the diary thing 
waspMINUTES AFTER UPLOADING MY last entry, with its description of the giant wasp's nest outside my window, the nest was gone. Our landlord, Denis, arrived with a ladder and his bee-keeping gear, and while I was sitting at my laptop, I saw the ladder rise past the window and bump against the eaves. 

I went downstairs to say hello. He told me to make sure all the windows were closed for the next few hours. I told him I thought it was rather sad, that I thought the nest was quite beautiful, and had just been writing about it. 

"I know," he said. "It is. I just don't want to be sued by anyone who gets stung."

He suited up in his white coveralls, gloves and net-veiled hat, and made his way carefully up the three storeys to my window. While I watched, still online, he pulled out a paint scraper with a long handle and reached out for the buzzing nest. Two or three quick swipes and the whole nest, held onto the wooden overhang with the most delicate of bonds, fell into the front garden. Denis scraped at the few papery remnants of the nest while an angry cloud buzzed around him. It stayed in the air outside the window after he'd carefully made his way back down, bumping against the windowpane, a frantic barrage of light but insistent tapping that lasted for an hour; if there weren't a window between me and the angry swarm, I'd have been stung near to death.

I went downstairs. The ladder was still up, and Denis' smoker and tools still sat on the lawn, but he was nowhere in sight. In a clear plastic garbage bag the remains of the nest sat, in two pieces, a few dozen wasps trapped inside with it, some crowding into the knotted plastic that held the contents safe.

I knelt down and took a close look at the nest. The handiwork of the colony was even more impressive up close. Layers of hexagonal cells, similar to those of a beehive but made of dusty gray paper, lay exposed. The outside wall was even more beautiful than it looked through my window; strata of gray wood fibre drawn like scales, scraped by the wasps from weathered board, were interspersed with curved lines in white or the bright colour of new wood. Separated from the comb and flattened into sheets, it would be a particularly lovely high-end paper, beautifully textured, tissue-thin but strong.

The trapped wasps, up close, were quite large, maybe an inch long, covered in dully gleaming black carapace. A few bold lines of white marked the lower curve of their abdomen, some ringing the sharp oval, some lines leaving a black gap down the spine. They buzzed against the clear plastic with a furious energy, two or three struggling against the folds of the bag, searching for an exit. They'd be dead in few hours. They were the lucky ones.

Back up by my desk, a small cloud of stragglers still flew tight circles around the now-vacant area where the nest had been. Most of the colony had dispersed, but the next day a few remnants would remain, darting in the air like they were searching for an entrance to the nest that now sat, broken and empty on the lawn below, waiting for Tuesday's trash pick-up. Two days later, the only evidence of the nest is a ragged bullseye of concentric circles on the thick white paint of the eaves, the colony that once lived there now homeless and dying.

K. MADE A GREAT SCORE this weekend, returning from lunch with her sister with an armful of old Holiday magazines, a long-defunct travel mag published during the boom years after the war. K. had heard of it before, at a symposium lecture on the Golden Age of Magazine Publishing. A glance at the table of contents and I knew why.

Paul Bowles on Madeira. V.S. Pritchett on Eastern Europe. Kenneth Tynan on Manhattan. Illustrations by Ronald Searle. Photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Arnold Newman and Elliot Erwitt. Nadine Gordimer on American writers. Han Suyin on Shanghai. A Madeline story by Bemelmans. Sean O'Foalain on Chicago and Italy. Budd Shulberg on Mexico. William Golding on Holland. Features on non-travel subjects like the U.S. Army and profiles of Jimmy Durante and Cantinflas. I imagine it was magazines like this that kept all these notable writers up on their bar bills, osteopaths and private school tuition for the kids.

In the December 1960 issue, devoted to Chicago, James Thurber writes a piece for the intro section of the book on malapropisms. ("We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the word while the very Oedipus of reason crumbles beneath us.") Kenneth Tynan's New York piece features the first mention I've ever read of a speech tic that's now annoyingly common: "Let's, like, meet for a drink at the Trianon." This four years before I was born -- and I thought it was something my generation would have to answer solely for.

The ads are fascinating, as ads -- sadly -- always are. Ads for cruise lines -- the Matson, Incres, United States, North German Lloyd, United States President, Greek, Moore-McCormack, Alcoa, Trans-Atlantic Steamship, Holland-America, Peninsular & Oriental, British India, Union-Castle and American Export lines, most of whom disappeared long ago, well before the renaissance in cruise travel.

Ads for dopp kits and barometers and travel outfits and hi-fis and cameras and perfume. Ads for airlines and hotels and resorts and private schools. Ads for cars -- huge American cars, broad as soccer pitches, low and wide and striped with chrome. The ads are lavish, lurid, even, and full of pinched bombast ("...The 1961 Cadillac represents a new standard by which the world's motor cars will be judged.") An understated, ironic ad for the VW Beetle, a classic campaign for connoisseurs of Madison Avenue, is a faint hint of the world yet to come.

Ads for booze: Gilbey's scotch, Bourbon Supreme, Duff Gordon sherry, Almadén rosé, Glenmore scotch and Old Kentucky Tavern bourbon, Booth's House of Lords gin, Dubonnet and Cinzano vermouths, Cherry Heering liqueur, Vat 69 scotch, Taylor's New York State Champagne, Martell cognac, Martin's 12-year-old scotch, Aalborg aquavit, Galliano liqueur, Teacher's scotch, Jim Beam bourbon (in three attractive gift packages for the holidays), Cointreau liqueur, Fairfax County and Virginia Gentleman bourbon -- the latter with a charming picture on the label of two colonial toffs being served highballs by a darky slave; hard to believe now. 

J & B scotch. Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry. Meier's Pale Dry Cocktail Ohio State sherry. Polignac cognac. B & B liqueur. Great Western New York State champagne. Paul Masson wines. Hiram Walker cordials. Bell's scotch. Grant's. Drambuie. Budweiser. Remy Martin. Marie Brizzard creme de menthe. Hennesy cognac. Seagram's gin. Cutty Sark blended whiskey and Noilly Prat vermouth. Bisquit cognac. 

Smuggler -- "The Fashionable Scotch". Garnier frappemint. Cook's Imperial American champagne. Coronet brandy. Old Crow. Seagram's VO. Chianti Ruffino. Beefeater. Wild Turkey. Boissiere vermouth. Bushmills. Old Fitzgerald bourbon. Gordon's gin. Piat beaujolais. DeKuyper creme de menthe. (You only every own one bottle of creme de menthe in your life -- the one you buy to make "retro" cocktails at a party, and can't bear to throw out twenty years later. It never evaporates. NASA should look into this.) 

Miller High Life. Tuborg. Chartreuse liqueur. Jameson's. La Ina sherry. (I have a half-drunk bottle in the fridge right now -- I'd be more than half-drunk if I tried to finish it off tonight.) Folonari Italian wines. Dry Sack sherry. White Horse scotch. Ron Carioca rum. I.W. Harper bourbon. 

The Golden Age of Guiltless Social Drinking.

Live lobsters, ham, steaks, pecans, maple syrup and potatoes by air mail. Vests, rechargeable batteries, slippers, cigars -- the Good Life. The Barbizon-Plaza in Manhattan -- a suite for $22 a night. We spent the evening drooling over every page.

"Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy."
- Samuel Johnson
Boswell's Life of Johnson

A massacre. A time machine. The word of the Lord revealed. Very eventful week, isn't it?

Damn, I'm proud of this book review I wrote.

FOR TWO WEEKS, the landlord has had someone on scaffolding at the side of the house, re-pointing the crumbling red bricks of this 110-year old house. It's not the fact that he's on the job before 8am that bothers us, or the constant chiselling. It's his radio -- a big, paint-and-plaster splattered boombox that me props up on the scaffolding, playing Christian radio all day.

K. woke the other morning to a passionate sermon about the looming menace of homosexuality. Wherever men gathered -- in schools and churches, in bars and parks and even the halls of government -- there is, apparently, a horrible threat of same-sex seduction, at least in the eyes of the preacher. I say that the preacher has some issues of his own.

The playlist is amazing. Old choral favorites, honky gospel circa 1955 -- real Lawrence Welk stuff -- seems to be the backbone of it all, but every now and then I hear something unaccountable, like Peter, Paul and Mary doing "Blowin' in the Wind" followed by some New Country crooner's melisma-warped rendition of "You Light Up My Life". 

Out on the deck, watering the plants, I catch the sermons. When the threat of gay abandon isn't the theme, it's love -- God's love, the love of, and for, God, the love that redeems us, the love that will surround us all the days of our lives, provided we love God. I get the impression that the evangelical world is full of people whose parents had intimacy issues, or who expect a whole lot more love from the world than they may have gotten, whether they deserve it or not. The church-going fundamentalist, purple-haired and nose-pierced "cuddle slut" Brittany on "Big Brother" suddenly makes more sense to me now. 

It also explains why Protestants don't give Catholics such a hard time these days. Their only competition for a flock comes from the self-help movement, the secular peddlers of empowerment and self-actualization, the only other people who use the same rhetoric of life perfected, here and now, when we get the love -- the unconditional, all-encompassing love -- that we deserve. 

The Catholic God -- and the Pope of Rome -- is a distant father, withholding his love, and uncomfortable, anyway, with all the touchy-feely language. The God of the man on the scaffolding's radio is no less demanding -- the love of the men of Sodom will get you banished from his island -- but he's more willing to talk about your issues, and tell you what you want to hear, like Oprah. 

It's at times like this that I have to realize that I'm living in a very small, circumspect world.

writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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