“A (huge) jug of wine, a (giant) loaf of bread, and thou…”

Some big dogs can learn new tricks, to wit: Costco has agreed to accept food stamps at most of its locations.

This is very good news. At first the giant warehouse store (headquartered in Issaquah, Washington) said no to the idea, assuming the $50 annual fee was too much of a deterrent to people getting government aid. (Store execs were probably also wary of dealing with the government paperwork involved, and it’s hard to blame them for that.)

It’s true that membership fees and big-discount sizes of stuff are tricky for thinner wallets. When broke, you often spend more to get less. You buy small sizes of things because the sticker price is lower. The fact that the $3 bottle of ketchup is half the size of the bottle that sells for $4 doesn’t matter. You have $3 today, not $4, and you need ketchup today, not the promise of cheaper condiments all month.

But this is not a hard-and-fast rule for poor people any more than it is for folks of means. Costco pilot programs showed a level of nuance in shopper trends that’s been overlooked. It seems that people on food stamps are indeed willing and organized enough (imagine!) to plan ahead, spend more upfront, and save money. People gladly get away from the $3 ketchup behavior if it is really worth their while.

The success of the Costco food-stamp pilots may also be helped by the fact that a $50 membership can be shared with another “household member” and Costco doesn’t check to see if that person with the extra card is really, truly your sister who lives in the attic. This benefit is already widely claimed by people not on food stamps, trust me.

It also helps that the visuals of giant-sized products are so enticing. There is something about the sight of 4 pounds of Rice Krispies and a half-gallon of shampoo that makes one feel somewhat more secure, as do the vats of red licorice and hunks of Tillamook cheddar cheese. If I have clean hair and snacks, all is not lost.

Given the huge amount of taxpayers’ money that has been handed over to banks and automakers to little positive effect, perhaps the feds should subsidize warehouse-shopping memberships and local-transit routes that serve Costco locations. (The stores are usually a long walk from the nearest bus stop, and you still see people climbing aboard with a shrink-wrapped raft-size cargo of toilet paper.)

Costco’s long check-out lines are full of well-dressed people pushing carts of fine wines, gourmet cheeses and premium meats. It’s a good thing to open the doors to people who actually need cheaper food.


Hail to the chief

A delayed flight led me to a long conversation at the airport with a charming 70-ish woman, on her way home from her mother’s 90th birthday party. The event had been a smash: all six children and a couple dozen grand- and great-grandkids in attendance, along with 75 guests.

With my mother-in-law coming up on a milestone birthday this spring, I recognized this valuable opportunity to get party tips from an obvious expert. After we’d covered the menu, music, centerpieces and invitations, she told me about the final touch.

Mother, it seems, had been quite firm about not wanting any presents. She plans to live to 100, she assured her children, but she has all the slippers, perfumed soap, nighties and framed photographs she needs. But would it be possible, she wondered, for the guests to get gifts to mark the occasion?

So that was how each of the attendees came to find a commemorative plate at his or her place. The back of each plate had the name and birthday of the guest of honor. The front? A handsome portrait of President Barack Obama.

“My mother, a black woman with a grade-school education raised a family of college graduates,” the woman told me. “She has a picture of President Obama in every room of her house. She told the guests that the day he was elected was the best moment of her 90 years.”

I wish I’d been at that party.

Terminal liturgy

I arrived at the airport very early for a red-eye flight the other night, settled into a pizza place for dinner, and opened my book. I adopted that selective deafness one needs to screen out all the background noise in a busy place.

But one of the taped announcements about security penetrated my traveler’s cone of silence.
“Be always vigilant about your surroundings…” said the mechanized voice.

It reminded me of a line I always loved in the Compline service, the seventh and last service of the canonical day as written for the Episcopal/Anglican Church. I used to attend Compline on Sunday nights at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. (“Compline” is a word born of others meaning “final” or “to complete.”) This was — and probably still is — one of the best-attended services at a Northwest church.

People who never darkened the door of any house of worship came to hear the beautiful, eerie chant in the remarkable acoustics of that huge stone building up on Capitol Hill. It was especially dramatic to hear the service in the fall, when darkness would start to fall during the chant.

I remembered the line as starting with “Beloved: be sober, be vigilant….” but when I looked it up just now, I found I’d done some editing. It actually reads “Brethren, be sober, be vigilant…” and continues: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.”

As many times as I heard it, I still used to wait for the “be sober, be vigilant” phrase with an anticipatory shiver. Thinking about it in the busy airport, I felt the same sense of warning mixed with excitement. The notion that being on one’s guard, being vigilant, can keep evil at bay is an idea I cling to. Not a bad thought before taking to the sky to fly all night, trusting that morning and a safe landing are at the other end.

More to say about Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most revisited and analyzed books of our time. It turns out that there is much left to learn and say about it.

Author Francine Prose was working on a novel with a teenage character, and turned to the famous diary as background for the writing habits of a 13-year-old girl. What she found was a much more nuanced memoir that was the work of a surprisingly mature writer. The result is her book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, the Afterlife (Harper), which examines Frank’s work with a literary eye. This is about Anne Frank, author, not Anne Frank, icon.

In the years since Frank’s diary first appeared, new versions have appeared, welcomed by critics as more authentic than the version first published by Otto Frank, the young author’s father. In fact, as Prose explains, Anne Frank herself undertook a deliberate and careful editing of the diary while still in hiding. Otto Frank had actually reinstated portions his daughter had cut, including personal sections in which the young woman meditated on her parents’ marriage and her own sexuality.

A very good interview with the author can be heard on the site of Tablet, billed accurately as “a new read on Jewish life,” and created by Nextbook, a leading publisher of Jewish books.

The publication of Prose’s book is bringing forth other new information about Frank–new to me, at least. A review on SFGate by Sara Houghteling answered my question about how Frank came to keep such a diary in the first place:

“On March 29, 1944, on the BBC program “Radio Oranje,” Gerrit Bolkestein, a Dutch minister in the exiled government of Prime Minister Gerbrandy, called for all Dutch citizens living under the Nazi occupation to save everyday documents – in particular, letters and diaries – for eventual collection in a national wartime archive…Among those listening to the broadcast, on a contraband radio, was 14-year-old Anne Frank.

In 1942, when Anne’s sister Margot received her summons for deportation to Westerbork, the family feigned flight to Switzerland and sequestered themselves, along with [four others] in the maze of rooms above Otto Frank’s former Opekta fruit canning company. Anne brought along the checkered journal given to her a month earlier by her father, in which she would famously recount her life in hiding… …The BBC broadcast awoke Anne to the possibility that her diary could be read by an audience outside of herself …”

The passages I’ve read that are quoted from Prose’s book are irresistible; the minute Powell’s World of Books has a used copy, I’ll embark on it. Stay tuned.

Kennedy book is a keeper

I just finished True Compass, Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, which was hurried to print following his death last month. It’s an engrossing read with good capsule histories of some of the biggest events of our time. It has one of the better concise treatments of the Vietnam war and the LBJ years that I’ve read in recent years.

It isn’t an historian’s work, although Kennedy provides a lot of new detail about his own campaigns and big moments in the Senate: civil rights debates, health care during the Clinton years, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas hearings, to name a few.

It’s personal, but not tell-all. Most of the people Kennedy remembers with detail and skill are dead, but there is little or nothing in the 500-plus pages that would cause any spinning-in-their-graves. Think about that and ask yourself how often it happens. Answer: Not often. Most “celebrity” bios and autobios exist to set the record straight…from the author’s point of view, of course. The treatment of the Chappaquiddick disaster offers no new facts; it is convincing and sorrowful.

Kennedy wrote with the pride of a long-serving public servant, the gratitude of one looking back at a much-chronicled and very privileged life; and the deep regrets of a man who is taking his own measure with death just around the next corner.

A fitting tribute

I woke up thinking about some friends, who today must put their beloved dog to sleep. It is time, they all know it, but it is so hard to say goodbye to such a faithful companion.

I have a wonderful book called The Book of Eulogies: A Collection of Memorial Tributes, Poetry, Essays an Letters of Condolence, edited by essayist Phyllis Theroux. (You may remember her from Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour.) If it sounds like a downer, it isn’t. It has some funny, touching, wonderful and revealing bits of writing by and about people from all walks of life. There are a few eulogies for departed animals as well.

One of the pieces was published in 1931 by E.B. White, author of acres of columns for The New Yorker, as well as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Trumpet of the Swan and other books. (And for my money, one of the best writers to come out of America.) It was a eulogy for his beloved dog Daisy.

White begins this way:

“Daisy died December 22, 1931, when she was hit by a Yellow Cab on University Place. At the moment of her death she was smelling the front of a florist’s stoop. It was a wet day, and the cab skidded up over the curb–just the sort of excitement that would have amused her had she been at a safer distance. She is survived by her mother, Jeannie; a brother, Abner; her father, whom she never knew; and two sisters, whom she never liked. She was three years old.”

Anyone who has written an obituary or a eulogy has experienced the “what-will-they-say-about-me?” moment. None of us could hope for a better send-off than White’s last line about Daisy:

“She died sniffing life, and enjoying it.”

Publish: yes. Perish: no

There’s a book titled Gus the Great that I re-read every few years. Published in 1947, the novel was written by Thomas W. Duncan, who Time magazine called “a down-and-out ex-Harvard man.”

It’s the very engaging tale of a likable con man who runs a circus, and it made the author a dazzling $250,000 when it sold 750,000 copies and became a Book of the Month Club selection and a movie. The first thing the down-and-out Duncan bought was a new land-yacht of a Chrysler convertible, which is reason enough to admire him.

I’ve owned a few copies of Gus the Great over the years–they tend to wander off–and I buy them from Powell’s World of Books or search for a copy online. So far, I’ve been able to find a copy when I want one.

I thought of that book today when I read “A Library to Last Forever,” the op-ed piece in The New York Times by Google exec Sergey Brin. He’s not gloating, but Brin is clearly enjoying the fact that it looks like there will finally be an agreement between his company and the various groups of angry authors who challenged Google’s book digitizing project. (For a brief news story updating the lawsuit progress, click here.)

I’ve been inclined to buy into the image of Google-as-Goliath. The argument that the books would otherwise remain out of print (and hard for average readers to find) wasn’t quite persuading me that this monster-sized digitizing project was a good thing.

But now I’m converted. In the end, I think, readers will be the real winners. The way this has played out–helped by the noisy lawsuits by the Author’s Guild and the Association of American Publishers–means that authors and their heirs will get a piece of the action, and books now available only in academic or private collections will be within reach of regular folks. Even out-of-work, ex-Harvard men.

Scribe pride

Now and then I read something that makes me proud to have anything to do with writing and newspapers.

The work of United Kingdom reporter Lester Haines is a case in point. His stuff appears on the hugely enjoyable and hard-to-pigeonhole tech-ish site called The Register. (The site carries the motto: “Biting the hand that feeds IT.”)

A recent Haines lede:

“Two Swansea yobs who decided, after a night on the sauce, that they’d give a couple of transvestites some stick, came off the worse for the encounter since their targets were in fact cage fighters on a stag night.

The humiliation of Jason Fender, 22, and Dean Gardener, 19, was captured on CCTV as they “singled out the two men walking along a street in wigs, short skirts and high heels”, as the Daily Mail explains.

A shirtless Gardner is seen taking a pop at one of the men, who’s dressed in a fetching “pink wig, black skirt and boob tube” ensemble. A bad move, since the intended targets then summarily lay out both ne’er-do-wells.

The cage fighters are shown “teetering away in their high heels, stopping only to pick up a clutch bag they dropped during the melee.”

Haines (who I found thanks to Portland blogger Bojack) is also the go-to guy if you want to read about the North Face clothing company suing the young man who invented the “South Butt” brand — complete with a logo that the humorless NF folks think is too much like their own. See “The North Face Trips Over South Butt” here.

Scheherazade would plotz

I’ve just returned from the Online News Association’s annual conference in San Francisco, and my head is crammed full of new technology.

Any fantasy I’ve entertained about going off the grid has now been dashed. A pile of remarkable tools exist to track the preferences and whereabouts of we humans. A Google Map looks quaint by comparison.

The only hope we have for privacy is to live a life of such dullness that no one will look for us.

What interests me most about this rise in tech-tools that track movement and behavior is how resolutely we want to ignore them. A piece in yesterday’s New York Times pondered the rise of book piracy, a trend that is closely following the Napsterizing of music not so long ago.

A Swiss site called RapidShare is singled out in the NYT piece by author and business prof Randall Stross. RapidShare offers offshore accounts where users keep all types of files safe. As it turns out, it is also the equivalent of a big, big pirate ship that sails through bookstores. Nothing stops me from loading an e-book onto the site, then sending the URL to friends so they can download the book free of charge.

A few months ago my reaction to this news story would be undiluted indignation. Thieves! Sleazeballs! While I still hate the idea of any writer or other artist getting fleeced, the conference on online journalism and a provocative book I read recently have made me sharply aware that the rules have changed. The cash-per-comma publishing model is on the way out, and the sooner we face that fact, the better.

“Free: The Future of a Radical Price” by Chris Anderson is a thoroughly fascinating book on the crumbling of old business models. Anderson is overly glib in the way of most futurists, but he still does a great job of explaining how products like Google’s “free” web searching service make money. The days are over when available shelf space dictated the size of your inventory and a large number of paying customers absorbed the costs of the few who didn’t pay. The limitless real estate of the web has turned the rules of the marketplace upside down.

I’ll wager that as I type this someone is developing software that tracks what we’re reading–in real time–and can shut off the e-book right as things get exciting. With a name like PlotKiller 2.0, it will ensure that readers pay writers their due.

Does Romeo die? What happens to that big white whale? Does the Da Vinci Code ever make sense? You’ll need to hit that PayPal button to find out.

(The photo accompanying this post was taken by travel writer Davia Larson somewhere in Spain. Why doesn’t America have punctuation zones?)