Friday, February 29, 2008

On Parties Made Easy

More bathroom sagacity, courtesy of the Nov. 2002 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine.

Great parties are gifts from the heart. They succeed when we give ourselves to one another, host to guest and back again.

Funny, I thought that was an orgy.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Oprah on Lying or Lying on Oprah

I've read it at least thirty times.

It's located in the upstairs women's teacher bathroom, taped to the wall at what is right at eye level if you are conducting your business in an appropriately womanly way. I've read it because words are magnetic, smashing your brain up against them like an iron filing. I've read it because the upstairs bathroom is infinitesimally cleaner than the downstairs bathroom, and closer to a window besides.

So I pee and I read, again and again, the same one-page wellness newsletter from November 2007. I have most of it memorized. It's like a small, sad liturgy I've accidentally learned by heart. Eat an apple. Throw a party. Get 8 hours of sleep.


When we are living lies, our lives start to break down.

According to the newsletter, this little gem was released into the wild by Cheryl Richardson, a guest on a 2002 Oprah episode entitled "Lifestyle Makeovers: Living with Integrity." I used to find it unobjectionable, if trite. Today, though, maybe because it's February and bitter cold and four and a half weeks until Spring Break, it got under my skin.

Whom does Ms. Richardson think is living the truth, exactly? Your average woman on the street tells herself tens, if not hundreds, of lies a day. It's not going to rain. My child is brilliant. I am not, in fact, hiding from small children in the upstairs women's teacher bathroom.

And then the bigger untruths: I have never regretted having kids/turning down that job/the one who got away. It's alright that I devote the daylight of my life to doing something moderately unpleasant for mediocre pay. Everything, all of it, is going to be OK.

LIES! Lies are the way to go. It's the truth-tellers who are sour-faced and mean.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Awkwardness

Awkwardness abounds. The awkward age, angle, moment, position, construction, time. Even the word, with its consonantal congestion, its harsh medial K, is awkward. I usually have to set aside the book or reach for the pause button when things get too awkward in fiction -just to take a breather, to steel myself for the home stretch. Unfortunately, life is harder to put down.

I do try. I freeze. I stop talking. Or maybe I start talking. Or maybe I pretend, strenuously, that nothing is awkward, that everything is fine, until the pretense seizes the world by the scruff of the neck and shakes.

I've been contemplating awkwardness, awkwardly, for the past several months. It's been hemming me in, locking me up, sending me forth to wander in the wilderness of avoidance. My God is a cruel God, a God prone to acne and bad jokes and ducking out the back.


I resort, naturally, to the most powerful weapon at my disposal: the close read. What is awkwardness, exactly? Synonyms that work for one facet of the word (e.g., graceless, as in a graceless construction) tend to fall short for others (well, that was a graceless moment!). Is awkwardness like obscenity: you know it when you see it? (Apologies, Justice Stewart.) You do, of course: I can name, off the top of my head, three awkward moments to which I've been a party in the last 24 hours. But "I know it when I see it" is, as definitions go...awkward.

Besides, the essence of awkwardness can be articulated. It's a negative, rather than a positive quality; antithesis as opposed to thesis. To be awkward is simply to go against the grain of taste. Aesthetics, social conventions, the implicit rules of language: move against these and you're entered the magical world of awkward.

And here, skulking on the underside of my question, is my answer. If awkwardness means to move against taste, then all I have to do, to move against awkwardness, is change my taste. I will become a connoisseur of awkwardness! I will learn and appreciate the subtle distinctions between gaffe and gaucherie, between awkward silence and restful pause, between the poorly timed entrance and the long goodbye. I will develop an aesthetic of awkwardness so comprehensive, so penetrating, that I will finally be able to attend family reunions.

An awkward end, but I like that.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hour after Hour

Work life, slo-mo:

7:57 AM: Trek to work. Ignore bitter cold because morning is beautiful, sparkly, happy time. Sidestep a) drunk and b) large metal crane

8:02 AM: Arrive at work ready to share morning joy. No one around and/or everyone is hiding. Retreat to desk.

8:04 AM: Pull files, spend 15 minutes subtracting birthdays from current date b.c. cannot figure out how to carry in base 12.

8:20 AM: Morning joy dissipating. Eye chocolate by sign-in sheet. Try to see if eyes are really crossed on own ID badge. Check work email 3 or 4 times and read, out of desperation, district-wide inspirational newsletter which is sole piece of email. Misplace humanity by filing cabinet.

8:30 AM Begin team conference for 3-year-old who only says "uh."

9:15 AM Begin fidgeting.

9:30 AM Begin brain logoff.

9:45 AM Abruptly rediscover humanity when parent, who hadn't quite realized how serious things were, begins to cry

10:45 AM Conference wrapping up. Lose track of regained humanity on the way to grab evaluation kit for 2-year-old using puzzle pieces as cruise missiles.

10:47 AM Evaluate 2-year-old

11:43 AM Use bubbles to get own way. Admit to being shameless manipulator of small children.

11:45 AM Chocolate by sign-in sheet is GONE!! Eye coworkers suspiciously.

11:47 AM Write report

12:18 PM Attempt to print.

12:19 PM Fail.

12:20 PM Make a note to call IT for the fourth time in four weeks, and not to believe any of their sweet talk.

12:22 PM Entertain IT revenge fantasy involving bubbles. And pain.

12:23 PM Run home for lunch. Spend lunch crouched over heating vent starting at wall while attempting to expunge "Old MacDonald" from mental musical repertory.

12:51 PM Back to work. Ignore "hey baby girl how you doin?" from shambly man on main drag. Reflect that, purely by dint of having all teeth and weighing less than 250 pounds, have shot up from blah to beautiful. Reconsider advantages of new county of residence.

1:00 PM Still no chocolate. Covet neighbor's thin mints while cursing self for not ordering said mints. Why. WHY?!

1:10 PM Roust psychologist from cafeteria for 1:00 PM appointment.

1:15 PM Begin evaluation, late, of irascible 2-year-old w. large lung volume. Irascibility over the top. Psychologist terminates and reschedules evaluation.

1:17 PM Wait for ringing in ears to subside.

1:23 PM Celebrate unexpected freedom by catching up on paperwork. Ooo boy.

2:30 PM More paperwork. Cop issues speeding ticket outside.

2:47 PM Another speeding ticket, segueing into a marijuana bust! Much excitement! Education professionals line up at window like cows at feeding trough!

3:30 PM Cop gone. Prepare to leave. WHERE IS CHOCOLATE?!?! WHERE?!?!

3:40 PM Actually manage to leave after 10 minutes tangled in own phone cord. Grumpy. Chocolateless. Hmmph.

Another day, another dollar...

Monday, February 18, 2008

On Love, Left of Midline

From time to time, when I am worn down or restless or thinking of nothing in particular, I am surprised -again, surprised- that we only have one heart.

It's just that we have two of so many other things: a double dose of lung, a surfeit of kidney, eyeballs paddling together like swans. Two feet, two iliac crests, two hands, two carotid arteries: our bodies couple as relentlessly, as mindlessly, as rabbits in spring. heart. Fortunately the heart, as internal organs go, is pretty interesting: it has enough valves and chambers, enough of a narrative of growth and renewal, to hold your attention solo. The heart, on its own, does OK.

I can't say the same for romance. Romances fall into that special category of comestible that must be polished off in pairs. Read one romance and you're bored silly. Read two, and you begin to notice the relationship between narrative skeleton and and narrative skin, to explore all the body between.

I suppose this is how I came to be reading a whole anthology of love stories, a book edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides) entitled My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead. I'll be honest and admit that my first reaction to this anthology was along the lines of "oh barf." But there's something about multiples, about the way all the different backs squirm under the lash, that makes you tolerate the whip.


Besides, Jeffrey Eugenides is, in addition to being a masterful writer, a man after my own heart:

A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims- these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart.

Not the steady beating but the break in the rhythm: fibrillation, hesitation, confusion of the blood. Eugenides collects them, all these small seizures, and tells them to us one after another. And what we learn is startling:

Desire is a homeostatic system. Push it down in one place and it rises in another.

It's only a subtle shift of emphasis- from what you want to want itself, from object to action. But it's important. It means love isn't just some crevice you fall into or some garden you grow. It isn't your wife or your mother or your friend. It's in you, ruthless, under your skin. It does fine on its own.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On Loss

I may be a NYT addict, but my my true love, my media soulmate, is something I call the Idiotically Dinky News Outlet (IDNO, for short). I seek out IDNOs wherever I go: uber-local radio stations reporting on people's lost pet dogs, local television stations broadcasting wood-chopping demonstrations, church newsletters polling parishioners on their favorite cheese.

So I was thrilled to discover, on a table at the library the other day, something called the East Side Herald. The East Side Herald appears to operate from a closet-sized storefront next to Marsh. Advertising is entirely local and revolves around plumbing, heating, and cooling. This week's issue devotes its front page to an article entitled: "President's Day celebrates Washington, Lincoln birthdays." This is riveting stuff, people!

There are articles profiling handbell choirs, a piece on National Canine Weight Check Week, and a "sports rap" devoted to local high schools. And best of all, there are the classifieds.

I love the classifieds. I've always loved the classifieds. It's something about how huge, life-altering events (births, deaths, job changes, furniture sales) are squeezed into a couple of closely-printed lines of text. I like the dissonance between container and contained, between divorce and queen mattress set new $135 obo.

I found this one under notices:

ATTENTION KIM BXXXX. Your furniture & clothing are in storage. If you do not respond to this ad by Feb. 21, all of your household items will be sold. Contact Rob at 7XX-XXXX.

Tragedy in 25 words or less.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

In Asia...

...according to Wikipedia, "it has become an obligation for women to give chocolates to every male co-worker" on Febuary 14th. "In Japan this is known as giri-choko (義理チョコ), from the words giri ('obligation') and choko, ('chocolate')."

Yet another reason why Valentine's Day makes me cranky. And not in that fun, rage-against-poor-grammar kind of way. No, my Valentine's Day crankiness is of the unoriginal, low-grade-headache variety, the kind of crankiness no one wants to hear about because it's so familiar. I dislike coupliness. I dislike romance. I dislike purchasing and receiving oversugared crap -or, worse, not purchasing and receiving oversugared crap.

In short, my antipathy for Valentine's Day is breathtakingly boring and I hereby resolve not to devote an entire blog entry to it. Plus I scrolled backward and saw that I had already devoted an entire blog entry to my distaste for Halloween, and I don't want to come across as some kind of Grinch For All Seasons. (Did I just manage to besmirch both the Good Doctor and Sir Thomas with a single lame literary mash-up? Score.)

In fact, to redress any previous Grinchiness, I will make an exhaustive (exhausting?) list of holidays I actually like, Now.


1) Labor Day. How deliciously absurd is it to get time off work on a day called Labor Day?

2) Memorial Day. People died. Fire up the grill!

3) Arbor Day. Can you be cranky about a tree? Because I can't.

4) All Souls Day. I don't know when it is or what it is, and am therefore probably celebrating it accidentally, kind of like vegans in India who are accidentally ingesting lots of insect parts with their whole grains, thus satisfying their daily requirement for protein while preserving their integrity.

Mazeltov! Skol! Live long and prosper.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

By Post

Of all the things that can arrive in the mail (letters, tax refunds, tin whistles), nothing is cooler than your favorite author's as-yet-unpublished novel. Thank you to Ellie for rendering me, for a good week, nearly obsolescent as a human being, and thanks also to the US Postal service for its amusingly attired employees and their truckloads of booty.

Ursula K. Le Guin is my favorite author not because she surpasses other authors, but because she wallows in them. In fact she wallows in everything: shameless, mud-happy. Le Guin interests herself equally in life's sweep and its details, and her genius lies in the sticky words she strings between. Lavinia is a footnote in Virgil's Aeneid, but here she's the text.

The thing about Lavinia is that she's aware, explicitly and in advance, of her narrative arc. She's heard what Virgil has to say about her; she knows the plot of her life, its rhyme and meter. Lavinia is motivated not by any idea of shaping her fate, but by the desire to live it correctly, to follow the thread of it without divagation.

Of course I'm madly jealous. I want to grab the shoulders of the universe and scream, "Where is my DAMN Virgil?" What blessed peace it must be to know your story, to concern yourself only with paging through to the end! What peace it must be to know your end: what a release from the weight of decision-making, its endless, aching, empty map. Pass me a poet and put me out of my misery!

Then I remember that I do know my fate. I remember that each of us, young, old, wordless, and wordful, knows our fate, and that it's death. It is narrative that has us fooled, narrative that makes us wonder if a character, if a person, will live or die. Of course he will. Of course we will. Stories are our blinders, our lethe, the way we forget the end after The End.

I can't believe they let you ship this stuff across state lines.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

On the Throne

There are a lot of things you shouldn't do in the bathroom, and reading is one of them. No. No no no! But just in case:

Best Bathroom Books of the Millennium

The Pilgrim's Progress
Cold Mountain
Gone with the Wind
The Agony and the Ecstasy
The Grapes of Wrath
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Thesis: my sense of humor has, over the course of three weeks of full-time semi-drudgery, degenerated. Antithesis: cheese! Antecedent: I admit to devoting over thirty minutes of my time to coming up with the preceding list. Consequent: help me.

By adding more.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A la Mode

So I've been driving an hour and a half each way every second Saturday or so to take lessons from this ultra-famous guy who just happens, through some epileptic fit on the part of the universe, to be living in Indiana for a couple of months. Famous Man differs from my old teacher insofar as he is a foot taller, a decade younger, and completely without breasts. He also has a lot of shiny new things to say to me, which maybe -maybe- makes him worth the $1.25 per minute fee he charges.

It took me an obscene, colossal, blitheringly idiotic amount of time to figure out that $1.25 a minute was equivalent to $75 an hour, which actually isn't unheard of in the grand scheme of lessons from Famous Men. (Maybe I oughtn't to have spent math trying to figure out how to roll my tongue while memorizing the first 57 digits of pi.) But using the minute as your unit of measurement seems crueler, somehow: you go to blow your nose and by the time your snot hits the trash can, you've spent $2.50.

But it's worth it. (Worth it, worth it worth it worth it.) Famous Man has disgorged lots of interesting tidbits about tongue position, vowel play, and making space inside you, all of which sounds far dirtier and more interesting than it actually is. He's also clued me in to the fact that, when done well, performance is pretty much just flirting.

This explains a lot about the massive ambivalence I've felt, over the years, toward performing. I love it and I hate it; I can't quite hack it but I swing the axe anyway. It makes me feel terrified, queasy, uneasy, alive. Which is about how I feel when I flirt. No, let's be honest: I don't flirt. Flirtation for me is a leaden affair lightened only by the assurance that, somewhere along the line, you will both either have to eat something or fall over.

I'm even uncomfortable with the idea of flirting: it smacks of artifice. But then, isn't performance essentially artifice on display? The very act of performing -of one person monologuing while another silently absorbs- is antithetical to natural, conversational communication. So why not crank it up a notch? Why not show a little leg, so to speak? Maybe Famous Man is onto something: take two equally talented classical musicians, and the more galvanizing performer will always be the flirt.

In fact, isn't it possible that classical music is waning in popularity in part because it's forgotten how to giggle and make eyes? I accidentally watched Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform a set during the Superbowl (c.f. the hazards of sharing a TV) and what struck me most forcefully was not Tom Petty's flat upper register but how the band played, actively, to the audience. The Heartbreakers faced outward and made eye contact. They had moves.

Contrast this with classical musicians, who tend to face inward, look at each other, and stay still. Classical musicians are hampered, I think, by the idea that they're creating art. Art deserves to be taken seriously. Art is the kind of girl you marry, not the girl you get drunk on a whim.

Art and I both need to get our flirt on. Wanna share some pi? 3.141592653589793238462643383279... Wait, where are you going?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

On Slankets

O the Slanket! Flowering of what it is to be, in the barest and most basic sense, human. That is to say: well-intentioned, marginally useless, sold on TV.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Right On

Never mind doing the right thing. That's for saints, philosophers, and third graders. The real meat of life -its juice, its gasoline- is saying the right thing. Or rather, it's the idea of saying the right thing. It's the notion that if you just think hard enough, if you harness your powers of concentration and drill down deep into the bedrock of yourself, the right words will well up thick and black as oil.

The right words are among our culture's headiest, most enduring myths. We craft campaign slogans. We write speeches. We watch the presidential debates waiting for one candidate or another to tell us, in exactly the right way, exactly what we want to hear. We think that the right words -this aside from Barak, that concluding argument from Hillary- will shove us in the back, send us sliding down the the long, happy slope of certainty.

And when we fight, when we spend hours arguing with our parents or housemates or colleagues or spouses, what we're really doing is digging desperately for the right words, the one irrefutable sentence that will bring the opposing party around, convince them that the world is ending or Classical Music is dead or one of us really needs to do the dishes.

The right words are like Godot: an invisible, vaguely irritating literary conceit we can never quite ignore. Anyone willing to fight with you is probably too emotionally invested to be swayed by words, and anyone watching the presidential debates has likely already made up her mind. But still, here they come, parading before us in book after book and TV show after TV show, in therapy and poetry and song. I found exactly the right verb, the poet says. She told us exactly what we needed to hear, repots the couple in counseling. Meanwhile, onscreen, mothers and daughters and fathers and lovers have moment after perfectly scripted moment, each person searching for, then mustering, the words that will heal the rift, stanch the wounds, make the other person understand.

The right words are magical, language's unicorns and dragons. They haunt our conversations, slip between the lines of our letters. We know they're out there. We know we could find them if only we were virginal and pure if heart, if only we believed.

But we're all fornicators and doubters. And so, those few brief times we do manage to glimpse a horn or a wing, we may not even recognize what we've seen. Months and multiple posts back, an ex left the following comment on my blog: I should have married you when I had the chance. It was a joke. It was in fun. It was joyfully and unapologetically false. It took me weeks to realize that, sometimes, meaning isn't the point. All I needed, five or seven years down the line, was the words.