

For most of the year, Southern California is a desert. In June and July, however, it turns into a swamp. Mexican hurricanes send moisture across the border and make the air sticky and wet.This condition leaves local weather forecasters nonplussed, if only because they do not acknowledge weather that sneaks over the border. Thanks to my friend, Bill Korn, there is a website that shows the Canadian and Mexican effects on our climate.

IThis morning, I felt as if I had slept in a swamp. I just could not get up until around one in the afternoon. Although I am at work now, I still do not feel very good and will probably leave early. Humid weather just never agrees with me.


Sick as a Dog

The Only Thing That Refreshes

The Only Thing That Refreshes

Last Thursday I came down with a bad cold, and I am still trying to shake the effects of it. You know I’m ill when I can’t read. Instead, I sat propped up in front of the television while a series of medical hucksters such as Dr. Daniel Amen of brain health fame and Dr. William Davis of “Wheat Belly” fame tried to poison me with bad medical advice. Rather than continue listening, I stumbled into the library and napped while sitting in my uncomfy chair.

As the afternoon wore on, I decided to make a mushroom barley soup, which is now merrily bubbling in the kitchen, and I’ve had several cups of hot Darjeeling tea with a Greek honey I bought at Papa Cristo’s a few weeks ago. Drinking really good hot tea when I’m sick always seems to help. (I can always add a bit of dark rum and fresh lemon juice to make it even better.)

With luck, this sick as a dog feeling will soon pass.




Spider Webs and Mucus

Feels icky when they’re in your lungs

Doesn’t sound terribly appetizing, does it? But that’s only half the problem: Since we’ve returned from vacation, my lung feels as if it were filled with spider webs interspersed with globs of mucus. The choking that drove me crazy during the trip has gone down. What remains are juicy coughs which, instead of bringing up the gunk in the chest, seems to redistribute it among the spider webs.

In addition to another, shorter, course of antibiotics, I have been on Advair and Albuterol to fight the asthma that accompanied the choking spasms of coughing. I just wonder how long it will take before the coughing stops. After all, it has been going on for a little over three weeks now.

It is amazing what life can throw at one when one isn’t prepared. And how is one ever prepared to fend off an infection or a virus? They just seem to come higgledy-piggledy and have their way with you.

I have seen several of my best friends afflicted similarly in this last year—all with different things. One had MRSA; another, incipient Alzheimer’s; and yet another, a broken hip and wrist from a fall. When one is young, one could just don jogging shorts and go through all the approved little exercise routines, patting oneself on the back for doing the right thing and preventing any illnesses. One eats one’s prepackaged salad greens with the desired sugary/fatty dressing, the right breakfast cereal. I guess it helps, but there are no guarantees in this life.

One has to be eternally vigilant, but one is still mortal.

Photo Credit: The photo above comes from the National Geographic for Kids website.

Return of an Old Enemy

At the Eastland Motel, Lubec, Maine

Looks innocuous, doesn’t it? It was here in the easternmost motel in the United States that my old enemy reemerged. Around one o’clock in the morning, I awoke gasping for breath. Martine didn’t hear anything because she habitually sleeps with earplugs. I sprang up in bed and felt an incredible tightness in my lungs. With every breath that I attempted, there was only a hideous whistling sound as my air intake appeared to have shut down.

Finally, after a minute or two thinking that I was going to collapse on the bathroom floor and die with a startled look on my face. (I was there staring at myself in the mirror over the sink with wide, frightened eyes.)

Eventually, after a few choking coughs, the breathing started up again, accompanied by awful wheezing.

The problem had begun a week earlier in Canada. We ran into several days of 100% humidity and intense rainstorms. Although I had had asthma before, it seemed finally to have dissipated in the 1990s. But now I had both a chest infection and a return of the wheezing that used to bedevil me, especially in the more changeable seasons of the year. (Yes, Southern California does have seasons of a sort.)

Finally, on Sunday, September 23, I checked in to the emergency clinic in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. A Canadian physician prescribed a course of antibiotics (Clarithromycin) and prescribed Ventolin for my wheezing. The crisis arrived two days later in Lubec, where we stayed to see Franklin Roosevelt’s famous summer cottage on Campobello Island across the bridge in New Brunswick.

The Ventolin seemed to work, but I was still waking up with a choking series of coughs. Now that I am back in Los Angeles, here I sit at the computer at 2:00 am after having waken up choking. And now my Ventolin is out, and I have to call my physician later in the morning to see what she could prescribe to help me.

In a few minutes, I will stagger back to bed, where I am sleeping in a sitting-up position which helps somewhat. Eventually I will get to sleep, but I will wake up coughing several more times. Curiously, the worst always occurs almost exactly three hours after I’ve gone to bed.

I can hardly wait to get a full night’s sleep again—once I’ve managed to shake this old enemy, if such is possible.