Monday, December 31, 2007

On the Louche


2007 was an ass-grabber. I flinched. I shrieked. I writhed away -and it happened anyway. (Hopefully 2008 will mount a suaver campaign of seduction, but I sort of doubt it.) During 2007's assault, I let myself go. Not in a daytime-TV, tub of cookies-n-cream on the couch kind of way, but in the sense of losing my grip, of having who I thought I was and what I thought I wanted slip through my fingers and float away. 2007 was the year I realized I didn't have myself firmly in hand.

Humbling. Degrading. No doubt salutary. To 2007 and certain of its denizens I say: I hope I fucked you as thoroughly as you fucked me. And yes, it was kinda fun.

RESOLVED, December 31st, 2007:

1) Eat more cheese
2) Sit
3) Stay

Friday, December 28, 2007

On Boys


My fifth-grade crush is on Facebook. Yesterday one of my friends became one of his friends, in that spider-silk social-networking way, and suddenly there it was in my news feed: the same string of seven letters I'd appended, experimentally, to my first name when I was ten and practicing signing my future married moniker seemed like the thing to do. On rediscovering my fifth-grade crush, I did what any reasonable, mature twenty-seven-year-old woman would do, which was to click rapidly through to his profile and spy.

There wasn't much to see. He'd attended Northwestern, which I'd learned years back through the parental grapevine. He had joined one group entitled "bring back the marshmallow." The single photograph showed him in a bar, all arms and shadow; I couldn't make out his face. A couple of months ago, coincidentally, his mother and I had crossed paths. She told me he was finishing law school. In return I told her where I am: those wooden stakes of education, marital status, and career people use to survey your life. The next time I saw her she told me her son had said "hi." I said "hi" back.

This is what passion boils down to, over time: a couple of second-hand greetings and an impulse, however misguided, to bring back the marshmallow. As a fifth-grader, my crush was leggy and awkward, with goofy glasses and a smile full of teeth. I liked him because he was smart. Not math-smart like Wilbur Chen, who wore Mickey Mouse undershirts and roasted ants with a magnifying glass. Not science-smart like Robert Holman, who liked to mix things together in his parents' basement, or music-smart like Kevin Haberman, who possessed not only swishy blond hair and a fine, strong treble voice, but the unstinting devotion of all the other fifth-grade girls. No, my crush was the kind of smart I understood: book-smart, test-smart, greedy for words.

Plus he told me he liked my skirt. In exchange I avoided him scrupulously, a strategy which succeeded in netting me, over the course of the next eight years or so, exactly zero dates with boys I actually liked.

And we're definitely talking boys. No one was mature, or wise, or anything but raw and alien and rank with the compound scent of closed-up rooms and sweat and dirtied sheets. Boys sat at the back of the bus. They swaggered through recess in packs. They pushed and shoved and rolled over each other like kittens and hadn't the slightest idea what to say to a girl, should one deign to speak to them.

They come to me in flashes, the boys I knew growing up. Not so much my fifth-grade crush or any of the other boys I snuck past in the hallways, but the everyday run-of-the-mill boys who tumbled through my days. What happened to that kid Mustapha, who was suspended for three days for bringing fake pot to school in a plastic baggie? I think about what he must have used -bay leaves? Some other kind of spice?- and how he must have packed it carefully, pressed the ziplock seal until the yellow and the blue transformed magically into green.

Or what about Sam Samini, who liked to put salt on the backs of slugs, or Joey Kurtzman, who moved from, and back to, West Virginia in the course of two short years, and who felt sorry for the white mice we had to feed to the classroom snake? Where is Robert Holman now? By the time we got to high school, Robert was rumored to be heavily into S&M. On the way out of the AP Calculus exam our Junior year, he asked me to eat lunch with him, which flummoxed me so thoroughly that I put the exam in my backpack, walked out the door with it, and got into the worst trouble of my academic career.

I suppose I could find out. I could look them all up on Facebook, or Google them (under their real names), or tap into the alarmingly extensive parental information network. But I don't want to. I know I won't find them, these boys, or that when I do, they'll be unrecognizable: bland-faced, deep-voiced, steadily smoothing themselves into men.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On the Other Hand


Oh, decisions. The bane of my sorry existence. I wriggle, I wail, I writhe -to no avail. Decisions keep popping up like whack-a-moles. And I'm really clumsy with the mallet.

At least my problem is, well, biblical. By which I mean that decisions are a long-lived, tried-and-true, since-time-immemorial type of pest. One of those good, old-fashioned plagues, like locusts. To listen to the serpent, or not? To build the ark, or not? To covet your neighbor's wife, she of the swishy hips and talent for calming sheep, or not? Ka-POW: a decision, and no amount of lamb's blood on your door is going to save you.

Because decisions don't pass anybody over. Michael Pollan, in his dreamy hunk of a book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, reminds us that we evolved one decision at a time:

To one degree or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails every omnivore, and always has. When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you. This is the omnivore's dilemma.

So we're all out there trying to decide whether to eat anteater or squash. But why do some people plunge straight for the anteater, fork raised, while others stand back wringing their hands? I'm appalled to read, day in and day out, of yet another suicide bombing. Somewhere in me, though, lurks a shameful green glob of wonder: how can anyone make a decision with enough force to blow themselves up?

I am the decider! Ha. More like the agonizer, the freezer-upper, the drifter-alonger. Today I backed slowly, like a truck with an uncommonly wide load, into a decision on what to do with the next five months of my life. Backing in is among my preferred methods of making decisions, though there's also sidling-towards, tricking-someone-else-into-making-it-for-you, doing-nothing-until-the-universe-makes-it, and flipping-a-coin. All designed to prevent me from taking full responsibility for the shape of my life while I wait until I just know.

For this is the mirage in the desert of decision, the siren song: you will just know. I will just know when I meet the love of my life. Never mind that my first impressions of the various people I've fallen for, over the years, can be summed up as: "cute but old," "cute but gay," "a little much," and "smelly." I will just know when I find the right career. Never mind that the only career-based epiphany I've had to date is that I ought not, under any circumstances, to eat paperclips. I will just know where to go to dinner, when to have children, how to come home.

I'm still waiting like a fool for the fuse to run out, for the bomb to go off, for that soft explosion of certainty deep in my belly. Meanwhile, heads or tails?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On Christmas



I go for a walk. It's what I do instead of napping, instead of laying waste to the imaginary cheese log, instead of bickering over the remote control or the Fine Chocolate Assortment or the disposal of the wrapping paper. It is 4:00 PM and bitter cold. I don mittens, slip out the front door, and try to get lost even though I know this is no place for it, here in my native town in the empty streets.

Only they aren't empty, the streets. Familiar, yes. Frost-covered, quiet, possessed of that holiday slickness that reminds you of where (and who, and what, and how, and with whom) you should be that you're not. But empty? Nope. It's like lifting up a rock to discover the grubs teeming beneath. Here we all are: numb, dumb refugees from whatever numbing, dumbing celebration we've escaped. None of us makes eye contact. A woman with a dark braid digs her hands into her pockets. A teenager in a green army jacket marches toward the park. A middle-aged man in a Santa hat pauses at the corner of First and High for a full sixty seconds before turning on his heel and heading back the way he came. The wind picks up; the sun drops an inch; we waddle and stump and plod.

It's one of those moments. You knock on a wall of your world and discover it gives under your hands, that there's a secret passage, a false door. Here's another: the day before Christmas I have lunch with a friend on the second anniversary of her divorce. I tell her how brave she is, how much courage it must have taken to cut her losses, let her investment (all those years, days, hours!) go. She's quiet for a couple of beats. Then she tells me about the people who sought her out when she first got divorced, how they leaned in and lowered their voices and told her -men and women, strangers and friends- that they wished it were them. Her parents, her therapist, her cashier: they wished they had the guts.

It's like clicking on a hidden link. It's like splitting a cow's heart down the middle. It's like discovering that your world is made of paper, that all you need to do is pull on your mittens and push.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

On Cheese


Introduction:

Cheese is most excellent (Zeeminder, Yaeger, & Xi, 2006; Abels & Boudreau, 1999). Yet, a dearth of rigorous, carefully-implemented studies of Internet users' cheese-friendliness posed a challenge. The goal of the present study was to elucidate the connection between cyberspace and dairy, with particular attention to the following questions: Do Internet users like cheese? To what degree? How passionately? In accordance with the model of disembodied cheese response outlined by Simchack (2003), the answers to these questions were hypothesized to be: yes, nth, bodice-rippingly.

Methods:

A questionnaire consisting of a single (all-encompassing) cheese-related question (see fig. 1) was administered to a representative sample of the Internet-using population (n=8). Participants were randomly selected via a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game played by the primary investigator.

Figure 1

Do you like cheese?

Yes
Definitely
No question
Ooo baby!


Reliability was assessed via tacking the question to a dartboard and hurling spitballs at it. Construct and ecological validities were gauged via tying the question to a medium-sized rock and hurling it off the top of the a Ford F150. Reliability and validity were established to be .99 and .96 respectively (Cronbach's Omega).

Results:

Percentage of respondents indicating yes: 12.5%
Percentage of respondents indicating definitely: 0%
Percentage of respondents indicating no question: 37.5%
Percentage of respondents indicating ooo baby!: 50%
Pieces of hate mail received: 1
Imaginary llamas ridden: 6

Results, analyzed via modified chi-square, were portentously significant (p<273,936)

Conclusions:

The results of this study clearly indicate that 100% of Internet users have a favorable attitude toward cheese. Furthermore, 50% of you are Sybarites, 37.5% of you are Contrarians, and 12.5% are me. Further research is needed to determine why no one will admit to "definitely" liking cheese, as well as to parse the differential effects of variables such as socio-economic status, lactose intolerance, and orneriness on individuals' responses to cheese.

References:

Abels, C. & Boudreau, E. (1999). Pass the Havarti: self-monitoring and the cheese plate. Cow Now, 5(5), pp. 3-27.

Simchack, P. (2003). Click me, I'm cheddar: representations of cheese in cyberspace. Journal of Fromagerie, 3(27), pp. 34-37.

Zeeminder, X., Yaeger, Z., & Xi, Y. (2006). I see cheese: the effects of visual acuity on cheese-acquisition strategy selection. Cheese, 101(8), pp. 92-107.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

On Falling Home


What everyone talks about is falling in love. The moment I saw him, they whisper. We were standing by the water cooler. It was when he took my daughter's hand in his. All evening we danced and then, at midnight, I knew.

Stories about falling in love tend to come at you suddenly and slaveringly, like attack dogs. They worry your ankles and bare their teeth; they have short, sleek coats of words under which their skeletons, the generic narratives of meeting and mating, are almost painfully visible. I haven't been much, lately, for stories of falling in love, although I appreciate the touches of individuality, the way people gussy up their tales like 1st-graders decorating the coffee-can pencil holders they made for Mom.

There are other ways, other places, and other reasons to fall. Falling is what humans do. We drop from one kind of existence to another, plopping downward like Adam and Eve from the Garden, Ceasar from power, skydivers straight into their fears. We fall hard and fast; we skin our knees; we arrive.

Though maybe "arrive" is the wrong word. "Arrive" implies conscientious, or at least conscious, travel. You "arrive" after a deliberate, linear displacement of yourself from point A to point B. Joan Didion wrote a breath-snatching essay I read recently entitled On Going Home, but I wonder if she got it quite right. It's too simple, the idea that you can "go" home, that it's nothing more than a destination. Home has a violence to it, a wrenching suddenness that ought to be reflected in your verb.

So I've fallen home. The sky clued me in. I'm promiscuous with sky; I like to look up. I've toyed, in my time, with grey, low, wide, high, blue, green, lovely. But the sky at home is the only sky that's always and exactly the right color. This particular scattering of light, this particular searing arrangement of clouds: my slot in the universe, the right place to drop me.

Home is not as sexy as love. Its stories are smaller: slow accretions of time and memory. My father started to fall home the day he drove into town and saw the hills and told himself it would be OK. It took my mother 20 years: she kept thinking of California, the way the breeze would blow in off the Pacific in the late afternoon. Some people never fall home because they have none, because they've traded home in for something shinier and possessed of more horsepower: career trajectory, freedom, no-strings-attached.

I, on the other hand, am strung up. It happened so softly I didn't hear, so slowly I didn't budge. Somewhere between seven and eight or ten and twelve; somewhere between the kidneys and the lungs and my poor, besotted heart. I've never felt this way before, the song proclaims. Only I have, of course, and it's where I live.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Door Number One


I sat in on a speech therapy session the other day. The therapist was working on multi-syllabic words and prepositions with a 10-year-old girl with Down's syndrome. The therapist played flashlight games and discovery games, dice games and glue-the-good-witch-to-the-construction-paper games. She also dispensed the following life lessons:

1) "Don't spit. You're a girl. Girls don't spit."

2) "Life is about making good choices."

The therapist's goal was short-term: get the ten-year-old to sit down, stop spitting, and start talking about who's behind (or under, or on top of) whom. But her rhetoric was long-term. Present tense, declarative, continuous: girls don't spit. Life is about making good choices. Her words struck me, at first, as slightly odd, eliciting the same gently-tingling wrongness as banging your funny bone on the coffee table. But the longer I sat there listening to locater phrases, the stranger her words seemed. Never mind speech therapy: the therapist had just handed her client the keys to womanly existence.

I've been looking for the keys to womanly existence for a while now, so imagine how thrilled I was to have them handed to me, looped neatly on a keyring, in the course of a single one-hour therapy session! I am not to spit, because girls don't. Do boys? The implication would seem to be yes, although it's not spelled out. OK, so boys spit and girls don't. Do girls have other options, or must we differentially, when confronted with the need to let fly, hold it in? Does femaleness correspond to restraint?

And making good choices. I'd been wondering about that. I mean, I've wasted so many hours trying to decide if I should be making bad choices! Should I head down to the Indy East Motel ($29.50; nightly police runs) after polishing off my Monster Thickburger? Ought I to depants civil servants? Must I not devote my evenings -and mornings, and afternoons- to interactive World of Warcraft?

These are the questions that haunt me in the smallest hours of the morning when the moon is low and the wind is high and the trains are howling. This is why I can't sleep; this is what keeps me up and cold and scared; this is what quakes in the pit of my stomach.

The therapist was, I should tell you, an excellent therapist. She was kind, calm, and quick on her feet: almost certainly better than I'll ever be. But still, tomorrow, I'm going to spit. Because girls don't. And life is about making good choices.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wonder Boys


The pleasures of reading are various. There's the lying down. There's the gratuitous snacking. There's the cracking open of yourself, like a window, to let in strange, new air. You relinquish control when you're reading; you live colorfully and precisely; you let someone else breathe for you. And all that's well and good. But it pales in comparison to the satisfaction -discrete yet boundless- of reading exactly the right words.

What do I mean by this? Certain authors have a way of selecting words so perfect, so intuitively right, they plug a hole in your mind you didn't even know existed. The right words complete you, round you out, stop the water from pouring through the dike.

This is one reason I'm a fan of Michael Chabon. Never mind the staggering plot; never mind the limping, one-eyed backstory. Michael Chabon says:

p. 202: "Still Grossman lived on, in his heated cage, escaping regularly, by means of various herpetological strategems, to prey on Irene's ragged tribe of chickens."

p. 191: "One of the things I'd always admired about Deborah was the unself-conscious scabrousness of her dealings with men in general and myself in particular."

P. 173: "James Leer had the kind of pallid and formless good looks that to a woman of Irene's age might bespeak illness, onanism, defective upbringing, or mental infirmity."

p. 138:
"Irv saw no point in the discussion of human feelings. He was sad at funerals, proud of Israel, disappointed in his children, happy on the Fourth of July. He had no idea how crazy I was about him."

p. 129: "For me the act of marriage has proven, like most of the other disastrous acts of my life, little more than a hedge against any future lack of good material."

p. 93: "That had always been Crabtree's chosen genre -thinking his way into attractive disaster and then attempting to talk himself out."

The dirty truth of the matter is that reading exactly the right words is like being touched in exactly the right way. I'm afraid to extrapolate what this means for writing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Quick and the Undead


I am a librarian magnet! I consider this one of my principal assets as a human being, although it certainly wasn't what I set out to become. I had the usual pre-teen visions of boy magnet-hood, and thereafter periods of yearning towards cheese magnet-hood, millions-of-dollars magnet-hood, and even, during a particularly dark time, tormented-poet magnet-hood. But I'm finally of an age now to know that things are better off as they are. Boy magnet-hood and librarian magnet-hood may, in fact, be mutually exclusive, and cheese magnet-hood has its own drawbacks. So I've more than made my peace with the fact that an egregious proportion of the people I love, the people with whom I'd be thrilled to be locked in a closet, are (or will be, or secretly want to be) librarians.

Of course, I secretly want to be a librarian, too. Librarians are enthusiastic yet unflappable, competent yet kind, meticulous and generous and possessed of bar-code scanners. Not to mention the access they have -delectably untrammeled- to The Good Stuff.

OK, so it's a little seamy. Librarians admit this. Librarians, for my birthday, slip me tracts entitled Book Lust and Ruined by Reading and even Book Lust 2: Derrida Does Dallas. Well, maybe not that last one, but librarians would approve of the exaggeration. Librarians are objectively in favor of subjectivity, subjectively in favor of objectivity, and deliciously resigned to their status as drooling, gibbering acolytes of the book.

Given librarians, who wouldn't read? A mind-boggling number of folks, that's who, at least according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts (pdf). The NEA's data on literary reading suggest that only 57% of American adults read a book for pleasure in the last year. That's ONE BOOK. Not even a paltry two, or four, or seven. Not even (assuming a sedate pace of one book a month) 12! I understand that people have jobs and lives and families, but that's no excuse: more adults ages 25-44 (the employed, family-encumbered adults) manage to read than do their counterparts ages 18-24.

Even more alarming, the figure is only 67% (and declining) for college graduates. And we're still talking only one book here. That's one novel, one collection of poetry, one play. Couldn't you at least get through Waiting for Godot on your lunch hour?

The report goes on to detail national declines in reading and writing skills. Coincidence? The NEA thinks not. This is troubling, but I'm even more troubled by the declines the NEA doesn't track. Because I have a sneaking, snotty, librarian-magnet suspicion that as we read less we become less selfless, less empathetic, less imaginative, and just plain less interesting. There's an old '60s injunction not to trust anyone over 30, but I have trouble trusting anyone who doesn't need their toes to count up how many books they've read in the past year. Readers, I'm firmly convinced, are premium-quality people.

As such, it's our duty to promote books, to advocate for reading, to recruit as many chumps as possible into our zombie army. It's war out there. And I, for one, am reporting to the library.

Friday, December 14, 2007

89445


My friend lives in Winnemucca, NV. There's beauty in the name alone, but there's even more in the wide, dark pocket it opens in the mind. Winnemucca! What I know about the town -gleaned from scraps of conversation with my friend, who likes to give her words room to breathe- totals this: desert, rocks, government land. In other words, I know just enough to leap off the plane into the blue with Winnemucca strapped to my back. In Winnemucca, there are flat, dusty streets, white DNR trucks, drunken geologists. The drunken geologists hole up every weekend in the town's single bar, a white shotgun affair named, with no irony, the Alamo, where they drink Long Island ice teas and swap pictures of the wives the've stashed in Provo, Reno, or Carson City. It's four hours to the airport. No one recycles. Summers make you sneeze. Every December, the piano teacher (blind now ten years: cataracts) recruits her strongest, if not her best, students to haul her Baldwin upright onto a parade float. It'll be five or five thirty, under an iron sky; her hands will ache for days.

Last night my friend calls me to tell me she's leaving Winnemucca. I tell her about the story I've finished, how the piano turned out fine. In exchange she tells me about yesterday's Christmas parade and, although maybe the coincidence should surprise me, it doesn't. What can you do with a town like Winnemucca but add a parade?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

That Thing You Do


To find anyone who'll talk about it, you have to turn to novelists. Martha Stewart never mentions it, Oprah's mum, and you'll never hear a peep from Dr. Phil. You can't find it in some sidebar in Glamour or Cosmopolitan, and even your friends aren't supposed to admit to it. Life in America is about moving up, on, and forward, and God help you if your preposition is facing the wrong way.

I'm talking, of course, about down and out, back and away. I'm talking about the part of you that rolls down the window in the middle of the snowstorm, the part of you that doesn't floss and goes out anyway and leaves the door one careful fingersbreadth ajar. I'm talking about self-destruction.

So is Michael Chabon:

Over the course of his life as a writer, he...had become his own doppelganger, a malignant shadow who lived in the mirrors and under the floorboards and behind the drapes of his own existence, haunting all of Q.'s personal relationships and all of his commerce with the world; a being unmoved by tragedy, unconcerned with the feelings of others, disinclined to any human business but surveillance and recollection. Only every once and a while...did his secret sharer act -overpowering his unwilling captor, so to speak, assuming his double's place long enough to say or do something unwise or reprehensible, and thus to ensure that human misfortune, the constant object of the Other Q.'s surveillance and the theme of all his recollections, continued unabated in Q.'s life. Otherwise, of course, there would be nothing to write about.

None of us wants to lay waste to ourselves, but still there's that urge -more of a throb, really- to set one toe to the ramshackle structures of who we are and...push. Many of us fail to recognize the urge for what it is, calling it sloth or mischief, lust or drunkenness or rage. Many of us go weeks, or even months, without feeling that particular pressure behind the eyes, the itch at the back of the neck.

But then it's back, pink and virulent and raw. In high school, in college, -even in graduate school- I would deliberately delay studying for exams until the last possible moment, until it was unavoidable that I would be underprepared. Then, after an excellent night's sleep, I'd shuffle into the exam room, head bowed, eyes lowered, thrilled to the quick.

There are the job interviews I've faked, the concerts I've given on two rehearsals or less, the pleasure I've taken -compact, visceral- in saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. I like to look cursorily at maps. I like to lose directions. I like, when I know the way, to wander off onto a side street and think: I bet I can get there from here.

Is any of this good for me? Probably not. But it's kinda fun. And I'll let you come with me if you want.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Aphaeresis 2

Writing in a vacuum...sucks. In an attempt to avoid vacuumousness (vacuity?) I'm sporadically posting in-process poetry and fiction on a shadow, password-protected blog (see sidebar). If you're willing to tender the occasional constructive criticism (e.g., I don't understand this; strengthen here; what the fuck was that), send me your email and I'll consent you. If not, ignore it. And if you want anything comparable in return, I love to edit.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Overthunk


So Alex Ross, music critic and blogger, recently posted an obit on Stockhausen passed on to him by a young composer whom I'm fairly certain is the first college boyfriend of my best friend from high school There's something very hyper-textual about this. It makes me feel a bit like my life is nothing more than a concatenation of links, something to be navigated through. It also makes me wonder about the Internet, and what's it's doing to, among other things, our sense of self.

Doesn't everything seems to be loosening? In literature we're slinking away from concrete, forward-driving narratives toward conglomerations of elements; away from straightforward representational relationships toward relations of resonance and proximity. Meanwhile Cognitive Psychology is presiding over the waning of the theory of Information Processing (the mind as series of connected operations, kind of like a digestive system, through which information passes) and the waxing of Connectionism (the mind as a series of dynamically weighted connections). Even popular movies are becoming nexuses of external reference: I don't think it's an accident that the latest Disney film is, essentially, a pastiche of that company's previous work.

My semi-senior year in college, I convinced a hapless music theory professor to let me do a private reading on cross-modal translation. Cross-modal translation was this crackpot idea I had about translating works of art into different modalities: paintings into music, for example, or music into writing. I had in mind works like Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, and I was after more than "inspiration." If you wanted to translate art cross-modally, how would you do it? What kind of correspondences could you achieve, and were there underlying cognitive structures you could hold constant across modes?

Unfortunately for cross-modal translation, I was a) busy b) lazy and c) insane, so I didn't get very far. I did, though, manage to read Lakoff and Johnson's classic book on symbolism, Metaphors we Live by. Lakoff, a linguist, and Johnson, a philosopher, argue that metaphor arises experientially, shaped as we move through the physical world and shaping, in turn, our interpretation of non-physical events (you should really read them, not me).

I think Lakoff and Johnson could benefit from a bracing dip in the pool of empiricism, but the non-revolutionary underpinning here is the assertion that experience shapes cognition, and I'll buy that any day. Given, then, that so much of my (of our) experience is now Internet-based, I have to wonder what it's doing to my (our) mind(s). Someone's probably out there doing research, and I can't wait to see it.

In the meantime, though, clicking through:

The composer ex-boyfriend of my best friend from high school was a conflicted Catholic who liked to interrupt episodes of making out to perch on the edge of the bed and plumb his guilt. He had a pianist friend with very blue eyes who had another pianist friend who once stepped on my foot in fifth grade, fracturing the fifth metacarpal of my left hand. I once tried to write a note to someone with the left, or sinister, hand, only to discover that communication depended not only on the mind, but on the right half of the body. My friend broke up with the composer but not, at least for a year or two, with the Catholic church. Every Sunday she'd drive one-and-a-half hours north to a church that said Latin mass. I stayed behind, depressing key after key in search of the bluest, the leftmost, most sinister noise.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dying for a Good Woman


There's something singularly pleasurable about getting smacked upside the head with a new idea. When I started reading A Death in the Family (NYT, 12/2), an article about a former governor of Washington campaigning for the right to die, I thought I had an excellent grasp of the issue. I've long been gung-ho about the right to die: as articulated by Booth Gardner, the former governor diagnosed with Parkinson's, "my life, my death, my control." The idea of someone else laying claim to control of my body -or any woman's body- be it via anti-abortion legislation, opposition to assisted suicide, or domestic abuse, made (and still makes) me apoplectic.

(Think back to when you were three. How frustrating was it that adults, if they so desired, could pick you up and bodily remove you from the merry-go-round or the cookie jar or wherever else it was you wanted to be? How agonizing was it that all or your routines -eating, napping, pretending to be a three-legged woodchuck- were predicated on someone else's schedule? An ex-boyfriend once told me a story about how, in Kindergarten, he stood up on top of his desk and exhorted his classmates to mutiny. "There's nineteen of us and only one of her!" he declared before the Kindergarten teacher hauled him from the room. Apparently he hadn't accounted for the fact that, even though there was only one of her, she was a whole lot bigger.)

But then there's Susan Wolf. As reported in A Death in the Family, Susan Wolf, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Minnesota, argues that legalizing assisted suicide is inherently problematic for women and minorities. Women and minorities, according to Wolf, receive subtle social signals about their value that render them vulnerable to unconscious pressure on the part of their -frequently male- doctors.

If women are expected, above all, to care for others, for children, parents, husbands, she asked, aren’t they particularly likely to view their own lives as without value when they become so sick or disabled that they are the ones who must be cared for? Might they be especially likely, at that point, to see themselves as burdens and, if assisted suicide were legal, to request that their deaths come right away?


Wolf marshals some moderately dubious statistics and then breaks out her big gun: human irrationality.

Even while we debate physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia rationally, we may be animated by unacknowledged images that give the practices a certain gendered logic.


We human beings, according to Wolf, are not, and will never be, our own masters, and to pretend otherwise is to invite repercussions. Moreover, the degree to which we lack autonomy varies from person to person and from group to group, thereby opening the door to overt and covert discrimination.

(I'm not sure I buy this argument, but DAMN it feels good to get blindsided every now and then. If you know everything there is to know about life, why bother living?)

Coincidentally, I've been reading Joan Didion's 1972 essay on the Women's Movement. Didion rails bitterly against the movement's construction of a passive, put-upon everywoman, "everyone's victim but her own:"

She was persecuted by her gynecologist, who made her beg in vain for contraceptives. She particularly needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date, raped by her husband, and raped finally on the abortionist's table...she was so intimidated by cosmetics advertising that she would sleep "huge portions" of her day in order to forestall wrinkling, and when awake she was enslaved by detergent commercials on television...To ask the obvious -why she did not get herself another gynecologist, another job, why she did not get out of bed and turn off the television set...was to join this argument at its own spooky level...nobody forces women to buy the package.

In Didion's view, women are trading autonomy for victimhood, refusing to acknowledge what control they do have over themselves and their lives. One gets the sense that Didion wants women to stop whining, suck it up, and take charge; that for women to lay the blame for the shape of there lives at the feet of anyone but themselves is in itself an act of disempowerment. The Women's Movement, by this logic, insofar as it encourages anyone to believe she is not her own mistress, is carrying women backward.

So which is it? Are we, or are we not, in charge of ourselves? It's scary to believe we aren't, but it's in many ways scarier to believe we are. Either way I need a cookie.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Bethlehem Down


According to The New Oxford Book of Carols, the genesis for the carol "Bethlehem Down," composed by Bruce Blunt and Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock), was "somewhat undignified." Blunt describes the collaboration:

In December 1927 we were both extremely hard up, and in the hopes of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol which should be published in a daily paper. So, walking on a moonlit night between The Plough at Bishop's Sutton and The Anchor at Ropley, I thought of the words of "Bethlehem Down." I sent them off to Philip in London, the carol was completed in a few days and was published (words and music) in the Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. We had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves "Carols Consolidated."

I suppose I ought to discourse intelligently about this quote, but really I just like it. There are worse things in life than lack of dignity and an immortal carouse.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Menaloas, Once the Gayest Swain


Ever since the Baroque era, when words donned black leather and started smacking music around, text has been an important, if problematic, element of composition. Smart composers attach themselves, lamprey-like, to good poets. Stupid composers find bad poets. And stupider composers make up the words themselves.

The twenty-first century being the age of individualism, it's this latter category that's exploding. You're not just supposed to compose anymore; you're supposed to create. And as a creator, by golly, your text damn well ought to be an expression of your soul. Hence zombie armies of pop songs with catchy tunes and lyrics reminiscent of the poetry I wrote when I was thirteen. Hence the I-can't-even-tell-you-how-many student compositions I've listened to -some quite aurally interesting- with titles like "I Will Always Love You," "Black Darkness," or my personal favorite, "Tears of Blood."

"Tears of Blood" was an orchestral triptych written by a wiry, shaggy-haired undergraduate composition major whose notebook I once accidentally stole. He served as a keyboard monitor for lower-division theory classes and had a way of staring fixedly out the window as you slogged your way through some swamp of a progression toward the Neapolitan six. Seven or eight years later I don't remember his name, yet I'm still haunted by the urge to take him aside, grab his shoulders, and hiss that he needs to outsource. Outsource, please, for the love of God!

Then I catch myself. What if everyone did outsource? What would be the result if composers only composed, if poets only wrote poetry, if everyone was afraid to budge an inch beyond their training? Why, perhaps the kind of stultified, stratified approach to art that characterizes too much of academia today. If we are only specialists, if we never explore, if we lack the freedom to write truly horrendous poetry, then we've dammed creativity. Sure, we can canoe and fish and launch paper boats on our handy man-made lake, but we've lost the capacity to be overrun, to be flooded, to capsize ourselves and come up swimming.

For a brief period, in college, I accidentally became a member of a collective of creative types who would get together every Sunday for the purpose of "inviting" art. I'd been asked to join by a friend of a friend; there were two composers, one cellist, a painter, a belly dancer, a poet, and me. In practice, "inviting" art mostly consisted of sitting around the group leader's house munching vegan goodies, but every now and then someone would suggest that we all hop on one foot for fifteen minutes, or close our eyes and hum.

Eventually I decided the group would be better off without me: I had trouble keeping a straight face through any given session and I lusted for cheese. Pleading factitious overcommitment, I bowed out. Yet, bemused as I'd been, there was something in that group I'd responded to. Some idea that art is everywhere, like air, that it ravages limits and overgrows disciplinary boundaries. That all you have to do is hop on one foot and art will happen to you.

Bring on the bloody tears.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

All New All Purpose


I read cookbooks while I eat. I don't know where or when I picked up the habit, but at this point it's firmly instantiated. I'll make myself lunch, sit down at the table, grab one of a rotating selection of cookbooks and food-writing omnibuses, and proceed to read about cream biscuits while downing PB&J. I recognize that this behavior bears no small resemblance to paging through Maxim while jerking off, and I'm moderately ashamed of it.

Not that I'm going to stop.

Besides, I'm turning 27. I have no idea what I want in life or how I got where I am now, and I have at least eight simultaneous and contradictory plans for what to do next. I need guidance. And thanks to my shameful cookbook addiction, I know just where to turn. Aside from the Bible, what single book purports to instruct you more comprehensively than The Joy of Cooking? Joy is postively Delphic in scope, the place to turn for advice on everything from pheasant to petit fours. It clocks in at 1,136 pages and is about to become, in its much-maligned 1997 edition, my new I Ching.

It'll be -pardon the expression- a piece of cake. I'll simply close my eyes, flip to a random page, and point. At which point Joy will reveal my future to me in all its currant-studded glory. Let's have a go, shall we?

p.189: Braunschweiger is the most popular of the liverwursts.


Just because something's a superior liverwurst doesn't mean it's not still liverwurst. A job is a job.

p.223: Pastas should be cooked until tender yet firm.

Life is contradictory; strive for balance. Or possibly: don't work out too much.

p.787: Experienced cooks know that biscuits are quick and easy, but, frankly, anyone who has never made a biscuit is apt to be daunted by the mystique.


New things are scary. Biscuits are delicious.

p.908: Keep in mind that these are the most challenging and delicate of pastries, and proceed the way porcupines...are said to make love.

Oh, help.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

First Monday Music Club


So the big question (after "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?") is whether or not I'm going to go see Alex Ross. Alex Ross is the New Yorker music critic who recently published a shockingly readable hisotry of 20th-century music called "The Rest is Noise." He's also my intended.

OK, not really, but if you can't have an intellectual pseudo-crush, what's left for you in life? And really, we're perfect together: I'm interested in 20th-century music; he's interested in 20th-century music. He likes to write; I like to read what he writes. My relationship with Alex is easily the most functional, conflict-free relationship I've ever had with a man. (It helps that he says what he has to say and doesn't talk back.)

Unfortunately, my elegant Titanic of a tryst is about to run smack into the iceberg of reality. Because Alex Ross is giving a talk. Four miles from my bed. For free.

I should be ecstatic. I mean, he's actually coming. We could breathe the same air! I could analyze what he's wearing! The sound waves generated by the vibration of his vocal folds could goose the tiny bones -incus, malleus, stapes- of my middle ear! Woah.

Instead I'm only mildly excited, the kind of excited I get when I have new email or the toast pops up from the toaster (yay toast). I mean, do I really need to see Alex Ross? His talk's being broadcast live on the local public radio station; I could listen to him in the comfort of my own home, a cup of tea in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other. The Alex I know, the Alex with whom I make sweet, sweet literary whoopee, would already be with me. Plus I'd have tea and booze.

As a reader and a listener, I've long been ambivalent about authors and composers. On the one hand, they're inconvenient, fleshy appurtenances to whatever words or music you happen to be dallying with. On the other hand, they're what vibrates your bones.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Who Shot Who in the What, Now?


It wouldn't be too far from the truth to say that I'm in love with ignorance. I like the gape of it, its dim invitation. I like the way it trails off, the way you can't see its horizon, the way you can slip downward into the grey muck of it when you thought you were strolling on solid ground.

It also drives me frantic. Waiting for the toaster to ding (when? when?) is a terrible purgatory. Losing yourself on unfamiliar roads is throat-stopping. Then there's the moment you think you have a handle on yourself, your life, and your desires, only to have some monster emerge from the trapdoor in your stomach, claw its way up your extremities and shake loose your grip. Suddenly there you are, launched into the air, fat and new and silly as a red balloon.

Recently I read a mediocre book by Tom Wolfe entitled "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Despite its female protagonist, the book was really about men: male prerogative, male power plays, male relations. Fights for status -overt and covert- between men were described lovingly, with near-pornographic focus:

What did Adam the tutor amount to? He amounted to a male low in the masculine pecking order who is angry, deserves to be angry, is dying to show anger, but doesn't dare do so in the face of two alpha males...JoJo had enjoyed this form of unspoken domination ever since he was twelve. It was a source of inexpressible satisfaction. Literally inexpressible.


For the first time, it dawned on me that there was a whole realm of male interaction I'd been missing. More than missing; I hadn't even dreamed its existence. It was the observer effect: insert yourself into the scene and forever change whatever it was you'd come to study. This not only got me wondering, it got me mad. HOW COME I NEVER GOT TO SEE IT? Not that I really wanted to observe frat boys going mano e mano, but my ignorance -past, present, and future- seemed colossally unfair, some gross miscarriage of justice on the part of the universe.

I've calmed down since. Because ignorance is not only a liability; it's bliss. Show me a lack of knowledge and I'll show you the creep of imagination. Show me a deficiency in understanding and I'll show you the upwelling, warm and dark and wet, of possibility.

In honor of ignorance, then, part of a poem (not mine). You guess the rest.

***

From Albert Goldbarth's "Imperfect Knowledge"

The structure of the billowing Portuguese man o'war: I don't know.
And: why isn't it ever enough to be "ceased," why
add the "de-"?: I don't know. Whitman:
given his later fascination with serious (what we would see
as "protomodern") dance, what might we learn
if only we had a visual record of the movements
in performances he'd watched, and could compare these
to whatever slide and stomp and swirl was his,
between the type-set table and press, in his time
as a printer?: no one knows. (Some experts
could "hazard a guess.") If even that eludes us...
how to "read" the huge balletic leap of a beast
on the wall of Paleolithic cave, its clayey umber self
part-trailed like a comet in its wake
[you see? "balletic" ... "like a comet" ... "self ... and so
we'll never know]: that cave and this one,
where my brain conducts its little introspections,
may not have one flapping bat of thought in common.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bottoms Up


I have a problem. OK, I have a lot of problems, but this particular problem has to do with the fact that eating and reading have become hideously interlinked in my brain to the point where I can't sit down at the table without reflexively grabbing for words. I read the paper. I read advertising circulars. I read the backs of cereal boxes. And yesterday, while snacking at my parents' house, I read a brochure entitled "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition."

(Can't you just see some marketing wonk leaning back in his chair, steepling his fingers, and explaining that "you" needs to be the first word of the title because "you" come first with Starbucks? Hmmm.) Anyway, "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition" (subtitle: Helpful Information About the Beverage Options We Offer) is basically a list of the caloric content of every drink from a tall brewed coffee to a venti mocha Frappuccino. The brochure also offers hepful tips. Watching carbohydrates? Try tea. Watching fat? Try a nonfat cappucino.

And then there's this little gem:

Here's another good way to trim down a drink: we customize our beverages to order, so if whipped cream is a standard part of your favorite beverage, you can ask us to "hold the whip."

My first thought was: Aha! Finally Starbucks is admitting to the vaguely S & M nature of the relationship it cultivates with its customers. (You want your addictive substance? Pay up! Pay up now!) But actually I think the quotation marks give it away: "hold the whip" is not so much a submissive's plea as a passphrase, a linguistic marker of your insider status.

Further perusal of "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition" suggests that Starbucks has, very purposefuly, created an entire alternative dialect of coffee drinking. There's tall, grande, and venti. Solo and doppio. Frappucino, caramel macchiato, vanilla creme, java chip, barrista. If you don't know the lingo, your first venture into Starbucks could seem like a stroll across some border you didn't even know existed.

This is scary. Why? Because language isn't some isolated, free-floating human capability. It's inextricably bound up with constructs of culture, community, and place. Language marks you as part of a group or as an outsider; as a member of the elite or a member of the working class. What Starbucks has, with great calculation, fabricated is not only a range of caffeinated beverages, but an entire culture. Starbucks is selling community.

Do you want your community to be run for profit? Because I don't. Hand me that whip.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Capriccio Stravagante


Last night I attended a concert of early music. Not so shocking, really; I've done that kind of thing before. But I've never, in my years of early-music concertgoing, encountered a scale like this:



Bach Level ($2000-$5000)
Mozart Level ($1000-$1999)
Handel Level ($500-$999)
Vivaldi Level ($250-$499)
Purcell Level ($100-$249)
Couperin Level ($50-$99)
Telemann Level ($25-$49)
Pachelbel Level (to $24)


My first reaction is, hey, why stop here? What about Kuhnau Level ($7)? Finger Level ($2.99)? Mattheson Level ($35)? I'm also interested exploring the liminal space between composers. If you give $99.50, are you lodged halfway between a French harpsichord suite and an early English opera? Is $1999.36 some kind of peppy contrapuntal sonata form? And what do you do if you give $6000? Do you move up to Schoenberg, or is there nowhere to go but Jesus?

I'm frantically thinking about all the preceding crap because I don't want to think about the real implications of this scale, which have not very much to do with music and quite a bit to do with its commodification. Maybe it's good to reinforce the idea that music has worth, but folks, this is a slippery slope. Start out slapping price tags on composers, and you could end up calculating the worth of every artistic experience. Two minutes of Rameau? $14. Reading Whitman? $56. Spinning around really fast and then falling over? $27.49; half-price if you squash someone else.

The danger is that the moment you know, down to the cent, what something is worth is the moment you stop experiencing and start consuming. Art is supposed to shove you around, to lead you, even if only very gently, astray. Knowing the purchase price of something is like hiking with your nose stuck in the map. You already know where you're going so you never bother to look around.

Sad. Put me down for Schmelzer at $22.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ringing the Changes


I moved house. And things are different. I divined this thanks to my amazing powers of observation, with which I've been busy cataloging the alterations. These alterations start with the supine position I've been forced to assume with regard to the necessity of motorized transportation, and move on to the sulfurous taste of the tap water, the trucks rusting in the neighbors' backyards, and the constant stream of ragged, blue-lipped men levering themselves into the phone booth on the corner.

What it took me a while to notice, though, is that it's not only my visual environment and daily activities that have shifted; it's my entire aural universe. Sound crawls to the finish line leagues behind sight. Its waves are lazy; it lacks light's passionate burst of speed. So it's no wonder that I've been slow to pick out the noises -small, fat, sharp, and continuous- that make up my new world. After my first full week, I've barely begun.

Here's what I used to hear: the asthmatic rumble of inefficient heating and cooling, the ecstatic yelps of the downstairs neighbor, the screech of cars careening into one another at the corner of Atwater and Henderson, the relentless rustling of the dumpster divers, the 3:00 AM drunken baying of young scholars.

Now I hear trains. Train after train, streaking its way through the cold, clear air. Also the incessant scritching of squirrels, the neighbor tickling her children, someone working on a roof three doors down. The particular rumble a sizeable truck makes driving on a brick road; the hum of the four-lane street a block away.

And church bells. Every hour on the hour, more on feast days, often ten minutes at a stretch. Calling me, if not to worship, than at least to attention.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Things That Make Me Cranky: #269


Oh, New York Times, you've let me down. So seldom do you make me cranky! So frequently do you provide delicious distraction from my work! So comforting do I find the liturgy of the unfolding of your sections!

Why, oh why, in that very interesting article on Marin Alsop (an article which made so many intriguing points I may have to pontificate about them later) did you stoop to the following paragraph:

In the field of early music there seem to be significantly fewer impediments to women [conductors]. Conductors like Jane Glover and Emmanuelle Haim have had busy careers. Ms. Haim is now conducting Handel's "Giulio Cesare" with the Lyric Opera of Chicago...

I could go on, but it hurts too much. Why? Because Anthony Tommasini is perpetrating the kind of malfeasance that's plagued science writing for years, the kind that makes me so irritable my eyes cross. Yes, it's the good ol' evidentiary bait and switch.

Let's look closely at the paragraph in question. It starts with an assertion. In the field of early music there seem to be significantly fewer impediments to women [conductors]. Hmm. OK, interesting assertion; so far so good.

Now, boys and girls, what do we do with assertions? Yes, you're absolutely right: we support assertions with evidence. Most often, we handily position the evidence directly after the assertion so as to idiot-proof our logic.

OK, so inserted neatly after our assertion comes the following: Conductors like Jane Glover and Emmanuelle Haim have had busy careers.

But wait! This isn't evidence, or if it is, it isn't evidence for what Tommasini's asserting. Does he offer numbers, or probing anecdotes, or a disquisition on WHY early music is friendly to women taking the podium. No! He offers us nothing more than names of two female conductors who have conducted early music.

ARG!!!! First of all, I could offer you the names of two female conductors who have conducted modern orchestras; then our numbers would be even. Maybe Tommasini's thinking about proportional representation at the podium (the percentage of conductors in early music who are female vs. the comparable modern percentage) but he doesn't say so. And if he were looking at proportion, he'd have to consider the gender ratios of his pools: does the field of early music attract more women of every stripe? But the real problem is that Tommasini's assertion wasn't about how many female conductors there are in actuality. It was about impediments to female conductors. Sure Glover and Haim are conducting, but that says absolutely nothing about whether or not they faced impediments along the way.

No, Tommasini offers us an assertion and then only PRETENDS to back it up with evidence. What he's actually backing it up with is bilgewater. And thus the evidentiary bait and switch. WHICH HE IS NOT ALLOWED TO PULL BECAUSE HE WRITES FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES!! I can pull that crap if I want, but that's because I write for a blog. My blog. With a readership of seven.

I have to go lie down now. Fie on you, Anthony Tommasini.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tomorrow the World

Four or five years ago, in a valiant/desperate attempt to figure out what, exactly, I was going to do with my life, I took an afternoon off practicing and skulked over to my college's career center. The career counselor, who had lank blond hair and looked as if she'd survived a couple of valiant/desperate attempts herself, listened to me babble for ten minutes, covered up a yawn, and then, having clearly pegged me as 100% out to lunch, sat me down with a personality test.

It was one of those tests that slaps a label on you, labels being your ticket, in theory, to smoother operation and better tech support. It was, in fact, the Myers-Briggs, a personality test of blissfully marginal validity that was developed in WWII to help women find their place in the workforce. The Myers-Briggs charts your location along four personality dimensions, thereby dividing the population pie into sixteen (unequal) slices, each with its own flavor and texture. I can think of any number of important personality variables overlooked by the Myers-Briggs (snarkiness, irritability, appreciation for cheese), but I suppose Myers and Briggs had to start somewhere, and where they started was with the following four dichotomies:

1) Introversion vs. Extroversion (I or E)
2) Concrete vs. Abstract (S or N)
3) Analytical vs. Emotional (T or F)
4) Judging vs. Perceiving (J or P)

Those of you who know me can probably guess which side of each fence I came down on; suffice to say that I ended up on a pie slice some snarky, irritable, cheese-hating pop Psychologist nicknamed "The Mastermind." Apparently, I am a frustrated evil genius.

With no career trajectory. Thanks, career center.

But never mind. What I really want to talk about here is variable number 4. In case you were deprived of all your senses in a terrible moon buggy accident, I'm a J. J for judgemental. As in, wow, that sucked. Or, I like the grey one. Or, George W. Bush is suffering from subtle neurological damage, most likely due to long-term abuse of alcohol, and anyone who votes for him is a moronic moron.

In short, I have the instincts of a gun-toting, brow-beating, bible-thumping televangelist. Or a five-year-old. This isn't something I needed the Myers-Briggs to tell me; I've known it for years. And for years, likewise, I've been trying to chip away at it, striving to be less judgemental, more accepting, more laid back.

Only here's the scary thing: I'm actually succeeding. The older I get, the more I reserve judgment. So I'm still not exactly hoarding it in the back of the cupboard, or stashing it in the piggy bank for a rainy day, but I'm no longer so quick to take it out and (silently) whap people over the head with it, either. Cheating? Prevaricating? Voting for Ron Paul? How can I condemn you out of hand if I don't know, really deep down, what I would do in your place?

This is either a sign of increasing humanity or deteriorating moral fiber, and I wish I knew which.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Re-rack


So it turns out I am gifted not only with double-jointed thumbs and the complete inability to make any kind of important life decision, but with a new spice rack. It's the kind that comes with little jars; those little jars in turn sport labels that tell you the spices with which you're supposed to stuff their bulbous bodies. I find the labels a teensy bit dictatorial, but then again, I could use more things with labels in my life. Imagine if objects, and people, came usefully pre-tagged. BAD FOR YOU. GOES WELL WITH CHEESE. NOT WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION.

Come to think of it, most people go well with cheese.

But back to the spice rack: I procrastinated for a respectable amount of time, then set about filling the jars in my happy little OCD way. I funneled in the spices, twisted the lids closed, set each jar in its proper place. Until I came to the jar labeled celery salt. Frankly, there was no way in hell I was going to let any vestige of celery (better known as The Evil) anywhere near me. Even if it was ground up. Even if it was mixed with delicious delicious sodium chloride. Even if it meant that I had to leave an empty jar in my spice rack.

What a sin against compulsiveness! What an irritating irregularity in a regular series! I quailed. Yet, something about the empty jar with its one-eyed glare tripped a memory. Some expression, some aphorism, some dreadfully earnest life lesson. Leave room for Jesus? Nope, that was about horny Christian teenagers. This wasn't about sex; it was about dinner. Set a place for Jesus? That was it. The act of laying a place for someone who might or might not come, of inviting some mix of absence and possibility into your home.

Now, I don't really hold with Jesus. Nevertheless, there's something here I think is important. Some acknowledgement of chaos beating under the skin of the moment, of the stream of delirium or madness or slippery chance running just alongside our trickle of days. Laying a place for Jesus is about making room in your life for the inevitable moment when you look around and think, forcefully and with no irony, what the fuck?

That's what's in the jar. No celery, no salt. Just pure old-fashioned what the fuck? Eat up.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Early Music Show


Yes, I like Andrew Manze. I suppose this is less of an embarrassment than other confessions I've made (what I listen to in the car, how many times I've been naked in the woods, the depth of satisfaction I extract from certain loud and annoying wind instruments). But I still feel, upon disgorging the information, that hot little twinge of shame. I mean, Andrew Manze? He's so (deliciously) trashy, so (god forbid) popular, so very historically inappropriate.

Andrew Manze gets up to no good. With a rate, and a scope, of up-to-no-goodness I wish I had the guts to imitate. So it was less than shocking to pick up the NYT the other day and see, once again, Andrew Manze up to no good.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/03/arts/music/03manz.html

Only this time, his method puzzles me. Manze and longtime collaborator Richard Egarr play Bach, Schubert, and Mozart on modern violin and piano. Egarr gets a good review. Manze rates a mild lashing: Steve Smith says of Manze that "his approach, while provocative, took a toll on his playing." But how well Manze played isn't what I'm interested in; what I want to know is WHY. Why is a baroque violinist, someone who made his name serving in the army of the Historically Righteous, cradling the enemy under his chin?

And not even for new music! We've all gotten used to the sight of Historically Informed Performers abandoning the dead for a chance to suck the life from the living. (And I'm not even an eighth as cynical about the crossover as I sound.) No, Manze's playing the good old stuff -"his" repertoire- only he's playing it on an instrument to which his entire musical career has served as a challenge.

Eh?

Not that I don't think it's an interesting or worthwhile enterprise, but what's the motivation? Is it that Manze never cared particularly about the accuracy prong of the early music fork (yes, HIP is about consumption) but has instead been following his own -formidable- musical instinct? Is it about locating novelty, coaxing the new sound from the string or the unexpected phrase from the piece? Or is it that, for Manze, the worth of HIP lies in its challenge, the way it forces the musician to push his or her impulses through the barriers of codified style and less-than-responsive instruments? Then the jaunt into modern violin would be merely Manze's newest challenge, a fresh opponent against which to push.

Or maybe, just maybe, trying to analyze why a person does anything is as futile as trying to cram 500 years of musical endeavor into a book of rules. In which case I should stop trying to parse the concatenation and instead pose the real question. Not why, but how.

How can I, here, now, get up to no good?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Hallowed


Ever since I lost my taste for Snickers, Halloween has been a drag. First, there's the scare factor. Why does no one seem to realize that life is scary enough as it is? I seldom make it through the day without at least one bracing hit of adrenaline; why would I want to exhort my amygdala to even greater glory? Isn't driving, and walking down the street, and following the news, and schmoozing, and performing, and having people come up behind you, and submitting yourself or your work for rejection, and contemplating the future MORE THAN ADEQUATE?

I think so. But then again, I find The Little Mermaid vaguely terrifying. (In fact, the only scary movie I've ever made it all the way through is The Blair Witch Project, which, probably due to its lack of a manipulative musical score, only made me seasick.) So perhaps I'm not the best judge.

Not to fear, though: I can attack Halloween on any number of other grounds. For instance, there's the costume thing. Not that I don't enjoy seeing other people disguise themselves as Karl Rove or teletubbies or whatnot, but oh, the effort. Going to a costume party is like going to a potluck, only worse, because you can't eat your entry ticket. Nor can you taste it in advance or enjoy the leftovers, unless you have an inadvisable predilection for paste. And it's not only physical labor that's required; there's mental effort, too. You have to decide what you will be, which requires some sort of analysis of the person you are, the person you might be, and how little work you can get away with in making the transition. Besides, I think we dress up more than enough in real life, putting on "teacher" clothes, or "performer" clothes, "on the market" clothes or "don't touch me" clothes, clothes that say "I'm not trying" or "I'm blending in" or "I put off the laundry three days in a row and am stuck wearing bikini bottoms instead of underwear; also this New Kids on the Block T-shirt I've had since seventh grade."

So the costumes are exhausting. The candy is sickeningly sweet. Scariness sucks. And I haven't even touched on the dilemma -so very fraught!- of whether to eat your candy right away or string yourself along through the year like an addict husbanding cocaine.

What's left? The thing is, Halloween is the only holiday of the year when you actually talk to your neighbors. Think about it: when else, barring fire or flood or extremely loud Justin Timberlake, do you knock on your neighbors' doors? When else (even if it's only "Happy Halloween") do you utter more than a shamefaced half-grunt of greeting? We've crawled, especially in suburbs and cities, into isolation: shutting ourselves up in our houses, scuttling for the car, treating the nearby houses and the trees and the street as a backdrop, part of a stage set against which we play out our lives.

Trick or treat? That's Halloween's false choice, its dummy dialectic. The trick to Halloween is the same as its treat: the open door, the glimpse -five seconds long, ten- of life wriggling in the wings.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Golden Rule, the Easter Bunny, and the Right to Bear Arms

So there's this irritating new-ish series on NPR entitled This I Believe. In it, a carefully chosen mix of "ordinary" and, I suppose, extraordinary people read pat, bite-size essays explicating various of their deeply held beliefs. I'm not precisely sure why, but this series drives me crazier than almost anything else on the air, including Fund Drive (arg), Radio Reader (is it just me, or does Dick Estelle sound like he's been welded to a morphine drip?), and the spectacularly boring, awesomely useless Congressional Moment.

Part of it is the whiff of faux-patriotic, 1950s-style righteousness. Part of it is the tightly packaged format, so reminiscent of seventh-grade writing prompts, to which the This I Believe essays must adhere (start with a compelling personal anecdote; explain how it shaped your most deeply held beliefs in 300 words or less). But if I'm honest with myself, I think most of my irritation arises from pure, old-fashioned jealousy. Who are these people, and what did they do to earn the luxury of deeply held belief?

Because belief is a luxury. It's a handhold, a support, something solid to stand on in an overwhelmingly squishy world. I crave deeply held beliefs, even as I can't help but be mildly enraged by the folks who have them. Which is maybe why, even though the very mention of "independent producer Jay Allison" makes me want to chew the bedclothes, I listen anyway. I may not drop everything and glue my ear to the radio like I do with Story Corps (yay Story Corps!). I may pretend to be eating breakfast or tying back my hair or rooting around for a sweatshirt. But I'm listening.

What do people believe in? I've heard people cram their belief into small boxes and large, into milk crates, watertight jars, voluminous bags. People believe in nursing. They believe in God. In tolerance, in love, in the big, meaningless words that cover you, like quilts, while you sleep. They believe unabashedly, whole-heartedly, and in tightly-edited prose.

All of which forces me regularly to ransack myself top to bottom, searching for belief like a desperate hostess hunting for the air mattress. I check closets, investigate the attic, crawl around under the bed. I believe in...

walking. OK, it's paltry, limp-wristed sort of belief. But there's not a lot more reliable, more satisfying, or more useful than locomoting, via the placement of one foot in front of the other, from location A to location B. When you walk, you interact with the world on a human scale. You can't pretend its not there, or forget its dimensions, or blot it out in a burst of speed. You can't honk at it, or give it the middle finger, or edge it out for the last good parking spot. Yesterday, I walked. Today I'll walk. Tomorrow, even though -or perhaps because- my life is colossal, insoluble mess, I'll walk. This I (messily, shamefacedly, in far more than 300 words) believe.

Walk with me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Appetizer #4


Scarfing chocolate. Walking uphill. That glorious moment just before sleep when your thoughts escape their pen and spill down the hillside, woolly and lost, into black. Simple pleasures are easy enough to understand. They're like a small, nonthreatening math problem, the kind where a single operation tips the brain into dopamine-soaked resolution. I'm an enthusiastic proponent of simple pleasures.

But then there's the fried pickle. As far as my chastened taste buds can make out, the fried pickle is an anemic, thinly sliced, unrefrigerated Vlasic dipped in a batter consisting of equal parts salt, bleached flour, and faux-lard before being fed the the roaring maw of the deep fryer. In case you had doubts, let me assure you that the fried pickle is, in fact, disgusting. Revolting, even. Wet, slimy, unconscionably salty (this from a woman who has been known to lick salt off the plate) and possessed of a subtle yet distinctive chemical aftertaste. The fried pickle is not your friend.

And yet, there is something overwhelmingly pleasurable about ingesting the fried pickle. It's a dodgy, perverse kind of pleasure, lurking somewhere in the correspondence between the physical object (pickle) and the mental paradigm of "truly foul." It's that match-up -like dropping the last puzzle piece into its slot- that's so profoundly satisfying. Here's the fried pickle; now here's this little mental constellation. See how they fit together!

With the fried pickle, then, we have ascended the rocky slope of the complicated pleasure. Complicated pleasures are bizarre, often dangerous beasts, feeding off the unstable activity of the forebrain as opposed to the more predictable impulses of the primitive nervous system. Complicated pleasures require mental constructs, intermediaries between sense and reaction. Complicated pleasures, and I speak from experience, give you heartburn.

But I wouldn't leave the restaurant without them.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Half Price


Sometimes I think of life as a kind of large-scale flower arranging, a conscious selection and manipulation of elements for maximum aesthetic pleasure. This morning, for example, a friend and I, after lengthy discussion, purchased the following books between us at a library clearance sale:

Bel Canto
Cloud Atlas
Mao Tse Tung: Profile for Children
Science Experiments You Can Eat
Lust: The Other Side of Love


I'm especially pleased with Lust: The Other Side of Love, in which Mel White (married, two children) combines stern proscription ("When you are tempted, God's word can help you. Feed on it! Control your thoughts!") with vivid biblical exegesis:

David lowered the harp to the ground and leaned against the cool rock wall. A movement on a rooftop just below the palace caught David's eye. His thoughts of praise were interrupted by a scene of indescribable beauty. A woman bathed naked in the moonlight. Apparently, she, too, had found it impossible to sleep and now, innocent and unsuspecting, she poured water over her breasts and thighs. David watched it run in rivulets down her flesh and desired to hold that warm, wet body in his arms.

Hypocrisy, guilt, purple prose, Marxism, and edible empirical effort! Show me a more captivating arrangement.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Don't Drink the Science


I've been cataloging dangerous things. There's no shortage: airplanes, scorpions, methamphetamines, cliffs, rumors, cigarettes, running up mountains too fast, people to whom you're uncomfortably attracted, George W. Bush, over-analyzing, rancid peanuts, and sometimes, when rabid, squirrels. But nothing is more dangerous than a little bit of science.

Speech-language pathology used to be an art. Then some hapless clinician contracted science and the practice was convulsed. People began heaving up theories and wheezing about evidence-based practice. There were fits of data collection, rashes of empirical impulse. And then there were Measurable Objectives. Bertram will independently answer who, what, and where questions with 80% accuracy during structured activities over two consecutive sessions. Rosalia will, given verbal cuing, use her communication book to sequence three-word, subject-verb-object sentences with 80% accuracy over two consecutive sessions.

In theory, all of this is great. Prior to the Great Scientific Fever, speech-pathologists were in no small sense modern witch doctors, basing their decisions on a combination of Instinct and Ancient Wisdom. Science has done a lot for speech pathology, providing evidence for practices that work and helping to disprove practices that don't.

But a little science, misapplied, is like a handsome, drug-addled squirrel run amok. Case in point: Measurable Objectives. In addition to requiring the SLP to construct clunky, syntactically-overstuffed sentences, Measurable Objectives, at least as they are utilized in the field, arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of statistics. And that, make no mistake, is dangerous.

I think statistics are fabulous. They are numbers made into rope, tying up the world in neat(-ish) little packages. They are math pulling its head out of its behind. But statistics aren't magic. They require careful, knowledgeable handling. I don't know that much about statistics, but even I can tell that right now the field of clinical speech-language pathology is shipping them to Timbuktu in a milk crate.

Misapprehension #1: If something is true for a population, it's true for each individual in that population. Measurable Objectives assume that whatever intervention prompted statistically significant gains in a population of children or adults will prompt the same gains in each individual client. But statistics are about groups and trends. There's no way of assuring that Bertram or Rosalia will make comparable progress.

Misapprehension #2: Percentages are percentages are percentages. Know how many observations of a target behavior an SLP has time to take in a session? Maybe five. So on Tuesday, Rosalia used her communication book accurately 3/5 trials, or 60% of the time. On Thursday, Rosalia used her book 4/5 trials, or 80% of the time. Aha! the SLP will say, Rosalia has met her goal! But in reality, we're only talking about a difference of one observation. And one observation does not a trend make!

Misapprehension #3: Progress means progress. There is a way to conduct valid single-subject research. It requires multiple baselines, a theoretically-unrelated control behavior, and lots of observations. Asking Bertram 10 why questions on Tuesday and then asking him 10 why questions on Thursday isn't it. Maybe he hit is head on Tuesday. Maybe his brain grew a few more neurons over the course of the week. Maybe he's distracted by the disturbing nerdiness of his name. Something's being measured, but Lord knows if it's actually progress.

What happens in the real world is that speech-language pathologists, required to construct and take data on Measurable Objectives that are effectively impotent in their ability to describe what's actually going on, look for loopholes. I've seen it in action at team meetings. What's Bertram doing now? someone will say. Let's write that in the goal. After all, we have to make sure he can meet his goals.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Think of England


Ah, potato chips, let me count the ways. Potato chips are crisp! Potato chips are ravishingly salty! Potato chips come in pleasantly pneumatic packaging! Park one on your tongue; taste the pepper and the oil plus the indefinable underground funk of potato. Potato chips are lovely and amazing, if anything is lovely and amazing. If I open a bag of potato chips (yes, even the big bags), I cannot rest until every chip has been (deliciously) conquered. If I see a bag, I cannot rest until I've opened it.

This is why I try not to buy the bag.

This is also why I was so disturbed to come across the following advice, italicized for emphasis in the midst of a sheaf of materials I received to help me prepare for an important interview:

Be yourself.

OK, be myself. As in, don't pretend to be Margaret Thatcher (easy) or Tony Blair (harder; we're both wafflers). As in, wait to transmogrify until after the interview. As in, eat the potato chips.

Because here's the thing: if I went through life being myself, truly myself in the sense of obeying my most basic impulses, I would be a housebound potato chip whore. I would never see the light of day, or talk to anyone, or come within fifty feet of a mechanical object. I would weigh 250 pounds and speak in tongues.

Why would you ever want to be yourself? Most of us don't (and those who do are George Bush). Which is why life is in many ways an elaborate chess game between who you are and who you want to be. You have to think three steps ahead: predicting, anticipating, taking corrective action. Pick up the phone. Put down the bag. If you can't control yourself around the potato chips, control their presence in your life.

Of course, this makes for an existence both surpassingly virtuous and surpassingly dull, the kind of existence of which Margaret Thatcher would be proud. Which is why sometimes you have to buy the bag. And set it in front of you. And ogle it, hard.

Maybe a gentle tug.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Inside Early Music


I figured I'd left the whole thick envelope/thin envelope thing behind me (has McLuhan's medium-is-the-message shtick ever received such satisfyingly literal support?) I mean, I'm done with being eighteen. I graduated from college. I've even waded most of the way through grad school.

But I hadn't counted on literary magazines. And after years of craven avoidance, I finally, six months ago, entered the submissions fray. Yesterday I got my first thick envelope in the mail.

I suppose I should be thrilled. I expected to be thrilled. A journal I've read and respected for a long time accepted one of the four poems I sent them and is publishing it this winter. I've got a contract, proofs, the works.

But I'm not thrilled, unless thrill feels like a mild case of indigestion. Because what, exactly, is the point? Certainly not money: my total recompense is a grand total $0.00. No, make that -$0.85, which is what I spent on postage. Basically, I am paying 85 cents for the privilege of having my poem printed in a journal that will be read by approximately seven people, one of whom will do so on the toilet.

And I'm certainly not doing it to "express" myself. I am not breast milk. Nor do I think the point of poetry is to convey the experience of the poet. If my life were interesting enough to write about, I wouldn't have time to write. The poem the journal took (not my favorite) is my contribution to the classic music-slash-sex genre, but in real life I'm more likely to think about laundry (where DO all the socks go?) than sex when I'm playing.

(And just why is the music/sex thing so enduringly popular, anyway? Why are all the movies about music -The Red Violin, Touts les Matins du Monde- really about sex? I don't think most musicians associate music primarily with sex. The general public must think we spend all our time rutting on top of pianos.)

No, mostly what I feel -the "point" of it all- is relief. Phew, alright: at least I'm not one of those self-styled "writers," one of those the self-published, self-important, self-deluded Poets with a Capital P. The ones who write dreadful poetry in the their basements on weekends and then inflict it on their relatives. At least I am not excruciatingly, mind-numbingly, throat-closingly awful.

Is publication really about nothing more than soothing our pettiest fears? There's got to be more to it than that. Or else I'll need to find another hobby. I hear the tops of pianos are quite comfortable.