Sunday, March 30, 2008

Painted on

I bought my first lipstick when I was eight. It was from a drugstore, thick as paste and a particularly vehement shade of dark purple. According to the leaflet by the make-up display, I was a "spring" and was flattered, ergo, by the color of rotting plums.

The lipstick, along with the other make-up I (or rather my mother) bought to go with it, was for the stage. I was to be in a ballet recital, and all the girls had been instructed, by the whippet-thin, chain-smoking woman who ran the kiddie ballet school, to supplement our leotards and tights with industrial-strength hairspray, full make-up, and a hairnet. Down in the dressing rooms we wore the hairnets over our faces, pirouetted through sticky clouds of spray, and gleefully applied enough blush, lipstick, and eyeliner that, once released into the streets, we attracted the half-appalled, half-titillated glances usually reserved for child porn stars.

I've had a strange relationship with make-up ever since. I've used it, abused it, and spurned it in fits and starts. I abandoned it semi-permanently toward the end of high school -not as a part of any principled stand, but rather out of a burgeoning laziness, a lukewarm languor that began, in the last months of K-12, to render my education into oblivion. Nowadays I wear make-up when I perform and that's pretty much it. I own one cheap, utilitarian item per make-up genre. I keep the whole caboodle stuffed in a case with a broken mirror at the back of my drawer.

Yet, it hasn't really bothered me, heretofore, that other people wear make-up. Yes, I think it's strange. Yes, I am convinced most women are more beautiful without it. But if someone wants to spend half an hour every morning blow-drying and styling her hair before painstakingly painting her face in what strikes me as a colossal waste of precious morning minutes, that is her own personal choice. Besides, lots of women think make-up is fun. It can be fun.

Only lately it's started to piss me off.

It started when I entered the job market. Suddenly I had to wear close-toed shoes. I had to make sure I wasn't showing midriff. I had to look professional. The thing is, part of looking professional, for women, is wearing make-up. And styling your hair. Looking, in short, as close to the glam rag ideal as you can get. If you choose to stagger into work looking "unprofessional," you will, in a very real way, reduce your chances of getting hired. You will reduce your chances of getting promoted. You may even get yourself reprimanded by your boss.

OK, OK, I understand that no one at work wants to see my belly button. But why, exactly, is make-up "professional?" Does liquid eyeliner sharpen my evaluation skills? Do children speak better when I wear the appropriate lip liner?

The expectation, be it silent or shouted, that women will wear make-up in the workplace isn't fair. It isn't right. And yet that expectation is being propped up, day after day, by the millions of women who, every morning, drag the mascara wand through their eyelashes because that's just what you do. Folks, we're doing this to ourselves.

I'm declaring war. It will be long and quiet and bloodless, and I'll fight it every day with my naked face.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Doen Daphne d'over schoone Maegt

Music is sublime. Musick is the food of love. Music is boooooring.

At least I think that sometimes, despite devoting several decades to its study. Maybe it's because I'm only a sort of good, as opposed to a really good, musician, but sometimes music seems to hobble along in two dimensions where other art blooms in three or even four. Words rocket off through sound and lexicon and narrative arc, whereas music just gimps through pitch and time.

Sometimes, though, music turns me over its knee and larns me good. I've been playing a lot of themes and variation from the 1600s. These pieces are pretty self-explanatory: you start with a theme and get fancier and faster until you're jogging along in a forest of small black notes. It's the kind of thing that, given its improvisatory origins, should be performed memorized, so I've been playing it and playing it again. I was on my fourth or fifth go-round when I got to the end, stopped, and wondered: why don't we play it backwards?

I mean, whose idea was it to go forwards all the time, to progress, to grow, to develop? What's wrong with diminishment? Or with cycles: simplicity to complexity and back again?

So sneaky: narrative in music.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

For government consists mainly in so keeping your subjects that they shall be neither able nor disposed to injure you.

There are a lot of things in life besides onions that are layered, and not all of them make you cry. Language is one: you've got meaning and then, overlaying that, words, which in turn transmute into phonemes and then motor programs for those phonemes, until what you've got is a whole precarious tiramisu of an utterance when all you wanted to do was to tell the driver on your tail to go to hell.

Correction: language can make you cry.

But what I'm really getting at is that, if you look carefully, most things have an underlayer. A hoop for a skirt or magma for a tectonic plate: something to rest upon, something to -more or less tumultuously- rub up against.

Sometimes the jockeying between layers is more evident; sometimes it is less so. For example, words and meaning pull apart most obviously during small talk: you may be babbling on and on about the weather or your week or someone's recent trip to Majorca, but what you're really saying, the pannier upon which your blathering is draped, is: I won't bite you and hopefully you won't bite me.

Then there are jobs. Although there are a few jobs -gravedigger comes to mind- that are about what they purport to be about, most jobs are more like Trojan Horses in miniature. Trojan Mules, say, or Trojan Asses: ramshackle structures you allow past the gates of your life because they appear to be something they're not.

Take the job of musician. You think being a musician is about music. And it sort of is, but on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment level, it's really about schmoozing. And airports. Also bad food and the inability to poop in foreign climes.

There's library clerking (more about bar code scanners than books) and tech support (more about people than computers). And of course there's my job. My job purports to be about helping people communicate. That's vaguely accurate. But the meat of my job, its secret subtext, is getting other people to do what I want.

That's really what I do, day to day: compel obedience. What's scary is that, like anything you do seven or eight hours a day, I'm getting better at it. Sure, I've always prefered that folks do what I want as opposed to what I don't want, but never before have I expended so much effort furthering that goal. Never have I plotted and schemed; never have I made such comprehensive use of props and strategies and guile; never have I pressed so hard.

I'm scared about where this is taking me. I set out to help people, and now I spend most of my time bending them to my will. Sure, these people are mostly under the age of five, but so what? I do it with the older kids, too; I even adjust my strategies by grade level (authoritarian for kindergarten; enthusiastic for second grade; supportive for sixth...)

Watch for me in a couple of years. I'll be the one declaring martial law.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On Not Walking; On Water

I'm running and I see this kid, nine or maybe ten, black t-shirt and greasy hair, paddling like a dog through his yard. Here I am, red-faced and sweaty, guzzling will in order to propel myself forward into a future in which I am, if not healthy, wealthy, and wise, at least exercised; and here he is, swimming.

One of us is being rude, but I can't tell who.

Everything's flooded. It's rained for three days, and there's water in the basement, in the old library, flung in sheets of black ice across the street. People are having accidents and coming down hard on their elbows and losing, according to the radio, "irreplaceable" family mementos. The word snags me like a branch hidden in the flow of talk: sure, I want to ask, you lost the pictures, but what were they doing for you anyway?

I run until I've burned up all my will, until the stink of scorched will streams behind me in colorless drifts. I sputter and stop. For the rest of the day I will read nothing of consequence, locomote in no cardinal direction, choose no righteous path. I will manage dinner, drink tea, maybe stare at the wall. It will be time for bed and I will go willingly, not kicking and screaming like I would have at seven, like I should at twenty-seven because this day, this particular Thursday, is dead.

Meanwhile, the boy wades out into the water. There is more than a foot of it, draped like a cold, grey coverlet over the lawn. The sky is the kind of white to which trees are violently opposed. The boy chooses his route, aiming for the middle of the makeshift lake; once there, he proceeds to lower himself, inch by inch, into a squat. A car splashes by. The boy leans forward until first his hands, then his elbows, last his shoulders disappear from view. He pushes off with his feet and moves like that, like a water moccasin or some lost piece of our amphibious past, all the way across the lake to where I'm already gone.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On Pain

Except it's in, not on. Not atop or about or above or by, but within, encompassed, located, enclosed, sealed, in the mail, in the air, in pain.

Prepositions never lie.

Pain's been on my mind lately. It's a phase I've passed through, a country I've toured. I could put it on my "where I've been" map if I cared to record things like "where I've been."

You've been there, too. Sometimes you show me pictures, postcards, souvenirs. Sometimes I've bought you the plane ticket, or you've bought one for me, or there we are, 36,000 feet up, hurtling together through the blue.

Today I said, "it looks like this is painful for you" to a mother who bit, with her upper teeth, her lower lip, then nodded. Today I barked my shin against the bed frame. Today I, like you, like the wall-eyed, stringy haired drunk I walked five blocks out of my way to avoid, hurt.

I have that cartographic urge. I want to map, to chart highways and byways, to plant my flag and claim this country for England, O England. I want to fix, with certainty, where I am. Is your pain the same as my pain? Is today's pain the same as yesterday's? What's the difference between slicing open my finger and slicing it off?

The funny thing, the only thing I know, is that pain and reality, like maps of the same country from different centuries, are only sloppy facsimiles of one another. Sure, you can trace the transformation, over time, of life into pain, but the landscapes are startlingly different. You cry, inconsolably, when your mother dies. And when you lose a part in a play. And when you realize your child will never speak, and when the boy you like goes for someone else, and after your third-grade teacher yells at you for talking out of turn. Small hurts can be more painful than larger ones; subtle aches can be more agonizing than stabbing loss. Is this condemnable? Or commendable? Or contemptible?

Maybe it's just human. Pain, like Texas, is a country unto itself. An interior country, spread over your vital organs, your hopes and dreams, your rules and regulations. The pain you admit to and the pain you don't; the pain you can explain and the pain you can't; secret pain and shared pain; the pain you know is legitimate to feel and the pain you know is wrong, that you haven't earned and shouldn't feel and aren't entitled to, but that, nevertheless, you're in.

That preposition again, with its howl for metaphor. Not a gunny sack or prison or love. Maybe poker.

All in.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

On Line 1

Below is a smallerized version of a marvelous document I ran across the other day in the course of my professional endeavors. (No, smallerized is not, in fact, a word, but it ought to be.) As you can see, this handy Bomb Threat Checklist will save you work and energy in the event of a bomb scare. Simply check the appropriate boxes for a useful, time-saving memory aid!

Here, for example (click to see larger version), I have checked that the caller was a male adult, making a local call, and warning of a bomb set to go off at noon. Unfortunately my caller was not kind enough to leave his name and address (see item 1) but he had a raspy, pleasant voice, talked with a lisp, had excellent language but poor grammar, and was calling from Bedlam.

I encourage you to print your own copy of the Checklist to keep next to your phone. Or under your pillow. Because you never know.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Get Thee behind Me, Martellato

There are things I do because I think they're right and things I do because I think they're funny, and unfortunately the latter tend to outnumber the former. It's a pathology, really. I read church newsletters. I menace squirrels. I buy people wind-up sushi for their birthdays.

I attend handbell concerts.

I mean, what isn't funny about handbells? They're shiny, oddly-shaped, and of limited utility. They have loony, antic overtones, require earnest concentration to play, and are blessed with a repertoire of overwhelming depth and dreadfulness. Go, handbells go!

So it goes without saying that the moment I discovered that a Presbyterian handbell choir was giving a concert (free pizza reception to follow) at a church a half-mile from my house was the moment I cleared my calendar. Handbells!!! I scratched: three exclamation points. And when the glorious day arrived, I bundled up, put on my silliest winter hat, and set off into the tinkly blue yonder.

Only to receive cruel karmic punishment in the form of Serious Thoughts:

1) Handbells are a unique musical endeavor. Normally in musical groupings (choirs, orchestras, chamber ensembles), the sound is layered like a hero sandwich, each instrument pursuing its own line through time/space. Apart from hocketers, handbell players are the only musicians I can think of who actually dice music, splitting it not only horizontally into different chord tones, but making quick vertical cuts to the melody and harmony lines as well. Sure, keyboard players divide lines between different fingers, but what other musicians divide lines between different people?

(Does it make you listen more carefully than you would if you had your own bone of a line to drag off to your den? Does it humble you? Is it any fun?)

2) Art is messy. And art is messy not because artists can't find their rear ends in broad daylight, though this is true, but because, with art, you get fooled into thinking you're absorbing information in one modality when really you're absorbing it in two. Case in point, music and movement. The handbells drew my attention to the overlap because they're so physical, coaxing smooth, choreographed movements from their players. It looks like dancing. It is dancing.

This made me think about when I was young, and the first thing non-musicians would tell me when I played was that I was fun to watch. I've leached the movement out of myself over time, but it's dawned on me that the reason concerts are more vivid than recordings is that you do get to watch, in real time, music moving through a person's body. It can be electrifying: a rawer, less conscious descant to the sound. Music is, for all its abstractness, fundamentally of the body.

It's funny it took handbells to make me see it. Just not funny-ha-ha. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Shortish Post in which I Talk about Nothing

So I was reading the fine print, like you do when you're a junkie and any words, even low-grade words of appalling smallness, will do. I'd already blazed through the recipe for Tatooine Toast in the Star Wars Cookbook, already inhaled the Copco Teapot Care brochure. I was scrabbling through the restaurant listings in the back of Indianapolis Dine when I found it: a popular breakfast dish called "After Your Chores."

I hadn't realized, until I saw it smashed to bits in print, that there was a rule about the names of entrees. Chefs may be gunning for the status of artists, but they are still denied the privilege of jamming their creative productions into titles of greater or lesser appropriateness. No "Raphsody in Blue" for chefs. No "Satanic Verses," no "Whistler's Mother," not even a "Symphony no. 9." Food may be the sole remaining milieu in which the title of your work is expected to enumerate, with a fair amount of precision, your ingredients. Not "Raphsody in Pork," but "Roasted pork loin with hazelnut dressing, dried cherries, and haricots verts."

Imagine if all works of art were titled this way. "Really loud symphony by Mahler with too much brass and a part in the middle where I fell asleep." "Disturbing painting of 16th-century meat carcasses." "Extremely maudlin, not to mention lengthy, novel in which over 50 pages are devoted to battlefield description and another 50 or so to a discussion of the 19th-century Parisian sewer system, after which time the reader wants nothing more than to apply a blunt instrument to her own skull."

And hey, why stop there? People can be construed as works of art in the sense that we shape, each day, our identities and experiences from the raw muck of the world. Doesn't "earnest, bearded male with an infusion of Machiavelli" give you six times the information contained in "Norbert?" Isn't "mildly neurotic 27-year-old female: two lungs, one spleen, and an overabundance of questions" a more transparent label than "Anne?"

Titles, like names, only confound. We deserve better! We deserve, if nothing else, accurate labeling. I'll get on that. After my chores. And my toad in the hole.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

At a Rolling Boil

Happiness is a small scarlet teapot. In case you were wondering.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

In the Mud

Not content with the time-tested, church-approved ways of wasting time (NASCAR, woolgathering), I've been Netflixing Colonial House. Colonial House (bankrolled by PBS and PBS's it's-not-a-commercial-if-it's-on-public-television sponsors) takes twenty-odd (and they are odd) 21st-century Americans and dumps them in the wilds of 1628 to make a go of it.

It turns out to be messy. The colonists whine and slave and chase chickens. They grow corn and leeks, carrots and beans, wildernesses of grime. And they fight. Over beer, over sabbath, over swearing, over governorship, over cooking, over all the meaty, important parts of life.

Creepily, the fighting knits them together. It forges them into the most cohesive, functional community I've seen this side of silent monasticism. One of the colonists puts it best: "You fall out with someone in the 21st century, you can decide not to see them again. Here you fall out and you have to move past it to survive."

You have to move past it because you're stuck. Stuck where you are and who you are and with the devil you know. The math is simple: live together, multiply. Live apart, get eaten by a bear. (Or something. Do bears eat people? I feel I ought, as a college-educated individual, to know this.)

Nowadays, in contrast, we're so unstuck it's almost unhinged. Don't like your job? Quit. Don't like your spouse? Divorce. Don't like where you are? Move across the city, state, country, continent, world.

It's fabulous. And it's not.

I think we've been undervaluing stuckness. Do you know what your best friend from grade school expects from the next 24 hours? Do you have any idea who your grandfather is under the toupee? We ravel and unravel relationships carelessly, knowing they're doomed by time and distance.

To be stuck is to wallow. Not in the well-known sense of rolling in the muck, but in the lesser-known of impressing yourself, millimeter by millimeter, into your surroundings. To be stuck is to be -maybe the only way to be- well and truly where you are.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Dream on

Dreams infest us. I'm not talking louse nightmares (though I've had those for about three nights running, together with a couple of inappropriate make-out dreams -Alex Ross? I know you're out there- and the good ol' nocturnal hike to Canada). I'm talking dark, slavering, multi-legged American dreams, the kind that hide in your flesh and secret, behind your ears, tenacious little eggs of hope and longing.

I will be president. I will be famous. I will be loved. I will skydive. I will write the next great American novel. I will travel abroad, have kids, make it big in the stock market, make my living as a clown.

All the things we are taught, when we are very small, to hope for, presumably on the theory that hope acts as a kind of crane, lifting you up by the shirttails from poverty, apathy, youth.

The thing is, hope carried for too long metabolizes into something else, something radioactive. Dispose of your hopes improperly, and somewhere down the line you'll get sick. It was hope -inflamed and oozing- I could hear in the voices of the women featured in a new TV show called "The Secret Lives of Soccer Moms."

The show is on TLC. I don't have cable, but I heard an ad for the show on Radio Disney, the only radio station with songs consistently up-tempo enough for me to bounce around to when it's too cold outside to run. (Radio Disney also makes me want to shoot myself, but that's another blog entry.) According to Radio Disney, "The Secret Lives of Soccer Moms" gives women who stayed home with their kids "a chance to live their dreams" (aka, a second whack at the careers and ambitions they abandoned to become homemakers).

This is quintessentially American TV. America is nation of dreamers, a big, fat, lustful nation descended from the kind of folks who would hop on a boat and sail halfway around the world to nowhere. Americans are raving, chronic, terminal optimists. The Danes, in contrast, expect the worst; I don't think it's a coincidence that Denmark is among the happiest nations on earth.

So the show is stupid, right? One mom helps out in a restaurant; another meets with "fashion insiders." Still, "Soccer Moms" tugs at me. I'm reaching the age when I'm having to abandon, inch by inch, my dreams, and let me tell you, it hurts. Given the chance, would I double back, try to pick up that joke I'd missed, that stitch I'd dropped?

Watch me.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Marching on

Today it's spring. You can tell because the construction projects have started -brawny, yellow-lipped men stomping to and from their white or black trucks- and also because the birds are out and the islands of snow are sinking into a sea of dirt and the shy orange cat across the street has gone into strident, shameless heat.

Ah, spring: I've never liked you. Winter plies me with hot cocoa. Fall is lissome and lovely and has a way with leaves. There have been years I haven't sufficiently appreciated summer, but summer is blowzy and good-humored and laughs at my jokes, and in time I've come around.

Spring, though. Spring is a mean, tricksy season, the kind of season you wouldn't want to sit next to in the cafeteria. Spring is popular. Spring is pretty. Spring laughs and flirts and gossips and is secretly self-involved, sensitive, desperate to be liked.

Or maybe that's me (minus some adjectives) and spring is something I haven't developed the necessary perceptual faculties to appreciate. I just read an article in Wired recapping a research study that compared the performance of autistic and neurotypical children on two IQ tests, the Weschler and Raven's Progressive Matrices. The neurotypicals' scores on the two instruments were heavily correlated. In contrast, the scores of the autistic children on Raven's Progressive Matrices (a test tapping pattern recognition and other forms of non-verbal reasoning) were almost thirty points higher than their scores on the Weschler (a test relying heavily on crystallized verbal intelligence). Using the Weschler, almost three quarters of the autistic children scored as mentally retarded. Using Raven's Progressive Matrices, all but a few tested in the normal range.

I'm not saying, as many autism advocates are beginning to do, that autism is merely a neurological difference as opposed to a disorder. All I'm saying is that our tools affect (and even effect) our measurements. It could be that I've been giving spring the Weschler when the last thing it wants to do is talk.

Spring! It's a physical word, describing the upwelling of a liquid or a body or warm, new air. So this morning, in honor of spring, I left the words at home and went running. The trees were quiet. The streets were bare. And one yard, the front yard of a brick house I've passed every other day for four months, was covered door to curb with approximately eighty pink plastic flamingos. They nosed at the steps. They stood on one leg by the car. They huddled in meditative groupings by the retaining wall. They were surprising and inevitable all at once: that stiff, pink, backhanded, long-awaited slap of spring.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

On Wystan Hugh

Auden on porn! Auden on performance practice! (Well, at least on listening.) I can't decide which is sexier.


Words so excite me that a pornographic story, for example, excites me sexually more than a living person can do

-From "The Prolific and the Devourer"


We know the Mozart of our Father's time
Was gay, rococo, sweet, but not sublime
A Viennese Italian; that is changed
Since music-critics learned to feel "estranged";
Now it's the Germans he is classed amongst,
A Geist whose music was composed from Angst,
At International Festivals enjoys
An equal status with the Twelve-Tone Boys;
He awes the lovely and the very rich,
And even those Divertimenti which
He wrote to play while bottles were uncorked,
Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked,
Are heard in solemn silence, score on knees,
Like quartets by the deafest of the B's.
What next? One can no more imagine how,
In concert halls two hundred years from now,
When the mozartian sound-waves move the air,
The cognoscenti will be moved, than dare
Predict how high orchestral pitch will go,
How many tones will constitute a row,
The tempo at which regimented feet
Will march about the Moon, the form of Suite
For Piano in a Post-Atomic Age,
Prepared by some contemporary Cage.

-From "Metalogue to the Magic Flute," by way of Osbert Parsley