Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I do not like to run. I do not like strange places. I do, however, through some contrary alchemy, like running in strange places. Today I put on my new ear warmers and ran hesitantly through a run-down neighborhood in western North Carolina. The streets were the shifty kind, moving up and down and wiggling around when you weren't looking. There were no sidewalks. I ran up past the trailer park, away from the big black dog, down the hill that dumped you into the parking lot of Lowes. I got lost, then set myself straight. The mountains were hangdog and gentle; the sky was very blue.

At home, I have to trick myself into running. You'll only be out for a minute, I whisper. You can stop when you get to the end of the block, end of the park, end of the road. Running is uncomfortable and undignified and hard on the joints; it is not natural, like walking, or easy, like dancing. Yet, every time I go away, I take care to pack my running shoes. Sometimes they fill up half the tiny suitcase. Sometimes I take them in preference to other, more useful shoes, shoes that signal dignity or adulthood or anything other than "I run and I'm too cheap to be ashamed of lime green."

In 2008 I ran from one town to another in Connecticut. I ran down to the sea and back on a lonely road in Maine. I ran between strip malls in suburban L.A., under the eucalyptus trees in Palo Alto, up to the top of the hill in eastern Kansas, down the Colorado canyon, through the Ohio arboretum, past the early-morning drunks on the strict streets of that cinderblock Nevada town.

Sure, I could have walked. I would have been happier. I would have been considerably less out of breath. And, truthfully, I could have spared more of myself to observe, closely, the places in which I found myself. I might have cataloged more of the loveliness, more of the ugliness, simply more. According to journalist Paul Mowrer, “There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right tempo. Even a bicycle goes too fast.”

Still, there is that peculiar junction of strangeness and sweat that is running in new country. With all due respect to Mowrer, sometimes I think that a place truly impresses itself upon you not when you're taking it at any particular tempo, but when it's taking you: slow up the rise, quick down the hill, steady on the flat. If you let a place tax you, let it settle in your joints, you carry it with you when you go.

So long, 2008, you knee-grinding SOB.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

BWV 772

She slew the dragon with her mighty sword, and there was much rejoicing! Except my life is not that interesting, and really I just learned the C Major prelude to the point where, if I were balancing an encyclopedia on my rendition, it wouldn't necessarily fall off and crush my toes leading to gangrene followed by a long and tortuous death.

Some observations:

1) Harmony is fun!

2) Yet, there remains something profoundly unsatisfying about the keyboard. It reminds me of listening to music that cries out for dancing, music with a propulsive beat and an irresistible melody, only you're strapped to a chair and all you can do is wave your index fingers from side to side. There you are, broken at the waist, arms broken at the elbow, every part of you divided from the whole. Your mouth does nothing. Your breath isn't even part of the equation. Strange.

3) It is easy to underestimate the pleasure of adding a really honky sixteen-foot pedal C to the final note.

4) Practice may make perfect (or close to). But practice also has its perils, most notably the danger of rising standards. One day you're perfectly happy with a piece that totters along behind you like a mangy, spavined sausage dog of advancing years, and the next day you want a greyhound. A greyhound that knows how to phrase. I suppose it's a hazard of life: wanting always better, faster, more.

Gotta watch that.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Tasto Solo

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

From Here to Epiphany

Eureka moment of the day: Christmas is in DECEMBER! OK, OK, my epiphanies are lame. Next I'll be discovering shoes, or cheese on toast. Still, there's a distinction between knowing something and realizing it. Knowing is sitting on the couch drinking eggnog. Realizing is having the eggnog shot directly into your bloodstream via the huge needle in your ass.

I don't celebrate Christmas, except in a formulaic kind of way, but it's impossible not to notice its approach. The thing is a sasquatch. This year the shambling progress of tinsel and schmaltz has coincided with the onset of a particularly nasty winter. There's been ice, snow, water, and every gradation of precipitation between. I've lost track of when I last saw the sun. The house is old, under-insulated; my hands are a frozen bundle of bones.

To come clean, I've been kind of low-grade miserable for a while now, and the winter has only made it worse. I miss walking and vitamin D and socklessness. Like trees losing the camouflage of their leaves, some truths strip bare: I do not like my job. I do not like where I live. I am wasting [time, self, words]. I regret: acutely, chronically, painfully.

Of course, there's nothing for it but to slap some tinsel on a tree and keep going. Earlier Christians knew this, smart little suckers that they were, and plunked down in the middle of the darkest season a great big shiny bright star.

Merry Christmas, folks. Maybe I'll see you on the road.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Your Opinion, Please

You may or may not have noticed that I am fond of polls. (If you haven't, please check to make sure that all lobes of your brain are in their full upright and locked positions.) I like writing them. I like voting in them. I like reading the results (vote, damn it!). In college, I won two penny-ante gift certificates to a mediocre local restaurant by voting compulsively in the (dull as a comatose actuary) online poll sponsored by the college development office. Those two bagelwiches changed my life.

Seriously, though, there is something profoundly reassuring about polls. They dice the world into neat little bite-size pieces. They elucidate your options. They allow you the luxury of making a choice without the pain or inconvenience of its consequences. Polls are decision-making lite: all the taste, none of the calories.

So I couldn't help but pay attention when I spotted the poll on local musical talent in the Indy Star's online cultural section. Apparently, 23% of internet readers think Indy is a rock 'n roll city. 22% think the indie rock scene is the best. A mere 2% opt for folk music. Eight categories were listed in all. Classical music was not one of them.

Are you surprised?

*Get to the point

I wasn't surprised. The fact of the matter is that no one listens to classical music. At least, no one capable of using a mouse. The only people under 40 I ever see at classical music concerts these days are people who would rather be playing it.

Then there's the advertisement I saw on the back of a theater program this weekend. Sponsored by Citizen's Gas, it shows a spunky little girl in a hat posed beside the following text: Lady Macbeth. First Chair. Lucia di Lammermoor. Prima Donna. Painter. Poet. President. With the support of Citizen's Gas, in other words, this little girl could fulfill any artistic dream (I fail to see how natural gas facilitates one's operatic career, but perhaps this is dull-wittedness on my part.) Nowhere on the advertisement is there any mention of who will be watching or reading or listening or buying the output of our heroine.

Is it just me, or is something ugly underway here? No one reads anymore, but everyone writes. No one buys art, but everyone paints. No one buys tickets to the symphony, yet music schools churn out a thousand wanna-be french horn players every year.

Of course, I have two music degrees and a blog, so I'm not really in a position to condemn. Still, why isn't "audience member" included on that little girl's list of dreams? Who does she think is going to come see her sing or honk or emote or read or splatter paint on canvas? Are we so deep in the thrall of ourselves that we no longer value the arts -and arts they are- of reading, watching, listening, sitting still?

*I am all the audience I need
*I am my own Grandpa
*Wanna hear my bassoon solo?

Sunday, December 21, 2008


n. The singular sorrow of bringing something to a potluck that NO ONE EATS BUT YOU.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Day Out

The world has slackened again. Your day-to-day life is pulled so tight you don't recognize how thin, how threadbare you've become until vacation arrives and the whole of creation hollows like a sheet before snapping you into blue air.

You remember being tossed like this. You remember how many hands it took, the way the sun leaned in. It's what wells up in you when you have nothing to do and nowhere to be, when you leave a blank. Nature abhors a vacuum -so keeps an untidy house.

You remember this and other inconvenient things, and you let them stew. The air is turning colder; the sky is an iron bar. The Fed-Ex man delivers the wrong package. You sit a moment with the gift: someone else loosing their grip.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dates, Pomegranates, Plums

Dating is dead. Yes, we all knew this, but we didn't REALLY know it, because it hadn't yet been written up in the New York Times. Now it has. In an opinion piece called "The Demise of Dating," Charles Blow bemoans the skyrocketing percentage of folks of all races, genders, and educational attainment levels who claim to be "never daters:" that is, people who enter all relationships through the doggie door of hooking up.

According to Blow, "Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date."

My interest is pretty academic at this point (marriage puts a distinct damper on dating) but it sounds to me like the "new model" is for chickenshits. Asking someone out is scary: hooking up is not. Hooking up puts physicality at the top of the bill; dating prioritizes non-physical compatibility. Physicality is easy. It's the non-physical stuff that's interesting.

I'm ascending toward high dudgeon when I recollect my single bona fide real-deal "date," a trip to the 2-dollar movie theater my freshman year in college with a senior I barely knew. The film was some wispy, chinless scion of the Bond dynasty, with lots of explosions and even more dirty jokes. My date laughed uproariously at every double entendre and kept trying to put his hand on my thigh.

Down with dating!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Moo: Jane Smiley

"There were many people on campus who wore rags, went barefoot, played the recorder in front of Old Capitol, handed out leaflets, and drove VW buses with slogans about sex painted on the sides, but Elaine had done them the favor of ignoring them."

p. 243: The recorder as hippie sex-addict accessory.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Project(ile Vomit)

So I'm embarking on a project. Projects are important: something to make you feel as if you're locomoting through life rather than merely drifting along. Unfortunately, I'm too chickenshit to attempt projects of actual utility (forming a musical group, penning a literary novel, composting) so I've been forced to fall back on useless projects (hammering out two insipid romance novels, Master's thesis).

Trouble is, I finished the second romance novel last week, and I'm tired of writing them. There's only so many synonyms for smolder, after all, and my characters have a distressing tendency to get it on.

No, I'm ready for something new. Something thorny, pointless, and Sisyphean. Yes, my friends, I'm ready for Bach.

Some exposition:

1) When my favorite college coffee shop/music store closed down my senior year, I bought a cup of coffee and the Urtext of Bach's Inventions and Sinfonia for keyboard, this latter purchase being the kind of talismanic gesture people make when very frightened or very hopeful, like spitting when you hear the devil's name.

2) As of Friday, there is a small 1970s Rodgers electronic organ with full pedalboard in my dining room. This is not my fault.

3) Although I am a musician, I am not a keyboard player. My keyboard experience is as follows:

a) Age 6. Six months of desultory study with embittered graduate student on electric keyboard above local music store. I did not practice. Repertoire: Go Tell Aunt Rhodie.

b) Age 17-18 About a year and a half of piano study, w. heavy emphasis on theory, with very talkative harpsichordist. I practiced indifferently. Repertoire: Bach Prelude in F Minor, learned laboriously over six months, still the only piece I can play.

c) Age 18-19. Played short chordal patterns on piano for sullen keyboard monitors in an attempt to pass Music Theory. Success! Repertoire: I vi IV V I.

d) Age 22. Realized I had better dispatch undergraduate keyboard requirement. Conned a friend into teaching me organ, and thereafter spent every lesson gossiping shamelessly about other organists. No actual learning accomplished. Profoundly suspicions of pedalboard. My friend never teaches again, later moves to Sweden. Repertoire: Snark.

e) Age 24-25. Lit on brilliant plan to take two semesters of basso continuo as best way to obtain Performer Diploma without doing any actual work, plus enable self to accompany small, inept students w. out. shelling out for accompanist. Success! However, still cannot actually play keyboard. Repertoire: accompaniment for Go Tell Aunt Rhodie.

All of which leads me inexorably to the first statement of the theme of the post, in which I announce my intention to learn all 12 Bach 2-part inventions on the electronic organ. Rules:

1) I have until December 31, 2009 to learn all 12 pieces, but I can start now.
2) I will use only the first manual. I will not use the pedalboard unless I accidentally step on it while climbing on and off the electronic organ.
3) I am allowed to abandon the project if I like. It's my party; I can cry if I want to.
4) By "learn" I mean be able to play smoothly without stopping, even if my tempo for all inventions remains along of the lines of "dirge." Playing Bach agonizingly slowly on the electronic organ is historically informed insofar as a really bad keyboard player in the time of Bach, who had access only to an electronic organ which had traveled from the 1970s in a time machine, would play Bach agonizingly slowly on the electronic organ. Take that, Donnington.
5) I will not spill water on the electronic organ.

Wish me luck! I will be posting updates periodically. On to invention number 1, the C Major, better known as easiest keyboard piece in the world. Can I sight read it? No.

Monday, December 8, 2008

E.B. White Said:

"I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day."

Damn straight.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

On Decoration

I'm staring at the poinsettia on the dining room table. It's a small poinsettia: moderately healthy, inordinately red, more than a little insouciant. It was thrust into my hands as I was leaving a staff Christmas party. Protesting seemed futile -who spurns a potted plant?- nor could I, in conscience, heave a living thing out of the car window at 60 miles an hour. And Lo, it came to Pass that on the Friday before the Second Sunday of Advent, I took the thing home and plunked it on the table.

It hulks, the poinsettia. It casts a malevolent red shadow longer than its five or six inches warrant. Crouched next to the plant is the ear of decorative corn that came in my CSA share and which I tried, and failed, to eat. Even though it is Advent, even though Christmas shimmers in the shadows like some blind, deep-water fish, the poinsettia and the ear of corn are (and will remain) the only encroachment of the Great Dark Army of Decoration into my house.

I am not a decorator. This is a bedrock kind of character trait, buried down deep with introversion and hot-headedness and sensitivity to noise. When I was growing up I refused to wear anything but buttonless, zipperless, of-a-piece clothes in solid colors, which caused my southern-belle grandmother to frown at her DAR membership card and grumble about elves.

I have lived a lifetime of white walls, bare windows, and furniture I dragged off the curb. It's not that I am especially clean or tidy or austere; rather, my decorationlessness springs from some soul-deep laziness, some profound disinclination to go the extra mile or the extra millimeter. I eat out of the pan so as not to have to wash dishes. I do not make the bed. When I walk, I cut unhesitatingly across greenswards and parking lots and flowerbeds, seeking always that sweetest, shortest line.

Most of the time, I am resigned to this particular facet of my personality. After all, a thousand poinsettias didn't save Martha Stewart from having to wear an ankle bracelet, and those of my neighbors who put up elaborate, ghostly displays in their yards for Halloween have to take them down now. IN THE SNOW.

Still, this morning as I traipsed past the Christmas tree sale at the big, old neighborhood church, I felt in my soul the barren pang of the Undecorated. It was a blazing, frozen morning. The men dragging Christmas trees out into the churchyard sported jaunty red noses and ostrich plumes of breath. Someone helped a young mother heave a tree onto the back of her truck; a hale, behatted young man marched off down the street with a six-footer tucked beneath his arm. Toward the middle of the yard, two wizened men threw branches onto a fire; the air filled with the mingled scents of pine and smoke.

What is missing in me, I thought, that I don't want this in my life? That I'm not frantically figuring out how to squish a Douglas fir into the back of my Plymouth Acclaim, that I neglect to make room in my heart for green, for glitter, for a tree-topper that flashes "Merry X-mas" like a disco ball drunk on peppermint schnapps?

Hunkered in the steeple's shadow, I wondered if I lacked something important. If I was born without some flourish, some essential grace of humanity, like a baby born without toenails. By then I was already cutting across the churchyard, hands in my pockets, the wind slapping my cheeks into bloom.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Salt Pig!


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

64 Questions More Than You Wanted to Know

1. What's your name?
Anne with an e. WITH AN E, DAMN IT!

2. What is your favorite thing to wear?
Fuzzy slippers.

3. Last thing you ate?
Chocolate. Off of my fuzzy slippers.

4. One place you will NEVER eat?
Chuck E Cheese. There's not much more terrifying.

5. I say 'shotgun,' you say:
Cars are evil rattletraps.

6. Last person you hugged?

7. Does anyone you know wanna date you?
Um. Do I know any polygamists? Hi polygamists!

8. Would you date anyone you met online?
Alex Ross. Hi Alex Ross!

9. Name something you like about your physical self:
My hands are pretty.

10. The last place you went out to dinner?
The Runcible Spoon. Mmmm. I had a black russian: pumpernickel w. roasted veggies, cheese, and special sauce, plus garlic mashed potatoes.

11. Who is your best friend?
Superlatives box you in.

12. What time of the day is it?
9:09 PM.

13. Who/What made you angry today?
Turn-signal abstainers. The turn signal is a beautiful thing.

14. Baseball or football?
Boring and boringer.

15. Ever gone skinny dipping?
Yes. And again.

16. Favorite type of food?
Cheese. Is this a rhetorical question?

17. Favorite holiday:
Thanksgiving. On the minus side: enforced gratitude. On the plus side: food.

18. Do you download music?
How do you work this computer thingy?

19. Do you care if your socks are dirty?

20. Opinion of Chinese symbol tattoos?
Pain is bad.

21. Would you date the person who posted this?
Would I date John Green? Um. Well, he is pretty nerdy. Also married. Also kinda cute. I'm going to stop answering the question now.

22. Has anyone ever sung or played for you personally?
Yes. This is an unavoidable hazard of music school.

23. Do you love anyone?
Yes. Multiple folks.

24. Are colored contact lenses sexy?

25. Have you ever bungee jumped?
Hell no, we won't go.

26. Have you ever gone white-water rafting?
What is this, purgatory?

27. Has anyone ten years older than you ever hit on you?
Yes. But not with very much conviction.

28. How many pets do you have?
The cuddliest pet of all: my imagination! (Oh God I need a kitten.)

29. Have you met a real redneck?
I live among them.

30. How is the weather right now?
Cold; flurries.

31. What are you listening to right now?
That zzzzhhhh the heater makes.

32. What is your current favorite song?
Eh? Song? Is that like a sonata?

33. What was the last movie you watched?
The Sex and the City Movie, in an attempt to cure pre-birthday depression. The movie sucked. I still felt old. Those girls do nothing but buy shoes.

34. Do you wear contacts?

35. Where was the last place you went besides your house?
Work. Bleh.

36. What are you afraid of?
Heights. Airplanes. Worms. Vampires. Storms. Disease. Love. Scorpions. Elevators. Other people. Famine. The future. Safaris. What am I not afraid of?

37. How many piercings have you had?

38. What further piercings do you want?
None. Ignorance was bliss.

39. What's one thing you've learned this year?
Chocolate and bacon, combined, launch a no-holds-barred assault on sublimity.

40. What do you usually order from Starbucks?

41. What Magazines are you reading?
The Atlantic. The New Yorker. Newsweek. Indianapolis Monthly. O: The Oprah Magazine. How is it that I manage to be both lowbrow AND snobby?

42. Have you ever fired a gun:
Do Nerf guns count?

43. Are you missing someone?

44. Favorite TV show?
Freaks and Geeks!

45. Do you have an obsession with WoW?
What the heck is WoW? Wooing Ocelot Widows? Wonderful Orange Windows? Help me out here, folks.

46. Has anyone ever said you looked like a celeb?
No. Though an ex-boyfriend once told me I looked like the pre-pubescent girl peeking out of the woods in Braveheart right after her family gets slaughtered. I probably should have taken this as a sign.

47. Which celeb do you look like?
Gilbert Gottfried?

48. Who would you like to see right now?
See, like visuals only? See like talk? Too much wiggle room here. Also that should be "whom." Probably more indicative of my personality than my answers is the extent to which I've gone around tweaking the grammar of the questions.

49. Favorite movie of all time?
I'm not really a movie person. Possibly, despite all my pretensions to intellect, my favorite movie is "Elf."

50. Do you find yourself loved?

51. Have you ever been caught doing something you weren't supposed to?

52. Favorite smell?

53. Butter, plain, or salted popcorn?
No. Popcorn is freakish. I might lick the salt off, though.

54. What's something that really bugs you?
People who don't recycle. People who drive SUVs. People who lie to scientists for cash. I have a whole list. Wait, where are you going?

55. Do you like Michael Jackson?
I have a third-grader named Michael Jackson whom I see. He is a very nice young man.

56. Taco Bell or Burger King?
Enough with the Sophie's choices!

57. What's your favorite perfume?
Anything that smells of vanilla. Or roses. Because I am lame and conventional. Also I always feel as if I am being emotionally manipulated when I smell perfume, and that makes me cranky.

58. Favorite baseball team?
So you take the boring little white ball and you stick it up your boring...

59. Ever call a 1-900 phone number?

60. What's the longest time you've gone without sleep?
Possibly 20 hours? Sleep is a mistress with whom you don't trifle.

61. Last time you went bowling?
A year ago. I miss bowling.

62. Where is the weirdest place you have slept?
On the floor behind a small pipe organ.

63. Who was your last phone call.
Miyo. Hi Miyo! You don't read this blog, but hi anyway!

64. Last time you were at work?

65. What's the closest orange object to you?
The "Publish Post" button on my blog. Uh-oh.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Read it and Weep

I just heard an NPR commentary by author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars). I have a kind of schizoid fondness for Patchett; she repels me even as she pulls me in. Today's commentary I didn't mind. Patchett, in the course of speaking about a book-loving friend of hers, proposed a special category of books: "Books I Read for Men." These, she admitted, tended to be thorny, tortuous, and LONG.

AMEN! I wonder if each of us has, secreted somewhere in our hearts, a list of Books We've Read for Men (or Women). Below, an expurgated version of mine:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
A Clockwork Orange
Still Life with Woodpecker
The Brothers Karamazov (ATTEMPT)
Shogun (most of it; unfairly thrust upon me when I was puking my guts out and couldn't lay hands on anything else)

Ugh! Feel free to pass along a few of the dragons you bearded in the name of love.

Still, I don't want to seem too negative. Reading is reading, whomever you do it for. And reading for love (or lust, or friendship) is a generous act, a way of sharing, if only for a few hours, your mental space with someone else. Besides, the Kundera wasn't all that bad.

Patchett asserts: "A friend with whom you can read -and reread- The Ambassadors cannot be replaced." Sure, I have people in my life who love me. But I find it sad -almost unspeakably so- that I have no one in my life at the moment who would read a book for me. Or better yet, with me.

Sniffle. I'm taking applications!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Black Friday

It's the Friday after thanksgiving, the day we stop being grateful and start getting grabby. Hours ago, several hundred miles to the east of us, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a horde of eager shoppers. K and I don't know this yet. We are familiar, in a general way, with the havoc want can wreak: each of us has wanted, ruinously, in the past. Still, walking miles through the cold, clear afternoon, we want profligately. We want tea.

We fight half-heartedly about where to go. K is the oldest friend I can still claim as my friend, if friends nose in and out of each others' lives and do not ask permission. She wants a teapot, some ceremony. I want to sit and press something hot to my bottom lip. I veto the coffee house where I have never had a good time, not once, not even with people I like, and also the coffee house run by sleek-maned evangelicals. We end up at the same place I always end up, the place with poor service and mediocre coffee and walls and walls of books.

The tea comes in mason jars. The waitress says they are out of what I want. They are out of what I maneuver myself to want instead. My third choice is lavender-flavored and scalding and as I taste it I feel the deep, unwanted upswell of love. My friend is deciphering the subtle signals of the hand of fate and I am talking smack. She asserts she has never been cheated on Ebay. I remind her that she has been cheated on Ebay, and how. I talk about what I wanted in high school. She informs me I wanted something else entirely.

Outside, the wind is draining from the day. There's no one in the coffee house, just a sad man hunched over a mug; the town has emptied out. I love the way the holiday gapes, the sky's wide-open mouth. Writers have tried to convince us that memory dwells in the body, that we, like trees, carry within us the mark of our past. K tells me I'm talking crap. The past is something we carry for each other, a way we share the load.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Among the Things for which I am Thankful

#12. The option not to use the stand mixer if I so choose.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the John

Facebook having replaced actual human contact these days, I was having a cyber-conversation with an old friend of mine this morning. I told her about my preschool student who peed on the floor. She told me about her preschool student who peed on the floor. You know: the important stuff.

How, I asked her, can human beings be so small and inept? My friend's answer was egregiously wise and I'm going to parrot it shamelessly: "It takes practice and dedication to learn to be human."

Agreed. Even if we make it to the toilet, most of us are still trying.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Work

To me, the vocabulary of physics has a gravitational tang. Even when physics terms make their way into other linguistic spheres, they carry with them a sense of weight and inevitability that makes for heaviness on the tongue. I'm talking force, torque, inertia, mass: musty, lumpen words that smack of tenth grade.

Then there's work. Work, to put it mildly, weighs on me. It has its own unit of measurement, the erg, though I've also quantified it in hours, days, and pain. Currently, I go to work Monday through Friday, and I spend a good chunk of time outside of working hours thinking about work and its place in my life.

The psychologist Howard Gardner thinks about work, too. Specifically about good work, and what makes a job worthwhile. According to Mr. Gardner, the criterion for "good work" is threefold: it must combine excellent performance with an expression of one's ethics and a sense of engagement. Minus any of these ingredients, a job may be remunerative or even rewarding, but it is not good work.

Do you do good work? Because I don't. I've waffled rather spectacularly with regard to career over the last ten years, and I think a large part of my indecision has been difficulty balancing these three components. Currently, I work as a therapist in the inner city schools. This job does an excellent job of expressing my ethics, but that's about as far as it goes: I am only intermittently engaged by the work that I do, and it's a job that meshes poorly with my natural talents and abilities. I am mediocre at my job, and that depresses me.

In contrast, there are jobs I've dabbled in that are suitably engaging and that play better to my strengths, but which fail at some level to express my ethics. I wish I felt that making music or scribbling the odd poem was enough of a contribution to the world, but I don't. I don't condemn people who choose to be musicians or writers -in fact, I'm pretty damn jealous- but for myself, I feel like it's not an ethical option.

How to achieve the triple crown? Search me. For now, I'll just lie back and think of ergs.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I Wanna Text you Up

Reading gets you into all kinds of trouble. You from unrealistic expectations of the opposite sex. You forget to do your laundry. You are tagged in a meme. Darn you, Jaya!

Accordingly, I present you with the first, as-yet-to-be-produced, album in my nonexistent discography. Instructions were as follows:

1. Band Name: random Wikipedia link
2. Album Title: random quote generator (take the last four words from the first quotation on the page)
3. Album Art: Flickr Interesting Photo (pick one)

My album:

Sometimes serendipity bites you in the ass.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Meant to Do That

I just had another poem accepted for publication, my second. This is great: not only do I get to expand my audience from one (moi) to oh, say, three, but I can sense the scintillating threads of possibility unspooling before me. Maybe that first time wasn't a fluke! Maybe I have a modicum of ability! Maybe I'll win ten million dollars and a stuffed monkey playing pinochle!

Yeah. So anyway, it's always interesting to contrast which poems magazines like with which poems I like. In this case, I was bemused to discover that the poem the magazine accepted was one I'd pegged as the second-weakest of the four poems in my submission packet, far below the quality of the poem that was my favorite. In fact, when I opened the acceptance email, I was so shocked that I went back and looked at the poem in question, just to see what the hell they were thinking.

It turns out I'd seeded my last line with a particularly graceful double entendre having to do with grief and rocks. This would be fabulous, except that sucker was 100% unintentional. I revised the accepted poem six or seven times, and I missed my felicitous accident on every single pass.

Damn! Except in an odd way, this bamboozlement is what I like best about poetry: the fact that the process of writing a poem is almost as much discovery as creation. In fiction, you craft plotlines and character arcs. In poetry, you just try and figure out what the heck is going on.

Seamus Heaney once said, "The experiment of poetry, as far as I'm concerned, happens when the poem carries you beyond where you could have reasonably expected to go." Pushing past reasonable expectation is a lovely and amazing thing. Even if it does make you feel like a chump.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Up and Away

I've been racking my brain trying to come up with the Important Life Lessons I learned during this past week of traveling. Adversity builds character, right? And schlepping through half-a-dozen states and three concerts whilst sick as a crack-addled lhasa apso certainly qualifies as adversity. So where's my loot, dang it? All I can come up with is tired aphorisms like "Don't Judge a Hotel Shampoo by its Bottle," and "That Thing in the Bin with the Microwaveable Bacon is Not a Pancake and You Should Not Try to Eat It."

Or how about, "Don't Make Conversation with People who Look Crazy?" I was privileged to learn this one on the fifth of my six flights in seven days, whilst preparing for takeoff in a state of abject and totally unwarranted terror. Just as the plane was about to leave the gate, a disreputable looking gentleman shuffled on board and plunked himself down in the seat next to me. He was bearded, dirty, shifty-eyed, and smelled of liquor. When he did not place a drink order I instantly, with the impeccable logic of the nervous airplane passenger, assumed he was a terrorist. Who but a terrorist doesn't want free airplane drinks?

We taxied out. The terrorist turned on and off his cell phone, which I noted featured the welcoming message "Fuck the World." A few minutes from takeoff, I decided that the thing to do was engage him in conversation. If he was a terrorist, he might suffer some qualms about blowing up the nice woman next to him. If he wasn't a terrorist, I'd find out pretty quickly.

He wasn't a terrorist. For the next one hour and fifty minutes of flight time, he kept up a steady, mostly one-sided stream of conversation about the trucks he fixes up, the ways in which he likes to crash said trucks, his liquor preferences, his addiction to smoking, his brushes with the law, and his general worldview, which seemed to consist of the twin creeds Trucks before Women and Drunk Driving is Fun. Midway through the flight, he pulled out his tin of chewing tobacco and, talking around the pungent lump, proceeded to describe, in detail, the stash of porn he keeps on his phone.

Actually, come to think of it, I barely noticed the flight's considerable turbulence. Fight Fire with Fire; Fight Fear with Fear.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the Road

Sorry for the lack of blogging. I was jerked out of my regularly scheduled life for a week of pretending to be a freelance musician. This involved a seemingly endless spate of airports, hotels, rental cars, and meals out. I jetted from L.A. to Atlanta to the middle of Kansas, suppressing terror high above any number of intervening states, washing my hair with different hotel products, and eating an overweening number of dispiriting "continental breakfasts." Musicians' lives are only very slightly about music.

I do a number of these trips a year, and they are always hard for me. I'm a homebody, a scaredy-cat, a creature of routine. I do not like staying up late at night. I do not like schmoozing at receptions. I am terrified of flying; sitting next to crazy people doesn't help. Why, you might ask, do I put myself through this?

It's not the music. Sure, I love music. Yes, performing can be thrilling. And OK, OK, I like signing autographs. But really I do it for the sickening crack that is my regular life splitting open and falling away. I like to be swallowed abruptly by an alien world and then spat out the other side. I like yanking myself into a life that's not my own, wandering around a little, then coming home.

Slipping into and out of your skin is a privilege. I never forget that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Out the Door

Today, I did something bad. I won't give too many specifics (big brother is watching!) but suffice to say it involved a shirking of professional responsibility coupled with a mad dash through the side door of an auditorium when no one was looking. Or at least when most people weren't looking. Not my finest moment.

It had already been a day replete with, well, meaningless bullshit. In the early morning, I sat through yet another hour-long unpaid staff meeting, the contents of which proved, as always, irrelevant to my professional life. I was cranky, on the edge of sick, and half-incapacitated with post-election exhaustion. Then I was asked to attend a meeting in the middle of bumfuck dealing with post-secondary placement. I work at the elementary level.

It took me about an hour and a half to snap, but snap I did. I am not proud. Part of having a job -part of being an adult- is learning to put up with meaningless bullshit: there is an ungodly amount of it no matter what your profession. Not everything will be relevant or useful; there will be hoop-jumping and box-checking and a whole lot of lying down and taking it

The thing that scares me is I didn't realize I was really going to do the bad thing until I was halfway down the stairs. I had, in fact, struggled mightily with my low tolerance for meaningless bullshit all through elementary school -and middle school, and high school, and graduate school. My attitude several times shot me in the foot: I estimate I lost at least two teacher recommendations and a program placement. Still, the sharp edges of that struggle had been blunted by time. I thought I'd licked it. I thought I was an adult.

Turns out I'm just truant.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Filling in the Blank

On November 4th, Californians will cast their votes for or against Proposition 8, a ballot measure seeking to amend the state constituion to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. In doing so, California voters follow in the footsteps of voters in 26 other states (including four starting with M) who have passed similar ballot measures.

There's bigotry involved in the passage of these measures, sure. There's fear; there's ignorance. But there's also something more sympathetic: the raw, human hunger to codify the ways in which we connect to one another.

The cover story of the New York Times Book Review this week is about precisely the kind of connection that strays outside the boundaries of Propositions 8, 10, 12, whatever. William Logan reviews "Words in Air," the collected correspondence between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I've read the poetry of both: Bishop is tidy, Lowell is ravening. Yet these two ostensibly uncongenial artists, following a chance meeting at a party, carried on a passionate 30-year correspondence that ended only with Lowell's death.

All correspondence, save for the one each of us conducts with Internal Revenue, is interesting: unlike conversation, which can arise naturally from proximity, correspondence -especially paper correspondence- requires both premediation and impetus. Correspondence is a meeting of our edited selves, a tangling of our best feet.

Lowell and Bishop's correspondence is further enlivened by the kind of cross-pollination that inevitably takes place when good artists talk to one another. Yet what preoccupies Logan, what makes up the meat of his review, is good old-fashioned Proposition 8 fever. Baldly put, what were Lowell and Bishop to each other?

Not lovers. Though Lowell once confided to Bishop that he wished he'd asked her to marry him, there were impediments. Bishop was an alcoholic lesbian, for one, and Lowell was a womanizer prone to bouts of mania and depression. Still, the two were in many ways intimately involved, and Logan, in his review, documents these involvements with a detective's precision. He seems to be struggling -as, I confess, did I- to slap a label on the odd pairing, to define the relationship once and for all.

"Sublimated affair." "The love whose name Lowell...dared not speak." "Star-crossed lovers." Logan tries out names even as he describes how "the late letters often confine themselves to worries over age, money and dentistry." (In the face of poetry, cavities are refreshingly concrete.)

But maybe Logan and I should stop rooting around for definitions like pigs rooting for truffles and call a spade a spade: Lowell and Bishop were correspondents. Their letters to each other were simply their letters to each other; their words were simply their words. Whatever was contained within those words, whatever conflicting streams of feeling or thought, would not have fared any better given a name.

Leave a few blanks in life. Vote No to Proposition 8 on November 4th.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Death and Toilets

The funeral home is becoming visible again. All summer, it was obscured by the haze of green that settled over my kitchen window. But the trees are stripping down, now. The big walnut tree that maddens the squirrels stands nearly naked, and the sugar maples are slinking out of their coats. There's no longer much of anything between the windowpane and the row of hearses but air.

I'd forgotten, you see, that I lived cheek to jowl with all that death. Or rather, I'd forgotten that I lived so close to all that life: almost every Friday, many Saturdays, and the odd Tuesday, the parking lot of the funeral home fills up with cars. People in suits stumble into the building and then out again. They stand in the parking lot blinking in the evening light, blowing their noses and having conversations and surreptitiously checking out other folks' cars. Living by a funeral home teaches you that death is terrifying not because it is strange, but because it isn't.

The depressed and the overly literary (should these even be separate categories?) go a step further: they argue that we're dead all the time. In her essay "Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf asserts that we spend most of our lives, in effect, not living. It is only during a few scattered "moments of being," those scarce epiphinal seconds when the world stands up and slaps us in the face, that we are alive at all.

I used to think this was a load of semi-liquid horse hooey. This was because I never experienced any moments of being that couldn't be chalked up to indigestion. Yesterday, though, things changed. Miles from the funeral home, in a bathroom stall in a beat-up public school building scheduled to close within the year, I looked up. I'd been using the same bathroom for three months, but this was the first time I'd noticed that the tops of the bathroom stalls were garlanded with enormous fake purple flowers. Sure, I'd laid eyes on them. But I'd never seen them, never looked up at them and thought: oh, hey, look, there are some enormous fake purple flowers hanging over the toilet.

There were, in fact, enormous fake purple flowers hanging over the toilet.

It was the kind of small, stupid crease in the universe, the kind of startling perceptual origami, that would make Woolf proud. Or at least self-satisfied. Except she's long dead, and I'm the one standing with my hand pressed to the glass, watching the hearse pull in and out and in.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dunk, Dunk, Goose

I just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, and you should finish it, too. Not because every story gets you. Not because every story sneaks up behind you like a teenage bully at the neighborhood pool, presses down on your shoulders until you feel the world open up around you, flooding all the the strange, dark spaces inside you that account for breath. But because some of the stories do, and sometimes some is enough.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about what makes Jhumpa Lahiri's stories good. And though I do enjoy repeating myself and others, I've run five miles today and am tired, so I'll just say that, apart from the musculature, apart from the cruelty and the strength, the thing that elevates the best of the stories is the contrast between the shock of submersion and the inevitability that follows. Something is strange or new, exotic; then suddenly it's the standard, the truth, the blue all around.

"Going Ashore," the final story in the collection, is both tragically conventional and conventionally tragic. Yet, embedded in the slow descent of the piece is a description of a moment I remember vividly from my own life, of giving up something you want not because it is the right thing to do, or the smart thing to do, but simply because you can't seem to do anything else.

It is the kind of private turning, the kind of intimate quake, you never expect to see articulated outside of your body. In fact, until you see it there, splayed on the page, letters thrusting into blank, you could imagine that it happened differently, that it never happened at all.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Around and Stop

It's tough to break up: you've invested so much time and energy in someone that even the fact that he's a schlump with a taste for emo rock can't seem to dim your resolve to stay together no matter what the cost.

Similarly, it's tough to admit to yourself that something you've spent years working on is something that no longer interests you. I was listening to yet another high-Baroque trio sonata on the radio program Harmonia when it dawned on me: this was boring. There went the two solo instruments schlepping through the circle of fifths; there went the baseline, lumbering on its way. The harpsichord provided obligatory flourishes as the whole self-satisfied burgher of a piece strolled past, never breaking a sweat.

The truth is I'm getting more musical satisfaction these days messing around on the tin whistle than doing anything I'm actually supposed to be doing. Celtic music may be eminently predictable, but at least it's got the kind of instinctive thrust good music should have. I once explained to a professional bodhran player that one of my principal weaknesses as a musician was that I neglected to justify my musical choices with historical precedent. He looked at me askance. "Why the hell would you want to do that?" he asked.

Why indeed?

Still, there's something sad here. The death of love is the death of love, no matter that my lover was only a certain collection of sounds, that the death was a wearing away so slow it was years before I noticed I was all by myself.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hello to Regular Joe

I was in it for the coffee.

I'm not really a see-'em-in-person kind of gal, but there was fresh-brewed liquid energy on offer, plus diner breakfast, so I dug my coat out of the closet and walked out the door into the bright chilly blue of my vacation day. It was 11:00 AM and Barack Obama was speaking two hundred feet from my favorite breakfast joint.

34,999 other souls apparently didn't even require the lure of caffeine: downtown Indy was packed. People pressed themselves into metal barriers, climbed trees, ranged themselves around the overflow screens the campaign had set up to broadcast the event. Barack was running late: by the time he strolled onto the podium in the middle of the American Legion Mall, Senator Evan Bayh had already warmed up the crowd, then handed it over to be cooled down by one of the mythical tribe of "regular people," a woman who told a sad, incoherent story about descending the rungs of the economic ladder.

(Who ARE these "regular people?" I've noticed that, campaign-wise, the defining characteristic of "regular people" appears to be an uneasy relationship with the English language. This is probably why so many "regular people" are suspicious of Obama's fluency and comforted by Sarah's slaughter of syntax. Spreading your words around smacks of Socialism.)

See, that was a nasty, cynical aside designed to illustrate my nasty, cynical streak. A streak that rendered me doubly unprepared, standing there jammed against 34,999 fellow Obama supporters and a couple of eerily life-like cardboard cut-outs, to be ambushed by that wily opponent of cynicism, inspiration.

My day-to-day relationship with inspiration can be summed up in three words: Kiss my ass. Yet, there I was, howling like a maniac, raising my arms to the heavens and choking back the lump in my throat that kept materializing whenever I looked around at 34,999 businessmen, mothers, schoolchildren, bums, camera-wielding cyclopses, aging hippies, union men, apprentice chefs, bicycle messengers, hoodlums, crazies, grandmothers, amputees, and "regular people." For once, maybe the only time in our lives, we were all in it together.

Barack Obama: better than Metamusil.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Whazzup, Sarah?

Today's NY Times Week in Review section contains a chilling article on Sarah Palin's popularity with men. McCain's VP pick was selected at least in part to appeal to women, but it turns out that the big Palin fans, the ones who paint letters of her name onto their hairy chests and yodel their devotion to the cameras, are men. From the day McCain announced his choice, men's approval of Palin has led women's by a 10-point-margin.

What gives? And why is it dangerous?

I call it the hot babysitter effect. Now, more than ever, our country needs someone to look after it. Each of us is busy with our own affairs, our own homes, our own towns; the country needs someone to watch it for us while we go about the business of living. Ergo, electing a President is like hiring a babysitter.

So what do women consider when they hire a babysitter? Most of us look for competence. We want our babysitter to know about the important parts of babysitting: feeding, bathing, ensuring diaper security. We want to the babysitter to have babysat before. We want to hear that she has good references from her last job.

And men want to know these things, too. But some men -not all men, mind you- look at the babysitter and think to themselves: DUDE, she's HOT.

Never mind that the babysitter thinks reading the label on a Pampers box that one time at Safeway makes her an expert on diapers. Never mind that she can't string together a grammatically coherent sentence. Never mind that the babysitter slapped around some kid at her last job.

Sarah Palin is the kind of babysitter -the kind of woman- certain men love. She responds to, and is appreciative of, the male gaze. She does not gainsay male pleasures, even if they involve killing things or drilling enormous holes in wildlife refuges. Her primary personae are those of wife and mother: these are helpmeet roles, roles that prop up, and are integral to, the lives of men. There's no part of the life of Sarah Palin that is unavailable to, or separate from, men. She likes men. She approves of men. She smiles at them, tells them she likes their big boots and their big guns, that she'll take good care of their child.

The woman is dumb as a post. But I can report (only a trace of bitterness, folks!) that intellect is not usually the first thing men look for in their babysitters or any other woman. Maybe they look for it second, or third, or fourth. Palin's male fan base looks for intellect sixty-seventh, between skill at rabbit gutting and ability to whistle Yankee Doodle.

Alright, I'm getting snarky. But the fact remains: Palin's base of support skews, and always has skewed, male. "Palin is our kind of woman," a male fan tells the reporter.

Dude. Scary.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Like, um, so, do you wanna...

Yesterday, I screwed up the courage to ask my coworker out.

At least, that's what I imagined it felt like. I wouldn't know: I'm past the asking-people-out stage of my life and, honestly, I never did it anyway. Asking people out is scary, and I am -let's be blunt- a Wuss Extraordinaire.

(One of the secret, shameful satisfactions of girlhood is that girls, in heterosexual culture, can get with this kind of cravenness. Boys, unless they're inordinately attractive, can't. Not that I really endorse the sitting-on-your-ass approach to dating. You unfailingly end up dating people who are braver than you are, which brings its own set of problems.)

Yet, there I was, a grown woman, dangling an ostentatiously casual invitation for a beer after work. My co-worker and I were both new to the area. We'd already gone through the awkward dance of "we should get together at some unspecified time in the future." I simply picked a time and a premise, then walked into my colleague's office sweaty-palmed.

And what, you might ask, drove me to this dark pass? The thing is, life after college and graduate school is isolating. We spend our whole lives moving apart: from sharing a room, to sharing an apartment, to setting up shop in detached houses with lawns. The lawns get bigger and bigger as we get older and richer, and then, eventually, we die. Alone.

OK, I got a little carried away there. But once you start your "real" life, after all that education has gone in one ear and out the other, how are you supposed to make friends? It's not like in preschool, when you both shared an abiding love of sand. All the way through school it was almost too easy: everyone around you was around your age, was at the same stage of life, shared geographic proximity. Friends practically fell in your lap.

Nowadays it's different. The only people I even lay eyes on are the people I work with. They are every age and every time of life, all of them locked in their own little nuclear cells all around the city. No one can go out for a spontaneous beer, because to do so would involve an hour of driving, not to mention the disposition of spouses, children, small animals in sweaters, etc.

This kind of sucks. Everyone knows it's harder to meet a mate after college or grad school. Fortunately we've developed a mechanism for that. It's called Internet dating. But simply making friends? There's no Craigslist for that. It's easier to find a dominatrix online than a friend. No, if all you want is a few folks with whom intermittently to have beer, you need to do it the old-fashioned way.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Spelling it Out

You used to have to remember stuff. Now you can let your brain go to screensaver (hello Barack-in-Speedo!) and throw yourself on the mercy of technology.

Take that little search rectangle in the corner of the browser. Type in a single letter and the industrious mole that lives in your machine unearths an alarmingly large, alphabetically cataloged chunk of your search history. Did you really look for this crap?

Under W:

Whiskey Island
Wat Zalmen

Under O:

opposite of iamb
one eighth percentage
Oberlin College Police
open window snowstorm
out of the depths I cry

Under R:

Rothko works
Ruth Miller
red suit

Under D

duck wedding
drive to the basket
dead sparrow
daily office


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Out on a Limn

Oh GOD I'm funny. Well, funny to myself. (If a tree laughs at its own joke in the forest, etc.)

But here, watch: that leaden titular pun is going to descend like a twice-retained Kindergartner on the teeter totter of this blog post, overbalancing the mechanism and propelling me upward into schoolyard legend.

See? Funny.

OK, OK. I guess I've just been thinking about imprecision. Bad in music, bad in writing, bad in the operation of trebuchets. But bad in life? Our day-to-day existence is terifically imprecise. We bumble. We putter. We muddle through. We let our minds cruise around like bored teenagers in small towns. Sooner or later most of us stop trying to figure out what's going on and just keep going.

Let's have some discipline, people! Starting with moi, owner of a starveling pack of ragamuffin thoughts masquerading as a brain. I am happy, I am unhappy: yeah, whatever. Shouldn't I be striving to limn, precisely, the daily dimensions of my joy and my pain?

So here goes. Three helpings of happiness, three dollops of despair, in no particular order. Gotta keep that teeter totter balanced.

*Walked three blocks to buy chard in the park
*Stopped at traffic light, 38th and Illinois
*Ingested repulsive potato pancake facsimile: chain restaurant, treeless suburb
*Received gift of radishes
*Thrashed arch-nemesis at online anagram game
*Imagined Sarah Palin as Commander in Chief


Thursday, October 9, 2008

On Swords; on Giant Apes

Sometimes I get on weird jags. Crime novels, or Indian authors, or movies about scrappy girls' soccer teams (the fact that there is more than one of these movies occasionally shakes my faith that all is right with the universe).

This week, thanks to a delicious dyad of documentaries I watched on back-to-back nights after work, it was nerds at play. I'd thought I was plenty nerdy. I do crossword puzzles, for God's sake. I go to bed at 9:30 PM. But after viewing King of Kong (2007) and Darkon (2006), I know I'm only a postulant in the Great Order of the Nerd. I mean, I can sometimes, with effort, pass as a normal person (it helps if I don't open my mouth). The stars of the two documentaries, on the other hand, could never pass. Not in a million years, not in a dark room on a dark night in dark clothing, not in the event of alien takeover. These folks are nerdiness incarnate. They are lustrous, incandescent, efflorescent paragons of Nerd.

They are also fun to watch. In King of Kong, a laid-off former high-school baseball player challenges a hot-sauce entrepreneur for the world record on the classic arcade game, Donkey Kong. In Darkon, a whole bunch of nerdy people run around city parks in full armor and bearing plastic swords, doing pseudo-battle and speechifying mightily.

Both activities were enrapturing. Not so much because I was interested in Donkey Kong (snooze) or mock battles (double snooze, plus shades the Great Laser Tag Debacle of 2002). Rather, I was enthralled by the strange interleaving of these folks' game lives and "normal" lives, of the ways in which passion presses up against mundanity.

It's an uneasy proximity. Omnipresent in both films, the elephant in the room full of Star Wards action figures, was hunger. Hunger for narrative, for childhood dreams, for connection, for the infamous something more. The stars of Darkon and King of Kong were ravening. They were starving. They'd scraped their plates, licked their forks, and raised their eyes heavenward. Is this all there is? The world beats its tattoo.

Fortunately it turns out there are also elves, and crashing around the underbrush in a padded jerkin, and Pac Man.

Who am I to judge? I'm hungry, too. Where did that cheese get to?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Back Talk

I've been wondering if every worthwhile piece of art is a Q&A. In other words, something that asks or answers, that exists in dialogue with something outside itself.

In other news, buttermilk is probably not something you should drink straight.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

37 Down

You know the song. You've heard it sung by someone, sometime, somewhere. It stuck with you because it's one of those rare pieces of music that both states and interrogates, that not only offers its wares the world but demands something back. Written by Leiber and Stoller, originally recorded by Peggy Lee but covered by a host of others, the song, with its open sore of a question, has long since oozed into the Zeitgeist.

Or, better, the Zeitgeist has long since oozed into the song.

I can get away with saying Zeitgeist because 1) I've had three cups of tea, 2) I spend most of my days trying to get small children to make "k" sounds, and 3) This blog entry is really about crossword puzzles. Yep. Is that all there is?

Peggy Lee may have asked aloud, but we're born with the question wriggling around in our gut like a worm in an apple. It's a universal query, though not a particularly interesting one: in order to live, we pretty much have to answer no. It's how we answer -all the different ways we refute Ms. Peggy, all the different arguments we marshall- that gets interesting.

A good portion of folks turn to one religion or another. Others use travel, constantly reassuring themselves that there's more out there, yet more stuff they haven't seen. Still others use movies, or reading, or meditation. I do the NY Times crossword puzzle every Sunday.

I almost never finish. Usually I manage to crack the central trick, but there are always some squares I can't fill. I do it in pencil, the better to erase, and I do it slowly, revisiting the puzzle like a chronic hurt. I do it for the prestige, for the glory, for the hordes of screaming crossword groupies who plaster themselves against my windows, hanging on every stroke of my number #2.

OK, OK. I do it for the moment I scribble "virid" under 37 down in answer to the clue "strongly green." Who knew I knew this crap? Yet here comes the word, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of some scrap of knowledge I burned long ago.

Is that all there is? There's more. There's strength, and green.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Have you Ever Made a Fool of Yourself?

I like Ira Glass and Ira Glass likes Radiolab. You do the syllogism.

Except I really do like Radiolab. In fact, there was riveting show on the other week about self-deception. Self-deception -like zealotry- is one of those personality traits that both enthralls and disgusts me. We all self-deceive to an extent, but people who routinely self-deceive are some scary fucks.

It turns out they're also (at least according to recent research) happier and more successful than the rest of us. In one study, conducted by psychologist Joanna Starek, competitive swimmers who answered in the negative to more of the embarrassing questions on Harold Sackeim and Ruben Gur's 1970s-era Self-Deception Questionnaire swam better over the course of the season than swimmers of equal ability who admitted more. (I've always sort of suspected self-deceivers had an edge: in music, an unquenchable faith in your talent seems to count for almost as much as talent itself.)

Just for the heck of it, I downloaded the questionnaire. I'd put myself someplace on the yes side for 17 of the 20 questions, which is probably more about me than you wanted to know. Guess I'll be swimming in that slow lane.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Morning is Broken into Tiny Pieces

One of the more acute tragedies of working life is that whole hours, whole blocks of time, go missing. 11:00 AM, 2:00 PM, 3:30 PM: it's as if you've misplaced pieces of your body, as if you're suddenly living life without your gall bladder or your second kidney or the third finger of your left hand. The days mutate into strange, shuffling creatures. You wander dazedly in the half-light. Some trick: telescoping life into endless dusk.

I know I'm spoiled. I know I'm privileged beyond ken. But isn't there something essentially human in tracking the hours, in bearing witness to the way the light moves across the sky? Thanks to an arcane bit of state law, my work schedule this week is irregular. All I can say is, 9:00 AM, you're looking pretty sexy to me.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Rhapsody in Blue

Shouldn't every major musical work be reinterpreted as supper?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Learning to Whistle

My license plate is about to expire. I've begun to eye them, license plates, staring like a cancer patient suddenly awakened to all the bald heads, all the absent breasts in the world. Something about the expiring license plate fills me with dread: it's an intrustion, a rapier thrust from the background of life into the tender flesh of now.

There are, in case you were wondering, a lot of license plates. There are old license plates and new license plates, dusty license plates and clean license plates, vanity license plates, paper license plates, license plates that proclaim their owners' allegiance to football or children or some other petty tyrant. There are even supplemental license plates, including the one on the front of the Buick three streets over that reads: Happiness is being a Grandma or a Grandpapa.

You know in your bones this license plate was a gift. Possibly from the the parents of the grandprogeny, but even more likely from the insensate grandprogeny themselves: purchased by their parents, wrapped in cheerful paper, then strapped like an explosive belt to their uncomprehending, incontinent bodies. Family is a beautiful thing.

Of course, once you get a license plate like this as a gift, you're cornered. A license plate is not like an ill-advised paperweight or an unfortunate object d'art. A license plate can't be relegated to the spare bedroom or the downstairs bathroom or the garage (doesn't Aunt Molly's self-portrait with fuzzy kittens set off the oil cans perfectly?). Nor can a license plate be regifted: it's awkward to wrap, and who are you going to give that clunker to, anyway? No, the only thing you can do with this license plate is screw it to your car. You are happy, damn it, and it's because your kids made babies.

I go a couple of days thinking this license plate is the height of passive-aggressive brilliance. What's worse than having someone else tell you how you feel? And then forcing you to broadcast it on the front of your Buick?

On the third day, I still think that. But I'm also walking past the Buick in the late afternoon. It sits quietly on the street, under a canopy of yellowing lives. The season is turning and the air is sharpening; someone in the house has set out, with care, a dozen plastic pumpkins of varying sizes. They are arrayed in order, from the size of a border collie to the width of my fist.

Maybe sometimes we need other people to tell us when we're happy. Maybe sometimes happiness sneaks up on us like a pickpocket, takes off down the road before we notice our wallets are missing and our hearts are lighter, and we need someone else to cry out.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Over the Roofs of the World

I used to disable the whistling mechanism on my teakettle, but after a series of unfortunate events involving melted plastic, Romancing the Stone, and an unexpected visit from a registered Republican, I've stopped. I now own a teakettle that sings to Jesus. Or Shiva, or the Tea Gods, or whatever it is that's mollified by infernal sopranissimo howling fit to wake the dead.

The question is how to make it stop.

There are, you see, several different strategies. Door #1 (aka Turndown the Burndown) involves flipping the stove dial of the appropriate burner to zero. (A less successful variation of this strategy involves flipping the burner behind the appropriate burner to zero.) Option #2 (Movin' on Up) involves the airlifting of the kettle to a neighboring burner, thereafter (hopefully) remembering to turn off the burner of origin. Finally there's strategy #3 (Flipping the Bird), wherein the would-be whistle annihilator flicks open the little piece of metal that occludes the spout.

WHAT TO CHOOSE? Turning down the burner requires the least of you in the way of bodily movement, but the barbaric yawping takes a while to die down. Flipping the Bird provides instant gratification -insofar as the removal of an aversive stimulus can be deemed gratification- but requires the insertion of your hand into Grave and Steamy danger. And transfer to an apposite burner offers the best of both evils, ensuring contact of your flesh with the hot metal handle AND a slow die-off of sound. Plus you still have to remember to turn off the burner.

If I slog through this agony every single time I brew a cup of tea, how in blazes am I supposed to make the big decisions in life? Like, oh, say, green tea or black?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lighting Up Redux

I'm standing at the open window trying to light a match. It's raining, not just a whisper but a full-throated howl. Rain does not extemporize. It states and restates itself, driving into the ground. Outside, a train wails. Church bells flare against the grey. I strike the red head of the match against the box and strike it again, once more, so many times the striking becomes like breathing, something I do to stay alive.

I want fire because it is raining. Because it is raining, the match won't light. Two hours ago, the woman who built the wooden fence flush with with our backyard washed every grey spear clean. There's an allegory here somewhere but it just won't kindle; I put the match between my teeth and bite down.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lighting Up

My favorite TV shows smack of ethnography. Story is important, but story is only one part -one eye, one lung- of a hulking, shambling world jolted to life every week in your living room. Ethnographic T.V. shows are the exception to the (mostly sucky) rule: it takes enormous effort to breathe life into a narrative, let alone into a whole universe. But to me, the payoffs -complexity, depth, and scope- are worth it.

The ethnographic show I've been watching lately is Mad Men (others that come to mind include The Wire and, oddly enough, the first season of the high-school football drama Friday Night Lights). Mad Men may not be Great Art, but its exploration of a mid-century Madison Avenue advertising firm has me welded to the set. I'm fascinated by the switchboards, the shellacked hair of the men, the Nixon campaign. I can't look away from the weird underwear, the unending sexual harassment, the casual assertion of male prerogative.

Not to mention the smoking. The cast must burn through 30 packs an episode. Every character smokes -young, old, male, female- and they do so with gusto. Rain or shine, indoors or out, alone or together: everyone is lighting up.

I'm disgusted, yes, but there's something about it that tugs at me. I've never been a smoker. The closest I've come is trashing an ex-boyfriend's cigarettes on the sly. Perhaps because of this, I never recognized the role cigarettes can play -once played- as filler. Life is a rough road: the cigarettes in Mad Men smooth out the gaps, make it easier to pass over difficult minutes or painful breaks. A cigarette is a piece of stage business, something to fill the silence, distract the eye, give yourself space to breathe.

Of course, you won't be able to breathe for very long if you're smoking, and I am in no way advocating that we jump back into Big Tobacco's pocket. But I think we lost something when we put down our cigarettes. Just a little thing: a flare in the dark, something to do with our hands.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Blogs

It's hard for me to tell if I'm switching my allegiance from the New Yorker to the Atlantic because I actually prefer the Atlantic or because the Atlantic is what's lying around my living room. In any case there's no denying my slow accretion of acceptance: similar, I imagine, to way people in arranged marriages gradually grow to love the lumpen mangler of metaphors scarfing dinner across the table from them despite the svelte soccer stars of their youth.

(Lest I be accused of more than my -OK, OK, at least moderate!- share of cultural snobbery, I should note that in addition to this month's Atlantic, I've also read this month's issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, as well as portions of the April issue of a spavined magazinelet called Indianapolis Woman that's been sitting on a table in the teacher's lounge since the beginning of school. Desperate times, my friends.)

Anyway, this month's Atlantic contains nude photographs of Cokie Roberts. That's a lie, but I'm betting I have your attention now. This month's Atlantic contains a pot-shot at blogs, which literary editor Benjamin Schwarz claims serve up, by definition, "unedited, impromptu, self-important ruminations on random events and topics."

He's certainly right about mine (except for the unedited bit -I do give my entries an OCD once-or-twice over...this works better when I am not sleepy). But I wonder if Schwarz has committed the classic scientific blunder of assuming he's got the whole truth because he's got ahold of part of it. I've sifted through a number of blogs and it seems to me there's a taxonomy. (Not to be confused with taxidermy, though I suppose blogging is a forced preservation of something or other.)

I slot blogs into four basic categories:

1) Promotional blogs. Blogs that are trying to sell you something or someone.

2) Niche blogs. Blogs in which you take on a predetermined subject or subjects. These are subject-driven blogs: e.g., the subject is the engine and you're there to steer.

3) Response blogs. Blogs that respond to the stimuli of "random events and topics." Self-important at times, self-focused in its way, but the self isn't the main show. Rather, it's about the world as filtered through the self, self not as content but as form. The world is the engine; you're along for the ride.

4) Documentary blogs. What you did yesterday, and the day before. What you ate, what you saw, what you read: a retelling and/or memorialization of your life. Here self is content and form is incidental: you're the engine. Your words or pictures are the body of the car.

I don't really have a judgment on the superiority of one or another of these categories, except to say that promotional blogs are almost universally snoozeworthy. I write a response blog, but I read blogs from categories 2, 3, and 4. As a group, niche blogs are usually the best-written. Documentation blogs are often the worst-written, but I read more of them than anything else because I'm incurably nosy.

Schwarz is right. But he's also wrong, in that by lumping all blogs together, he misses the subtler distinctions that make things interesting. Some of us think the meat of life is in what we do. Some of us think the meat of life is in how we react. Still others of us think it's in what we sell or what we devote our time to. I think that's worth a rumination or two.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What Not to Wear

I had just extricated myself from financial peril (aka turned in my library books) and was walking toward Walgreens to buy goldfish crackers and bubbles (don't ask) when I stopped at the crosswalk. W. Street is busy at the best of times, and it was rush hour, so I had kind of a wait. I fidgeted. I stared at my feet. I listened as an eloquent gentleman in a run-down pickup truck composed a lengthy extempore ode to my rear end.

(Sir, you were both creative and thorough, but I have to confess I was a little miffed. Why not my elbow? Or my clavicle? Why is it that the the only rhapsodizing I've ever inspired isn't about my brain or my talent or my *AHEM* winning personality, but instead exalts the part of me I sit on? Not to mention: dude, you need to get out more. There are superior posteriors!)

My one overriding thought at the time: CRAP. I GUESS I CAN'T WEAR THOSE JEANS.

See, it took the pickup truck lothario to show me how far I've strayed. As women we are taught to garner the attention we can, to be at all times as attractive as we can be. It's a straitjacket I've intermittently resisted, but yes, I remember dressing to look cute.

In the past year, though, I've begun -only half-consciously- to chose clothes and hairstyles not based on whether they look good, but on whether they make me, from a sexual perspective, invisible. I've rummaged through the dresser for my baggiest, rattiest T-shirt to wear on a walk, yanked back my hair prior to meeting friends, bought a shirt specifically because it was drab and mildly unflattering.

Part of this is a time-of-life thing. Part of it is big-city living. But today it was driven home to me that dressing for invisibility is just as much of a restriction as dressing for attention. Why should I have to retire those jeans? Why should I have to wear them? Why should I have to dress up or dress down? Why can't I just cover my *$#@#$ XXX-tra fine *&#$##-able $*# with whatever the #($*# I want?

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Rarebit

Lately, for one reason or another, I've been in need of comfort. I suppose I could have turned to drink or drugs or religion, but instead I've turned to rarebit. And why not? Rarebit is easy to make, does not require chewing, and is possessed of a name that is WAY FUN to say. Plus tomato rarebit uses seasonal produce (tomatoes) so you can worship at the altar of Michael Pollan while simultaneously ingesting a really significant quantity of cheese. Here's what you do:

Finely chop 2 medium tomatoes
Mix w. 1/4 tsp baking soda and let stand
Melt 2 TB butter in a saucepan
Stir in 2 TB flour and stir constantly until you've got a roux
Add 1 cup warm milk and stir in until mixture is smooth/thickish
Add tomatoes and baking soda
Add 1.5 cups grated cheddar CHEESE!!!!!!!
Add 2 eggs
Add 1 tsp. dry mustard if you want
Add 1/4 tsp cayenne
Add salt
Continue stirring over low heat until you've got rarebit.

You can serve the rarebit over toast, or you can forsake the niceties and spoon it straight from the bowl like soup. The recipe (from Marion Cunningham's book Lost Recipes) is guaranteed to stanch the wound of living. Or something.

And hey, if all else fails, I hear there's a version of rarebit with beer.