A Distant Family Tragedy

People wrote differently a century ago than we do today.

I do not mean the mechanics of writing, though yesterday’s manual typewriters and and fountain pens worked differently than today’s word processors and predictive text and text-to-speech. We write faster than our ancestors did because our technology has improved.

What I mean is that the style differed. There’s a precision to the words used a century ago that isn’t as common today.

Take the lede of an article in the Baltimore Sun from July 30, 1902: “Mrs. Susie A. Gardner, 62 years old, and living at 1630 South Charles street, died very suddenly of an attack of heart disease shortly after 6 o’clock last evening at the home of Mr. Coleon White, 1634 South Charles street, where she fled following an attack upon her by Mrs. Laura Meldrumm, a half-sister living with her, who is said to be demented.”

Look how precise that is. Sixty-three words, encompassing the who (Susie Gardner), the what (her death), the where (Baltimore’s Federal Hill), the when (early evening), the why (a heart attack), the how (an attack by her half-mad half-sister). A complete story is told in a single sentence. There are wasted words, but they are few and due almost entirely to conventions of style (such as titling each name); I’d have struck the “very” and the “upon her,” and the final clause feels stiff and awkward. The rest of the article — an additional four paragraphs — elaborates upon the story, but the first paragraph tells the reader everything crucial.

Susan Gardner — Susie — is my great-great-grandmother; I left flowers at her grave, shared with six others, last weekend when I was in Baltimore running errands. Her youngest son, Allyn, was my great-grandfather and the ancestor whose first name I bear.

I found the newspaper article on Tuesday on Ancestry.com. It had been there for years. I simply hadn’t looked at it. Headline: “Death follows blow.” Subhead: “Mrs. Gardner expires suddenly after half-sister strikes her.” I read the article. I read it three times. I formed a conclusion about it quickly. I didn’t know how I felt.

In short, my great-great-grandmother was killed by her sister.

The details are these.

In the early evening of Tuesday, July 29, 1902, Susan came downstairs for dinner in the home she shared with her daughter Isabelle and her second husband, William Krauch. She asked her half-sister Laura, who had been institutionalized at Bellevue in New York City in the “insane pavilion” and now lived with her in Baltimore, about her health. Laura then, angrily and without warning, attacked Susan, striking her in the chest. Isabelle came to her mother’s aid, separated the sisters, and told Susan to go to a neighbor’s house while she calmed the raging Laura. Susan went to the nearby home of Colin White, a pipefitter, and died there of a heart attack when Isabelle came to retrieve her not more than ten minutes later.

(The Sun newspaper article gives the neighbor’s name as “Coleon White.” R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, in both the 1901 and 1903 editions, gives his name as “Colin L. White.” The latter spelling makes more sense to me, which is the spelling I will use going forward, and it’s from those books that I gleaned his occupation as a pipefitter.)

The newspaper account, told mainly in the words of Susan’s daughter Isabelle, left me with the distinct impression that Susan, my great-great-grandmother, was killed by her sister. Laura almost certainly did not intend to kill her sister, yet had she not attacked her that evening Susan would not have suffered the fatal heart attack.

Then my writer mind began to fill in the gaps in the story with information I had gained from a decade of genealogical research.

What time did this happen? The article tells us that Susan was “[coming] downstairs to supper” and she died shortly past 6 o’clock. Laura’s attack on Susan must have come no earlier than 5:30.

Who else was in the house? Isabelle had several young children, including possibly a newborn. (Isabelle give birth to a daughter, Pearl, in 1902.) The only children that I can say definitively were likely to be there (in that I know they survived until at least 1910 per census records) were her son Irving (aged 12) and daughters Mary (aged 7) and Ida (aged 6), but there is the chance, including the possible newborn, that there were six children in the home. Isabelle’s husband, a brakeman for a railroad, doesn’t give a quote in the Sun — the story is largely told in Isabelle’s voice — so we can safely conclude that he was not in the house that evening.

The picture fills in. Isabelle has prepared supper. Her children are gathering for the imminent meal or running around the table and the house on Federal Hill as children are wont to do. Laura is already downstairs. She has not been feeling well. Susan comes down the stairs. A polite word from Susan inquiring after her health provokes Laura into a rage. Laura screams and charges at her sister. All attention turns to the sudden and unexpected excitement. Some of the children witness their great-aunt attack their grandmother and their own mother intercede. Deeply shaken and breathing heavily, Susan leaves the home while their mother calms their aunt down. The younger children are cowering in fear from what they just witnessed. The older children, like Irving, try to corral and comfort the younger ones. Little do they realize they have seen their grandmother alive for the last time, for when Isabelle leaves a few minutes later to fetch her mother from Colin White’s home Susan dies. Half an hour earlier, the family was getting ready for an ordinary evening meal. Now, the evening has turned to tragedy.

Go back far enough in time, and every family has its inexplicable tragedies. The baseball writer Craig Calcaterra recently published an ebook about a tragedy in his own ancestry: his great-great-grandmother murdered his great-great-grandfather with an axe. I read the book; it’s quite brief. I’m not sure how I feel about the events described. But neither does Calcaterra, as he writes in the book. And, as I said, I’m not sure how I feel about these events.

I began researching my family history in 2005 for what I admit is a silly reason — Where, I wondered, did my name come from? My great-grandfather, obviously, but why did he have that name? Where did it come from? How did his parents, whose names I did not know, pick that name? I had been told that his family was German, so why did they give their son a very English name with a very odd spelling? These are all good and interesting questions, but they are also questions that can never be answered. The people who had the answers died a very, very long time ago. And when I started my researches, I didn’t realize quite how long ago.

My grandfather was a late-in-life child; his parents were in their forties when he was born. But my great-grandfather Allyn was also a late-in-life child; his mother Susan was thirty-nine when he was born, while his father William was fifty-four. I would learn in time that Allyn had nieces, daughters of his half-sister Margaret, older than he was. The problem with being the product of two successive generations of late-in-life children is that I was incredibly remote from my ancestors; my great-grandfather was born ninety-four years before I was, my great-great-grandfather almost 150 years. Generational spans such as that, and the family lore is forgotten, the history lost.

The first thing I discovered was the census record for the Gardner family in 1880. It was full of information, names of people I had never heard of. Brothers, sisters, an aunt, possibly even a grandmother, all living in a single house in Washington, DC near the Navy Yards. There were almost certainly cousins out there that I had never met, never even realized were out there. For the first time I knew the names of my great-grandfather’s parents — William and Susan. None of these names sounded the least bit German to me. It was exciting, and I had no idea where to go next or how to find the next pieces of the puzzle.

One of the puzzle pieces from that 1880 Census record was William’s sister-in-law, Laura Fenhagen. I drew some quick conclusions — William’s mother-in-law Anne Atwell could not possibly be Allyn Gardner’s grandmother as she was born in 1800 while William’s sister-in-law Laura was born in 1860, so if Susan and Laura were sisters then Anne had to be the mother of William’s first wife. Allyn was only six months old at the time of the 1880 Census, so Laura must have come to Washington to help her sister with caring for the new infant. A picture was forming.

Eventually, I would be able to build on this Census record and increase my understanding of the family. There were additional children — a daughter for William, two sons for Susan from their previous marriages — that had left the fold by 1880. I would discover some of these people were buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, and in 2012 I went there for the first time and looked for the graves of ancestors and relatives that, only five years earlier, I hadn’t even known existed.

One of those relatives was Laura. In my researches I had learned that her life appeared to have been a sad one. She married a man named William Meldrum, and they had a son, Howard. She outlived her son. She was also institutionalized in Washington for the last twelve years or more of her life. She lived into the 1930s, and her husband outlived her, into the 1940s. I wondered how he must have felt, his wife confined to a hospital while he lived alone in his twilight years. They are buried together at Congressional Cemetery, near John Philip Sousa. William’s grave is marked, Laura’s is not. I’m wry enough that it amused me to no end that a distant aunt was buried a hundred feet, give or take, from the writer of the Monty Python theme music.

I pitied Laura. I made the assumption, and not an unreasonable one, that whatever caused her to be institutionalized happened late in her life, in her fifties. When I visited Susan’s grave at Loudon Park for the first time in May, though there was no one there that would have recognized who I was or understood me if they did, I put my hand on the ground and said something to the air like, “I visited your sister in Washington. She had a sad life, and she’s at peace now. I thought you should know.”

I didn’t know, couldn’t have known, that Laura had killed Susan, that Susan knew all too well that her sister had had a sad life. The realization that Laura was responsible, quite directly, for my great-great-grandmother’s death frankly staggered me.

The things I know about the people in this drama of the events of July 29, 1902 are dry facts. Most all of them have passed beyond living memory. (My mother has dim memories of Ida; she was a friend of her father’s, and she remembers having tea in Ida’s kitchen with Ida and my grandmother.) Dry facts — marriages, births, deaths, street addresses — say little about a person. They lack the color of life.

The things about Susan that I knew that added the color to the dry facts were few. Three things. Three.

First, Susan spoke fluent German, because her children spoke fluent German. Susan was born in Baltimore, but her family came from Hamburg in 1817, and the family name von Hagen was anglicized into Fenhagen. (Her father preferred Feenhagen, but that spelling did not stick.) The Fenhagens of St. Mary’s are relatives.

Second, Susan’s favorite child was her son Henry from her first marriage to a man named Henry Hardy.

Third, after the Gardners moved from Washington to Baltimore circa 1886 (for reasons I do not know but for which I have formulated a theory), my great-grandfather Allyn walked across the frozen Baltimore harbor and bought her flowers with the money he earned from his job. This would have happened in 1895, when my great-grandfather was fifteen. From the first volume of Baltimore: Its History and Its People, edited by Clayton Colman Hall: “The ‘February Freeze’ of 1895 recalled the severity of the blizzard of 1888, and nearly equaled that of 1893. On February 7 a furious snowstorm, with extremely low temperature, fell upon the city, and till the 21st navigation was hardly practicable. The harbor of Baltimore was frozen from shore to shore. All the rivers of Maryland were frozen over.” Normally he gave her half the money that he earned at his job. (William, a tinner, died of a brain tumor two years earlier.) He also bought her flowers.

To these I can now add a fourth thing that adds color to my great-great-grandmother’s life. She cared enough about her mentally ill sister to look after her, and that care ultimately took her life. In the words of Susan’s daughter Isabelle, “when my mother came downstairs to supper and addressed a query as to [Laura’s] health, Mrs. Meldrumn made some angry reply and struck her in the breast.” (The Sun newspaper article uses two different spellings for Laura’s married name, neither of which, as far as I know, are correct.) A few minutes later, at Colin White’s house, Susan died.

Susan Gardner died 115 years ago. I doubt there are any more stories of the life of my great-great-grandmother to be found, making this story, the story of her death, the last story of Susan as a person I will ever learn.

The aftermath intrigues me, but that’s lost, too, in the mists of time.

I don’t know if Laura was ever charged with a crime in Susan’s death. I only learned Tuesday of the circumstances of Susan’s death and I’ve not had the opportunity to delve further. Considering the mitigating circumstances of Susan’s “delicate health” and Laura’s “fits of insanity,” I doubt a manslaughter charge would have been brought, especially in light of this line from the Sun article’s final paragraph: “The blow dealt Mrs. Gardner is said to have been insignificant in its effect, the death having been caused by excitement due to the attack and the feeble condition of her heart.” Still, I wonder how aware Laura was of what she had done to Susan and how she felt about that. Did she feel remorse? Did she carry guilt with her until the end of her days? And her husband, William Meldrum? How did he feel about Susan’s death and Laura’s role in causing it?

The witnesses, Isabelle and her children? Did Isabelle feel any guilt for opening her home to Laura, a woman who had recently been in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue? Did she feel any responsibility for focusing on dinner and her children that evening? What memories did the children carry of witnessing their great-aunt assault their grandmother, followed by their grandmother’s death?

What sort of relationship, if any, did Laura have with her Gardner relations after her sister’s death?

Every family has its tragedies. I have orphans and accident victims among my ancestors. I have veterans of the American Revolution and North Carolina slave owners, too. The death of Susan Fenhagen Hardy Gardner is one of my family’s tragedies. I don’t know how to feel about it. I don’t know what to feel. She is remote enough in time as to be a complete stranger, and yet without her I would not be here writing this.

Each of us is shaped by our parents, and our parents by their parents, and their parents by their parents, and so on and so on. I never knew Susan, never could know Susan, but she shaped my great-grandfather, and he shaped my grandfather, and he shaped my mother, and my mother shaped me, and so in some small way, even though I don’t know who Susan was as a person beyond those few small facts, I carry something of her within me every day.

That will have to suffice.

Drinking with Papa

I would not have been able to hang with Ernest Hemingway when it comes to drinking.

A few years ago I picked up a recipe book of Ernest Hemingway-inspired cocktails, To Have and Have Another. Some of the recipes are things that Hemingway is known to have enjoyed, other drinks are based on his work. The book is as much a biography of Hemingway’s love of alcohol as it is a recipe book; each recipe features a three or four page profile of Hemingway, his life, or his friends that relates to the recipe.

I made a drink out the book shortly after I bought the book, and nothing since. I honestly don’t even remember which drink it was that I made. Yet I’d still take the book off the shelf from time to time, flipping through it, reading a chapter here or there about Hemingway and his life.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk through Dallastown, five miles give or take. It was a nice day, bright but not hot, and when I returned to my apartment I sat outside in my Adirondack chair and set about enjoying the afternoon.

An idea occurred to me. “Perhaps,” I thought, “Ernest Hemingway would have had a drink on an afternoon such a this.”

I went to my kitchen, pulled To Have and Have Another off the shelf. I was limited, of course, to the alcohol I had on had — rum, scotch, beer, and cider. I quickly found a recipe that I could work with, one that Philip Greene, the author of To Have and Have Another, called the Josie Russell, named for a rum smuggling friend of Hemingway’s from the 1930s. Hemingway had the drink while at sea, and this seemed like exactly the kind of drink made for a sunny summer afternoon.

Rum? Check. Admiral Nelson‘s Spiced Rum.

Cider? Check. Graft Cider‘s Cloud City Amarillo District, which is also fermented with pineapple and lemon zest.

Lime? Check.

Sugar? Check.

I got out a pitcher, mixed my ingredients, poured some of the cocktail into a beer goblet, and went outside to enjoy it in the sunshine.

“This is quite good!” I thought. It was sour with a kick of sweetness. It went down easily. You couldn’t even taste the alcohol in the drink.

I liked it. And I still had more in the pitcher.

I refilled my glass, went back outside, and enjoyed the drink in the summer afternoon.

My glass drained, I went back inside and poured out the last of the pitcher into my glass.

I resumed my seat outside and enjoyed the drink.

I finished the drink, took a deep breath, and decided the drink worked.

And then, five minutes later, the alcohol in the drink hit me all at once.

Of course it did. The cocktail “serves two or three.” And I’d had all three servings in half an hour, give or take.

Papa Hemingway, he could have taken that hit. Me? Not even a little. It knocked me on my bum, and I sat down on the couch inside and passed out for an afternoon nap.

The Josie Russell was a nice drink. I should have limited myself to just one drink, not all three.

And, on a tangential note, BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature just broadcast a program on Hemingway’s “The Killers” and the two film adaptations, one of them starring none other than Ronald Reagan in his last acting role. Worth listening to for Papa fans.

Post header photo, Ernest Hemingway in Floridita, by Franck Vervial, licensed Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0

Returning to a Cemetery

Thursday I got the Beetle back.

It had been in the shop for a week and a half, after I had broken the key off in the ignition. It should not have taken that long, but the newly cut key Volkswagen sent wasn’t cut properly — keys for the Beetle are laser-etched, for security purposes — and when the dealership received the second key, this one properly cut, late on Wednesday it still needed to be programmed, otherwise it would have been little more than a valet key and I’d have been able to drive maybe ten minutes before the engine shut off.

Anti-theft measures. Gotta love ’em.

Suffice it to say, being without a car for a week and a half meant that I had a backlog of errands I needed to do. Things like grocery shopping and buying new shoes. (I’m terrible on my shoes, specifically the soles, specifically the soles at the balls of my feet, and I needed both shoes for work and sneakers for everything else.) And while I could have done these things around the York area, I decided that, no, I could hit the highway instead and just as easily do them around Baltimore.

I’m not sure when the idea of a return to Loudon Park Cemetery came to me, but the idea had an attraction to it. My great-grandfather and his family are buried there, as are three of his siblings and his mother, not to mention a number of nieces and nephews. I visited there in late May and intended to go back when I learned where his brother is buried. Though I’ve not learned that — at some point I’ll call the office and ask if they can tell me which section he’s buried in — I decided I could make a quick stop. There’s a Giant a half mile away, I could buy some inexpensive flowers, and leave them for people that died long before I was born.

Continue reading “Returning to a Cemetery”

Greeted by the Moon

My alarm clock is set for 6:15. It’s a good time to get up.

Sometimes for my bladder, 6:15 is simply too late. Twenty or thirty minutes before the alarm clock goes off, my bladder will be insistent that now is the time to get up. “Now!” it screams. “Now!

This was one of those mornings. The rest of my body dragged itself out of bed wearily, because the bladder couldn’t wait.

Upon returning from the bathroom, I was greeted by a sight through the bedroom window — the nearly full moon through the trees behind the complex.

The cosmic dance of the solar system’s movement through the stars goes on.

The Best Week Ever

I broke my key off in the Beetle’s ignition lock last night when I left the office.

The Beetle has always had, shall we say, a “sticky” ignition. Sometimes it takes a little fiddling in the lock to turn. I’d actually found that the easiest way to turn it was to turn it from the passenger side; I got more torque on it that way. But week before last, when it got really hot, it became quite finicky. How finicky? Well, I spent half an hour trying to turn it one night when I left the office. VW Beetle message boards suggested some graphite, and that made things better. Sunday, on the trip to Bethesda and back, I had no trouble at all. Nor yesterday morning. But last night…

I fiddled with the key for a good twenty minutes. I could feel the lock almost go. And then the turn would stop. I kept turning, turning, turning…

…and the switchblade key came apart.

At this point I had no idea what to do. It was now 7:30 at night. Obviously, it was going to need to go to the dealership to get a new ignition switch and key, and that I couldn’t do until morning. But I also had no way of getting home — the unfortunate reality of living 35 miles from the office; anyone I could have gotten a ride with back to Pennsyltucky had long since left for the day — so I went to the dump of a hotel across the street to crash for the night. (And then to the Target across the street for a cheap polo shirt to wear at work today.)

I was going to need a dealership to replace the ignition lock; VW Beetles have funky laser-etched keys.  I thought it would easy — “There’s a Volkswagen dealership just three blocks down York Road!” Only… it’s not anymore. It’s a Subaru dealership, and their service department was sympathetic but couldn’t help. So I’m having the Beetle towed to the closest VW service department, and that’s in Parkville. I had literally no idea where Parkville even was when the Subaru dealership said that’s where I’d have to go. Turns out it’s twelve miles from the office, which means that I’ll have to figure out a way of getting there, too, to pick up the Beetle when it’s done.

Fortunately, the tow is covered by Geico, and I have that arranged. The truck should be here in about an hour and a half. And then we’ll see what the damage is.

Best! Week! Ever!

The Avengers of Pre-Human Prehistory

At work, I receive Marvel Comics' press releases.  This week they've been sending press releases about Marvel Legacy, the upcoming one-shot that is supposed to set the new direction for the Marvel Universe after years upon years of Secret Invasions and Secret Wars.

Among the press releases this week have been promo images for the "Avengers of 1,000,000 BC," a team of legendary heroes with familiar names who existed in the distant past, so distant that they've been forgotten, so significant that they inspired myth and legend as a kind of cultural memory.

Among the "Avengers of 1,000,000 BC" there's Odin, the Norse god.  There's also an Iron Fist and  Phoenix host, not to mention Agamotto, the magical being that Dr. Strange knows.  (I'm barely familiar with Dr. Strange, frankly, so I'm not clear at all about the relationship between Strange and Agamotto.  I know it involves an eye, but I'm not sure how.)

The teaser images puzzle me.  The Iron Fist appears to have Asian features, but I'm not sure how that would be, just as the Phoenix host has red hair, which would be genetically unlikely if not impossible.

The problem I'm having with "the Avengers of 1,000,000 BC" is that Earth's hominid population at that time would have numbered somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 of homo erectus, an ancestor species to modern humans, homo sapiens.  Homo erectus made its home in eastern Africa.  They were a primitive hunter-gatherer society.  They were able to use fire.  They had primitive tools.  They possibly cooked their food.  They were probably dark-skinned and dark-haired, evolutionary adaptations to withstand the sun.  Based on studies of human lice and their genetic drift, homo erectus probably went about naked.  Based on fossil studies, homo erectus probably had some language abilities.  They would have looked to us to be almost human but not quite.

My problem with the Avengers of One Million BCE isn't that they exist — I've no doubt that someone could do something interesting with pre-human super-powered characters in paleolithic times — but that the Avengers of One Million BCE shouldn't look human.  The heroes of this era would not have been fair-skinned, had Asian features, or even had red hair.  (The red hair gene didn't develop until roughly 100,000 BCE.)  They would have had sloped foreheads, flattish faces, and heavy brows.  They would have had darker skin and hair to resist the sun's glare.  Males would have been larger and stockier than the females; homo erectus had extreme sexual dimorphism by modern human standards.  In short, the promotional teasers don't reflect the reality of hominid life on Earth in One Million BCE at all.

I've ordered the Marvel Legacy one-shot, though not with any enthusiasm.  My curiosity outweighs my indifference.  Nothing about the Avengers teasers have moved my emotional needle this week, and it's possible that I'll cancel my order.  Yet I feel that I should read Marvel Legacy, even if it's twice the price and shorter than the similar DC Universe Rebirth special, because it's an important moment for Marvel Comics and the comics industry.  But I'd probably be more intrigued by it if its characters reflected who actually lived on Earth in One Million BCE.

A Legend to Last a Teatime

How different would 20th-century culture have been if the Rutles had not discovered tea?

From the perspective of fifty years beyond Dirk McQuickly's interview in which he extolled the virtues of tea, it's almost impossible to grasp just how controversial his remarks were.  Today, tea is mundane, commonplace.  I myself have had several cups of tea today.  Yet, McQuickly's June 1967 interview about tea seems caused an uproar at the time.  Tea, it seems, was something that people simply didn't talk about.

Today, I can go to the grocery story — Weis, Giant, Food Lion, Wegman's — and I'm confronted with dozens of different kinds of tea.  There are people who like Earl Grey or Irish Breakfast.  They can keep those.  I'll take a nice herbal tea, and I'm especially fond of the Celestial Seasonings Honey Vanilla Tea.

Would this have happened with McQuickly talking on ITV about tea?  Would there have been such a variety of tea in stores?  Who can say?

The controversy over the Rutles and tea, of course, died down.  By the end of 1967 it was all forgotten. There were other controversial things for the Rutles to be criticized for, like Tragical History Tour.  Yet, when we sit down to a cup of tea, hot or iced, we all owe McQuickly and the Rutles a thanks for normalizing the consumption of tea.

Indiana Jones and the Hills of White Elephants

This afternoon novelist Una McCormack retweeted a link to a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency piece by Rachel Klein titled Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” from “The Girl”‘s Point of View. I don’t read McSweeney’s as often as I feel that I should, so I was glad that I read this.

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” centers on two characters, sitting in a bar at a railway station somewhere in the middle of Spain in the mid-1920s. One character is “the American.” The other character is “the Girl.” They order drinks and have a cryptic conversation. The Girl is going to have an operation of some sort. It’s widely believed by critics that the operation is, in fact, an abortion, since the cryptic conversation turns on the relationship between the two characters, whether they love each other now, and whether they will continue to love each other if the operation happens or does not.

Klein’s piece takes the widely assumed belief about the operation in Hemingway’s story and makes it explicit, profanely and humorously: “It’s an abortion, folks. That’s what we were talking about, except that I knew if I said the actual word to him he’d fucking freak his shit, but, like, not tell me so directly. Instead he’d say something about how cold his beer was and I’d be like, ‘Is that some sort of veiled reference to my pregnancy?’ and he’d be like, ‘Were those clouds there a moment ago?'”

Klein’s piece prompted me to dig out my collection of Hemingway’s short stories, and I read through “Hills Like White Elephants” in about five minutes. (It’s a very short story. In the collection I have, it runs four pages.) It’s pretty much all dialogue, from top to bottom, with the usual Hemingway quirks (like lapsing into Spanish for no particular reason). I am unabashedly a Hemingway fan, but I can’t say that I found anything particularly compelling about “Hills Like White Elephants” except for one thing — I wondered if “the American” was none other than Indiana Jones.

Obviously it’s not; Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t filmed until twenty years after Hemingway’s suicide. But within the universe of Indiana Jones, Ernest Hemingway and Indiana Jones were good friends and shared several adventures. Perhaps that Ernest Hemingway modeled some of his characters on his globetrotting adventurer friend, Indiana Jones. Why not? Hemingway modeled some of his characters, Nick Adams and Jake Barnes notably, on himself.

Let’s assume for a moment that the American is Indiana Jones. He could have been on an archaeological dig somewhere in Spain, either as a grad student or as a post-grad. While there, he becomes romantically involved with a woman, perhaps someone working alongside Indy on the dig as well. She becomes pregnant, Indy is in his mid-twenties and neither one is really ready for parenthood, and Indy suggests strongly that she have an abortion because he doesn’t want her or his potential child to tie him down and keep him from achieving his “fortune and glory.”

This backstory works. Whether it’s a good backstory or not I leave to others to ponder. I could imagine Hemingway and Jones meeting up in Paris and having a drink, Hemingway hearing the story of Jones’ expedition in Spain, and deciding to write up one part of it as a literary experiment. And then the telegram from one to the other:

ERNIE -[STOP]- TOLD YOU STORY IN CONFIDENCE -[STOP]- ANNOYED BY HILLS -[STOP]- WILL DISCUSS IN PAMPLONA -[STOP]- INDY

The unfortunate thing about Hemingway’s story is that the Girl is such an utter cipher. We don’t know her age or her nationality. She doesn’t know a great deal about alcohol. Presumably she speaks English, but that’s not at all certain. For all we know, in Hemingway’s story all of the dialogue in the story happens in Spanish; even the use of “cervezas” instead of “beer” in one line isn’t enough to make any sort of determination one way or the other.

It’s all so vague. Not one of Hemingway’s finest works.

Still, if one squints just so, it’s quite easy to see Indiana Jones as the unnamed American in Hemingway’s “Hill Like White Elephants.” Quite easy.

Digging into the Website

Sometimes my website goes through fallow periods, and when I say “fallow” I mean that in two ways.  On the one hand, I don’t feel like creating content.  On the other hand, I don’t feel like looking at my PHP and CSS code.  I used to post to the blog every single day.  Now I feel lucky if I write a blog post a week.  I used to dig into my PHP code at least every other weekend, and I’d stay on top of the WordPress support forum looking for new and interesting pieces of code or plugins.  Now I have a blog theme that is all sketched out and all I need to do is to sit down and finish the last code push, and it’s been that way since autumn.

Then there’s a week like this week, where I’ve made three posts, one of them a significant piece on a college baseball game, I tinkered with my theme’s CSS code, I wrote a little routine to replace the dates on my blog posts with Hobbit dates, I installed a plugin to enable front-end editing (and that required some tinkering because it hasn’t been updated in a while and triggered four PHP Fatal Errors), and I’m writing this post using the new Gutenberg interface (the future editor in WordPress) to see whether I like it or not.

Do I like Gutenberg?  Not particularly.  The Blade Runner post was written, at least in part, with Gutenberg, and since it represents the future of WordPress I want to build my experience and comfort with it.  I’ve become accustomed to writing my WordPress posts in HTML markup — WordPress has a visual editor, but I like the feeling of control and cleanliness I get from composing directly in code, and fifteen years of writing blog posts in code is so familiar to me that when I work with the CMS at work I write in code, not the WYSIWIG editor — that writing in Gutenberg’s WYSIWIG composition screen feels strange to me.  With the Blade Runner post, I wanted to embed videos from YouTube, but Gutenberg wouldn’t let me do it.  And, as a purely aesthetic matter, Gutenberg produces garbage code.  It turns my stomach and, for a project like WordPress that has the motto “Code is poetry,” the code Gutenberg produces for the user’s content is anything but poetry.

Still, familiarity with Gutenberg breeds comfort, and I’ve come to feel comfortable working with Gutenberg purely as a visual editor.  That’s the thing.  It’s useful as an editor.  I can see my words through the HTML tags.  I can see how my sentences hang together.  I can see my typos, I can see where I’ve left ideas out, I can jump in and fix my mistakes.  It’s very easy to add hyperlinks.  Gutenberg feels like a basic, distraction-light WYSIWIG editor.  I doubt it would suit all of my needs, but if I want to prototype text and then dig down into the guts of the code and fine-tune the post in the standard WordPress editor that would work.

Which leads me to the Front-End Editor.  I’m not sure how I stumbled across this plugin this week, but I did, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a plugin that was being developed for the WordPress core that was, for whatever reason, abandoned about two years ago.  One of the worst things about writing in WordPress is finding mistakes and typos after hitting publish.  Fixing these mistakes becomes cumbersome; you need two tabs open in your browser, one showing the post live on the blog, the other showing the editing screen, and then you need to flip back and forth between the two.  It’s not an ideal way to fix mistakes.  “Did I fix that comma?  Did I add in the verb I completely missed?  Did I catch everything?”  With the Front-End Editor, I can hit publish, then fix my mistakes live on the blog.  “This is genius!” I exclaimed (once I fixed the PHP Fatal Errors), and I can’t imagine how I ever lived without it.  It matches my workflow and, more importantly, it streamlines that workflow.

In my view, that would be the ideal direction for WordPress to take Gutenberg.  Instead of creating a brand-new editor experience, put the resources into bringing the Front-End Editor up-to-date.  The Front-End Editor won’t have all of the bells and whistles of the main editor in the WordPress admin, but it doesn’t need the bells and whistles.  It just needs to be able to create a post, add images, add tags and categories, and publish.  Ideally without the code garbage that Gutenberg produces.

If plugins like Gutenberg and Front-End Editor simplify content creation, why haven’t I been creating content as I once did?  There are two reasons, and they’re somewhat interrelated.  First, I could write to my blog every day when there weren’t other outlets for communicating with people online; either Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then, or they weren’t the platforms that they’ve since become.  The kind of ephemeral, insignificant material I might post to my blog is the kind of ephemeral, insignificant material that modern social media is made for.  On Facebook and Twitter, material like that disappears down the memory hole (unless you’re someone like my Twitter follower Anthony Scaramucci, who has had his entire Twitter history dredged up in the last forty-eight hours).  On the blog, it’s important.  And the second reason, WordPress increasingly needs images with posts for thumbnails and headers depending on the theme in use, especially if the posts are going to be shared on Facebook and Twitter where those images are used as thumbnails and Twitter cards.  Sometimes, I don’t have an image.  Or sometimes, what I’m thinking about writing about doesn’t feel important enough for an image.  In a weird way, design decisions of the website itself drive whether or not something is worth publishing, let alone writing.

The goal, ultimately, of the blog design that I keep tinkering with is to get around those two problems, to have room for the important posts that justify the time and the illustration on the one hand and room for the ephemeral, random stuff on the other.  Ironically, that part of the blog’s design is done.  It required custom functions and the shortcode processor.  It’s been tested.  It’s worked for months.  It’s the other key component of the design, the one that requires a responsive slider and custom menus and a custom Walker that’s posed difficulty.  It’s not an insoluble problem, merely a tricky one.

All things considered, writing this post in Gutenberg wasn’t a bad experience.  It’s becoming comfortable and familiar.  At its worst, it feels like I’m writing in some open source attempt at mimicking Microsoft Word.  I’m not sure that it’s the right solution for every WordPress user, especially for those who use WordPress as a CMS rather than as a blogging platform.  If Gutenberg really is the future of WordPress, then I hope that the current editing screen remains as a fallback option for users.

And, as for my own blog theme, I’m getting close.  It’s almost there.  Almost.

Lollipopping

Even now, an adult in his forties, when I go to the bank, I’ll pick up a lollipop. The circular ones, the cheap ones, in the plastic wrapper, with the raised edge and center. A green one. Always a green one. No other color will do.

Is it because I like the taste of lime? I assume the green lollipops are lime. Come to think of it, I don’t really know. I certainly do like the taste of lime. Give me a key lime pie! Give me Lime Kool-Aid! Give me a green lollipop!

Whatever the reason — the color, the flavor — I peel off the wrapping, pop it in my mouth, let it just dissolve there, and then munch down on whatever’s left, leaving only the tightly wrapped paper stick in my mouth with.

Maybe I’m doing lollipops wrong, but if I’m doing them wrong, then I don’t want to be right.