Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Here's Ted Sorenson, Kennedy speechwriter, quoted in Sunday's New York Times:
"We have a president now who doesn't know the meaning of retreat. In fact he doesn't know the meanings of lots of words."
HA HA HA HA.
I laughed, anyway.
But there's something under the skin of this joke that begs investigation. Yes, Bush's vocabulary is probably smaller than mine. It's almost certainly smaller than yours, and may, in fact, be smaller than my seven-year-old cousin's. But so what? What good does knowing a bunch of words do you anyway?
In practical terms, well, squat. My knowledge of the word "redoubtable," for example, has yet to win me fame, fortune, or adoration. Shocking, I know. How about "recondite" or its equally recondite brethren? So far all I've scored is dirty looks. And vocabulary certainly hasn't made me a better communicator; rather, word knowledge has steadily alienated me from friends and family, driving me to do ghastly things like blog and eat string cheese.
So why do we need a president who knows the meaning, not only of retreat, but of retract, retread, and retrench? You could argue, if you were a crack-addled Whorfian, that because language shapes thought, a president who doesn't know the meaning of retreat doesn't have any cognitive construct for backwards locomotion and is thus doomed to keep limping forward, even when he drops his eyeglasses in a ditch and needs to go back and pick them up.
Or you could get reasonable and propose that a marginal vocabulary isn't a cause but a symptom. Bush doesn't know the meaning of the word "retreat" not because of poverty or mental defect or paucity of opportunity, but because he simply hasn't devoted sufficient time to the activities that force you to learn, willy-nilly, new words. That is to say: reading, listening, and talking to people outside of your sphere.
I would be feeling superior right now only I'm sitting alone with my cheese.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Egg scrambler? Hamster scratcher? Magic wand? We report; you decide
Thursday, April 24, 2008
There's that number on my cellphone again. It's a number I don't recognize, from an area code I don't know. I have, apparently, four missed calls, two messages, and a series of agitated emails.
No, it's not my mother. It's my editor.
My maiden published poem is going to press this week (hooray!) and the editor of the magazine, a woman with a clipped, mannish name and a high, sweet voice who teaches poetry at a university in the wilds of Maine, urgently needs my input on three semicolons and a comma.
Three semicolons and a comma! I punctuate the way I walk: automatically, with my mind on words or difficult children or cheese. The last time I stewed over a semicolon was during the Reagan administration. Yet, here she is, my editor. I call her in the closet on my lunch break and listen as she waxes, impassioned, on why I should remove the comma after "yet" before the line break. Then there's the matter of my parallel series of descriptors, in which I used semicolons the first time around and later, once I elided the "is" and no longer needed to upgrade my commas, did not.
I pick up and drop scraps of orange peel. I finish my last bite of peanut butter sandwich. I tell my editor, yes, she can trash the comma, and the semi-colons can march, like Ceasar, triumphantly down the page. I cross my eyes.
It is heady, this level of attention. It is also deeply, insanely uncomfortable. I've made it through life thus far clinging to the comforting truism that no one, NO ONE, is paying you even a fraction of the attention they are paying themselves. Those infinitesimal changes you make to your Facebook profile? Your new haircut? No one cares. They're too busy updating their My Space pages.
But occasionally, once in a great while, you have it: someone's undivided attention. I can't decide if it's medicine or gall.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
-Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Sunday, April 20, 2008
English class always gave me the heebie-jeebies. My goal at that particular time in my life was to grow my hair down to my ass, an end I'd selected for its unparalleled level of achievability-through-immobility. I sat in English class working diligently, follicle by follicle, while around me my classmates, under the leadership of the dour, moon-faced Mrs. L, squabbled over the bones of Euripides, Orwell, and Plath.
In English we were carrion, ghouls. We cracked open sprawling, complicated narratives and sucked out the marrow, which turned out to consist of boxy, nutritive statements like "similes use like or as" and "in Classical tragedy, the hero is the agent of his own downfall." We never used the word "hamartia," but it T-boned our explanations: the hero had a tragic flaw, some intrinsic seed of darkness that, by the end of the last act, had blossomed into chaos, blood, war, or fire.
If the tragedy issued from God or chance or the hero's idiot cousin Merv, it wasn't Classical. This never made a whole lot of sense to me. I didn't understand why the distinction mattered if the results were the same. I didn't understand the importance of trolling the tragic pantheon for its purest and most effective sorrow, as if tragedy were a supermarket and we were brand-conscious shoppers with double coupons. I was busy. I was waiting for my hair to grow.
Ten years and a layered bob later, there are no more English classes. There's only blogging, and the list of things I'm avoiding by blogging, including, at the moment: running, practicing, adding to the 'Kyzicos' section of my very mediocre novel, printing out Telemann pdfs, answering K's email.
Answering K's email. In which she describes her third trimester of pregnancy, her husband's job search, her church work. K my friend for years, who met her husband while I was living with her, who hid the books and pamphlets he gave her under her bed, at whose wedding I behaved badly. The priest was a short, jowly man who told me to genuflect more deeply. He doused us with incense and sermonized on the subservient role of women in Catholic marriage while I mouthed bite me, bite me during every Amen. I couldn't stop remembering K sleeping with her mouth wide open on the train to Glasgow, K snorting milk, that conversation we'd had three months back in which she'd explained how her views on homosexuality, on abortion, were changing. The ceremony ended. The bride and groom kissed. Everyone clapped and prayed and cheered. In the bathroom I removed, with great care, my bridesmaid's dress and crumpled it between my hands.
K's husband is a good man. He laughs at her jokes and appreciates her good qualities, which are numerous. I can barely speak to him. As a result, I barely speak to her. Every so often, when I get the better of myself, I email her a few lines, ask how she's doing. And because, unlike me, K is sweet and pliant and forgiving, she always writes back.
Good friends accept change in one another. They respect one another's autonomy and ability to make choices about career, lifestyle, and relationships. They do not allow the caustic agents of betrayal, disappointment, or hurt to dissolve a relationship of years' standing.
I am not a good friend.
A decade late, I sense the architectural sweep of it, those clean, formal lines. Classical tragedy is when you can't help yourself, when you fight against yourself and lose, when you forfeit your humanity to being human.
I'm growing my hair out again, not that it does any good. To future Ks -and to K on the wild, half-chance that you're reading this- all I can say is: I'm sorry.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
So I'm watching 51 Birch Street. It's exactly the kind of documentary I like: gnarled, slow-moving, and backward-looking (generally possessed, in other words, of the characterstics of an 85-year-old woman). Karen and Doug are going through their mother's papers after she dies -Minna kept decades of diaries and poems- and Karen says:
"If you read those poems and you...didn't know anything about her...you wouldn't know she was married. You wouldn't know she had a family. You wouldn't know...you wouldn't know anything about her! You would only know...a little bit about the inner workings of her mind."
What Karen says startles me, though it takes me a while to untangle why. It startles me enough that I have to pause the movie. I have to put the teakettle on and scavenge for the cookies and sit for a while quietly on the couch. There's an implicit assumption in what Karen says, and that assumption so alien that acknowledging it feels like being tractor-beamed, boarded, and probed.
Karen thinks real life exists apart from the inner workings of your mind.
I suppose should confess here that I once kept a diary, desultorily, for a space of 23 months. In it I recorded what I thought and read, what I had thought and had read, what I would think and would read -every temporal iteration of my verbs. Missing, however, was any hint of my day-to-day life. I could have been a rock star or a math teacher or a garbage man. By Karen's lights, I had failed to capture who I was. Not only that, but I'd been too self-involved to even conceive of a person who could think I had failed to capture who I was. Agh.
Maybe this shouldn't shock me. Marriage, birth, career: these are nice, bright penants to fly over the castle or fort or shack of your life. Maybe lots of people think the inner workings of your mind aren't the real deal. Maybe, to these folks, inner workings are merely byproducts, analogous to the rumblings your stomach makes when it's digesting. Maybe these people think real life is what happens to you, as opposed to what happens in you, and maybe they're happier and healthier as a result. They're out there. You probably know them. I probably know them.
Little green perverts!
Monday, April 14, 2008
According to Chekhov's famous dictum of theater, if there's a gun on the wall in the first act, it must be discharged by the end of the play. Likewise the words "on tour" set up clear expectations for silk scarves, driving goggles, and Cary Grant. Or at least groupies. Lots of groupies. Happy, drunken, worshipful groupies!
Alas, life is a lousy dramaturg.
5:30 AM: Bed.
6:20 AM: Airport.
7:20 AM: Airplane. Turbulence. Terror.
8:40 AM: Airport.
9:40 AM: Airplane. Turbulence. Terror.
12:40 PM: Airport. Begin to feel as if stuck in Philip Glass's lower intestine.
12:50 PM: Procure rental car (blue Dodge Avenger) from jolly woman with elegant moustache. Inveigle percussionist into driving and proceed to grind out, like a low-grade sausage machine, small talk whilst conducting desperate mental review of program for which am insufficiently prepared.
12:59 PM: Attempt to inquire about percussionist's second child's middle name and accidentally recite order of set that opens second half.
1:45 PM: Driving. Turbulence. Terror. Realize that's hunger and eat limp, personally-defeated personal pizza. Pay cash.
1:50 PM: Arrive at hotel. Discover hotel suite is booked in someone else's name.
2:30 PM: Finagle hotel suite and establish foothold in corner of bedroom. Disturbing number of televisions. Disturbing number of pillows. Prepare for rehearsal.
3:00 PM: Get call from percussionist: moiety of group has decided to spend the night in Connecticut and will not arrive until tomorrow.
3:03 PM: Call ex-boyfriend. Like you do.
3:05 PM: Practice.
6:07 PM: Set off for evening with ex-boyfriend who is driving black 1994 BMW that goes "beep" every 2.5 seconds. Attempt to navigate with tourist map and get lost 4 separate times on the way to and from ingestion of worst Vietnamese food in known universe. Ex-boyfriend makes numerous references to Lord of the Rings. Beep.
9:03 PM: Realize self has irremediably geeky taste in men. Sigh. Beep.
9:30 PM: Bed. Except not because, somewhere in cavernous, cheaply-constructed suite, something is clicking. Spend next hour and a half hunting for clicking noise before exhaustion overcomes sensory perception.
11:59 PM: Click.
7:30 AM: Up. Nervous. Eat 4 separate helpings of continental breakfast and observe Middle America at play. Middle America likes English muffins and so do I.
9:30 AM: Attempt to take pleasant morning stroll while waiting for rehearsal. Realize that, due to location of monster hotel in clear-cut at intersection of freeways, THERE IS NO WAY OUT EXCEPT BY CAR. Start up utility cut in a huff but turn back when power lines begin to buzz.
10:00 AM: Retreat to suite. Await call re: rehearsal.
1:00 PM: Still waiting.
2:30 PM: Rest of group trickles in from Connecticut. Go out en masse for chi-chi felafel. Locate concert venue and spend 10 minutes figuring out how to get inside. Do tech-in. Loiter. Eat atrocious, presenter-provided stir-fry.
8:00 PM: Concert! Admit no amount of cynicism can obscure fundamental awesomeness of playing in front of people there to appreciate rather than discriminate. Have fabulous time! Do encore! Shamelessly autograph CDs despite not actually playing on said CDs!
11:00 PM: Click.
5:15 AM: Bed-to-car transfer accomplished. No continental breakfast b.c. too early! Oh, sad.
7:00 AM: Realize percussionist has programmed GPS with the wrong airport. Turn around and gun the Avenger.
8:20 AM: Barely make flight. Airplane. Turbulence. Terror. Airport. Airplane. Turbulence. Terror...
OK, OK, so it was moderately awesome. But I fail to understand how people do this for living without falling over or frothing at the mouth.
And next time, there'd better be groupies.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
It's 3:10. My last client is coming at 3:15 and I'm skulking in the storage closet reading the last few pages of a novel I've been nursing for weeks. My client and her mother and brother could come in at any time, and so could any of the myriad of teachers who actually use the storage closet as a storage closet and not as a make-shift office. So I've positioned myself behind the door where, if it's opened, I won't be seen. I read desperately, standing up, sucking the last words dry.
It's later, days or a week even, and B's father finds me in the library before dismissal. To our left, a distance-learning Spanish class is on its last legs; no me gustas mix with whispering, the thwack of spitballs. B's father has come to re-sign a permission slip to get help for his son, who suffered from seizures at two and three and now, at seven, can't speak. The form came back in B's backpack this morning, but B's dad had checked the wrong box and I had to call him. Now I remind B's dad to write his address and phone number next to his signature. He looks at me sideways, nudges the pen into my hands, and I realize he can't read or write.
Why I'm not a professional musician: 300 words or less.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
I've always found sin to be kind of a mushy concept. Not like evolutionary theory, with its pert suppositions and lissome logic. Not even like gravity, which, although it doesn't make a whole lot of intuitive sense, nevertheless possesses a certain voluptuous appeal.
Sin is just...old. And droopy. Yet still wearing spandex.
Mostly it's that the institutions and milieus in which sin made such good, incisive sense have crumbled. If you no longer believe in heaven or hell or the sartorial advisability of miters, then sin, like an abandoned baked Alaska, melts into tautology. Why is it sin? Because it's sinful. Why is it sinful? Because it's sin. You should have eaten the whole damn baked Alaska when you had the chance.
So it's probably an OCD -as opposed to a religious- impulse that's at the root of my fascination with the Seven Deadly Sins. I like the way they slice, with precision, the great pie of human wrongdoing into manageable chunks. Also I like to group them, in proper medieval fashion, into trivium and quadrivium. First come the foundational sins of lust, gluttony, and sloth, that holy trinity of overindulgence; after a thorough grounding in these you are free to explore the more artistic sins of wrath, pride, envy, and avarice.
And here's the thing: sin may seem as inchoate as smoke these days, but, like smoke, it's got fire under its butt. You may not go to hell for practicing the Seven Deadly Sins, but each of them is a sure-fire way, over the long haul, to make yourself unhappy. Sin leads, if not to Styx, at least to stultification.
There are a million paths, broad and subtle, to unhappiness. The Seven Deadly Sins can, if nothing else, help us flag our boulevards. I am only occasionally troubled by lust, avarice, or pride. I am intermittently slothful. My greatest sins, the ones that rattle my bones, are envy, gluttony, and wrath.
Tell me yours.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
This from Jeremy Denk's blog:
This sense that the composer has abandoned you for the relatively serene realm of the grave and that you, who have chosen to program and perform piece X, are the only one left stressing about it: can anyone propose a name for this State of Mind, for this ongoing Lonely Predicament.
It's like the Composer and You are accomplices in some crime, but the composer zoomed off in his getaway car of death and left you alive to take the rap. That (in sum) is what being a performer is all about. You're the patsy.
I was bemused to discover, in the course of my cyberstalking, that Jeremy Denk and I graduated from the same too-many-majors program at the same institution of higher learning. I think I will crown Jeremy Denk my new celebrity pseudo-crush (sorry Alex). Now I just need to find a picture on the Internet to make sure he's not troglodytic.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
A few weeks ago, sandwiched between L.L. Bean catalogs, my diploma appeared in the mailbox. I thought: Why does L.L. Bean print all these catalogs? I thought: If you piled up all the pictures of L.L. Bean brand purple windbreakers in the world, how much would they weigh? I thought: Hey, this diploma would look nice under my bed.
I kicked it under there and didn't open the envelope for weeks. My diploma had finally arrived, the physical manifestation of three-ish years of exhausting, mindnumbing busywork, and I didn't want to look at it. Looking, you see, would close -permanently and in faux-Tudor lettering- that particular chapter of my life. And however much I had disliked graduate school, I disliked closing chapters of my life even more.
We're prone to physicalizing ideas, we humans. It's as if things that exist only in the mind make us nervous; we need to concretize them, pour them into the mold of physical matter. Language is an intermediate step: a way to coax something toward reality without letting it weigh you down. Your crush on the Cindy Lou next door is less real if you tell no one than if you tell your best friend Mort. You knowing and Mort knowing pales next to Cindy Lou wearing, over the place where her veins show blue through the skin of her wrist, your id bracelet. (Except it's Mort's bracelet, not yours; he got to her first, the scummy bastard, and you will contemplate drowning yourself in the retention pond but instead eat an entire can of Cheese Whiz.)
Diplomas, wedding rings, family photos, welcome mats: all the little tricks we have for shooing those pesky ideas out from inside our skulls. I was thinking about this earlier in the week when I dropped four enormous bags of clothes off at Goodwill. And "drop" is unequivocally the right verb: I staggered, two bags in each hand, through the sliding glass doors, set everything down with a thump inches inside, and fled.
Later, driving home, I cataloged what I'd gotten rid of. Shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, boots, shoes, some of which I'd had since the seventh grade and kept around because you never knew when they would come in handy. (Answer: never). Stuff I'd bought, stuff I'd borrowed, stuff I'd gotten free at the yearly clothing swap in college. Silk, leather, cotton, rayon, lycra. Fifteen or twenty different ideas of what I was, or what I ought to be, or what I could be if given the chance.
I hadn't worn any of these clothes in years; yet, I couldn't manage to let them go until I realized that, despite my best efforts, the effing chapters were closing themselves. Despite the diploma under the bed, despite never saying goodbye, time had swaggered insouciantly past and various possibilities (career as a go-go dancer; elopement with member of Mormon Tabernacle Choir) had gone running after it.
So I hope someone takes good care of my leotard and my orange boots and that turquoise '50s bridesmaid dress; also my least favorite shirt from seventh grade and my corset and my fluffy white sweater and my transparent purple hippie skirt especially the skin-tight spandex zebra print bell-bottoms. I don't know what idea those were physically manifesting, but whatever it was, it made me laugh.