Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Black Friday

It's the Friday after thanksgiving, the day we stop being grateful and start getting grabby. Hours ago, several hundred miles to the east of us, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a horde of eager shoppers. K and I don't know this yet. We are familiar, in a general way, with the havoc want can wreak: each of us has wanted, ruinously, in the past. Still, walking miles through the cold, clear afternoon, we want profligately. We want tea.

We fight half-heartedly about where to go. K is the oldest friend I can still claim as my friend, if friends nose in and out of each others' lives and do not ask permission. She wants a teapot, some ceremony. I want to sit and press something hot to my bottom lip. I veto the coffee house where I have never had a good time, not once, not even with people I like, and also the coffee house run by sleek-maned evangelicals. We end up at the same place I always end up, the place with poor service and mediocre coffee and walls and walls of books.

The tea comes in mason jars. The waitress says they are out of what I want. They are out of what I maneuver myself to want instead. My third choice is lavender-flavored and scalding and as I taste it I feel the deep, unwanted upswell of love. My friend is deciphering the subtle signals of the hand of fate and I am talking smack. She asserts she has never been cheated on Ebay. I remind her that she has been cheated on Ebay, and how. I talk about what I wanted in high school. She informs me I wanted something else entirely.

Outside, the wind is draining from the day. There's no one in the coffee house, just a sad man hunched over a mug; the town has emptied out. I love the way the holiday gapes, the sky's wide-open mouth. Writers have tried to convince us that memory dwells in the body, that we, like trees, carry within us the mark of our past. K tells me I'm talking crap. The past is something we carry for each other, a way we share the load.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Among the Things for which I am Thankful

#12. The option not to use the stand mixer if I so choose.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the John

Facebook having replaced actual human contact these days, I was having a cyber-conversation with an old friend of mine this morning. I told her about my preschool student who peed on the floor. She told me about her preschool student who peed on the floor. You know: the important stuff.

How, I asked her, can human beings be so small and inept? My friend's answer was egregiously wise and I'm going to parrot it shamelessly: "It takes practice and dedication to learn to be human."

Agreed. Even if we make it to the toilet, most of us are still trying.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Work

To me, the vocabulary of physics has a gravitational tang. Even when physics terms make their way into other linguistic spheres, they carry with them a sense of weight and inevitability that makes for heaviness on the tongue. I'm talking force, torque, inertia, mass: musty, lumpen words that smack of tenth grade.

Then there's work. Work, to put it mildly, weighs on me. It has its own unit of measurement, the erg, though I've also quantified it in hours, days, and pain. Currently, I go to work Monday through Friday, and I spend a good chunk of time outside of working hours thinking about work and its place in my life.

The psychologist Howard Gardner thinks about work, too. Specifically about good work, and what makes a job worthwhile. According to Mr. Gardner, the criterion for "good work" is threefold: it must combine excellent performance with an expression of one's ethics and a sense of engagement. Minus any of these ingredients, a job may be remunerative or even rewarding, but it is not good work.

Do you do good work? Because I don't. I've waffled rather spectacularly with regard to career over the last ten years, and I think a large part of my indecision has been difficulty balancing these three components. Currently, I work as a therapist in the inner city schools. This job does an excellent job of expressing my ethics, but that's about as far as it goes: I am only intermittently engaged by the work that I do, and it's a job that meshes poorly with my natural talents and abilities. I am mediocre at my job, and that depresses me.

In contrast, there are jobs I've dabbled in that are suitably engaging and that play better to my strengths, but which fail at some level to express my ethics. I wish I felt that making music or scribbling the odd poem was enough of a contribution to the world, but I don't. I don't condemn people who choose to be musicians or writers -in fact, I'm pretty damn jealous- but for myself, I feel like it's not an ethical option.

How to achieve the triple crown? Search me. For now, I'll just lie back and think of ergs.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I Wanna Text you Up

Reading gets you into all kinds of trouble. You from unrealistic expectations of the opposite sex. You forget to do your laundry. You are tagged in a meme. Darn you, Jaya!

Accordingly, I present you with the first, as-yet-to-be-produced, album in my nonexistent discography. Instructions were as follows:

1. Band Name: random Wikipedia link
2. Album Title: random quote generator (take the last four words from the first quotation on the page)
3. Album Art: Flickr Interesting Photo (pick one)

My album:

Sometimes serendipity bites you in the ass.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Meant to Do That

I just had another poem accepted for publication, my second. This is great: not only do I get to expand my audience from one (moi) to oh, say, three, but I can sense the scintillating threads of possibility unspooling before me. Maybe that first time wasn't a fluke! Maybe I have a modicum of ability! Maybe I'll win ten million dollars and a stuffed monkey playing pinochle!

Yeah. So anyway, it's always interesting to contrast which poems magazines like with which poems I like. In this case, I was bemused to discover that the poem the magazine accepted was one I'd pegged as the second-weakest of the four poems in my submission packet, far below the quality of the poem that was my favorite. In fact, when I opened the acceptance email, I was so shocked that I went back and looked at the poem in question, just to see what the hell they were thinking.

It turns out I'd seeded my last line with a particularly graceful double entendre having to do with grief and rocks. This would be fabulous, except that sucker was 100% unintentional. I revised the accepted poem six or seven times, and I missed my felicitous accident on every single pass.

Damn! Except in an odd way, this bamboozlement is what I like best about poetry: the fact that the process of writing a poem is almost as much discovery as creation. In fiction, you craft plotlines and character arcs. In poetry, you just try and figure out what the heck is going on.

Seamus Heaney once said, "The experiment of poetry, as far as I'm concerned, happens when the poem carries you beyond where you could have reasonably expected to go." Pushing past reasonable expectation is a lovely and amazing thing. Even if it does make you feel like a chump.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Up and Away

I've been racking my brain trying to come up with the Important Life Lessons I learned during this past week of traveling. Adversity builds character, right? And schlepping through half-a-dozen states and three concerts whilst sick as a crack-addled lhasa apso certainly qualifies as adversity. So where's my loot, dang it? All I can come up with is tired aphorisms like "Don't Judge a Hotel Shampoo by its Bottle," and "That Thing in the Bin with the Microwaveable Bacon is Not a Pancake and You Should Not Try to Eat It."

Or how about, "Don't Make Conversation with People who Look Crazy?" I was privileged to learn this one on the fifth of my six flights in seven days, whilst preparing for takeoff in a state of abject and totally unwarranted terror. Just as the plane was about to leave the gate, a disreputable looking gentleman shuffled on board and plunked himself down in the seat next to me. He was bearded, dirty, shifty-eyed, and smelled of liquor. When he did not place a drink order I instantly, with the impeccable logic of the nervous airplane passenger, assumed he was a terrorist. Who but a terrorist doesn't want free airplane drinks?

We taxied out. The terrorist turned on and off his cell phone, which I noted featured the welcoming message "Fuck the World." A few minutes from takeoff, I decided that the thing to do was engage him in conversation. If he was a terrorist, he might suffer some qualms about blowing up the nice woman next to him. If he wasn't a terrorist, I'd find out pretty quickly.

He wasn't a terrorist. For the next one hour and fifty minutes of flight time, he kept up a steady, mostly one-sided stream of conversation about the trucks he fixes up, the ways in which he likes to crash said trucks, his liquor preferences, his addiction to smoking, his brushes with the law, and his general worldview, which seemed to consist of the twin creeds Trucks before Women and Drunk Driving is Fun. Midway through the flight, he pulled out his tin of chewing tobacco and, talking around the pungent lump, proceeded to describe, in detail, the stash of porn he keeps on his phone.

Actually, come to think of it, I barely noticed the flight's considerable turbulence. Fight Fire with Fire; Fight Fear with Fear.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the Road

Sorry for the lack of blogging. I was jerked out of my regularly scheduled life for a week of pretending to be a freelance musician. This involved a seemingly endless spate of airports, hotels, rental cars, and meals out. I jetted from L.A. to Atlanta to the middle of Kansas, suppressing terror high above any number of intervening states, washing my hair with different hotel products, and eating an overweening number of dispiriting "continental breakfasts." Musicians' lives are only very slightly about music.

I do a number of these trips a year, and they are always hard for me. I'm a homebody, a scaredy-cat, a creature of routine. I do not like staying up late at night. I do not like schmoozing at receptions. I am terrified of flying; sitting next to crazy people doesn't help. Why, you might ask, do I put myself through this?

It's not the music. Sure, I love music. Yes, performing can be thrilling. And OK, OK, I like signing autographs. But really I do it for the sickening crack that is my regular life splitting open and falling away. I like to be swallowed abruptly by an alien world and then spat out the other side. I like yanking myself into a life that's not my own, wandering around a little, then coming home.

Slipping into and out of your skin is a privilege. I never forget that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Out the Door

Today, I did something bad. I won't give too many specifics (big brother is watching!) but suffice to say it involved a shirking of professional responsibility coupled with a mad dash through the side door of an auditorium when no one was looking. Or at least when most people weren't looking. Not my finest moment.

It had already been a day replete with, well, meaningless bullshit. In the early morning, I sat through yet another hour-long unpaid staff meeting, the contents of which proved, as always, irrelevant to my professional life. I was cranky, on the edge of sick, and half-incapacitated with post-election exhaustion. Then I was asked to attend a meeting in the middle of bumfuck dealing with post-secondary placement. I work at the elementary level.

It took me about an hour and a half to snap, but snap I did. I am not proud. Part of having a job -part of being an adult- is learning to put up with meaningless bullshit: there is an ungodly amount of it no matter what your profession. Not everything will be relevant or useful; there will be hoop-jumping and box-checking and a whole lot of lying down and taking it

The thing that scares me is I didn't realize I was really going to do the bad thing until I was halfway down the stairs. I had, in fact, struggled mightily with my low tolerance for meaningless bullshit all through elementary school -and middle school, and high school, and graduate school. My attitude several times shot me in the foot: I estimate I lost at least two teacher recommendations and a program placement. Still, the sharp edges of that struggle had been blunted by time. I thought I'd licked it. I thought I was an adult.

Turns out I'm just truant.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Filling in the Blank

On November 4th, Californians will cast their votes for or against Proposition 8, a ballot measure seeking to amend the state constituion to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. In doing so, California voters follow in the footsteps of voters in 26 other states (including four starting with M) who have passed similar ballot measures.

There's bigotry involved in the passage of these measures, sure. There's fear; there's ignorance. But there's also something more sympathetic: the raw, human hunger to codify the ways in which we connect to one another.

The cover story of the New York Times Book Review this week is about precisely the kind of connection that strays outside the boundaries of Propositions 8, 10, 12, whatever. William Logan reviews "Words in Air," the collected correspondence between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I've read the poetry of both: Bishop is tidy, Lowell is ravening. Yet these two ostensibly uncongenial artists, following a chance meeting at a party, carried on a passionate 30-year correspondence that ended only with Lowell's death.

All correspondence, save for the one each of us conducts with Internal Revenue, is interesting: unlike conversation, which can arise naturally from proximity, correspondence -especially paper correspondence- requires both premediation and impetus. Correspondence is a meeting of our edited selves, a tangling of our best feet.

Lowell and Bishop's correspondence is further enlivened by the kind of cross-pollination that inevitably takes place when good artists talk to one another. Yet what preoccupies Logan, what makes up the meat of his review, is good old-fashioned Proposition 8 fever. Baldly put, what were Lowell and Bishop to each other?

Not lovers. Though Lowell once confided to Bishop that he wished he'd asked her to marry him, there were impediments. Bishop was an alcoholic lesbian, for one, and Lowell was a womanizer prone to bouts of mania and depression. Still, the two were in many ways intimately involved, and Logan, in his review, documents these involvements with a detective's precision. He seems to be struggling -as, I confess, did I- to slap a label on the odd pairing, to define the relationship once and for all.

"Sublimated affair." "The love whose name Lowell...dared not speak." "Star-crossed lovers." Logan tries out names even as he describes how "the late letters often confine themselves to worries over age, money and dentistry." (In the face of poetry, cavities are refreshingly concrete.)

But maybe Logan and I should stop rooting around for definitions like pigs rooting for truffles and call a spade a spade: Lowell and Bishop were correspondents. Their letters to each other were simply their letters to each other; their words were simply their words. Whatever was contained within those words, whatever conflicting streams of feeling or thought, would not have fared any better given a name.

Leave a few blanks in life. Vote No to Proposition 8 on November 4th.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Death and Toilets

The funeral home is becoming visible again. All summer, it was obscured by the haze of green that settled over my kitchen window. But the trees are stripping down, now. The big walnut tree that maddens the squirrels stands nearly naked, and the sugar maples are slinking out of their coats. There's no longer much of anything between the windowpane and the row of hearses but air.

I'd forgotten, you see, that I lived cheek to jowl with all that death. Or rather, I'd forgotten that I lived so close to all that life: almost every Friday, many Saturdays, and the odd Tuesday, the parking lot of the funeral home fills up with cars. People in suits stumble into the building and then out again. They stand in the parking lot blinking in the evening light, blowing their noses and having conversations and surreptitiously checking out other folks' cars. Living by a funeral home teaches you that death is terrifying not because it is strange, but because it isn't.

The depressed and the overly literary (should these even be separate categories?) go a step further: they argue that we're dead all the time. In her essay "Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf asserts that we spend most of our lives, in effect, not living. It is only during a few scattered "moments of being," those scarce epiphinal seconds when the world stands up and slaps us in the face, that we are alive at all.

I used to think this was a load of semi-liquid horse hooey. This was because I never experienced any moments of being that couldn't be chalked up to indigestion. Yesterday, though, things changed. Miles from the funeral home, in a bathroom stall in a beat-up public school building scheduled to close within the year, I looked up. I'd been using the same bathroom for three months, but this was the first time I'd noticed that the tops of the bathroom stalls were garlanded with enormous fake purple flowers. Sure, I'd laid eyes on them. But I'd never seen them, never looked up at them and thought: oh, hey, look, there are some enormous fake purple flowers hanging over the toilet.

There were, in fact, enormous fake purple flowers hanging over the toilet.

It was the kind of small, stupid crease in the universe, the kind of startling perceptual origami, that would make Woolf proud. Or at least self-satisfied. Except she's long dead, and I'm the one standing with my hand pressed to the glass, watching the hearse pull in and out and in.