Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Boxed in

This box arrived in the mail for me, causing heart palpitations and a string of other overreactions.

What dark fate befell this innocent cardboard? Rottweilers? Locusts? Disgruntled postal employees? I will never know, but thankfully the box's contents were packed inside several trees worth of shredded newspaper and are fine. So now I'm out $205 bucks but -alleluia!- in possession of a refurbished instrument. I tried it out today and was quite frankly appalled by the difference.

See, I'd gotten used to it. I'd been avoiding sending the thing back to its maker for care for 6 years subsequent to an apocalyptic revoicing in 2002 that left the f limp and the high notes cloudy. I knew it was out of tune. I knew it was finicky. But I'd made adjustments. I'd done OK.

Then, during a workshop, a colleague picked up my instrument, played a few exploratory runs, and handed it back to me with a look of unadulterated horror. I knew it was time.

Now that I have it back (cleaned, revoiced, block adjusted, retuned, new bushing, new tenon), the scope of the contortions I'd been undergoing is becoming clear to me. I blow the g low (it was high), the f high (it was low). E-flat was high, b-flat was low (high) and high (low). The five top notes now sail forth before I'm ready, like greased pigs from a chute. Strange as it seems, I'm managing to play out of tune on a perfectly calibrated instrument.

It occurs to me that this is what it must be like to fall into a stable relationship after years of dysfunction. You've gotten used to adjusting, to twisting yourself in a hundred subtle ways. All of a sudden, everything falls into place, only you're still busy working yourself around bars and barriers that are no longer there.

I have restricted myself to exercises.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Regulation of Blood Flow in the Skin

I'd sort of given up on embarrassment. It's exhausting, first of all, and it does nothing for your complexion. Furthermore, it requires you to make large withdrawals from any reserves of dignity and self-respect you've managed to amass, and does so by the expedient of pointing its little black muzzle of shame at the back of your neck until you cave. Embarrassment is a psychological mafioso.

So I've simply let it slide. No more dressing for the occasion; no more making small talk if I don't want to; no more hiding the fact that I can get drunk -really satisfyingly inebriated- on one-and-a-half beers.

You understand, of course, that the preceding was a truckload of warm, soft, fragrant equine excrement. (Apart from the one-and-a-half beers part; sadly, that's true.)
I still get embarrassed. Not as frequently as I did ten years ago, or even five, but on and off throughout any given year. And why shouldn't I? Embarrassment is a way of reaching outside yourself, a kind of clumsy lurching from your own consciousness toward the consciousness of others. It's messy, painful, and inefficient, but at least it keeps us alive to something outside of ourselves.

Accordingly, my recent embarrassments, large, small, and petty, in no particular order:

Waking up from a nap covered in melted chocolate.

At fancy dinner party, forgetting location and eating salt straight from shaker.

Shouting "oh god, oh god" when plane hit unexpected turbulence.

Spending 24 hours in bright yellow, paper-thin Double Reed Rally 1989 t-shirt featuring unfortunately placed row of insanely grinning oboe reeds.

Dancing to YMCA amidst field of people not dancing to YMCA (cf. one-and-a-half beers).

Dissecting recently published sex poem in front of extended and nuclear families, plus innocent bystander, at behest of 93-year-old Great Uncle who used to teach English at hot-shot liberal arts college and had many probing questions.

Oh well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

How to Build your Very Own Picnic Table

The voyage of self-discovery is best undertaken with the aid of books you find in the bathroom. How many lives have been capsized subsequent to a quick perusal of Would you Rather? How many lost souls have found themselves, upon rising from the commode, re-molded in the image of Calvin or Hobbes or even that sour, bespectacled Dad?

For my part, I have unearthed The Old Farmer’s Almanac 1980 edition, a handy little tome which informs me that, thanks to an interaction between the heavens and the day of my birth, I am versatile, frank, philosophical, and optimistic. (This in addition to informing me of the best way to make use of leftover cornmeal.) I suppose 1.5 out of four isn’t bad.

I learn, furthermore, that I am compatible with people of the star signs Aries, Leo, Aquarius, and Libra (nice to know I have 1/3 of the population at my disposal). These folks are clearly differentiated, according to the Almanac, from people to whom I am attracted: I am attracted to Tauruses. I don’t think I know any Tauruses. Apparently Cancers can’t get enough of my putative versatility; I don’t think I know any Cancers, either, which perhaps explains my rather ungratifying dearth of lovesick swains.

As for career and activities of daily living, I am to pursue music, teaching, clergypersonhood or horse training. I display uncommon aptitudes for sheep shearing, buying clothes, harvesting herbs, travel and romance, weaning, slaughtering, and pulling teeth.

I have so clearly been heading down the wrong life path.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Over the Border

Yesterday I took a blurry cellphone self-portrait of myself standing in Canada, or more specifically standing on the last of an unprepossessing series of rocks which, during high tide, juts into Canadian water. This meant that I spent most of my time in Canada trying to figure out how to work my cellphone camera, but never mind.

Immediately prior to my international adventure (customs did not, incidentally, appear interested in my endeavor, so if you would like to smuggle a forbidden substance of your choice onto a lonely spit of rock the two-foot-wide terminus of which is claimed by the land of the Maple Leaf, I’m your woman), I happened upon a dramatic brass plaque alerting me to the fact that I was 36 feet from the U.S.’s last operational smoked herring factory (closed since 1991: alas!). It’s on the national register of historic places, and consists of three windowless wooden shacks in a row.

I also spent five minutes incapacitated by my recollection of the world’s most inspired program error, a typo in a program for a recital I saw last week featuring pieces from the Bamberg Codex including “In speculum viellatoris,” “In speculum breve,” and “In speculum d’Amiens breve.”

Afterwards I walked home by myself along a rocky beach.

Delight is like love: you take what you can get.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I Heard it on NPR

"In old age, we're like a batch of letters someone has sent. We're no longer in the past. We have arrived."

-Knut Hamsun

I am scared for the moment the past realizes it has better things to do and takes itself off. I am scared to be opened, scared to be read.

Monday, July 21, 2008

After Dark

There are books you visit once every blue moon, like old and dear friends who have moved to inconvenient corners of the globe. I'm catching up with The Insomniac's Dictionary by Paul Hellweg, a 1986 paperback the author dedicated, in an inspired mix of banality and Freudian angst, to his parents. The book lives in a small, high room with a skylight and a crooked chimney in a house in a remote location in Maine. I have enjoyed spending time with it since I was very small, despite the fact that I really cannot claim to be an insomniac, and am generally asleep within 60-90 seconds of turning out the light.

I partake, then, guiltily.

Still, the words! I peruse the collective nouns: a clowder of cats, a charm of finches, a skulk of foxes, a siege of herons, a smack of jellyfish, a kindle of kittens, a leap of leopards, an exaltation of larks, a richness of martens, a barren of moles, an unkindness of ravens, a knot of toads, a bale of turtles, a fall of woodcocks.

I reacquaint myself with somnocyclism (the act of riding a bicycle while asleep) and erotodromomania (abnormal impulse to travel to escape a painful sexual situation). Also floccinaucinihilipilification, meaning, according to Hellweg, "the action or habit of estimating as worthless." Come to think of it, quite a lot of this goes on in early music.

In sum, I am, if not underslept, at least renewed in the faith. Words are cool! This despite my floccinaucinihilipilificatory tendencies.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Throwing in the Towel...

...and resorting to the bookshelf! Sorry, Ford Prefect. For lack of any better life plan, I hereby resolve to live the next three weeks according to the next three quotes, randomly selected from randomly selected books on the Aphaeresis shelf. This could get ugly.


"You know it is a great frustration to me that I spin poorly."

-Robin McKinley, Spindle's End

"Please use little or no dialogue in these POV pieces."

-Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

"The afternoon I went to see The Sacrifice was a fine winter day: not really winter, a mixture of winter and spring."

-Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran


Spin more; speak little; savor the weather between.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Exhaustion

Words go first. The right ones bob at the end of the synaptic fishing line, dead weight. Grace goes, then nuance. I substitute “that” for a Mongol horde of nouns. I drop and retrieve my tenses. I lose my way in middle of a phrase. Meaning is a blow-up doll in the passenger seat of my brain.

I’m a week into summer camp. (Musicians cling to youth.) Only it is not camp at all, but a slow, sunny reaming. It ought to be complicated. There are people and music and ego and sweat in a glorious mush. Yet, there is nothing more for me to do than play, eat, sleep, repeat. I go where I’m told when I’m told. I steal food. I take the crackers and potato chips and bananas and the leftover pizza back to my bare white room where I sit in the sun and the wind and the white and think of nothing, that pocket of air under my tongue.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Advance

So blogger recently added future-dating. No, this is not about romantic dinners with time-traveling cyborgs. This is about writing this post now, setting a timer, and having it detonate messily over the blogosphere sometime next week.

Future-dating. So what? I know a few bloggers who -mad with power- have begun seeding the year ahead with more posts than the demilitarized zone has mines. I've hung back. For me, blogging is like crash testing. First you observe the impact between you and a specific personal or cultural moment; then you document the debris, injuries, skid marks, etc. If you take that out of real time, what do you have left? Just some dummy in a car.

Still, by the time you read this, I'll likely be going through caffeine withdrawal in New England. You'll be making balloon animals or joking with your housemate or avoiding your significant other or entertaining dirty thoughts or licking the tomato juice off your fingers.

Hello from the past. Cyborgs: don't forget the flowers.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Here I am, Starbucks

It was a foolproof plan. Catch a flight, catch another flight, catch a bus, catch a train, take a taxi, each stage of the journey metamorphosing smoothly into the next like the colors on one of those just-past-trendy ombre shirts. Instead I’m sitting in a windowless Starbucks in the middle of the baggage claim swilling tap water and succumbing to the half-assed philosophizing that ambushes me when I’m hungry. I mean, really, is travel so very different from transfiguration? I shucked my worldly goods an airport ago (despite that $15 I paid you to keep track of my suitcase, American Airlines, you pigs). The future, in the form of the shuttle bus, abandoned me at the curb. My flesh may well follow suit if I go too many more hours without food. (Can you eat suitcases? Or will I need to resort to the Starbucks pastries?) And what is this distant yet encompassing white light?

Aha. Fluorescent bulbs.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I Vant to

Gail Collins' Op-Ed today is about teenagers and vampires. It's hard for me to say which group is more monstrous, but either way Collins gets props for her brave foray into the ungodly popular series of teen vampire novels called The Twilight Saga.

These novels, the fourth of which, Breaking Dawn, is due out in August, were apparently written by a Mormon housewife who dreamed up the characters one night and received novelistic dictation from them thereafer. The plot revolves around a high school girl named Bella who snags the attention of her classmate, a vampire named Edward. Important things to note are that Edward hasn't fallen for anyone else in over 100 years of undead existence (possibly his technique is rusty). Furthermore, he and Bella can't have sex: something to do with the supernatural consequences of the heat of the moment. So, according to Collins, "they are forced to spend all their time kissing and cuddling and talking about their feelings."

According to my YA librarian friend, teenage girls can't get enough of this stuff.

What interests me, though, isn't so much that The Twilight Saga is popular but rather why this is so. There's something buried at the heart of every popular phenomenon: some soft, brown part of the psyche, some scratch that needs balm. Marketers of SUVs target the connection our reptilian brains make between height and dominance. Romance novels trade on idealized love, yes, but also on an ever-present subplot in which each woman finds her place as a valued member of a community.

Collins hypothesizes that the key to The Twilight Saga is the fact that it's the man who sets the sexual boundaries. Women have for years been cast in the role of sexual gatekeepers, deciding quite literally how far to let men in. What a relief, then, to hand the keys of the kingdom over to your partner, to absolve yourself of the responsibility for making choices in at least one area of your life.

I'm guessing it's something else. Edward wants only Bella; he doesn't have a string of ex-lovers and broken hearts strewn across his century-long afterlife, and he's presumably not going to go hook up with the zombie next door. His singular focus implies that Bella is not only lovable, but special: purely by dint of who she is (never mind action; never mind agency), Bella is the complete fulfillment of another person's desire.

In real life, of course, we compromise. We play musical chairs; we end up with whomever is standing next to us when the music stops. We cherish our mates, but very few of us imagine our partner would spend 100 years alone if we hadn't made it to that party after all. There would have been someone else, or a different someone else, and none of them a perfect fit.

Still, there's that bruise, that craving to be special, accepted whole, drunk to the dregs. It's a powerful need, and a dangerous one. It makes us buy vampire novels. It makes us keep reading.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Big Brother in my Heart

I can never manage to get satisfactorily exercised about surveillance. Sure, 1984 was a scary book. Sure, information is power. But blanketing public places with video cameras a la Great Britain, or wiretapping US government-style, fails to conjure up the kind of visceral wrath I feel when confronted with, say, Catholicism. Or litterbugs. Or people who drive Hummers, play loud music in the middle of the night, misrepresent themselves in scientific studies, and cut me off in traffic.

Yes, I waste my anger.

Fully aware that I should freak out more competently re: Big Brother, I pay attention to surveillance stories on the news. There was one this morning on the UK, which is apparently in the running for the title of most surveilled society in the world, surveilled being a rather fetching word I just made up. I listened. I frowned. I failed to froth at the mouth. A government flunky came on, urging calm: "if you're an honest person without bad thoughts in your heart, you should have nothing to worry about."

Hang on a minute. Disregarding the miracle of cogitating muscular tissue, since when is it what's on the inside that counts? Oh, sure, if you're Catholic (see getting exercised, above) or otherwise convinced that morality is an indoor sport. But most of us, from Kant on down, have bought into the notion that so long as we act according to our various principles, our first impulses -those lumpen clots- don't count.

That's what's scaring me, here: not so much the idea that someone is observing me as the possibility that that person might confuse observation with understanding. Let's take the ten commandments (the Christians may not have been the deepest moral thinkers, but they had a better PR machine than Kant). In real life, I have broken three of the ten commandments (there's no denying the theft of that tiddlywink). Maybe three and a half: some of the commandments lack clear operational definitions. In terms of impulse -the proverbial in my heart- I've broken six. Of the twenty-one precepts of the Ottawa and Chippewa, I've broken eight in actuality, 15 in my heart. That's a good 50%-ish reduction in the emission of sin, folks, and all due to a handy little gadget called will.

I would like my moral autonomy to be acknowledged by the British government. And a cookie would be nice, too.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Off the Bench

The beauty of summer is that you hunt for things to do. It's as if the elastic in your life has suddenly given way, resulting in a hungry tent of fabric you need to find the flesh to fill. I comply: donuts, poetry, Spanish, basketball.

Basketball is Indiana's church. We're raised in it; we know its hymns and liturgies by heart; we're keenly aware of who follows the Game and who is wandering in the wilderness. I've been out in the cold for nearly a decade myself, and so it was with trepidation that, last night, after Lo, these many years, I reclaimed my pew. Seat 118 C, nosebleed section, Conseco Fieldhouse, to be exact, for an Indiana Fever home game.

I am more than no good at basketball. I am rotten. In high school gym class, I had my own special free-throw line. My father tried to teach me to play but eventually settled for taking me to games: if I couldn't dribble or shoot (or throw, or catch, or move down the court without tripping) I could at least negotiate the steps up to the balcony while taking a handful of popcorn decisively to the hole. (Not that popcorn was a part of our routine. Because it was expensive, popcorn was reserved for special occasions, specifically those nights my mother joined us at the game. My mother, who had graduated from Northwestern, insisted upon cheering, loudly, for her embarrassingly inept team. We fed her the popcorn to keep her quiet.)

There are things I'd forgotten about basketball. There's an aleatoric loveliness to it, a kind of composed chaos. One of a set of things can happen, leading to one of another set of of things, all of which combine to create a lilting yet savage melody crescendoing to that most satisfying of cadences, the basket. Ah, scrap that over-intellectualized bullshit: let's DUNK! Subsequent to an adequate screen plus an assist, of course.

My father would sit beside me and lean forward so his weight was on the balls of his feet. He'd mutter under his breath, sipping the water we'd smuggled in, and eventually work up to yelling at the refs. He wasn't the only one yelling, but it was still mortifying: a grown man, my father, possessed of a PhD and an otherwise impenetrable calm, pumping his fist and screaming things about the referees' parentage so graphic the words grabbed my imagination by the nape of the neck and shook. I was seven, ten, thirteen. I begged him to hush. I pulled at his shirt to make him sit down.

Conseco Fieldhouse is bigger than the arena of my youth. The music is louder. The players make a greater percentage of their free-throws. Maybe because we're still not used to watching women play, the arena is only half-full on the night I go, and the fans are a sedate bunch, nursing their beers and smiling tolerantly when you get up in the middle of the third quarter to go the bathroom. As for my father, he doesn't go to basketball games anymore. He's older now, and beginning to struggle with the daily games of life, with locating his keys and finding the words for things.

I'm older, too. In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Fever forward takes a half-court pass from the point guard and drives hard to the basket. The whistle blows. I'm on my feet, screaming: it's blocking, God damn it! You wouldn't know a charge if your mother gave birth to it! Because the scary thing isn't the yelling. It's when it stops.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ode on an Arabic Straitjacket

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
A Tale of Two Cities
The Book of Three
Four Ways to Forgiveness
Slaughterhouse Five
Six Degrees of Separation
Seven Years in Tibet
Eight Days of Luke
The Nine Tailors
Ten Days in the Hills

Yes, I did have better things to do than compile the above list. And anyone who's got a better number 8 gets my vote for president of my spleen.