Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dunk, Dunk, Goose

I just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, and you should finish it, too. Not because every story gets you. Not because every story sneaks up behind you like a teenage bully at the neighborhood pool, presses down on your shoulders until you feel the world open up around you, flooding all the the strange, dark spaces inside you that account for breath. But because some of the stories do, and sometimes some is enough.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about what makes Jhumpa Lahiri's stories good. And though I do enjoy repeating myself and others, I've run five miles today and am tired, so I'll just say that, apart from the musculature, apart from the cruelty and the strength, the thing that elevates the best of the stories is the contrast between the shock of submersion and the inevitability that follows. Something is strange or new, exotic; then suddenly it's the standard, the truth, the blue all around.

"Going Ashore," the final story in the collection, is both tragically conventional and conventionally tragic. Yet, embedded in the slow descent of the piece is a description of a moment I remember vividly from my own life, of giving up something you want not because it is the right thing to do, or the smart thing to do, but simply because you can't seem to do anything else.

It is the kind of private turning, the kind of intimate quake, you never expect to see articulated outside of your body. In fact, until you see it there, splayed on the page, letters thrusting into blank, you could imagine that it happened differently, that it never happened at all.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Around and Stop

It's tough to break up: you've invested so much time and energy in someone that even the fact that he's a schlump with a taste for emo rock can't seem to dim your resolve to stay together no matter what the cost.

Similarly, it's tough to admit to yourself that something you've spent years working on is something that no longer interests you. I was listening to yet another high-Baroque trio sonata on the radio program Harmonia when it dawned on me: this was boring. There went the two solo instruments schlepping through the circle of fifths; there went the baseline, lumbering on its way. The harpsichord provided obligatory flourishes as the whole self-satisfied burgher of a piece strolled past, never breaking a sweat.

The truth is I'm getting more musical satisfaction these days messing around on the tin whistle than doing anything I'm actually supposed to be doing. Celtic music may be eminently predictable, but at least it's got the kind of instinctive thrust good music should have. I once explained to a professional bodhran player that one of my principal weaknesses as a musician was that I neglected to justify my musical choices with historical precedent. He looked at me askance. "Why the hell would you want to do that?" he asked.

Why indeed?

Still, there's something sad here. The death of love is the death of love, no matter that my lover was only a certain collection of sounds, that the death was a wearing away so slow it was years before I noticed I was all by myself.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hello to Regular Joe

I was in it for the coffee.

I'm not really a see-'em-in-person kind of gal, but there was fresh-brewed liquid energy on offer, plus diner breakfast, so I dug my coat out of the closet and walked out the door into the bright chilly blue of my vacation day. It was 11:00 AM and Barack Obama was speaking two hundred feet from my favorite breakfast joint.

34,999 other souls apparently didn't even require the lure of caffeine: downtown Indy was packed. People pressed themselves into metal barriers, climbed trees, ranged themselves around the overflow screens the campaign had set up to broadcast the event. Barack was running late: by the time he strolled onto the podium in the middle of the American Legion Mall, Senator Evan Bayh had already warmed up the crowd, then handed it over to be cooled down by one of the mythical tribe of "regular people," a woman who told a sad, incoherent story about descending the rungs of the economic ladder.

(Who ARE these "regular people?" I've noticed that, campaign-wise, the defining characteristic of "regular people" appears to be an uneasy relationship with the English language. This is probably why so many "regular people" are suspicious of Obama's fluency and comforted by Sarah's slaughter of syntax. Spreading your words around smacks of Socialism.)

See, that was a nasty, cynical aside designed to illustrate my nasty, cynical streak. A streak that rendered me doubly unprepared, standing there jammed against 34,999 fellow Obama supporters and a couple of eerily life-like cardboard cut-outs, to be ambushed by that wily opponent of cynicism, inspiration.

My day-to-day relationship with inspiration can be summed up in three words: Kiss my ass. Yet, there I was, howling like a maniac, raising my arms to the heavens and choking back the lump in my throat that kept materializing whenever I looked around at 34,999 businessmen, mothers, schoolchildren, bums, camera-wielding cyclopses, aging hippies, union men, apprentice chefs, bicycle messengers, hoodlums, crazies, grandmothers, amputees, and "regular people." For once, maybe the only time in our lives, we were all in it together.

Barack Obama: better than Metamusil.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Whazzup, Sarah?

Today's NY Times Week in Review section contains a chilling article on Sarah Palin's popularity with men. McCain's VP pick was selected at least in part to appeal to women, but it turns out that the big Palin fans, the ones who paint letters of her name onto their hairy chests and yodel their devotion to the cameras, are men. From the day McCain announced his choice, men's approval of Palin has led women's by a 10-point-margin.

What gives? And why is it dangerous?

I call it the hot babysitter effect. Now, more than ever, our country needs someone to look after it. Each of us is busy with our own affairs, our own homes, our own towns; the country needs someone to watch it for us while we go about the business of living. Ergo, electing a President is like hiring a babysitter.

So what do women consider when they hire a babysitter? Most of us look for competence. We want our babysitter to know about the important parts of babysitting: feeding, bathing, ensuring diaper security. We want to the babysitter to have babysat before. We want to hear that she has good references from her last job.

And men want to know these things, too. But some men -not all men, mind you- look at the babysitter and think to themselves: DUDE, she's HOT.

Never mind that the babysitter thinks reading the label on a Pampers box that one time at Safeway makes her an expert on diapers. Never mind that she can't string together a grammatically coherent sentence. Never mind that the babysitter slapped around some kid at her last job.

Sarah Palin is the kind of babysitter -the kind of woman- certain men love. She responds to, and is appreciative of, the male gaze. She does not gainsay male pleasures, even if they involve killing things or drilling enormous holes in wildlife refuges. Her primary personae are those of wife and mother: these are helpmeet roles, roles that prop up, and are integral to, the lives of men. There's no part of the life of Sarah Palin that is unavailable to, or separate from, men. She likes men. She approves of men. She smiles at them, tells them she likes their big boots and their big guns, that she'll take good care of their child.

The woman is dumb as a post. But I can report (only a trace of bitterness, folks!) that intellect is not usually the first thing men look for in their babysitters or any other woman. Maybe they look for it second, or third, or fourth. Palin's male fan base looks for intellect sixty-seventh, between skill at rabbit gutting and ability to whistle Yankee Doodle.

Alright, I'm getting snarky. But the fact remains: Palin's base of support skews, and always has skewed, male. "Palin is our kind of woman," a male fan tells the reporter.

Dude. Scary.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Like, um, so, do you wanna...

Yesterday, I screwed up the courage to ask my coworker out.

At least, that's what I imagined it felt like. I wouldn't know: I'm past the asking-people-out stage of my life and, honestly, I never did it anyway. Asking people out is scary, and I am -let's be blunt- a Wuss Extraordinaire.

(One of the secret, shameful satisfactions of girlhood is that girls, in heterosexual culture, can get with this kind of cravenness. Boys, unless they're inordinately attractive, can't. Not that I really endorse the sitting-on-your-ass approach to dating. You unfailingly end up dating people who are braver than you are, which brings its own set of problems.)

Yet, there I was, a grown woman, dangling an ostentatiously casual invitation for a beer after work. My co-worker and I were both new to the area. We'd already gone through the awkward dance of "we should get together at some unspecified time in the future." I simply picked a time and a premise, then walked into my colleague's office sweaty-palmed.

And what, you might ask, drove me to this dark pass? The thing is, life after college and graduate school is isolating. We spend our whole lives moving apart: from sharing a room, to sharing an apartment, to setting up shop in detached houses with lawns. The lawns get bigger and bigger as we get older and richer, and then, eventually, we die. Alone.

OK, I got a little carried away there. But once you start your "real" life, after all that education has gone in one ear and out the other, how are you supposed to make friends? It's not like in preschool, when you both shared an abiding love of sand. All the way through school it was almost too easy: everyone around you was around your age, was at the same stage of life, shared geographic proximity. Friends practically fell in your lap.

Nowadays it's different. The only people I even lay eyes on are the people I work with. They are every age and every time of life, all of them locked in their own little nuclear cells all around the city. No one can go out for a spontaneous beer, because to do so would involve an hour of driving, not to mention the disposition of spouses, children, small animals in sweaters, etc.

This kind of sucks. Everyone knows it's harder to meet a mate after college or grad school. Fortunately we've developed a mechanism for that. It's called Internet dating. But simply making friends? There's no Craigslist for that. It's easier to find a dominatrix online than a friend. No, if all you want is a few folks with whom intermittently to have beer, you need to do it the old-fashioned way.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Spelling it Out

You used to have to remember stuff. Now you can let your brain go to screensaver (hello Barack-in-Speedo!) and throw yourself on the mercy of technology.

Take that little search rectangle in the corner of the browser. Type in a single letter and the industrious mole that lives in your machine unearths an alarmingly large, alphabetically cataloged chunk of your search history. Did you really look for this crap?

Under W:

Whiskey Island
Wat Zalmen

Under O:

opposite of iamb
one eighth percentage
Oberlin College Police
open window snowstorm
out of the depths I cry

Under R:

Rothko works
Ruth Miller
red suit

Under D

duck wedding
drive to the basket
dead sparrow
daily office


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Out on a Limn

Oh GOD I'm funny. Well, funny to myself. (If a tree laughs at its own joke in the forest, etc.)

But here, watch: that leaden titular pun is going to descend like a twice-retained Kindergartner on the teeter totter of this blog post, overbalancing the mechanism and propelling me upward into schoolyard legend.

See? Funny.

OK, OK. I guess I've just been thinking about imprecision. Bad in music, bad in writing, bad in the operation of trebuchets. But bad in life? Our day-to-day existence is terifically imprecise. We bumble. We putter. We muddle through. We let our minds cruise around like bored teenagers in small towns. Sooner or later most of us stop trying to figure out what's going on and just keep going.

Let's have some discipline, people! Starting with moi, owner of a starveling pack of ragamuffin thoughts masquerading as a brain. I am happy, I am unhappy: yeah, whatever. Shouldn't I be striving to limn, precisely, the daily dimensions of my joy and my pain?

So here goes. Three helpings of happiness, three dollops of despair, in no particular order. Gotta keep that teeter totter balanced.

*Walked three blocks to buy chard in the park
*Stopped at traffic light, 38th and Illinois
*Ingested repulsive potato pancake facsimile: chain restaurant, treeless suburb
*Received gift of radishes
*Thrashed arch-nemesis at online anagram game
*Imagined Sarah Palin as Commander in Chief


Thursday, October 9, 2008

On Swords; on Giant Apes

Sometimes I get on weird jags. Crime novels, or Indian authors, or movies about scrappy girls' soccer teams (the fact that there is more than one of these movies occasionally shakes my faith that all is right with the universe).

This week, thanks to a delicious dyad of documentaries I watched on back-to-back nights after work, it was nerds at play. I'd thought I was plenty nerdy. I do crossword puzzles, for God's sake. I go to bed at 9:30 PM. But after viewing King of Kong (2007) and Darkon (2006), I know I'm only a postulant in the Great Order of the Nerd. I mean, I can sometimes, with effort, pass as a normal person (it helps if I don't open my mouth). The stars of the two documentaries, on the other hand, could never pass. Not in a million years, not in a dark room on a dark night in dark clothing, not in the event of alien takeover. These folks are nerdiness incarnate. They are lustrous, incandescent, efflorescent paragons of Nerd.

They are also fun to watch. In King of Kong, a laid-off former high-school baseball player challenges a hot-sauce entrepreneur for the world record on the classic arcade game, Donkey Kong. In Darkon, a whole bunch of nerdy people run around city parks in full armor and bearing plastic swords, doing pseudo-battle and speechifying mightily.

Both activities were enrapturing. Not so much because I was interested in Donkey Kong (snooze) or mock battles (double snooze, plus shades the Great Laser Tag Debacle of 2002). Rather, I was enthralled by the strange interleaving of these folks' game lives and "normal" lives, of the ways in which passion presses up against mundanity.

It's an uneasy proximity. Omnipresent in both films, the elephant in the room full of Star Wards action figures, was hunger. Hunger for narrative, for childhood dreams, for connection, for the infamous something more. The stars of Darkon and King of Kong were ravening. They were starving. They'd scraped their plates, licked their forks, and raised their eyes heavenward. Is this all there is? The world beats its tattoo.

Fortunately it turns out there are also elves, and crashing around the underbrush in a padded jerkin, and Pac Man.

Who am I to judge? I'm hungry, too. Where did that cheese get to?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Back Talk

I've been wondering if every worthwhile piece of art is a Q&A. In other words, something that asks or answers, that exists in dialogue with something outside itself.

In other news, buttermilk is probably not something you should drink straight.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

37 Down

You know the song. You've heard it sung by someone, sometime, somewhere. It stuck with you because it's one of those rare pieces of music that both states and interrogates, that not only offers its wares the world but demands something back. Written by Leiber and Stoller, originally recorded by Peggy Lee but covered by a host of others, the song, with its open sore of a question, has long since oozed into the Zeitgeist.

Or, better, the Zeitgeist has long since oozed into the song.

I can get away with saying Zeitgeist because 1) I've had three cups of tea, 2) I spend most of my days trying to get small children to make "k" sounds, and 3) This blog entry is really about crossword puzzles. Yep. Is that all there is?

Peggy Lee may have asked aloud, but we're born with the question wriggling around in our gut like a worm in an apple. It's a universal query, though not a particularly interesting one: in order to live, we pretty much have to answer no. It's how we answer -all the different ways we refute Ms. Peggy, all the different arguments we marshall- that gets interesting.

A good portion of folks turn to one religion or another. Others use travel, constantly reassuring themselves that there's more out there, yet more stuff they haven't seen. Still others use movies, or reading, or meditation. I do the NY Times crossword puzzle every Sunday.

I almost never finish. Usually I manage to crack the central trick, but there are always some squares I can't fill. I do it in pencil, the better to erase, and I do it slowly, revisiting the puzzle like a chronic hurt. I do it for the prestige, for the glory, for the hordes of screaming crossword groupies who plaster themselves against my windows, hanging on every stroke of my number #2.

OK, OK. I do it for the moment I scribble "virid" under 37 down in answer to the clue "strongly green." Who knew I knew this crap? Yet here comes the word, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of some scrap of knowledge I burned long ago.

Is that all there is? There's more. There's strength, and green.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Have you Ever Made a Fool of Yourself?

I like Ira Glass and Ira Glass likes Radiolab. You do the syllogism.

Except I really do like Radiolab. In fact, there was riveting show on the other week about self-deception. Self-deception -like zealotry- is one of those personality traits that both enthralls and disgusts me. We all self-deceive to an extent, but people who routinely self-deceive are some scary fucks.

It turns out they're also (at least according to recent research) happier and more successful than the rest of us. In one study, conducted by psychologist Joanna Starek, competitive swimmers who answered in the negative to more of the embarrassing questions on Harold Sackeim and Ruben Gur's 1970s-era Self-Deception Questionnaire swam better over the course of the season than swimmers of equal ability who admitted more. (I've always sort of suspected self-deceivers had an edge: in music, an unquenchable faith in your talent seems to count for almost as much as talent itself.)

Just for the heck of it, I downloaded the questionnaire. I'd put myself someplace on the yes side for 17 of the 20 questions, which is probably more about me than you wanted to know. Guess I'll be swimming in that slow lane.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Morning is Broken into Tiny Pieces

One of the more acute tragedies of working life is that whole hours, whole blocks of time, go missing. 11:00 AM, 2:00 PM, 3:30 PM: it's as if you've misplaced pieces of your body, as if you're suddenly living life without your gall bladder or your second kidney or the third finger of your left hand. The days mutate into strange, shuffling creatures. You wander dazedly in the half-light. Some trick: telescoping life into endless dusk.

I know I'm spoiled. I know I'm privileged beyond ken. But isn't there something essentially human in tracking the hours, in bearing witness to the way the light moves across the sky? Thanks to an arcane bit of state law, my work schedule this week is irregular. All I can say is, 9:00 AM, you're looking pretty sexy to me.