Monday, September 29, 2008

Rhapsody in Blue

Shouldn't every major musical work be reinterpreted as supper?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Learning to Whistle

My license plate is about to expire. I've begun to eye them, license plates, staring like a cancer patient suddenly awakened to all the bald heads, all the absent breasts in the world. Something about the expiring license plate fills me with dread: it's an intrustion, a rapier thrust from the background of life into the tender flesh of now.

There are, in case you were wondering, a lot of license plates. There are old license plates and new license plates, dusty license plates and clean license plates, vanity license plates, paper license plates, license plates that proclaim their owners' allegiance to football or children or some other petty tyrant. There are even supplemental license plates, including the one on the front of the Buick three streets over that reads: Happiness is being a Grandma or a Grandpapa.

You know in your bones this license plate was a gift. Possibly from the the parents of the grandprogeny, but even more likely from the insensate grandprogeny themselves: purchased by their parents, wrapped in cheerful paper, then strapped like an explosive belt to their uncomprehending, incontinent bodies. Family is a beautiful thing.

Of course, once you get a license plate like this as a gift, you're cornered. A license plate is not like an ill-advised paperweight or an unfortunate object d'art. A license plate can't be relegated to the spare bedroom or the downstairs bathroom or the garage (doesn't Aunt Molly's self-portrait with fuzzy kittens set off the oil cans perfectly?). Nor can a license plate be regifted: it's awkward to wrap, and who are you going to give that clunker to, anyway? No, the only thing you can do with this license plate is screw it to your car. You are happy, damn it, and it's because your kids made babies.

I go a couple of days thinking this license plate is the height of passive-aggressive brilliance. What's worse than having someone else tell you how you feel? And then forcing you to broadcast it on the front of your Buick?

On the third day, I still think that. But I'm also walking past the Buick in the late afternoon. It sits quietly on the street, under a canopy of yellowing lives. The season is turning and the air is sharpening; someone in the house has set out, with care, a dozen plastic pumpkins of varying sizes. They are arrayed in order, from the size of a border collie to the width of my fist.

Maybe sometimes we need other people to tell us when we're happy. Maybe sometimes happiness sneaks up on us like a pickpocket, takes off down the road before we notice our wallets are missing and our hearts are lighter, and we need someone else to cry out.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Over the Roofs of the World

I used to disable the whistling mechanism on my teakettle, but after a series of unfortunate events involving melted plastic, Romancing the Stone, and an unexpected visit from a registered Republican, I've stopped. I now own a teakettle that sings to Jesus. Or Shiva, or the Tea Gods, or whatever it is that's mollified by infernal sopranissimo howling fit to wake the dead.

The question is how to make it stop.

There are, you see, several different strategies. Door #1 (aka Turndown the Burndown) involves flipping the stove dial of the appropriate burner to zero. (A less successful variation of this strategy involves flipping the burner behind the appropriate burner to zero.) Option #2 (Movin' on Up) involves the airlifting of the kettle to a neighboring burner, thereafter (hopefully) remembering to turn off the burner of origin. Finally there's strategy #3 (Flipping the Bird), wherein the would-be whistle annihilator flicks open the little piece of metal that occludes the spout.

WHAT TO CHOOSE? Turning down the burner requires the least of you in the way of bodily movement, but the barbaric yawping takes a while to die down. Flipping the Bird provides instant gratification -insofar as the removal of an aversive stimulus can be deemed gratification- but requires the insertion of your hand into Grave and Steamy danger. And transfer to an apposite burner offers the best of both evils, ensuring contact of your flesh with the hot metal handle AND a slow die-off of sound. Plus you still have to remember to turn off the burner.

If I slog through this agony every single time I brew a cup of tea, how in blazes am I supposed to make the big decisions in life? Like, oh, say, green tea or black?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lighting Up Redux

I'm standing at the open window trying to light a match. It's raining, not just a whisper but a full-throated howl. Rain does not extemporize. It states and restates itself, driving into the ground. Outside, a train wails. Church bells flare against the grey. I strike the red head of the match against the box and strike it again, once more, so many times the striking becomes like breathing, something I do to stay alive.

I want fire because it is raining. Because it is raining, the match won't light. Two hours ago, the woman who built the wooden fence flush with with our backyard washed every grey spear clean. There's an allegory here somewhere but it just won't kindle; I put the match between my teeth and bite down.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lighting Up

My favorite TV shows smack of ethnography. Story is important, but story is only one part -one eye, one lung- of a hulking, shambling world jolted to life every week in your living room. Ethnographic T.V. shows are the exception to the (mostly sucky) rule: it takes enormous effort to breathe life into a narrative, let alone into a whole universe. But to me, the payoffs -complexity, depth, and scope- are worth it.

The ethnographic show I've been watching lately is Mad Men (others that come to mind include The Wire and, oddly enough, the first season of the high-school football drama Friday Night Lights). Mad Men may not be Great Art, but its exploration of a mid-century Madison Avenue advertising firm has me welded to the set. I'm fascinated by the switchboards, the shellacked hair of the men, the Nixon campaign. I can't look away from the weird underwear, the unending sexual harassment, the casual assertion of male prerogative.

Not to mention the smoking. The cast must burn through 30 packs an episode. Every character smokes -young, old, male, female- and they do so with gusto. Rain or shine, indoors or out, alone or together: everyone is lighting up.

I'm disgusted, yes, but there's something about it that tugs at me. I've never been a smoker. The closest I've come is trashing an ex-boyfriend's cigarettes on the sly. Perhaps because of this, I never recognized the role cigarettes can play -once played- as filler. Life is a rough road: the cigarettes in Mad Men smooth out the gaps, make it easier to pass over difficult minutes or painful breaks. A cigarette is a piece of stage business, something to fill the silence, distract the eye, give yourself space to breathe.

Of course, you won't be able to breathe for very long if you're smoking, and I am in no way advocating that we jump back into Big Tobacco's pocket. But I think we lost something when we put down our cigarettes. Just a little thing: a flare in the dark, something to do with our hands.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Blogs

It's hard for me to tell if I'm switching my allegiance from the New Yorker to the Atlantic because I actually prefer the Atlantic or because the Atlantic is what's lying around my living room. In any case there's no denying my slow accretion of acceptance: similar, I imagine, to way people in arranged marriages gradually grow to love the lumpen mangler of metaphors scarfing dinner across the table from them despite the svelte soccer stars of their youth.

(Lest I be accused of more than my -OK, OK, at least moderate!- share of cultural snobbery, I should note that in addition to this month's Atlantic, I've also read this month's issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, as well as portions of the April issue of a spavined magazinelet called Indianapolis Woman that's been sitting on a table in the teacher's lounge since the beginning of school. Desperate times, my friends.)

Anyway, this month's Atlantic contains nude photographs of Cokie Roberts. That's a lie, but I'm betting I have your attention now. This month's Atlantic contains a pot-shot at blogs, which literary editor Benjamin Schwarz claims serve up, by definition, "unedited, impromptu, self-important ruminations on random events and topics."

He's certainly right about mine (except for the unedited bit -I do give my entries an OCD once-or-twice over...this works better when I am not sleepy). But I wonder if Schwarz has committed the classic scientific blunder of assuming he's got the whole truth because he's got ahold of part of it. I've sifted through a number of blogs and it seems to me there's a taxonomy. (Not to be confused with taxidermy, though I suppose blogging is a forced preservation of something or other.)

I slot blogs into four basic categories:

1) Promotional blogs. Blogs that are trying to sell you something or someone.

2) Niche blogs. Blogs in which you take on a predetermined subject or subjects. These are subject-driven blogs: e.g., the subject is the engine and you're there to steer.

3) Response blogs. Blogs that respond to the stimuli of "random events and topics." Self-important at times, self-focused in its way, but the self isn't the main show. Rather, it's about the world as filtered through the self, self not as content but as form. The world is the engine; you're along for the ride.

4) Documentary blogs. What you did yesterday, and the day before. What you ate, what you saw, what you read: a retelling and/or memorialization of your life. Here self is content and form is incidental: you're the engine. Your words or pictures are the body of the car.

I don't really have a judgment on the superiority of one or another of these categories, except to say that promotional blogs are almost universally snoozeworthy. I write a response blog, but I read blogs from categories 2, 3, and 4. As a group, niche blogs are usually the best-written. Documentation blogs are often the worst-written, but I read more of them than anything else because I'm incurably nosy.

Schwarz is right. But he's also wrong, in that by lumping all blogs together, he misses the subtler distinctions that make things interesting. Some of us think the meat of life is in what we do. Some of us think the meat of life is in how we react. Still others of us think it's in what we sell or what we devote our time to. I think that's worth a rumination or two.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What Not to Wear

I had just extricated myself from financial peril (aka turned in my library books) and was walking toward Walgreens to buy goldfish crackers and bubbles (don't ask) when I stopped at the crosswalk. W. Street is busy at the best of times, and it was rush hour, so I had kind of a wait. I fidgeted. I stared at my feet. I listened as an eloquent gentleman in a run-down pickup truck composed a lengthy extempore ode to my rear end.

(Sir, you were both creative and thorough, but I have to confess I was a little miffed. Why not my elbow? Or my clavicle? Why is it that the the only rhapsodizing I've ever inspired isn't about my brain or my talent or my *AHEM* winning personality, but instead exalts the part of me I sit on? Not to mention: dude, you need to get out more. There are superior posteriors!)

My one overriding thought at the time: CRAP. I GUESS I CAN'T WEAR THOSE JEANS.

See, it took the pickup truck lothario to show me how far I've strayed. As women we are taught to garner the attention we can, to be at all times as attractive as we can be. It's a straitjacket I've intermittently resisted, but yes, I remember dressing to look cute.

In the past year, though, I've begun -only half-consciously- to chose clothes and hairstyles not based on whether they look good, but on whether they make me, from a sexual perspective, invisible. I've rummaged through the dresser for my baggiest, rattiest T-shirt to wear on a walk, yanked back my hair prior to meeting friends, bought a shirt specifically because it was drab and mildly unflattering.

Part of this is a time-of-life thing. Part of it is big-city living. But today it was driven home to me that dressing for invisibility is just as much of a restriction as dressing for attention. Why should I have to retire those jeans? Why should I have to wear them? Why should I have to dress up or dress down? Why can't I just cover my *$#@#$ XXX-tra fine *&#$##-able $*# with whatever the #($*# I want?

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Rarebit

Lately, for one reason or another, I've been in need of comfort. I suppose I could have turned to drink or drugs or religion, but instead I've turned to rarebit. And why not? Rarebit is easy to make, does not require chewing, and is possessed of a name that is WAY FUN to say. Plus tomato rarebit uses seasonal produce (tomatoes) so you can worship at the altar of Michael Pollan while simultaneously ingesting a really significant quantity of cheese. Here's what you do:

Finely chop 2 medium tomatoes
Mix w. 1/4 tsp baking soda and let stand
Melt 2 TB butter in a saucepan
Stir in 2 TB flour and stir constantly until you've got a roux
Add 1 cup warm milk and stir in until mixture is smooth/thickish
Add tomatoes and baking soda
Add 1.5 cups grated cheddar CHEESE!!!!!!!
Add 2 eggs
Add 1 tsp. dry mustard if you want
Add 1/4 tsp cayenne
Add salt
Continue stirring over low heat until you've got rarebit.

You can serve the rarebit over toast, or you can forsake the niceties and spoon it straight from the bowl like soup. The recipe (from Marion Cunningham's book Lost Recipes) is guaranteed to stanch the wound of living. Or something.

And hey, if all else fails, I hear there's a version of rarebit with beer.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Take Me to Your Leader

Okay, I'll confess. I'm home sick today, which means I have entire acres of mucky delicious unproductive time to roll around in. Am I writing the next great American novel? Am I improving third-world infrastructure? Am I forcibly bettering myself? (Or, failing that, forcibly buttering myself?)

No. I am taking this quiz. And then telling you about it. Apparently I'm "pure nerd." But I'm betting you knew that anyway.

On (In)experience

I have trouble watching political conventions of any stripe: all that liquid rhetoric, undiluted by facts or moderation or healthy pessimism, makes me feel like I would after a night spent pounding Stoli straight. That is to say: nauseous, headachy, convinced the world is en endless, friendless desert of despair.

Still, politics isn't all bad. As with alcohol, the difference between buzzed and wretched lies in quantity of intake. I partake judiciously, reading the papers, listening to the news, absorbing the speechifying at one remove. My goal is to be part of the party without waking up covered in gubernatorial puke.

So to speak.

(My God, can anyone think of anything worse than waking up with your panties around your ankles and Sarah Palin in your arms? Maybe nuclear apocalypse. Or celery.)

(Wow, I can tell this is going to be one of those posts that illuminates why I don't really publicize this blog.)

(I hereby issue an apology to the sensible, moderate, couth portion of my readership. All 1.5 of you.)

What I really want to talk about, though, is something about which I've been hearing a great deal from my once-removed listening post. In fact, if I hear the word one more time, that particular portion of my cochlea which responds to its frequencies may die from overuse. The word is experience. (ARG MY EARS.) Experience: who has it, who doesn't, and what that means in terms of fitness for elected office.

Over and over again, I hear that Barack Obama has too little experience, that Sarah Palin has too little experience. Experience as a variable -something quantifiable, something with differing values- is underpinning quite a bit of the political discourse this year, which is why I'm especially irritated that no one seems to be obeying that classic commandment of experimental science, Know Thy Variable.

Is experience a dichotomous variable (i.e., you either have it or you don't)? Or is it a continuous variable (i.e., it can have a variety of different values)? If it is continuous, is it an ordinal scale (i.e., some values are greater than others, but the distances between levels of experience may not be equal)? An interval scale (equal distance between points)? A ratio scale (interval with absolute zero)?

Say we're talking ratio measurement, and you plot experience is equal intervals of years starting from absolute zero. Now the question becomes, what is the relationship of our nice little ratio variable here to the putative dependent variable (also distressingly ill-defined) of fitness for presidential office? Political commentators seem to be assuming the relationship is a kind of perfect 1-to-1: if we graphed it, we'd get a nice straight line moving at a 45-degree angle from the horizontal out into infinity.

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you start out 1-to-1, then start going down to 1-to-.5, or 1-to-.3, until your gains fizzle into asymptotic ignominy. Maybe the truth is parabolic: more experience is good, until you hit some number of years and plunge earthward. Maybe your graph has stair-steps, or multiple maximums, or resembles a mathematical function as designed by Jackson Pollock. Who knows? There is a small body of research on the relationship between experience and expertise, and much of that research suggests something other than a 1-to-1 correspondence. But you wouldn't know it from listening to the talking heads.

Sometimes I wish someone would pay me to sit around and blow the whistle on sloppy science in popular culture. I could wear a little red suit, and have a big shiny whistle, and carry a big sign that said Don't Play with Data: You'll Get Burned. Ooo! Please? Currently accepting donations.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Meming it up

I'm just that bored. Share my pain.

20 years ago:

1. Lived in a house with mint-green vinyl siding.
2. Attended hippie school. (No grades. No clothes.)
3. Read copiously.
4. Spoke little.
5. Fascinated by that overheated crayon smell.
6. Nursed a yen for Gilbert Blythe.

10 years ago:

1. Lived in my head.
2. Attended high school. (Desultorily.)
3. Read copiously.
4. Enthused little.
5. Fascinated by college brochures.
6. Ended an unfortunate entanglement with Sylvia Plath.

5 years ago:

1. Lived in Ohio.
2. Started my super-senior year of college. (Indecision; donuts.)
3. Read copiously.
4. Drove little.
5. Fascinated by psycholinguistics, psycholinguists, psycho linguists.
6. Conducting clandestine relationship.

3 years ago:

1. Lived in that junky apartment people liked to pee on.
2. Started my second year of graduate school. (Sororobots; neurological disorders.)
3. Complained copiously.
4. Played little.
5. Fascinated by those few glimpses of sky.
6. Too tired.

So far this year:

1. Moved.
2. Accepted gainful employment (help; help.)
3. Read moderately.
4. Meditated little.
5. Fascinated by Alex Ross.
6. Kept my maiden name.


1. Drove south one hour; saw trees.
2. Avoided work. (Sunday! Sun!)
3. Walked much.
4. Wrote little.
5. Fascinated by cop cars.
6. Pledged undying devotion to cheese.


1. Drove north one hour; saw trucks.
2. Avoided work. (Not going back. No, never.)
3. Idled much.
4. Danced little.
5. Fascinated by that strange picture in the NY Times. Also cheese.
6. What Would Cheese Do?


1. Live here.
2. Go to work.
3. Shout much.
4. Smile little.
5. Fascinated by the clock. (When is 4:10?)
6. Lift up my heart to Cheese.

In the next year:

1. Live.
2. Quit.
3. Shush much.
4. Shoot little.
5. Fascinated by leaves, interleaving.
6. Who moved my cheese?

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Fourth Horseman of Discomfiture

Why does revamping mean "to overhaul" rather than "to don a slinky dress and false eyelashes for the second night in a row?" This is troubling. Also troubling: NASCAR romance novels.