Sunday, September 30, 2007

Of Fancy

I fly in four days. Not like in those dreams I used to have of flapping my arms in a really big coat, or slinking up naked into the air when it was looking the other way (why is it, exactly, that I don't get to dream about flying anymore? Why is it only job hunting, or looking for lost library books?). No, I'm eticketed, de-liquified, ready for gate C-23.

Not to mention scared out of my mind.

It's not a rational fear, or a useful fear: it's not anything fear should be. It's not even a fear with history: growing up, I was never scared to fly. Sure, I experienced the occasional "oops I think we dropped the ground" twinge upon take-off, but I was always able to distract myself with the useful safety card in the seat pocket in front of you. I was comforted by the liturgy of flight: its epistles and psalms, its gingerale-and-pretzel communion.

But that was before the accident. No, not a plane crash. Though I was on my way to the airport when my colleague's roommate's Subaru hatchback left the road, spun around 180 degrees, and crashed into an embankment. As accidents go it was not a big deal. I hopped -unhurt- out of the car, had a quick hyperventilatory reverie, left the Subaru to be towed, and went about my business.

You'd think the accident would have left me with a healthy respect for driving (respect being fear's kissing cousin, its near but ever-so-slightly more approachable neighbor, the one with fewer Dubya 4eva signs in her yard). Only I've been driving blithely ever since. I've even gotten braver -and stupider-, clipping corners, rolling through stops, venturing onto the highway.

No, what my ever-so-helpful limbic system apparently saw fit to bequeath to me was an unholy terror of flying. Maybe because I boarded a plane just afterwards, shook myself silly over the Appalachians. Maybe because our senses are imperfect interpreters, struggling to translate the events of the world into the brain's dense, heavily-inflected tongue. Maybe...just because.

I know things now. I've flown once since the accident, and I know how a minute can expand into a miniature universe. I know how much it costs to hold up, with every fiber of your being, a Boeing 747 including three stewardesses, 120 in-flight entertainment systems, and the portly man in 27 F. I know how many times in the course of a flight you can let your thoughts streak downward in a white, stinking mess towards earth.

Maybe it is rational. Every day, every moment, a thousand possibilities push at us, nudge our flanks, jockey for position. Any second now something could metastasize, or strain, or snap. If it's rationality, though, it's the kind you should leave corked in its bottle: a substance so real it's djinn, it's magic, it blows us out of our minds.

I once read that whereas optimists are happier, pessimists are more accurate in their predictions. There's something you need, to fly, and I've lost it. Not fairy dust or REM sleep; not good engineering or a golden ticket. It's simpler: skin, bones, faith.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


The other day I went simile hunting. Although not as likely as conventional hunting to provide you with ingestible protein, simile hunting involves fewer loud bangs, less blood, and considerably less wearing of orange. Simile hunters can be fashion-forward: all that's required is for you to hitch up your pants, roll up your socks, and be ready to get your brain dirty.

This time the hunt was brief: the prey -ancient, familiar- wandered almost instantaneously into a synapse and was soon dangling by its haunches from the roof of my mouth. Like blood from a stone. That's exactly what it was like: like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

It, in this case, meant attempting to pry a letter of recommendation from the cold, dead, and most pertinently absent hands of my teacher. It took two months of email lead-up, one incidence of stalking, and three false deadlines to wrest it from her, not to mention a four-and-a-half hour chase at the finish.

But that's beside the point. What interests me now (as opposed to what interested me then, which bore a stronger resemblance to the tearing of hair and the gnashing of teeth) is my chosen simile. Specifically its decrepitude. Like blood from a stone: The comparison is so OLD. Blood and stones have been around since biblical times, and I'm sure people have been smashing them happily together ever since.

This is as opposed to the similes currently crowding the marketplace, with their close attention to everyday minutiae, their technological flair. There are so many points of comparison in today's world, a universe of correspondence. I'm reminded of when I read books set in the past, how limited the authors' language sometimes seems, how hobbled they can be -especially as they move further back in time- by their lack of metaphorical reach.

But here's the question: were there really fewer metaphors and similes Back Then? Or did they just get misplaced over the years, like socks in the dryer? We're used to thinking of the past -quite literally- in black and white; what if it was technicolor? Has our constellation of comparison really grown larger, or have we just lost the ability to see outlying stars?

I suppose I could force-feed myself some primary source material and find out.

Rocks. Hemoglobin. Nah.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


I have never for a millisecond been interested in surfing. Why try and balance on a little board above the water when you could be IN the water? Furthermore, why force your body to move vertically any more than it has to? Up-and-down is not a happy axis of motion. Side-to-side in a pinch. Also front-to-back, in-and-out, do-the-hokey-pokey. Anything, really, rather than endure your stomach's colloquy with your ears.

But then I read this article in the NYT about couch surfing.

Basically, folks offer their couches to "surfers" via the internet. Visitors get free housing and an insider's tour of their destination. Hosts get to execute a magical furniture switcheroo, transforming their davenport into a lazy susan of international friends.

Every cheap, nosy fiber in my being twanged. Free housing! Interesting people! And, best, a glimpse of the marrow -not just the skin- of another place. Traveling has always felt hollow to me, like slavering over an eggshell after the chick has hatched. To get a true sense of a place, you need to walk in it, sleep in it, wear it hard. You need to live in it. And if you can't do that, trying on someone else's life is probably the next best thing.

By the time I was halfway through the article, though, my enthusiasm had curdled. The focus of the piece shifted from the basic to the personal, profiling couch surfers who'd been atop the wave for six months, a year, three years. These people owned nothing, traveled light, stopped nowhere. They had no home.

They were, in short, the furthest extension of the current trend towards increasing geographic mobility. What's so scary about that? Well, to start, a person with no home has no portion of themselves bound up with a place, a context, or a permanent community. They're closed containers: every piece of what makes them up, what comprises their sense of "self," is crammed into their couch-abraded, waffle-branded skins.

But how can you travel if you have no point of origin? How can you move away if you have nothing to move away from? I'm troubled by the notion that we can be complete human beings without participating in the complex ecosystems -social, environmental, temporal- of place. Who we are exists -or should exist- not only within the limits of our body and mind, but in the way we reach outside ourselves, the long-term connections and relationships we form with where we are. If the whole of a person can be packed up and shipped across state lines, than we have grown small indeed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Swimmin' in the Sea

I'm in preschool a lot these days. It's both awesome and dreadfully mind-numbing, a kind of live and germy oxycotin. I squish playdoh. I do really, really simple puzzles. I play pretend games with dolls that involve going upstairs followed by going downstairs followed by going upstairs (three-year-olds' imaginations bear a startling resemblance to the music of Philip Glass). Then there's snack (O glorious snack!), gross motor play (boogie desultorily; don't step on children) and sing-along (invent, out of desperation, mediocre harmony part for song about five little fishies).

In short, my thoughts have begun to drift belly-up. Though very occasionally one still has a wiggle to it, as I discovered today when the preschooler grabbed my ass.

Now, I've had my ass grabbed before. Mostly by drunk people. This, though, was the most thorough exemplar of the genre I've experienced: two-handed, perfectly centered, squeeze-and-release.

The kid is four.

First I was surprised. Then I was amused. Then, speaking in the Calm, Firm Voice I use to fake adulthood, I informed the kid that in preschool we keep our hands to ourselves.

By the time I finished my little spiel, though, I was just sad. It had occurred to me that the kid had to have learned that behavior from somewhere, and that that somewhere had probably been home. The grabber lived with his single mom, and I could only imagine the kind of boyfriend who'd grab a woman's ass in front of her kid. Moreover, I could only imagine what kind of adult that kid would become.

Somewhere in the depths of the overgrown aquarium, a single fish flipped over, uncurled its fins, and shot into the treasure chest. The truth had finally dawned on me: KIDS WERE LITTLE ADULTS. Oh my God, how appalling.

I starting eyeing my charges suspiciously. One girl was placid and obedient. Would she march placidly off to the altar? One boy was smart but silent. Would he turn into one of those brooding teenagers all the girls fall for? And what about the little boy who didn't like loud noises, who cried when things got too busy, too overwhelming, or too new?

Oh wait. That's me.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Ramble

So I just hauled myself up off of Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City," a big, overstuffed couch of a book I'd been stuck on for a couple of months. Larson offers a kitchen-sink account of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, focusing the whole glorious mess through the lens of the lives of two men: an architect and a serial killer.

I'd run aground because I was tired of reading about the serial killer, but I'm glad I finally managed to push through. The descriptions of the World's Fair are fascinating, even if Larson is prone to overwriting, and it's the kind of the book where the smallest detail, magnified, could be a book in its own right. I had already, for vaguely embarrassing reasons I won't go into, done a fairly substantial amount of research on midwestern life during the Gilded Age. But Larson still managed to surprise me many times over.

Among the surprises was Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape architect. By the time Olmstead, designer of NYC's Central Park and other magnificent spreads, took on the task of shaping the grounds of the World's Fair, he was old, infirm, and unapologetically cranky. Olmstead creaks his way through the pages of "Devil," pontificating here, complaining there, railing against this, that, and the other. Frankly I'm a little in love with him.

But what most interests me about Olmstead is that, years before conceptual art and "happenings," he conceived of art not as product, but as process. Throughout the year-plus of monumental labor preceding the fair, Olmstead is obsessed with the idea of "becomingness:" every element of the fair, from boats to buildings to landscape, must present itself as in process, evolving, becoming. Art for Olmstead isn't so much the shaping of sod as it is the shaping of experience. He's incensed, for example, when fair managers overrule his plan to have only one entrance to the fair, because he can no longer control fairgoers' first view of the White City.

Olmstead admits that the raw materials of art are cognitive. For his pains, he's beset by melancholia, abscessed dentition, dementia, and death. Take note: art rots your teeth.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Roses are Red

A friend of mine is in love. The guy she met is wonderful, is amazing, can do no wrong. But then late one night she calls me, her voice a low rumble on the phone. "What do I do?" I imagine her holed up in the bathroom, her knees tucked against her chest. "What do I do? He can't draw." My friend, an accomplished artist, had been thrilled that her beau shared her passion for art. Until the night she convinced him to show her his work.

My friend and her boyfriend are doing fine. He brings her takeout and stupid presents and she encourages him to sculpt, something she's never tried. She doesn't ask to see his work anymore. But it got me thinking about talent: how we measure it, how we value it, and if it matters.

Because we're definitely not equal-opportunity talent scouts. I don't think my friend would have cared if her boyfriend had been unable to, say, balance a slinky on his nose. Or, for that matter, if he'd stunk at math. No, my friend cared that her boyfriend couldn't draw because that was her area, the craft upon which she'd expended the most effort. She respected people who displayed talent in the area she respected, and she had to expend conscious effort not to disrespect a person who didn't.

Could it be that we measure talent not against some objective yardstick, but against our own capabilities? How terribly self-absorbed! Yet, I think there's some truth to it. I'm inordinately impressed when someone, say, assembles a desk from a box. Or, wonder of wonders, hooks up the DVD player. I'm impressed even though these are skills I'd wager a majority of the population possesses. It's just that -tragically- I don't. In contrast, I'm underwhelmed by the ability to sing happy birthday on key, another skill possessed by the majority of the population, this time including myself.

Once, in college, a guy with whom I'd gone on a single date wrote me a love poem. Now, guys didn't usually write me love poems. In fact, guys usually pursued me with the vigor of diseased turtles. So I probably should have been susceptible to the love poem. Only, well, it was bad. Really bad. Rhyming, wind-blown-hair and ruby-sunset bad. I was so embarrassed I hid it (and myself the next time he dropped by) under the bed.

Does talent matter? What if the poem had been only sort of bad, or slightly less good than what I could have written myself? What if it had been excellent? I doubt it would have changed the ultimate trajectory of the relationship (we didn't have much in common, and fifteen minutes into the movie he put his hand on my thigh) but it might have altered its rate of decline.

Maybe a better question is, should talent matter?

I don't know. But if you think you can put together my dining room table, come on by.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I See Young People

The other day my supervisor and I fetched a sixth-grade boy from his classroom to work on /r/. The boy looked like he'd been dunked in paraffin. My supervisor, making chit-chat, asked him how he got his hair wet, whereupon the boy, drawing himself up a little, told her it was gel.

I laughed. Aloud. And not particularly softly. I mean, the kid was prepubescent. Who was he kidding? It took me only a few seconds to choke off the giggles, but by then I was consumed with guilt. He hadn't heard, right? Please tell me he was distracted enough by the wriggly tide of first graders that he hadn't heard?

It's just that, well, he was so terribly transparent. Being older than someone gives you this monumentally unfair advantage, in that you can often, using your own experience as a resource, see inside people who think they're opaque. My fourth year at conservatory I played on the Orientation concert, arriving several days before any other upperclassmen. I still remember how excruciating it was to watch the freshmen lolloping around with their urgent small talk and desperately friendly smiles.

Really it's indecent: why can't the old allow the young the privacy to fuck up, look silly, and conceive of their experiences as original without someone looking over their shoulder? I certainly don't want some fifty-year-old snickering at the transparency of my flailings over career and personal relationships.

Except it's so hard to avoid. As a child, I was pretty much in a state of constant indignation that people, especially adults, didn't take me seriously. It was the bane of my existence: why couldn't I vote, why didn't my opinions count, and who on earth did these adults think they were to be able to force me to do things I didn't want to do? (This particular brand of obnoxiousness might help explain the vaguely constipated expression that flitted across my preschool teacher's face when she ran into me the other day). Anyway, as a kid, I SWORE that when I became an adult I would take kids seriously. I would always listen. I would never laugh.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Whole Grain Wheat Flour, Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Salt, Dried Yeast.

Some people seek perfection in their mates. Others look for it in nature, or art: this perfect sunset, or that immortal bronze. These people are all barking up the wrong tree. True perfection lies in grape nuts.

Every morning I wake up excited about my day. Is my day really that exciting? Well, no. But by the time I wake up, I'm usually starving. And there is nothing so piquant as lying in bed hungry yet replete with the knowledge that soon as you stop ineffectively mashing the snooze button, you can get up, go downstairs, and down a bowl of grape nuts.

Really I can think of nothing more closely approximating sublimity than the grape nut. It's malty, salty, coy in its denseness yet receptive to the advances of milk. It plays well with others. It resists through yielding, yields through resistance, and tastes, delightfully, of nothing so much as itself.

And of course, like a cherry on top of the world's biggest ice-cream sundae, there's the name. Grape nuts. No grapes, no nuts: just those two little words dangling their denotations like fishing line over the edge of the pier.

Take the bait.

Friday, September 7, 2007

M.D. and the Girlz

Merton Densher, he of the stupid name and stupefying passivity, has this to say about the straits in which he finds himself in the last tenth of his creator's novel: "There had been in all the case too many women."

And yes, our Merton has been led around by the nose a little. But too many women? Is there such a thing? I firmly believe there can be too many men: witness Jihadists, packs of fraternity brothers, and the White House. But packs of women don't seem to have the same destructive power as packs of men. (Discounting the Maenads, but I suppose it's never a reach to assert the existence of too many cannibals.)

Is there anything really wrong with female-dominated environments? I wonder about this sometimes, mostly because I can't seem to escape them. As much as I would dearly love not to be a girly girl, everything I want to do seems to be something done by, well, girls. For whatever reason, men (with a few exceptions) don't seem to hunger to teach small children, work with the elderly, or cooperatively dine.

Do we lose anything by their absence? Sometimes I don't think so. Other times -when I see a little boy light up for his male therapist, for example- I do. Perhaps the only thing I know with any modicum of certainty is that Merton Densher's an ass.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Climbs Up the Waterspout

I have been trying to figure out what's so terrible about Kate's scheme in The Wings of the Dove (thought I was done with that, didn't you? Heh). I mean, it's not as if she sets out to rape and pillage. There's no high treason. No one is guillotined, or crucified, or tied to a chair and forced to listen to The Itsy Bitsy Spider 49 times in a row.

No, Kate does something much more innocuous, yet at the same time more profoundly icky.

(Pause for SPOILER ALERT. Can you really issue a spoiler alert for a classic novel? Never mind. I just have. Because really, everyone should read the book! And then talk to me about it! At length! With cheese!)

What Kate does is to send her boyfriend to make love to a dying heiress. Now, when I say "make love," I mean it in the nineteenth- rather than the twentieth-century sense. (Though come to think of it, WOD features one of the most minimalistically sexy sex scenes I've ever had the privilege to read. It consists of a chapter break and is both passionate and transgressive.) In essence, Kate sends Merton to make Milly love him.

What's so awful about this? I think I've finally decided it's not so much the badness of the act as the fact that the act is sucking, like a leech, the blood of something good. Milly really does love Merton (god knows why; the man's a sap), and Kate's scheme turns Milly's love against her.

It's like defacing someone's valentine, or telling your husband you've been out shopping for his birthday when in fact you've been making chapter breaks with your secretary.

Nasty. But fun to read.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Help! I Ate the Grand Canal.

I finished The Wings of the Dove. And by God, I think someone should hand me a cookie! If anything in this day in age deserves a cookie, isn't it traipsing all the way through Henry James? (Never mind winning the Nobel Prize or anything. Wait, do Nobelists get a cookie? If not this is a gross oversight.)

As should be clear from the incoherence above, the book is still working its way through my system. For the next few weeks, I'll probably be more than usually given to tangents, complications, and communicative uncommunicativeness.

Tangent #1: The brain as a digestive system. We all know what happens when you eat an apple: down the hatch, out the other end, with certain nutritional contributions made along the way. But what happens when you quaff Merton Densher? How long does it take the brain to process him, and what is extracted along the way? What are the indigestible byproducts of Susan Stringham, and which chapters will end up sticking to your ribs? What's the importance of a balanced intellectual diet, and what will happen if I read too much fiction? Is there a way I can lose intellectual "weight," perhaps by subsisting for a month on a Hollywood Diet of tabloids and US weekly?

Tangent #2: Confession: I've never read US weekly, never even seen a copy. But it's the magazine that writers always use to represent frivolity. So I'm really using a pre-digested symbol here, kind of like a penguin chick subsisting on its mother's regurgitated finds. In fact, if things continue as they are, "US weekly" will lose its physical anchor, its connection to the world of real objects, and begin to exist solely in the realm of language. Kind of like "tarred and feathered" or "back in the saddle."

Back in the saddle: so I finished The Wings of the Dove. Only I don't really feel like I have finished, because I'm still sifting through, sniffing the spoor, examining the tracks of one plot development or another. I'm still reading, only now I'm reading the aftermath. It's an interesting text: grosser, weirder, less complete. Like an inside-out fossil, the kind where a trilobite rested for years, wore the shape of itself into the rock.

Too much metaphor: always the sign it's time for a good dose of US.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Dear John

Recently, I had to set my rates. No, I haven't succumbed to lure of the streets. Rather, I'm a (grossly under-employed) music teacher with one spanking new private student. This student, whom I'll call "Newton" (why aren't more people named "Newton?") pretty much conked me on the head: someone referred her to me, so all I had to do was field her emails about when and where I could teach. I pressed "send" and pressed "send" again. This was easy! I was an impresario of advertisement, a veritable marketing wunder-kind!

And then came the question, tucked at the bottom of an innocent email about parking: "What are your rates?"

I stopped cold. My rates? Sure, I knew I had them. Somewhere. In the drawer at the bottom of my closet, or maybe down around my pancreas, an organ in which I'd never quite been able to muster faith. I mean, yes, payment was part of the deal, definitely... Moving faster than I had since Aram Marks chased me around the playground trying to see up my skirt, I logged off my email, shut down the computer, and left the room.

Because what Newton was really asking me was how much I was worth. Right there, right then, I needed to catalog my capacities, abilities, and strengths, and slap a price tag on them. It was frightening, and confusing. How much did my left elbow figure into the equation? What about my unfortunate weakness for Northern Exposure? The fact that I didn't like Strauss? My double tonguing alone should fetch $3.75...

No one but a freelancer or a streetwalker is so baldly obliged to set a price on herself. It's an odd exercise, and one to which I'm sure I'll be subjected again.

It's $30 an hour, by the way. Ask about the sliding scale.