Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bent Over Backwards

I live in an old neighborhood, and what's more, I run around in it. This means I get to wheeze beatifically at old men with dogs, to improve my mileage when the druggies shamble in from the main drag, and to inspect the architecture. The houses are a mix, but most were built in the early part of the 20th century and feature solid construction, wide windows and hardwood floors. I like to look at them while going red in the face and praying for death.

It took me until yesterday, though, to figure out what it is the houses have that houses in other neighborhoods don't. The feature in question is unprepossessing, demarcated sometimes by pillars and sometimes by an overhung roof. It's level with the front door, made of concrete, and reachable via a small flight of steps. The word came to me slowly, a gift from my sordid, book-soaked youth. The thing is a stoop.

Stoops: so what? It's not like there aren't other places to sit. I've got the couch handy, and the ottoman, not to mention the deak chair, the barstool, and, when necessary, the floor. What's so special about stoops?

I'd argue that anytime the archetypal "house" shifts in the minds of the American public, that shift is a reflection of a corresponding shift in society. Garages appeared when we got cars. We got rec rooms when we got TVs. And we gave up the stoop when we stopped sitting on our front porches and started sitting on our butts.

All the action's in the back now. Decks, backyards, sandboxes, screened in porches: all are designed to give us private space, a way to pretend that our neighbors are anything but solid flesh. Outward-focused stoops, with their rocking chairs and their porch swings and their social opportunities, are now the province of the poor. In the newest houses, the only thing that faces the street is the garage.

My own house is an old house. Once upon a time, it even had a stoop, but that stoop has long since been made into a sunroom. I like the sunroom: it's light-filled, warm in summer, a good place for plants. But every now and again, in a fit of perversity, I wonder what I'm missing. Concrete cool under the soles of my feet, the whine of the swing, one hand raised to say hi.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Getting (it) On

Mark Bittman, aka The Minimalist, took on meat in the NY Times this week. I've long been partial to things minimal, minimalist and Minimalist, this latter category composed of satisfying recipes for mac and cheese, shortbread, and other dishes for the hopelessly cheap and/or lazy.

This week's article ("Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler") is OK, if something of a retread of Michael Pollan's latest book(s). Bittman certainly has the eco-prose formula down: invoke despair, rattle off some statistics, then top with a dollop of hope. We (consumers) are always the heroes in eco-prose, even if most of our heroism is cozily ensconced in the future. In eco-prose, the reader has only to look closely to perceive within her, spreading like cancer, the signs of incipient universe-saving:
In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one’s notice that the organic food market is growing fast.
Every time I read a paragraph like this, I try to dredge up a little hope. Unfortunately, these days I'm worse than a toothless octagenarian sans viagra. I can't get my hopes up, let alone keep them up, because I have a nasty sinking sensation that Bittman and co. are missing something. Something mathematical. Something...big.

The big thing is bigness. America's bigness and more pertinently its getting-bigger-ness. Because any growth in the number of farmers' markets, in the market for organic meats, is meaningless so long as the overall growth of the American economy isn't factored into the equation. Farmers' markets may be breeding like rabbits, but the undereducated and the unconcerned are breeding like farmers' markets. All populations are growing: the question is whether the environmentally-conscious segment of the population is growing at a faster rate than that of the hot-dog-happy SUV drivers.

My guess is no. Let's go make babies.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

On Heath Ledger

Actually I could care less about Heath Ledger, apart from being sorry, in that too-bad-your-grandmother's-cousin-twice-removed-kicked-it way, that he's dead. But it's become painfully clear that what I need to do, four days and seven hours into my brand-new full-time job, is cuddle up to my space heater, slurp some grape nuts, and reference, in an exquisitely lame way, Heath's pre-Brokeback career. To wit: Ten Things I Hate About Kids. Yes, kids are cute. Yes, kids are funny. Yes, kids are better company than many adults. But still:

1. Snot
2. Boogers
3. Limited vocabulary
4. Inability to discourse on current events
5. Booger-eating
6. Ungodly fascination with miniature cars
7. Dora the Explorer
8. Drool
9. Regrettable attempts at witty banter
10. Tiny bladders

All of which pales in comparison to the Number One Thing I Hate About Me, which is that I'm a sucker.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In Focus

I know them and so do you: the picture people. Folks who not only own a camera, but are owned by it, snapping away at parties, at sunrise, at the end of the world. They photograph their friends, their enemies, their elbows, their necks. To a picture person, every moment is a fugitive, something to be hunted and shot.

I don't own a camera. This is because I am not a picture person. I have tried, at various points in my life, to be a picture person, but I can't shake the feeling that taking pictures is cheap, like charging life to your credit card instead of paying outright. The proper payment is words. Because experience should cost you something more in the way of processing than deciding when to click.

The truth is people who take pictures have stopped living and started taking pictures.

The truth is a picture can shut you up.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

On the Way Up

I kinda thought speech pathology was about speech, but apparently it's about Life with a capital L. I've already learned not to spit. I make good choices. And now, thanks to my supervisor, an elevator ride, and a booger-nosed, button-happy boy named Josh, I know the true meaning of maturity:

"Floor 2! Floor 2! I'm going to push it a million times!"
"Don't do that, Josh."
"Why not, Mrs. P?"
"Because the elevator will get stuck."
"NO!! Get away. Not cool....Josh, stand in the corner."
"I need you to be mature, Josh."
"What's mature?"
"Mature is when you are quiet."

Hear that? Mature is when you are quiet. Here I've been trying to talk myself into maturity (It's OK someone else took the last cookie, Anne. You don't have to cry.) and all I had to do was SHUT UP! Maturity is mine! I'm gonna be the sharpest cheese around.

Clearly I've been undervaluing speech pathology. I thought it was a paycheck, but maybe it's more. Maybe it's the source of all wisdom. I mean, look at all the valuable Life Lessons speech pathology has to offer:

Figure out what to do with your tongue
Don't eat things that make you choke
Swallowing is harder without an epiglottis
If you can't remember stuff, write it down
Never settle for a wascally wabbit

There's probably more, but I gotta go. My tongue needs figuring out.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Spring Forward, Fall Back

I tried to disregard it. I tried to hum pleasantly when it came on the air, to settle for rolling my eyes or inserting my fingertips -delicately- into my ear canals But after hearing the advertisement on All Things Considered for the 27th time, I snapped.

The snapping mostly consisted of eating more of a certain delicious something called "bacon jack" than I ought, but the radio ad is still lodged, splinter-like, in my brain. Why oh why must the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra incessantly flog its upcoming performance of "Stravinsky's controversial Rite of Spring?"

Euthanasia is controversial. Milton Babbitt is controversial. The Rite of Spring, a mainstay of the classical canon for decades now, is not. True, the Rite of Spring is harsh, spiky, and violent, but it swathes these qualities in cozy tradition. No one contests the Rite of Spring's place in the pantheon. No one is taken aback by its aural landscape. Have the ISO PR folks have been living under a rock for the past sixty years?


I still remember the delicious slap in the face I received that day in Music of the Avant-Garde when I was told that Beethoven, good old stuffed-shirt powdered-wig Beethoven, had been, in his day, revolutionary. That his ideas were bold, startling, and, yes, controversial. To listen to Beethoven that way, to let my shield of familiarity fall, was hear to something rivetingly raw.

Is the ISO cleverer than I think it is? Is the orchestra's designation of The Rite of Spring as "controversial" a goad to get us to open our ears? Is it a cue for us to reframe our listening, to cast ourselves back to a time when Stravinsky's subject matter, and to a lesser extent his music, was new and shocking? Is the ISO secretly promoting that bastard child of historical performance, historical listening?

I'm going to pretend it is.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In Bed

I live in a city, a real one, with a million people and a downtown and skyscrapers, and I can't stop repeating the thing people say about cancer: How could this happen to me?

It's just that the whole scale of the place seems off, even flagrant, like a giant in a carnival freak show. I'm used to small towns and even smaller towns, communities you can hold whole in your mind's eye. It's true I once lived in Manhattan for three months, but New York City is not so much a city as a nexus of ideas, an eely tangle of words. I'd read about New York City so often that, all the time I was living there, I felt like I was living inside my head.

(A month or so ago I was both annoyed and gratified -those murky ingredients of recognition- to discover that Joan Didion had not only had this feeling before me, but had articulated it, in her essay Goodbye to All That, first, better, and to an audience greater than one. Hmmph.)

It happened, that's all I know: one day I was towning it up and the next I was sardined with 999,999 other souls, each of us struggling to distinguish ourselves or at least eat a little cheese before we croak. And it turns out that part of the process of distinguishment (although the word sounds wrong, with its flavor of gold-tipped canes and powdered wigs) is geographical. To an outsider you can say "I'm from Indianapolis." To an insider, you might as well have declared yourself human, or two-legged, or against mandatory nipple piercing.

It's all about where your bed is. I'm learning a whole set of neighborhoods and suburbs, each handed around in conversation like an ID badge, each trailing its own set of presumptions, assumptions, and other trappings of identity. What word is richer in connotative meaning than the name of the urban neighborhood? Carmel? Yuppie. Broad Ripple? Hippie/yuppie. Greenwood? White flight. Downtown? Deluded loft dwellers desperately pretending they are not, in fact, in Indianapolis.

And as for me? I have become an Eastsider. Figuring out what this meant reminded me of playing that game where you have a word taped to your back but can't ask anyone directly what it is. I learned to look closely, watch the eyes. Most people's slid away, full of pity or fear. But a few people's lit with something I can only describe as Messianic zeal.

It turns out I need to come to terms not only with my physical neighborhood, with its strange mix of the gentrified and the run-down, but with my ghost neighborhood, the one that pursues me wherever I go, coloring who people think I am. Officially, the east side is the ghetto, the wasteland, the place you don't want to be. Unofficially, parts of it are not so bad, and the people who live there get to don a nebulous mantle of righteousness. We're pioneers. We're unafraid. We're onto a good thing.

Never mind that I'm scared to walk down my own street in the dark. Never mind that I wish they'd take out the plasma center and the pay phones and the prostitution-friendly hotel. I'm noble, see?

Of course, you only get to be noble if you're an Eastsider by choice, which in practice means you only get to be noble if you're white. That's the nasty underbelly of trading neighborhood names like baseball cards: it presumes you weren't born with the cards you have.

For now, I live in bed. I'll work on the rest.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Faith

My father nurses a fine, bitter hatred of billboards. We'll be driving along the woodsy state road that leads into town, speeding past McDonalds 2 Miles and Welcome to Super 8 and Injured? Call Ken Nunn, and I'll be able to see the fury dive down into him, scorching him throat to knees like a good scotch. His hands clench; the car jolts forward; we barrel through the trees and into town where commerce is everywhere: acceptable by force, like death.

Perhaps because of my father, I pay attention. If a billboard changes, I notice. Even if it's raining and early, even if I'm alone with a carful of air. Today the new billboard was a mile out of town on the left and it read: GOT FAITH? The letters were black against a sheet of white. In the lower left corner, a faucet dispensed water into a wine glass. Halfway trough the pour, the color of the liquid twisted itself like a dial, blue to red, water into wine.

Got faith? My father hates billboards because, like panhandlers in subway cars, they hector you. Buy this, do that! But isn't interrogation worse? At least the subway beggar doesn't ask you where you hid the chocolate, or what, exactly, your motives were when you tried to get James from accounting drunk at the office Christmas party. I lowered my foot a centimeter, cranked up the speed of the trees. I "got" lots of things. Brown hair, two backpacks, Parmesan cheese, doubts. But did I have faith?

Anytime you ask a question, of course, four more pop out of it yowling for attention. Questions are like randy white mice: feed them at your peril. So before I could determine whether I had faith, I needed to ask what, exactly, faith was. The easy answer was belief, but although that's a necessary condition of faith, it's not sufficient. I believe in the existence of my laptop computer, but because it's sitting right in front of me, few would term that faith. No, there's a stipulation attached to the object of your belief. To have faith, you have to believe in something unconfirmable via the usual sensory methods of apprehension.

Believe in shit you can't see? No way! Faith was for idiots! I was halfway across the county before I realized that, were faith really for idiots, the billboard wouldn't even be there. Faithful people would have died out, a cul-de-sac on the evolutionary freeway. Instead they're everywhere, squeaky and reduplicative as...questions. Ergo, there has to be an evolutionary advantage to belief in invisible things.

And there is, of course. Just because you've never seen a lion eat anyone doesn't mean it won't. Just because you can't tell the earth is round doesn't mean it's not a useful thing to know. Science, in a roundabout way, has its roots in faith: with what does science busy itself if not the corners of the world we can't make out with the naked eye, stuff we only come to believe, via empirical groping, is true?

There's a distinction to be made. On the one hand, there's believing in something you can't see. On the other hand, there's believing in something you can't see in the face of evidence to the contrary. This is where our president derails, making a point of holding fast to his principles in the face of countervailing opinions and -more dangerously- countervailing evidence. This is the kind of faith that gets you eaten by the lion.

Except that, sometimes, it's the only kind of faith that keeps you sane. There's lots of evidence, anecdotal and statistical, that people die on the highway. It's hardly common, but it's not absurdly rare either. Someone falls asleep or swerves or looks away and there you are: a pile of bones. Yet, I keep taking the old state road. I keep dumping myself out onto the highway with only my wits and four worn tires. I keep driving.

Got faith? You bet I do.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

On the Mound

The Joy of Cooking is like the bible. Except that it has a glossy cover. And promotes ramekins. And lacks hordes of devotees who raise temples to its greater glory and use it to beat their breasts.


There is, of course, one more important difference between the bible and the Joy of Cooking, which is that, every couple of decades or so, Joy gets revised. Its recipes are revamped, its instructions repackaged, its cover subtly redesigned. Each new Joy is supposed to march in lock-step with its times.

If that's true, then the 1970s were some scary-ass years. I use the 1997 edition of Joy regularly, but I've also got the 1975 edition lying around, and every so often, usually when I'm eating something that reminds me of the Nixon era, I crack it open. Tonight I scarfed an individual savory cheese custard while perusing the Hors d'Oeuvre section, which sought to instruct me in the preparation of such gems as aspic-glazed shrimp (combine shrimp, gelatin, and vegetable stock) stuffed Brussels sprouts (insert French dressing, liver sausage, and tomato paste into a hollowed-out sprout from a can) and fried cheese dreams (cheese! Sherry! Deep fryer! Hosanna!). There's also a recipe for peanut-butter and bacon sandwiches featuring the apothegm: "virtue, however admirable, is frequently dull."

Perhaps the single most fabulous recipe, though -and we're talking fabulous in the formal sense of the word- is something called the spiced cabbage mound. Go forth, readers:

Spiced Cabbage Mound
A decorative platter for a buffet or first course

Shred white cabbage.
Dress it with equal parts mayonnaise and chili sauce.
Arrange it it a mound.
Cover the top with marinated shrimp.
Surround the mound with deviled eggs, topped with caviar.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

On a Ground

That "l" in Pachelbel: the tooth in the middle of the hairball.

We've all heard the Canon in D. It's discharged at regular intervals whenever any of us gets married or dies or hankers for beauty. 15634145 ad nauseum, or at least until the possibilities have spun themselves out and that great engine of a baseline runs out of fuel. The Canon is as well-worn and widely scorned as a New Kids on the Block letter jacket. It manages to inspire love and vitriol in equal measure.

For my part, I'm tired of it. I can't match the invective of organists and string quartet members for whom the piece has become a perquisite for employment, but the truth is that repetitive pieces don't tend to stand up well to repetition. The Canon reminds me of Rush Limbaugh, dressing up the same argument again and again. I want to put my hand on the Canon's shoulder and tell it: hey, it's OK, I hear you.

But for all that I'm tired of the Canon, I'm even more tired of our reflexive contempt for it. Hatred of the Canon has become, well, canonical for classical musicians. It's a rite of passage, a secret handshake: it marks you, at the most basic level, as one of us. The uninitiated adore the Canon. They dream of walking down the aisle in time with its bass, or progressing to heaven via its reassuring chords. It's the "cool" people, the ones in the know, who spurn it.

And folks, that ain't right. Number one, the Canon is not, when judged apart from its reduplicative properties, a lousy piece. It's actually fairly decent. Not complicated, not groundbreaking, but a solid exemplar of its genre. The fact that it has metastasized throughout our musical Body Politic should not be held against it.

Number two, is it really in the best interests of classical musicians to scorn any public yearning, no matter how feeble, toward classical music? Sure it's kind of like praising your kid for reading Dark Renegade: Romance on Ice when you really want her to be reading Henry James, but would you rather she be playing Dance Dance Revolution?

That's where we'll end up if the Canon Haters have their way. Playing DDR.


Monday, January 7, 2008

On Word and Upward

Dear Virginia,

Thank you thank you a thousand fold for bitch-slapping MS Word in Sunday's NY Times Magazine. It's not often I laugh, cry, and foam at the mouth before breakfast, but oh, Virginia Heffernan, how you sliced me open: gut, duct, and tongue! How you pierced my template-bound heart; how you coaxed life from the dark, auto-formatted depths of my soul.

I, too, have known Word's poisonous kiss. Ripped untimely from the sheltering arms of Word Perfect (the only word processor, apart from a desultory affair with Xywrite in the late eighties, I had ever known) I was forced into Word's sordid embrace via disenchantment with Text Edit. And sure, yeah, Word goes through the motions. Word gets my documents up and keeps them up. It's open and waiting on my desktop night after night, even mornings and afternoons.

But there's something amiss, Virginia. Word is demanding. Some might even say twisted. At first I thought it was just a little role play: Word's the doctor, I'm the patient. But then it started in earnest: formatting this, restructuring that. It forces capital letters on me, even when I don't want them. It hates passivity, prodding me into active constructions when I'd rather just roll over and go to sleep. It will never, never accept anything less than a full-fledged sentence: no Word play for word! And worst of all, lately it's been smacking me around, trading red welts for words it doesn't know.

You can't blame Word, really. It grew up in a bad neighborhood. No one ever taught it to use its words, or that writing isn't about quick bucks and convenience. But still, I need to cut Word loose. And thanks to you, Virginia, I may find the strength. I have confidence now, in myself and in the future, renewed faith in the dream of finding -somewhere, somehow- something new. Yes, Virginia, there is a decent word processor.


Saturday, January 5, 2008


It is a truth universally acknowledged that one is too seldom accosted by accordions.

Felicitously, this morning was grey and drizzly, so after wandering around for an hour getting damp, I retreated to my local coffee shop to make obeisance to the Holy Trinity of addictive beverages, illicit muffins, and junk journalism.

I should tell you that my local coffee shop is, aside from the chickens, the best thing about my new neighborhood and city. The coffee is cheap. The coffee is plentiful. The coffee is good. The patrons, who run the demographic gamut, make excellent reconnaissance targets, particularly when surveyed from a squashy armchair. My local coffee shop avoids the heffalump pits into which other coffee shops have fallen, being neither tragically hip (Soma), made of silicone (Starbucks), infested with strollers (The Bakehouse), crappy (The Copper Cup), nor burnt-flavored (Runcible Spoon). I buy my $1.20 mug of Brazilian Estate (free refills) and try not to live there.

In other words, I expect greatness. What I don't expect, at least not at 10:00 AM on a Saturday morning, is live music. Loud live music. From an upright bass player, a classical guitarist, and some guy whaling on the accordion. Hmmm.

It was impossible not to listen, so I did. (I've always thought music operates best with a captive audience; if early music really wants to win friends and influence people, it should start distributing addictive substances.) And surprisingly, considering they were playing at 10:00 AM to an audience of four friends and three innocent bystanders, the group was pretty good. Not first-class: there were some sour notes, some slackening of ensemble, some gutlessness from the bass. But still, overall...

Pretty good: the bane of artistry. My friends are pretty good. I am pretty good. Millions of people and their mothers, across mediums, are pretty good. But what's the point, exactly? Pretty good is almost worse than atrocious: there you are, floating somewhere north of bad, while the audience (listener, reader, viewer) winces at the pull -the charged, agonizing gap- between you and great.

Never mind pretty good. From now on, I'm living for outright suckiness. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled mediocrity! If I spend enough time in the desert of dreadful, maybe the vultures will feast on my critical faculties and I can stop being a snob.

Or not, God help me. Remember when I said musicians ought to outsource their writing? Here's an excerpt from the trio's Myspace page:

Though primarily an acoustic band that centers their sound on complex and euphoric melodies, they can shock listeners by plunging into the intense realms of avant-garde ferocity before settling down into hard groove. If one were to try to compare XXXX's music to anyone else, Astor Piazzolla or John Zorn might come to mind, however, being that their sound is so diverse it is almost impossible to label them under the school of any one master. They seem to be an enigma that wanders on the outskirts of genre and classification yet, enters the listener to pluck their heartstrings with subtle notes weaved with pop nostalgia and the dark unknown. They will melt your face clean off!

Upon reflection, pretty good looks pretty good to me.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

On Bailing

It's snowing again, little windy gusts, and I've been thinking about this quote from Barbara Kingsolver:

It's the worst of bad manners -and self protection, I think, in a nervously cynical society- to ridicule the small gesture.

I know about the small gesture: adjusting the thermostat down one degree, bringing your own bags to the grocery store, walking the extra half-mile. Things I do, even though it feels like howling in the wilderness, like bailing a sinking canoe with a thimble. Pathetic, talismanic gestures I mock even as I complete them.

Because, of course, it's not enough. None of it's enough. We're still lost and we're still sinking and nothing I do can ever be enough.

Obviously, it's winter. Obviously, I've gone and gotten into the non-fiction again. Obviously, I'm succumbing to the most unfortunate side effect of reaquaintance with the real world, which is reaquaintance with despair. In the space of the past seven days, I've not only enjoyed my yearly tryst with Michael Moore, I've read, back to back, two indictments of our agricultural system and foodways by Michael Pollan (masterful) and Barbara Kingsolver (preachy). Now, Marsh makes me nauseous.

I'm back home again in Indiana, in the non-fictional slough of despond. I've been here before, you see. Three years ago, I left a nest of unremittingly earnest, exhausting individuals for bigger and putatively better things. I expected to be relieved: thank GOD no one was going to spend three hours debating whether purchasing only firm-style, as opposed to silken, tofu constituted institutionalized racism! Thank heavens no one was going to insist that we subsist on turnips for the whole of February!

But instead I felt bereft. Outside of the bubble, no one CARED. Even if that care had been overbearing and occasionally destructive, at least it had existed. Now I lived in a world where people considered one mile too far to walk. Now I walked behind a young woman who picked up a newspaper, examined the advertising circular, and then, as if to epitomize all-encompassing lack of care, dropped it on the ground.

I did what all closeted idealists do, which was to get worn down. I sulked. I snarled. I adopted irrational, ineffectual schemes of reprisal, including getting my feet muddy and then, when my shoelaces came untied, hunting for the biggest SUV I could find. People think that idealism gives you the strength for the long haul, but that's false. Ignorance gives you that strength, and obsession; pragmatism helps you along. But idealism? The idealist is the one you'll find drunk and raving by the side of the road, dragging her dirty shoe along the side of a hummer.

Of what use, the small gesture? I used to make dozens, and now, in my new city, I find I can't even make those. The nearest farmer's market is a 45 minute drive. The natural foods store is 50, and their butternut squash is from Mexico. I have to drive to work. I have to drive to shop. I have to drive...everywhere. To recycle, you have to pay a monthly collection fee of $5. I pay it, but am crushed, week after week, when no one else does.

You can't change your neighbors. Often, you can't even change yourself. But Barbara, bless her earnest, optimistic heart, is right: the least I can do is refrain from making fun of myself when I try.