Tuesday, February 9, 2010


“I’ll never do it in time. Never!”

Huddling in her old raincoat, Lavinia Smoot whimpered in the back of the bus while it lurched from stop to stop down Second Avenue in a deluge of November rain.

It had seemed such a good idea at the time. When the fall program arrived in the mail from the Y, she and her friend Marcie Nagel were atwitter with excitement at the prospect of passing a dozen winter evenings with people of like mind. Creatives, they called them nowadays; people who knew, as she and Marcie did, that they had untapped talents that needed only to be set free, and honed by constructive criticism.

The first session, called The Emerging Muse, was riveting. Penelope Raintree, the facilitator, had been so inspiring, so full of wisdom. “We all have it in us,” she reminded her class. “In the weeks ahead we must allow it to flow out. Bring your latest work in progress, and read it aloud to the class.”

For most of the opening session Penny Raintree – she asked them all to call her Penny – had gone into a none-too-lucid explanation of some of the finer points of the poet’s craft. She dealt with the strict confines of the heroic couplet and the Spenserian stanza, the whimsy of the limerick, and the scrupulous economy of haiku. Lavinia took notes with a well-sharpened pencil.

The second session was less easy. Baring her soul to strangers was something for which Jefferson High in Lima, Ohio, and forty-three years in the stock department at Bloomingdales had not prepared her. After an agonizing Sunday crouched over her Remington portable, with a faded ribbon and a letter ‘e’ that jammed repeatedly, she read the first poem she had written in five decades. It was a wistful verse that recalled the view of corn fields from her bedroom window when she was a child.

Her poem, Field of Dreams, received a kind if hesitant reception from the class. Not, she had to admit, quite as enthusiastic as that given to the man who preceded her, a bearded, retired Navy veteran who, in a thunderous voice, read the first sixteen verses of an epic poem about the sinking of a German battleship in the North Atlantic.

It was even harder for Lavinia to accept that her friend Marcie’s contribution was much better received than hers. She wasn’t envious; of course not. Marcie had written several quite witty verses recalling how her sister Ruthie dropped an ice cream into the orchestra from the mezzanine during her first visit to the Met. Penny had called it “cute.” Mrs. Lukaszewski, a woman with strangely blue hair, who claimed to have once worked at Ladies’ Home Journal, said it was “mirth-provoking.” Even the old sailor, Captain Wetherspoon, volunteered that it was “interesting.”

Walking to the bus on the way home, Lavinia and Marcie agreed that the evening had been fun, and congratulated each other warmly on their efforts.

“You were so professional,” Lavinia said, “you ought to be on the radio!”
“Oh, but your poem was so . . . well . . . so vivid,” said Marcie, “I loved the bit about the corn ‘standing in rigid ranks of green.’ ”

They parted with a sisterly air kiss at the corner of Second Avenue and 15th Street. In her apartment, Lavinia turned on the heater, made herself a cup of decaf, and flopped into bed. Pulling up the covers she reflected that creative writing was both rejuvenating and good for the soul. She wouldn’t think yet about what to write next week. There were seven whole days before the next session. Penny had said, “Just leave it to your subconscious, and don’t try to force it. Let inspiration creep into your soul.”

During the weekend, and early in the following week, other matters occupied Lavinia’s mind. For one thing, there was the holiday surge of work at the store, keeping her at her desk until at least six. Then there was her argument with Con Ed about the electricity bill, letters to write and bills to pay. Lavinia told herself not to worry, there was plenty of time. Penny Raintree had said there was nothing like a deadline to make the creative juices flow. She hoped that was true, because in no time it was Wednesday morning.

During the day at work she grew increasingly anxious. She hadn’t even thought of a topic yet! Time was running out. By that evening on the bus going home she was beside herself. As soon as she closed her door she warmed a can of soup, sat at her typewriter, rolled a sheet of paper into the machine and stared at it. Two hours and a box of Ritz crackers later, Lavinia had something akin to snow-blindness, and only five screwed-up balls of paper to show for it.

She’d read about writer’s block often enough in her eagerly awaited issues of Writers Digest, and this must be it. An hour later, at 10 p.m., it was the same. She rose and paced about the living room. Where could she find a hint, the merest seed of creativity? She searched her bookshelf for inspiration. Here was The World Book, and useful guides to life such as How To Clean Almost Anything, a dozen or two paperback novels and several books of poetry.

That was when the insidious thought came to her. Suppose she were to find the work of some minor poet, copy it out and claim it as her own. Nobody would be hurt, and it would rid her of this embarrassing situation.

No, she couldn’t do it. It would be against every rule she lived by. Worse, it might well require her to tell a lie. She glanced through the books: Eliot, Wordsworth, Pound, Whitman. But wait. Here was a book of 1920s British poetry. She took it down and leafed through its yellowed pages. Some of the writers she’s heard of, John Masefield, Robert Graves, Walter de la Mare. Others she hadn’t. Who else knew of W.J.Turner, for heaven’s sake?

Uneasily, but with a parallel feeling of relief, Lavinia Smoot began to type.


At class that week Ms. Raintree invited the old sailor, Captain Wetherspoon, to open the session, and he obliged with a surprisingly romantic and brief paean to seagulls. The class clearly liked it. Two others followed with pastoral pieces evoking fall in Central Park, and snow in Vermont. Mrs. Lukaszewski read an arresting comic verse about a visit to the dentist, and Marcie came up with a few undistinguished lines about her cat, which had a crushingly cool reception. And then it was Lavinia’s turn.

She’d hardly heard the earlier speakers’ readings. This was partly because her heart was beating so loudly, and also because she was wondering whether, after all, she should keep her stolen verse in the shopping bag at her feet, and make some excuse for not having written anything this week. ‘I had the ‘flu,’ perhaps, or maybe something more dramatic such as ‘My aunt Emily died in Tampa.’ But, of course, her friend Marcie would know these were untrue. Marcie could always tell what was untrue, and that was another problem.

Everyone was looking at Lavinia. With no choice she reached down and drew out the poem.

I love a still conservatory
that’s full of giant, breathless palms,
azaleas, clematis and vines,
whose quietness great trees becalms
filling the air with foliage,
a curved and dreamy statuary . . .

She read the second verse and looked nervously around the table. At first there was total silence. Then Penny Raintree said in a rapturous voice “Lovely, Lavinia. Absolutely lovely!”

Others nodded in agreement. Little, spectacled Angela Perez, who looked like the doormouse in Alice, and who rarely had much to say for herself, said: “It has such wonderful imagery. Where did you find such inspiration?”

Lavinia swallowed. She knew she was about to compound her lie, but there was no way out. “Oh, I . . . yes, well, I went to the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn, and it just came to me.”

On the way home Marcie was quiet. Was she angry about something? When she broke her silence she said, “I didn’t know you went to the Botanical Gardens.”
Lavinia averted her eyes. “Oh, yes. Didn’t I tell you?”
She hadn’t thought for years of the saying she’d learned at school:

“Tell a lie to your mother,
and no matter how you try, brother,
you’ll find you’ve got to tell another.”

And another, and another. They walked a little farther, and Marcie said, frowning, “So what are you going to do for an encore?”

That was something else Lavinia hadn’t thought about.



They say nobody’s perfect, and I guess that’s true. We all have our little handicaps and imperfections, whether we acquire them by nurture or nature. We can be left-handed or colorblind, or have irritating habits such as laughing too loud, or biting our fingernails. And I’m no exception.

No, my problem is a constant humiliation. I’m arithmetically challenged, and can't do even the simplest addition and subtraction in my head. No, seriously. Faced with what you’d probably consider the easiest sum, my mind seizes up. I've always been mystified by this shortcoming. After all, I had a pricey private education at upper-crust British seats of learning. I learned (and then forgot) one dead language and two living ones, mastered subjects from English, history and geography to physics, chemistry and biology, and most people would be fairly happy to swap IQs with me. Both my father and brother made good livings in banking, so why am I such a mutt at math?

One time when this disability used to rear its head was whenever I was paying the check at a restaurant, with my pen poised while I calculated the tip. In those days, if you’d watched carefully, you’d have noticed that, though barely perceptibly, my knuckles were moving up and down, while my brow furrowed with the concentration of the task in hand.

I went through this embarrassing process for years until, not long ago, I discovered a little printed plastic card called a ‘tip calculator,’ that tells me fifteen and twenty percent of any sum up to one hundred dollars. With this, holding the card surreptitiously under the table, I can now sneak a look while the waiter or waitress makes out the final check. In this way I impress guests with my seemingly instant mental arithmetic. Of course, in the privacy of my own home I whip out a calculator with the best of them, and do the most basic sums without the embarrassment I’d experience using it in a restaurant, a barber’s shop or a cab. Working out a tip in a taxi is still a trial, because it’s almost always too dark in the back to read my cheat sheet.

My wife, who’s infuriatingly competent at absolutely everything, says, “It’s so easy! To work out fifteen percent of something, all you do is move the decimal point one place to the left to get ten percent. Then you just add half that number to it to get your fifteen percent.” She calls that easy?

Of course, being inflicted in this way doesn’t begin and end with calculating tips. Every day there’s a need for mental arithmetic, such as working out lengths, heights and widths in do-it-yourself jobs. And then there’s the constant problem of working out the change I should get in a store. If normal people pay $13.37 for something and hand over $20, they immediately know how much change to expect. But I don’t.

Was this inability inherited, or caused by some life experience? My very earliest memories of math at school couldn’t have been happier. In the mid-1930s, at a convent school starting at the age five, I was taught very elementary arithmetic by kindly nuns. We wrote the numbers on wood-framed slates with slate pencils that made the most excruciating scrooping sounds. Later, we moved on to two-times tables, mouthing them in unison to our smiling, nodding tutors. “Two twos are four, three twos are six, four twos are eight . . .” I still have instant recall of those tables up to twelve twelves.

But there were no kindly nuns when, only a few years later, I was sent to my first boarding school far from home. Here, a scruffy, mop-headed, sour-faced Welshman called Dai Griffin took over where they left off. Mr. Griffin – we called him ‘Dirty Dai’– galloped through multiplication and long division at a cracking pace that was fine for the brightest and most numerate of his class, but not for the rest of us. He had a thick Welsh accent, and was given to outbursts of rage, when he was liable to throw sticks of blackboard chalk around the classroom.

With Mr. Griffin, arithmetic became a fearsome ordeal, something to dread. It became even harder when we began calculations to do with money. Britain’s currency was not yet decimalized; instead we had pounds, shillings and pence. Now listen carefully, there were twenty shillings in a pound, twelve pence in a shilling, and two halfpennies (ha’pennies) or four farthings in a penny. How would you go about adding twenty-eight pounds, seven shillings and fourpence-farthing to seventeen pounds, three shillings, and eightpence-ha’penny?

Around the time when Mr. Dai Griffin was about to launch into algebra and geometry, something fortuitous happened – he died. That may sound harsh but, even if he was nice to his wife and children and kind to small animals, to us he seemed a mean-spirited monster. A master called Bob Hawkins took over our math lessons, a warm-hearted man who clearly loved his subject, made up jokes about isosceles triangles, and treated us like equals. In the next school, ‘Fuzzy’ Wheatcroft, a man of similar character to Hawkins, took us through the whole gamut of math, including trigonometry and calculus, in such a way that I actually looked forward to his lessons. Then, of course, we were using slide rules and charts, since desk-top computers were at least thirty-five years away. I thought trigonometry a futile waste of time then. Why would I ever need to know all this stuff about tangents and cotangents? I had no idea that, eight or nine years later in the British Army, I’d need it to plot targets for my 81mm mortar platoon during a bout of terrorism in the Mid-East.

I’ll bet that would have astonished the very late Dirty Dai.