Thursday, December 31, 2009


Oh here we go, another sheaf of months.

You're supposed to learn something. That's the consolation prize for the incipient wrinkles and the extra flesh on your hips, for the softening of your corneas and all those dead cats. Here I am, standing at the cusp of new year-

Who am I kidding? I'm not standing at the cusp. I'm skulking. Or crawling. Crawling toward the cusp. Crawling away from the cusp, facing backward. Actually, crawling is really too active. I'm sitting at the cusp. In a fetal position. With my head between my knees. Rocking.

Anyhoo, the cusp, etc., and what have I learned? For what precious knowledge have I bartered the last twelve months, paying out day by reluctant day?
  • That particular sensation of mild self-loathing mated with existential confusion is, in fact, dehydration.
  • Bedbugs suck.
  • If you scribble solemn, heartfelt New Year's Resolutions on a scrap of paper and then place that scrap, with ceremony, in a safe place, you will forget a) what you resolved and b) the location of the place you had the temerity to think was safe. Both by July.
  • Part of you is still in high school.
  • People die. Also they lose their minds and their hearts; they forget you.
  • Morning keeps coming around.

Monday, December 28, 2009

#12: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

My mother likes memoir. For years, I have taken this as a sign of dullness, soft-mindedness, just general momliness. Mothers always like memoir. It gives them other lives to hit you over the head with, to brandish in front of your nose and say: Look, here, this is they way you should be doing it.

I loathe memoir. Mostly because it is less fiction-like than fiction. Or, to put it more baldly, because it is not fiction, but has dug through fiction's closet and is wearing its clothes. How presumptuous, to dress up your life in narrative! A person writing memoir is making a statement that her life deserves a capital-S story. This makes me dislike her right up front as self-aggrandizing.

Plus my mom likes memoir and I am ten years old.

Mature, tough-minded woman that I am, I shoved memoir all the way to the back of my list for My Year of Reading Dangerously and tried to forget about it. Uck: memoir! About a dead baby, no less! Thus it was that I picked up novelist Elizabeth McCracken's slim memoir of stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, a mere four days prior to end of the calendar year.

And sped through it. After that murky, mucky Julia Glass novel, McCracken's book was like a draught of cold water. McCracken can WRITE. This is a relief. Moreover, her motives in doing so are pure, or at least purer than the motives I impute to the archetypal memoirist, whom I imagine blowing hot words into a sorry balloon of a life. For McCracken, words are needles: swiftly and methodically, she lances a period of overwhelming pain.

Less memoir than dissection, An Exact Figment probes period of approximately one year during which McCracken gave birth first to a stillborn boy and then to a live one. The book feels in no small part like an autopsy: Why? McCracken demands of her memory. Why this way? Why that next? Why this particular configuration of days? Her prose is knife-sharp and woundingly lovely.

There's a magnet on my refrigerator, a picture of an aproned, glamorous woman in a 1950's kitchen. Oh my God, she says, my mother was right about everything.

Needless to say, the magnet was a gift from my mother. She thinks it's hilarious. I've never seen the humor. I came very close to giving the magnet away or shoving it drawer, but in the end I kept it on the refrigerator to remind myself that sometimes -not very often, mind you, only occasionally after the pigs have flown a full circuit around the chimney and the moon has turned a brilliant turquoise- my mom is on to something.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

#11: I See You Everywhere

The really scary thing is that sometimes what you're afraid of happens. Sure, mostly the car doesn't crash. Your library books are where you left them and you grab, effortlessly, the bar of the trapeze.

But sometimes -only sometimes, enough to give your fear a frisson of reality but not enough to have it do you any good- you slide off the road. You left Anne of Green Gables under the seat on the bus to Camp Digeridoo at Lake Lemon, and your hands clench midair.

In such cases, it is important to remember that fear, realized, is the exception. 98% of what you're worried about never comes to pass, and the rest of the shit that happens to you is stuff you weren't smart enough to dread. Still, when that 2% of your nightmares solidifies into just exactly what kept you up at night, it sucks.

I was afraid Julia Glass was overrated. When I added her novel I See You Everywhere to my list for My Year of Reading Dangerously, I had been tracking the book-world buzz over the unexpected nomination of her earlier book Three Junes for a National Book Award. I was afraid that Glass's critics were right, that she wasn't National Book Award material. I was afraid that her novel would be tepid, like tea from a twice-dunked bag.

Make that tea from a thrice-dunked bag. A four-times-under-the-water bag, a bag so thoroughly abused it releases no color, but floats to the top of your cup like a white, sad, overweeningly dead teabag-shaped jellyfish.

Say you are a book. You are permitted to have a) a good plot or b) good writing. If you are exciting drivel, I will read you. If you are glacial but lovely, I will read you. In an ideal, fairy-princess, castle-in-the-sky world, you are possessed of clean prose and masterful plotting and we will retire to bed together and be very happy. But you are not allowed to be BOTH boring and stilted. No no no no!

Louisa and Clem (short for Clement) are sisters. One is beautiful and brave; the other is smart and scared. They fight. They chase men. They feel sorry for themselves and housesit and edit art magazines and regret not pursuing their pottery and...ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. Whoops, sorry, dropped off there.

The most maddening thing is that every single potentially interesting scene -the sisters fighting over the same man, a maiden Aunt striking out on her own- HAPPENS OFFSTAGE. I wanted to howl. I wanted to seize Julia Glass by the shoulders and shake. I wanted to sweep aside the interminable phone conversations and the poorly-drawn cleaning-out-the-barn scene and the scene where Louisa sits on the beach and thinks- and drag the meat of the story back where it belongs.

Alas, I'm not the author. If I were, I'd refund myself the seven hours of my life I spent slogging through my massively mediocre novel.

Don't read I See You Everywhere. Read a better, older young adult book by Katherine Patterson called Jacob Have I Loved. It's about two sisters. One is beautiful and brave. The other is smart and scared. Their names are Louise and Caroline.

Gosh, now, this is starting to sound familiar.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

#10: Downtown Owl

OK, I'll confess: I'm scared of books by men.

Yes, I realize I shiver in my boots before the literary output of half of the known world. Yes, I understand that my prejudice limits my reading list largely to this century and the last, given that -with a few notable exceptions- pre-20th-century writing was the province of men. And, OK, I'll admit I've read some awesome books by men. I think Rabbit Run is a masterpiece, and I'll read pretty much anything Michael Chabon writes.

Still, I approach the work of male authors -especially young male authors- with trepidation. Men can be so...maximalist. Many a male author likes to set his hunting cap for the biggest game he can think of -the BIGGEST IDEAS; the MOST ENCOMPASSING THEMES; life, the universe, and EVERYTHING- and then proceed to hound it to death over the frozen tundra of 900 swooping, posturing, chest-thumping pages. It's like the novel is his territory and he's going to make sure he pees all over it.

(David Foster Wallace, I'm looking at you.)

I am not a maximalist. I like small, densely drawn worlds in which nothing much happens yet everything changes. It just so happens that most of the people who inhabit these worlds, who jolt them to life with words, are women.

Which is why I selected Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl for My Year of Reading Dangerously. Klosterman is a man. He is not an old man. And his biography is less than reassuring: He's worked for Esquire, for starters, and the title of his previous novel, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, smacked of urine in print.

Fortunately, I was (mostly) wrong. Downtown Owl, a portrait of a fictional North Dakota town on the eve of a blizzard, is profoundly concerned with the small. Small lives, small town, small time. Klosterman is a detail man: the book is a less a narrative than a galaxy of specificities. These are at the very least entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny:

"John S. Laidlaw was a football coach, a pheasant hunter, a two-pack-a-day smoker, a notorious cheapskate, a deeply closeted atheist, and an outspoken libertarian. But he was also an English teacher, and -were it not for his preoccupation with convincing female students to have intercourse with him inside his powder blue Caprice Classic- he might have been among the best educators in the entire state of North Dakota. He was certainly the finest teacher in Owl, even when you factored in the emotional cruelty and the statutory raping."

If I'd been smart, I would have guessed Klosterman's obsession with detail from the exactingly detailed title: Downtown Owl, with it's hidden howl (ow ow ow) and its double connotation of town square and down-and-out.

Sometimes, Klosterman's cataloguing of the very small gets in the way of his unfolding narrative, as when all dialogue, in its specific hilarity, begins to sound the same. Klosterman writes largely from the perspective of three Owl residents: an indifferent football player named Mitch; Julia, who moves to Owl to teach history and finds herself the center of male attention purely by dint of being female and alive; and Horace, one of the coffee-swilling oldsters at the cafe. A few extra voices are thrown in, but as all the voices are distinguishably Klosterman's, it doesn't much matter.

Still, Owl is a joyful, nosy, and very occasionally lovely little book. "All great books seem boring until you've finished reading them," Laidlaw tells his students. Downtown Owl is not a great book. It's far too engrossing for that.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Here We Come

Sometime deep in December, after the midpoint of the month but before the darkest day of the year, I go caroling. I do it every year.

It's not something I would ever do on my own: I'm scared of knocking on doors. Every Halloween, I made my little brother precede me up the steps. During school fundraisers, I scraped together my allowance money and bought the depressing tins of caramel corn myself. I'm a grown woman now, but every time I do a home visit for my job I stand on the stoop and wait a few seconds, hoping.

Still, I go caroling. A group of my parents' friends began doing it twenty-five years ago, long enough for me not to remember the first time I polluted the close and holy darkness by yelping the annotated version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (reindeer!). Since then, bellies have slackened. My father has grown an unexpected shock of white hair. Several couples have divorced, and their children have gotten married. More than one person has died.

This year, the house hosting the pre-caroling party is overrun with little girls. Little girls chase each other up and down the stairs and fall over each other in their efforts to reach the candy. Little girls pull each others' hair and wind in and out of the legs of the adults, most of whom are deep into the cider bowl.

I make the kind of desultory small talk you make with people who have known you since you rolled on the floor howling. They look at you with cloudy eyes, unable to shake the double vision: you now and you yanking their daughter's ponytail; their son in the dark of the winter back yard making out with your best friend.

We warm up inside with Jingle Bells, which everybody knows, and move on to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which everybody has forgotten. No matter: we're off, trundling into the night which is chilly or icy or unseasonably warm, which is snowy or rainy or moon-perfect clear. Some people open their doors with frozen smiles. Others light up. A few hide, even though you can see, through the slats of the blinds, their heads silhouetted against the glow of their flat-screen TV's.

We do more than five houses and less than twelve. Everyone tries to sing harmony at once. When part of the group walks too far ahead, the carol splits into uneasy canon. We can't see the song books in the dark; our breath fogs the air.

It's never entirely fun, the caroling, but it is important. The rest of the year, our children don't kiss. We don't pull one anothers' hair and our neighbors' doors are always shut. It's quiet in the back yard and quiet in the streets and we're too busy to keep track of where we're going, let alone what to sing when we get there.

The cure for this is simple. Knock hard. Yowl Good King Wenceslas at the top of your lungs. Wait to be let in.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's Snowing Elsewhere

I've been tracking the storm on radar. There it goes, a wide green weal, slinking across the Mid-Atlantic. The Eastern Seaboard is lit up like a Christmas tree with warnings: red for blizzard, orange for severe winter storm, pink for snow. I wonder who chose the colors, and why. Maybe his daughter's favorite sled is pink. Maybe red is the color of the extra blanket he digs out from under the bed when it's cold.

I've also been following the storm on the Internet. On Facebook, pictures of snow blanket the Newsfeed. Ice was on A's road home. B put chili in the crockpot and her feet up on the couch and is watching the white come down. J, in Boston, is making a last-minute run to the grocery store ahead of the front. C is thrilled.

My mother-in-law sent pictures. A record, where she lives:

It's snowing here, too. The faintest drizzle, a few white flakes that might be rain. The roads are clear, and it was warm enough for me to do a quick three miles running down the back streets under the grey. There's a pot of stew on the stove. There's tea. Three library books, boiled wool slippers, and snow, hard, elsewhere.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Infinity Scarf

For my birthday, my friend K gave me The Infinity Scarf. It's a big knit loop of fabric with the name "Infinity Scarf" attached. I stuck the loop over my head and set about trying to figure out the name. Thus far, my theories are these:
  • You can twist the thing into the sideways figure eight of infinity if you try, though why you would do this, only to stare at a make-shift sideways eight you've constructed out of scarf and cannot easily transport, is beyond me.
  • Marketing ploy
  • You can wear it in an "infinity" of ways, though in this case infinity probably breaks down to about nine. Nine is a smaller number than infinity, but is still disturbingly ninefold. I suppose you can wear the regular scarf in a whole lot of inadvisable ways, too, but the Infinity Scarf multiplies your options.
Options are confounding:

OK, I confess: I adore the thing. It's warm, and I can probably pitch it like a tent should the need arise. In short, I love it and I never would have bought it, ever, not in a million years or in the event of the Rapture. And isn't that the definition of the perfect gift? Thanks, K.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Roll With It

There's a new bakery in my neighborhood. It has a brave little sign and a punny name. There's a chalkboard for pricing, and a small glass case behind which huddle scattered cookies and three lazy susans of cinnamon rolls. There's coffee, and occasionally some bread.

I want this bakery to succeed. I want it at least as much I wanted that scruffy guy in high school French to ask me out, but less than I wanted not to be in high school French at all. But I worry about the bakery. It's the neighborhood, see.

My neighborhood is a university town without the university. The university decamped in the early part of the 20th century; what was left of the town succumbed to the advances of the ever-expanding metropolis. Today, there are boarded up buildings and prostitutes and grocery stores with security guards. There's also a community council, a lot of young families, and a small commercial strip with a variety of independent businesses. Can you say gentrifying?

Since I've moved here, stores have flared into life and burst, like stars. A few, like the new pizza joint, have stayed. The neighborhood is off the main drag. It scares people who are scared of black people and/or the down-at-the-heels types who frequent the plasma center. Most of the people who live in the neighborhood work downtown and aren't around during the day. In short, it's just not QUITE a great place to do business.

Two months ago, the tiny grocery store closed. A gift boutique, two sandwich shops, a dog bakery, and an art gallery all bit the dust. I really really really really want the bakery to succeed. Even if they only ever make cinnamon rolls, I want to be able to buy them.

I hate wanting. Want is a terrible burden. I feel a leaden responsibility, as if I singlehandly have to eat enough cinnamon rolls to keep the lights on. I will eat more cinnamon rolls than is prudent. I will start dreaming of cinnamon rolls. Soon I will come to resemble a cinnamon roll, round and soft and sticky-sweet. I will eat so many cinnamon rolls they will have to roll me out the door and transfuse my plasma. Good thing the plasma center is handy.

I'll let you know how this goes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Yes, And...

Here's what I wanted to be when I was nine: good.

Yeah, good. Good in preference to happy, good in preference to smart, good as opposed to an incipient lawyer or dentist or dancer or fairy princess or whatnot. Good especially in preference to becoming President of the United States, which I had divined was the proper ambition for little girls, but which interested me about as much watching paint dry.

While doing long division. In my sleep. I mean, the president was a wizened, wooden-looking white guy. Who wanted to be that?

Looking back, I blame Little Women. I first read Little Women at the vulnerable age of six and proceed it to slam it down monthly for three years thereafter. If I could have injected it intravenously, I would.

Everyone in Little Women wanted to be good. Good was where it was at, even if, in the process of sublimating parts of yourself into sublimity, you croaked, like Beth. Meg figured out how to be good. Amy came around. Even Jo, who began the book so gloriously far from goodness, straightened herself out, and at the end of the novel she received her reward in the form of a wizened, wooden-looking white guy.

Problem was, I was not good at being good.

I tried, I really did. But every time I turned around, there I was: self-interested, stubborn, and fond of getting my own way. I was kicked out of two preschools and gave my parents fits. By elementary school I had acquired a veneer of civilization, but underneath I was the same. I beat myself up about my lack of goodness for years, and then I accidentally read Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was like methadone. Kierkegaard told me I only had to hold myself accountable for my second impulse -not my first. I was free. I was -damn it!- good.

I laughed! I sang! I frolicked! And then I settled down to flagellate myself for various other shortcomings, including my overbite, my anxiety, and the degree to which I self-flagellate.

Which is why, every so often, I read Oprah Magazine. Oprah Magazine has nothing on 12-step programs: it is cheerier, more hopeful, and has better layout. Oprah magazine keeps me on the straight and narrow. It tells me what to read and what to think and steers me forcibly back toward a nuanced understanding of morality.

Martha Beck is the life coach/personality guru. She is odious and I hate her. This month she ordered me to swap conjunctions. Instead of saying "yes, but," I am to say, "yes, and."

I don't get enough done,
I tell myself.
Yes, and I booked that concert, I tell myself back.

I don't try hard enough at work, I tell myself.
Yes, and I worked late on Wednesday, I tell myself back.

I eat too much cheese, I tell myself.
Yes, and?

Substituting "Yes, and" for "yes, but" allows for constructive self-criticism but stops you short of self-abuse. It embraces complication, subtlety, and the very real possibility that things are not all one way. I loathe that Martha, bless her annoying, self-righteous little self, is right.

Yes, and thanks.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Friends & Strangers

I've got a fan. At least, I assume he's a fan, because otherwise I have no idea why some random guy who works for a hospital in Northeastern XXXXXXX would want to friend me on Facebook. I don't have many -OK, any- connections in that part of the world.

But I did give a concert there the night before last, and my name was printed in the program, along with where I went to school and the city I live in now. That performer bio may seem like a joke, but it contains the truth, and the truth is a powerful thing. If it doesn't set you free it sure as heck makes you searchable on Facebook.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I've joked about wanting hordes of early music groupies, but now that I'm presented with a single mildly enthusiastic cyber-fan, I'm mostly just unsettled. You mean those people in the audience are REAL? You mean they have lives and agendas and wants, and those lives and agendas and wants can intersect with mine?

It's more than that. I'd somehow convinced myself that, in going onstage, I was exposing only a small part of myself. The ankles, maybe, if ankles had pitch and rhythm. In no way did I think I was stripping down, offering my whole self to be scrutinized and labeled and friended, for God's sake. The music I'd take public; the rest was private.

Possibly that was naive. I mean, can you really get up and blow into a metal tube in front of six hundred people and pretend you retain a right to invisibility? Can you be anonymous if your picture is on a promotional poster? And why even try for invisibility if visibility is what powers your career?

As with this blog, I want to control what I expose and what I don't. Is that my prerogative? Is it even possible?

Accept? Ignore?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I Am Here


Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I'm flying into a "special weather statement" tomorrow morning and am practically incapacitated with fear. Why do we fly, anyway? Isn't the ground good enough? I like the ground. It is nice and for the most part stable and it grows lovely things, like trees. And beets. I like beets.

The difficulty with fear is that it's there even when you know it's doing you no good. There's nothing I can do, at this point, to avoid tomorrow. All the nausea and the shaking and the dread is window dressing, superfluous to the bare facts that I will fly and there will probably be weather and so it goes. But the fear is so present, so dehumanizing. It's an animal that's crawled inside my gut and made its den. It reeks. It growls.

How do you run the varmint off? I'm taking suggestions.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks, Dudes

Thanksgiving! Turkey! More turkey! Turkey with gravy! Making turkey shapes with your hands!


My pies are done, which is making me preternaturally euphoric. Thanks for bearing with me.

Actually, I'll blow up that last balloon of gratitude: thanks for bearing with me for...GEEZ...these past two and a half years?! How many hours have I wasted blogging that I could have spent singlehandedly saving the world from itself? Or SLEEPING?!

Ah, well: it's done.

And honestly it will probably continue to be done, at least until I get saddled with old age or soul-crushing work or small, obnoxious children. And I've even (mostly) enjoyed it! In the spirit of holiday navel gazing (I always want to spell this naval gazing, but that's what you do when the hot young sailors come ashore), I'm offering up a few favorite entries from the last year are so.

Unfortunately, these are process favorites, not product favorites. Sucks to be you! They made have come out misshapen, in other words, but they sure were fun to shape.

In Which You Are Forced to View My Dinner
In Which Jesus Cramps My Style
It's a Trap!
In Which I Accidentally Read Cosmopolitan
Don't Do This
Sad School Stuff
Black Friday

Thanks for reading, all.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Autumn Blab

"I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its tone is mellower, its colors are richer, and it is tinged with a little sorrow. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and it content."

–Lin Yutang

Yeah, OK, but what is this quote doing in my American Speech Language and Hearing Newsletter? Are they hinting that speech therapists are, um, autumnal? Or mellow? How is resting content with one's limitations consistent with a mission to improve functioning in individuals with special needs?

The mind boggles.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I've been snookered. By a lot of things, actually, including book jackets, course descriptions, and that dastardly catalog advertising fruits of the month sold in conjunction with summer sausage. (The cheese-and-pear basket looked SO much more delectable under studio lights.) Probably the most thorough snookerer was, and continues to be, my own frontal lobe, which puts about that it is the boss of me when it is, in fact, only a puppet of the hindbrain's regime.

The most recent snookering comes at the hands of Google, which offers a list of "themes," or ways to customize the backdrop of your gmail. I bit: the default gmail background was mighty boring. I tried mountains for a while, and then a lonely, rain-ravaged tree. Then I checked the box marked "teahouse" and was immediately enslaved by a pixilated, anthropomorphic fox in a pagoda hat.

The fox lives at the bottom of my screen. He has a whole little life down there, complete with a home, a garden, cleaning supplies, and a birdbath. In the morning he does tai chi on the front steps. In the evening he sweeps the floor. Sometimes he picks flowers or lunches with friends. At night, he sleeps.

I find this egregiously compelling. By compelling I mean fascinating, but also soothing: How reassuring -and yet how simultaneously agitating- to peer into someone else's everyday. You glimpse, in snatches, life running on parallel tracks. It's one of the juicier privileges of reading -though reading, in turn, privileges narrative over the slow accretion of minutes that is life up close.

Only you no longer need books to be a voyeur of the mundane. Thanks to technology, we're awash in snatches of other people's lives. I splash! I wade! I dunk! Yes I DO desperately want to know what you're eating and if you took your umbrella. I want to know when you're bored and what you're staring at and how long you sat at the red light! The boringer the better, folks: I'll bite!

Oh God, I'll bite. Even if the snatches of life are subjected to various degrees of self-editing, a la Facebook. Even if they are drab or awkward or sad. And, yes, even if the life in question belongs to a fake fox with bad taste in headwear.

Dude: get a snood!

That is, after you've finished pouring the tea you're currently pouring.

Not that I'm watching, or anything.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tell Me What You Want (What you Really Really Want)

As part of its recommendations service, Netflix has begun offering "taste preference" rows based on your rankings of the various movies you've watched. Rather than deducing what you'll like from your stated sensibilities, Neflix induces your sensibilities from what you actually like. In other words, NO MORE SELF-DECEPTION.

This is, quite naturally, alarming. No longer can I pass myself off as a fan of high-concept foreign films or Academy Award winners or penetrating political commentary.

Instead, brutally, I'm forced to confront my preferences for:
  • Critically-acclaimed romantic sexual awakening movies
  • British showbiz comedies
  • Quirky BBC TV shows
  • Independent dramas featuring a strong female lead
  • Emotional documentaries

Friday, November 13, 2009

Late Registration

"I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life."

Rapper Kanye West recently fired this shot over the bow, doubtless to warn the massed fleet of librarians pursuing him over the high seas of popular culture that they'd better back off or he'll, like, live at them. For REALZ.

Obviously, Kanye's pronouncement makes me cranky. But I think it's worth drilling down through the dudgeon to conduct some...enhanced interrogations of the statement. (Or, since those techniques have been outlawed, maybe just some questions.) Is Kanye's view legitmate? Is Kanye entitled to hold this view? Is he entitled to express it, and if so, is he entitled to do so on the public stage? And finally, does Kanye dissing reading constitute a public health issue?

Let's take it step by step:

1) Is Kanye's view legitimate?
The whole post-modern thing has made it difficult to comment on the prince vs. bastard status of subjective likes and dislikes, so I have to give Kanye this one. He doesn't like books. OK. He doesn't have to like books.

But it's worth noting that Kanye's statement goes further: He likes to get information from "doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life" It's that pesky word "real" with its implication of objectivity that gets him into trouble. Kanye is pretty clearly implying that "real life" is exclusively an oral medium, a point which seems debatable. Shame on Kanye for asking us to respect his subjective viewpoint while sneaking objectivity on the side.

2)Is Kanye entitled to hold this view?
Yes. I personally think this POV stinks worse than thirteen partially potty-trained preschoolers after a long day in the sun, but there's nothing I can do about it seeing as no one outside of 1984 has launched a successful campaign to legislate our thoughts.

3)Is Kanye entitled to express this view?
Again, yes. That whole America-land-of-the-free business. As far as I know, books are not a minority group protected by laws designed to curb hate speech. Even though there are probably fewer books than people.

4)Is Kanye entitled to express this view on a public stage?
This is a bit trickier. Kanye enjoys the same constitutional freedoms we all enjoy, and can probably declare, in public, that he is a technicolor zebra if he so desires. On the other hand, one could argue that Kanye, as a celebrity, is morally obligated by his status to moderate his speech. This is the Rousseau-Spider Man argument: "With great power comes great responsibility." Kanye may be entitled to express his loathing for all things book, but that doesn't mean he should.

A related line of argument is that because of Kanye's celebrity status and the empirically documented power of celebrities to shape behavior in the rest of us, Kanye's injunction against reading crosses the boundary from speech into act, much like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, and is thus subject to legislation. But that argument entangles us in big ol' boring debate on free will, among other things, and free will makes me sleepy.

I'll give this question a tentative yes. I wish I could say no, but censoring public speech is a slippery slope.

5) Does Kanye dissing reading constitute a public health issue?
This is the stickiest question of all. In the name of public health, Americans regularly accept limitations on their personal freedoms. Think seat belts. Think anti-smoking regulations. Think limited tobacco advertising, FDA regulation of warning labels and advertising, quarantines. We also, in the name of public health, facilitate the manipulation of national norms, as when the government sponsors campaigns to make drugs, sex, and alcohol use by teens seem abnormal and uncool. Social referencing is a powerful force, and studies have shown that people are much more likely to engage in a behavior when it is perceived as "normal."

Is lack of reading a public health risk? Would it have detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of the American public? This is the important question. If the answer is yes, then we ought either to silence Kanye or, more appropriately, to challenge him: we must paint his views as undesirable or outside the norm, so they don't spread.

This is an old tactic. Conservatives have thusly tried to marginalize divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Liberals have tried to marginalize conservatism, pollution, and political incorrectness. Nobody has been completely successful, in part because of the increasing fragmentation of the American public, the ways in which we assort ourselves into ever-more like-minded, close-minded pods. Because we're reading less.

Kanye is a symptom, not a cause. Reading, at its core, is communication unmoored from proximity. It helps us empathize with those outside of our immediate physical and virtual peer groups and, unlike television, isn't mediated by advertising.

Go reading, go! Kanye, I've got a few books for you. They want to autograph your rear.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Parks and Re-creation

I'm not much of a TV fan, but I find myself surprisingly devoted to the Amy Poehler vehicle Parks and Recreation, set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. (I thought about taking umbrage at the fact that Indiana is being used to signify insignificance, but I figure the more people think Indiana is podunk, the fewer people will move here, which means MORE INDIANA FOR ME! Heh.)

Parks and Recreation
posseses the qualities I value most in entertainment:

1) Profound interest in the profoundly unimportant
2) Sensitivity to the hilarity that is falling on your ass

In the most recent episode, Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler's deluded, ambitious Deputy Parks Director, has to save her taciturn boss Ron from his virago of an ex-wife. You can probably still catch the episode on Hulu if you hurry: It's called Ron and Tammy.

The thing that interested me about this one was that it reminded me so vividly of the tale of Tam Lin. You know Tam Lin. A young woman sets out to rescue her lover from the fairies, who have pledged him as part of a teind payed every seven years to Hell. He tells her that she will recognize him by his horse, and that she must hold fast to him at all costs. Tam Lin, under the fairies' spell, becomes a snake, a beast, a hot coal. The girl holds fast until he's once again a man.

I see Tam Lin in this episode. A comic version, spelled by the fairies to look like a bid for laughs, but Tam Lin nevertheless. Her boss transformed by slavish, happy devotion to his ex, Leslie must hold fast to the cranky person she knows is the true Ron in order return him to himself.

The story of Tam Lin, of transformation and devotion, is an old story. It makes me wonder if maybe all of our stories aren't old stories, refashioned to suit the teller and the told.

Other recreations of Tam Lin I've run across:

The Perilous Gard, Elizabeth Pope
Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones
Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki

What else?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nerd Baby

I lost my baby shower virginity on a temperate Tuesday in October. The sky was muddled; the leaves had slunk past red and were spinning, brown and dry, to the asphalt. After work, I drove from my work site back to the main office holding a plastic bag printed with butterflies between my knees.

The women were pleasantly appalled. My first baby shower? I was 28! What had my friends been doing? Didn't I have any family starting a family? (The answers, unspoken, in no particular order: reading novels; no.)

Someone placed a plastic pacifier on a ribbon around my neck; someone else thrust into my hand a cup of pink punch frothy with cream. I watched a video slide show set to inspirational soft-rock hits and I avoided holding the real version of a that video's star, a petite pink bundle who slept and pooped with the blithe disregard of the very new.

It was understood, what you did. You drank your punch. You ate the mini-meatballs and the candy hearts and the homemade truffles with the strange, cake-like filling. You chatted about babies in general and babies in particular, and admired the way the bunker-like conference room had been transformed, with the aid of tablecloths and centerpieces and coordinated tablewear and pink favors and a line of tiny onesies, each bearing a letter of the baby's name, tacked to the wall, into a shrine to babies.

You played baby shower games involving tasting baby food and stealing one another's pacifiers and identifying chocolate bars smeared into diapers. You marveled at the diaper cake and oohed when each pink-ribboned package blossomed into a pink-ribboned pinafore or bunny costume or changing mat. You endured good-natured ribbing about when you, yourself, would get around to reproducing. When the baby cried, you did not flinch.

I was prepared, when I signed up to work for an inner city school system, to face cultural dislocation. I knew that as a white, middle-class woman dealing almost exclusively with black people living in poverty, I would be a stranger in a world with its own rules and rhythms. I would do the wrong thing. Sometimes I would guess the right thing. I would be aware, each and every day, of my difference.

But I wasn't prepared for the second, subtler cultural gap between myself and my colleagues. It's a sneakier gulf: smaller, easier to navigate. Like my colleagues, I'm white. Like them, I'm college-educated. I only feel the full force of the difference at events like the baby shower, or when I use a word that's too big or too specific, or when the psychologist asks everyone at the office which wedding cake she should pick for her daughter and I am the only person on a staff of 22 voting for the one with fewer candy curlicues.

The song howls, "Back Home Again in Indiana" -but I'm not home, not really, and maybe it was naive of me to assume that I was. Indiana is on my birth certificate, but my parents are college professors, and it's more accurate to say I was born in academia. Babies are obstacles, in academia. They interfere with dissertation deadlines and strain skimpy graduate stipends and cry during lectures. They're accepted when properly timed, but they certainly do not merit spun-sugar rattles or games with pureed meat or a fake cake constructed entirely of disposable diapers.

Academia is its own country, with its own rhythms and rules. And every time I hope that I've transcended it -that I can blend in, assimilate, pass- it wrenches me home.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Devices and Desires

Every so often, the Big Questions arise. Why am I living? Why do squirrels exist? How on earth have I failed, in the first 28 years of my life, to read any P.D. James?

I like a good literary novel as much as the next girl (OK, probably more than the fabled Next Girl, who, as far as I can divine from the advertising directed her way, is a bible-thumping shopaholic mom on a diet.) But I also like mysteries. Especially British mysteries. Especially British mysteries with a literary tinge.

And I missed P.D. James?! This is a travesty. The only upside I can see is that I now get to read everything she's ever written all at once, in a kind of murderous binge. The lady is old. And prolific. Hooray!

Like all good genre artists, James exploits the tension between narrative thrust and literary divagation. Or, to put it another way, between bones and flesh. She's not above rapid advancement of the plot:

"The Whistler's fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9:40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb's Marsh."

But neither does she shy away from dipping deeper, from tarrying over detail or losing herself in speculation:

"He thought: In youth we take egregious risks because death has no reality for us. Youth goes caparisoned in immortality. It is only in middle age that we are shadowed by the awareness of the transitoriness of life. And the fear of death, however irrational, wa surely natural, whether one thought of it was annihilation or as a rite of passage. Every cell in the body was programmed for life; all healthy creatures clung to life until their last breath. How hard to accept, and yet how comforting, was the gradual realization that the universal enemy might come at last as a friend."

Also, there are many gratuitous descriptions of landscapes, baked goods, and caffeinated beverages, which I take as a clear exhortation toward tea.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Save it, Daylight

One of the musical groups for which I routinely sub has representation, and because I'm on the agency's email roster, twice each year I receive an email like this:

Hi, everyone,

Daylight Savings time ends this weekend. Turn your clocks back 1 hour before you go to bed on Saturday night Oct 31 (Halloween)

Kathryn & Martha
Kathryn XXXXX, Artist Liaison

Some would call this spam. I call it yummy. I want an agent! Not just for music, but for life. Someone to email me important reminders, organize my life into neat little printable itineraries, book my jobs, vacations, spouses, etc. Why can't I have someone to tell me where to go and what to do there? Someone to alert me to all the potential hephalump pits in my path before I fall in?

Speaking of which, folks, it's time to turn back your clocks. Minus agents, we'll just have to represent each other.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


I was kind of dismayed to discover that I've penned not one, not two, but three previous posts on how much I despise individual holidays. Apparently I am a Curmudgeon for All Seasons -an honorific which, if not quite as venerable as a Man for All Seasons, at least does not presuppose that I am addled by testosterone.

Or weatherproof.

It's just that holidays have so many requirements. They're the worst kind of high-maintenance girlfriend or boyfriend, demanding gifts and speeches and niceties of feeling. Thanksgiving demands gratitude. Valentine's Day insists on love. Arbor Day exacts, of all things, trees.

Halloween is the worst. Halloween demands fear. Because I resent fear, because I begrudge the daily clutch of its fingers at my throat, I resent Halloween most of all. I dislike buying candy. I dislike dressing up. I dislike the invasion of my property by fourteen-year-olds dressed like sheep.

Except, this morning, I walked under a low sky from the old brick library, now my office, to the old brick theater, now a coffee bar. I ordered a latte and listened to the girl behind the bar tell ghost stories. The chess pieces move by themselves. The door opens and closes in the night. The leaves drop off the oak in a great big rush.

This year is different. I could get excited about ghosts, this year. Maybe because death has ridden so close these past few months, tromping alongside me with its head tucked under its arm. Cancer of the blood; old age; a heart attack on the back of a tandem bike. The dark, the rain, an SUV. Maybe Halloween is supposed to help you try on death, to pull it over your face like a Dick Cheney mask and then, stuffing your mouth full of sweet, throw it off.

From Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year:

A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away- and yet I alive!

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

No Hits No Hat No Heat No Heart

Even I am no longer interested in me. I'm not sure how this happened. One day I was humming along -usually Purcell, driving everyone nuts- and the next I shut up. Gone are the ruminations, the meditations, the chewing over of the cud of the world. In their place: lockjaw. I go about my business. I'm not even bored -just boring.

If I could muster up the mental energy to hypothesize I would say: vitamin deficiency. I would say malaise. I would say soul rot, jaundice, heartsickness. Not heartsickness: too vivid. Anemia. Grey.

I used to love the color grey. Shy, shifty, smoky grey with its ambiguous spelling, its cold heart. Now I crave ocher. I want salt and metal and heat. I need a physick or a poultice or a brand new skin.

What serves? What snaps you back to yourself?

To try:
  • Work
  • Poem
  • Run until the nausea sets in
  • Teapot
  • Hot dog
  • Slippers

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quartet for the End of Time

Boiled beets; October beans; salad with lettuce and arugula; corn tortilla with maple-mashed sweet potatoes, red pepper flakes, and feta. We're coming up on the last week of the CSA, and I am sad.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fall Back

It is sunny for the first time in five days and there is a small cat on the hood of my car. The cat is fully-grown but delicately built, with petite feet and a button nose. It's huddled and rapt, torn between pursuing a fleeting patch of sun and bit of stray leaf.

I'm huddled and rapt, hugging my arms to by body -or what I trust is still, under the three shirts, two sweatshirts, and an inexplicable plaid hunting parka someone dug out of the downstairs closet, my body. The floors of the old house take cold and keep it. The bones of my hands and feet take cold and keep it. This morning the bedroom windows were dressed in frost.

I've tried to sex this cat -and failed. I say she; my husband says he. Who doesn't try to sex cats? If you don't try to sex cats you've lost all curiosity about life and you might as well go home, buy a recliner, and use it. The difficulty is that sexing a cat is a graceful pas de deux between curiosity and knowledge, and what I know about sexing cats can't dance.

The cat comes around infrequently yet frequently enough that I wish it were mine. I've knelt in the first of the strawberries and in the summer grass and in the steadily encroaching tide of yellowed walnut leaves to entice this cat -and failed. And sometimes, fingers extended, legs doubled up, tongue clacking against my front teeth, I've succeeded. When stroked, the cat alternates between an outsize purr and silent, full-body seizures, as if the urge to flee were lifting it up and dashing it back to earth.

I tell the cat -sexless, gormless- I know the feeling. Down comes a walnut, bang against the hood of the car, and off goes the cat to god knows where. Off goes the warmth to god knows where. I scurry through the house after the last sweet scraps of sun.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

#9: Netherland

I read this book months ago for my year of reading dangerously, and then shit happened. Which is a paltry excuse for not alerting you earlier to the delicate dangers of Joseph O'Neill's critically-acclaimed hymn to dislocation, cricket, and the American dream, but there it is.

The perceived dangers were these:

1) I do not like novels about immigrants in America.
2) I do not like novels written by handsome men.
3) I do not like novels that treat Big Issues.

The actual dangers where these:

1) I do not like being forced to confront my own prejudices.

Netherland is gorgeous. I used the word "hymn" deliberately: O'Neill's book is measured, tuneful, and serious, a full-throated song. Hans, the novel's narrator, is a displaced Dutch financial prognosticator living in New York City. His wife leaves him. He meets a guy who plays cricket. That's basically the sum of the plot, but the writing plumbs every inch and color.

From p. 200 (Hans describing a thunderstorm):

In my last American August one thunderstorm followed another: I can still picture a suddenly green, almost undersea atmosphere, and hailstones hopping like dice on asphalt, and streams criss-crossing Chelsea, and huge photographical flashes visiting my apartment. It's hard to believe, from my Englander's perspective, in those subtropical weeks, when the humid air could be so blurred with reverberated light as to leave me with a mild case of color blindness. Everyone scurried in the shadowed fraction of the city. Few things were more wonderful than hopping into a cold summer cab.

From p. 201 (Hans at a restaurant with his friend Vinay, describing his wife's new squeeze):

"The guy specializes in boiled potatoes and turnips and beetroots," Vinay told me. "Old English vegetable ingredients. Very interesting." He said pompously, "I'd classify him as a cook, not a chef."

No doubt, I thought, he was also an expert in reviving Anglo-Saxon erotic traditions. A sensualist who embodied a classic yet contemporary approach to carnal pleasure.

I told Vinay the score.

"Oh fuck that," he said.

"Yeah," I said.

"Jesus. Martin Casey."

"Yup," I said, feeling brave.

Vinay, excited, said, "The dude's short. He's a fucking dwarf, Hans. You're going to blow him out of the fucking water."

It was good of Vinay to say this, but Vinay, in spite of his own six feet, had a terrible record with women and was, I knew for a fact, a bonehead about anything he couldn't eat or drink.

From me: Read Netherland. Soon.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Back Home

Again in Indiana, where the bus driver welcomes you aboard and the grocery store checkout lady grins her lopsided grin. I love the Midwest.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Queued Up

Let's talk about lines. The line between hunger and irritability is narrow. The line between John Taverner and Milton Babbitt is thick. The line between Yanni and Vladimir Putin is a sturdy black fortification constructed by a cautious fief-holder in a granite-rich territory overrun with bandits.

Thick or thin, lines are there to help us distinguish things from other things. Parsing the world into discrete entities helps us process what to do: If we couldn't distinguish Yanni from Vladmir Putin, how would we know when to run?

OK, maybe that's a bad example. But, in general, lack of lines is bad news. Lack of lines makes us woolly-headed and wobbly-limbed, weak-kneed and wacked-out and far, far too fond of the letter w.

Which is why things get particularly tricky when you blur the already micron-thin line between vocation and avocation. Most people go to their jobs. They enjoy them or not. They come home. They leave their work-selves at work -or at least at the home office- and enjoy the meat of their living outside of 9-5. I'm thinking banker, truck driver, office drone, postman.

There are a few jobs, though, that charge the line between avocation and vocation like a mean, husky nine-year-old through a Kindergarten game of red rover. Suddenly the thing you love and the thing that pays the bills are rolling around on the ground together, bloody and inextricable. Suddenly you're supposed to make money and joy simultaneously. And it's tough.

The ministry is one of these jobs. I've discussed this with my friend H, the seminary graduate. H struggles to distinguish at any particular point in the day when she's working and when she's living. Is she a pastor or a friend? Is she the interpreter of God's word or someone who likes stilettos and margs? If she's both, how does she integrate her two selves?

Musician is another. Especially for someone like me who is semi-pro, making a portion, but not all of, my living from music, it's difficult to figure out what's what. Is music my vocation or my avocation?

If it's my vocation, I should play as long as I get paid, even if the experience is less than fulfilling. After all, unfulfilling stuff you do to collect a paycheck is what "work" means to most of the world. If music is my avocation, on the other hand, I should play only what I love but prepare to do it in exchange for three crackerjacks and a pack of Juicy Fruit.

What's the right balance here? Maybe four crackerjacks and a Capri Sun?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Two months ago, I cupped my hands and took a tiny sip of the Pacific. Yesterday morning I lapped up a palmful of the Atlantic. Yes, this highlights my disturbing addiction to salt, but I also think it speaks to how, in this new millennium, we’ve telescoped distance. How can we take geography seriously if all it takes is a six-hour plane flight to slam one side of the country up against the other?

We’ve tamed space. Time may still seize us by the scruff of the neck, but space we’ve wedged into a miniature sweater, thrust into a monogrammed pet carrier, and taken to the vet to be declawed.

I can’t decide whether this is a good thing. Yes, it’s amazing to be able to turn my back on both sides of the country, to hold in my head the limits of land, in my mouth the salt of the limits of land.

But if we had a bodily understanding of distance, if we knew, in our bones, all the inches between here and there, would we be so eager to put a Lowes in every town, a Panera on every block? Would we try to make every place just like the place we left if we grasped space on a human, rather than a vehicular, scale?

Maybe yes. It’s hard to resist the dastardly tractor beam of Panera. But maybe no. Maybe no is what gets me up in the morning.

That and salt. The Pacific was tastier than the Atlantic, In case you were wondering. Though possibly not as tasty as the Bonneville salt flats. Mmmmm.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Praise of Dicking Around

My schedule has gone cattywampus as a result of the madness at home, and I've been making dinner toward 7 rather than 6. I know: big deal. Only it is a big deal, because it means I've exchanged Marketplace's smug Kai Ryssdal for the smug-bordering-on-insufferable Terry Gross of Fresh Air. Sigh.

(Aside: I found the true spelling of Kai's last name shocking, as I did the string of photographs of a man in a boring suit that appeared when I googled him. Why is it so startling to match faces and orthography to the familiar, aural-only input of the radio? Do I want to know that Terry Gross resembles my fourth-grade teacher? Am I better or worse for being assured -long story- that the reporter Ann Garrels is the most physically attractive NPR personality of her generation?)

Anyhoo: Fresh Air. John Powers was on a few nights ago, talking about Mad Men, a show I enjoy in the kind of way you enjoy the ebbing of pain after you've banged your toe against the eight-pound weight you left lying on the floor. John Powers is frustrated by Mad Men: he watches it compulsively, even as he bemoans its heavy-handedness and schematic character development. My relationship to the show is similarly tormented, for a reason that Powers articulates only glancingly, in his description of a scene from a recent episode: Don Draper returns home, joyless as ever, to his wife, Betty, joyless as ever.

Joyless as ever: this is exactly the trouble with Mad Men, which takes itself -and its characters- much too seriously. It's a problem endemic to most "art" these days, and it's driving me nuts. People weep, sure. They yearn, they consummate, they rage.

But I suspect the average person spends more time messing about -cracking jokes, poking fun, spinning their wheels- than they spend doing any of that heavy stuff. And they do it even when their lives are in shambles: I know from experience that the divorced, the cancerous, the homeless, the dying, the bankrupt, and the foreclosed upon are all out there practicing one-liners.

This isn't to say that art must imitate life, that seriousness is verboten, or that shows like Mad Men are bound to portray people as they are rather than people as they are under the influence of the powerful drug of narrative. But a joyless show -and that's exactly what Mad Men is- wears on you. No matter how critically acclaimed, no matter how masterfully constructed. Mad men needs less mad and more (genuine, stupid, silly) men. And women.

Monday, September 28, 2009


The bad news, the really bad news, is that we have bedbugs. I'm reluctant to use the past tense "had" because the fuckers are extraordinarily hard to get rid of, and even though we have had a pest control operator out to douse everything we own with pesticide and are living out of Ziploc bags (who knew they made XXL Ziplocs?), I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I'm sharing this information because apparently we are pioneers (I never wanted to be a pioneer. Ever! Not even when playing Oregon Trail was the coolest!): Bedbugs, after a 30-year DDT-induced bivouac, have decamped are streaming over the horizon like the Mongol horde.

I would never want any of you to experience this nightmare. We are already out nearly $1000 and possibly more to come if this first round didn't do it. I have had to go on prescription medication, buy an incredible amount of plastic, and shop repeatedly at Wal-Mart. I have been unable to accomplish much of anything other than crying, throwing away things I own, and reading on the Internet about people who've been fighting bugs for years, or who have had to tent and gas their entire houses for the cost of a small sedan, or who have tried and failed to move without the bugs.

My husband almost certainly brought these back from a work-related trip to Europe, though you can also get them at work, from visiting friends and relations, from used furniture or clothes, from neighboring apartments (they like wall voids), or from any kind of travel you do. Educate yourself. Do not travel lightly. Inspect the premises of anywhere you stay and if you see signs of bugs, get the hell out of there.

That nursery rhyme will never be cute again.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

News Smackdown! Ghetto vs. Gay, XXX-tra Special! One Night Only!

Photo credit here.

The attention-grabbing article in this week's NYT Mag was the one on openly gay middle schoolers, but I found it less than groundbreaking. Middle schoolers are frenziedly constructing their own identities: what else is new? Though I did enjoy the quote from 12-year-old Kera, a self-identified bisexual, who declared that "most middle school guys are total, complete morons." Succinctly put.

The more interesting article was actually Maggie Jones's piece on the D.C.-area SEED School, a charter which boards low-income minority children five nights of the week in an effort to protect them from the vagaries of their own neighborhoods.

I share with the charter's critics the reservation that "SEED and other charter schools skim the cream of inner-city youth, attracting the families who are motivated to fill out th paperwork to apply to the school. Meanwhile, some of the most high-risk kids, whose parents are barely functional and place more value on their child's being home every day to baby-sit or do housework than they do on education, are left behind."

I'm also disturbed by the school's ability to boot difficult students (SEED boasts a 97% college-acceptance rate, unheard of in the inner city, but Jones reports that the school loses 20% of its class every year) and by the reported per-student annual public funds expenditure of $35,000 -money directed to the lottery-winning SEED students presumbly at the expense of their contemporaries who remain in the failing public schools.

Yet, I'm impressed with SEED, and with the article, for finally calling attention to that silent but ornery elephant in the room of urban educational debate: the enormous cultural dislocation required of every low-income child who "makes it." We don't ask white middle-class children to abandon their communities' norms and mores when they enter college or the job market, but this is exactly what a poor black child must do to succeed in the mainstream.

We talk about lengthening the school day, about improving teacher performance and curriculum mapping. But I very seldom hear anyone discussing the nearly unthinkable difficulty of turning your back on everything you know. SEED staff and students, at least, speak openly about the difficulty of moving between universes, of cultivating the ability to operate biculturally: "I don't mix my worlds," 17-year-old Reneka explains. "You feel bad when you are different from people in your own neighborhood," senior Triston says.

Jones, a perceptive chronicler, describes Triston's older brother Parry playing basketball on those two days of the week he is not ensconced at SEED:

"He still plays there most weekends, though he gas grown weary of the neighborhood boys' talk about SEED as 'D Block.' He no longer tries to set them straight and avoids telling them about his plans for college. Instead, at the end of each game, Parry heads in one direction, the boys in another...among the lessons SEED instilled in Triston and Parry was that to move ahead, they had to keep moving beyond home."

Is it right to ask these children to leave behind their communities? Is it right to ask them not to?

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Not entirely out of the woods, but I have to link to this NPR story about my Great-Uncle Fred. Fred was great. When I got married, my cousins gave me a blender. My parents gave me a washing machine. Fred gave me the complete sonnets of Shakespeare. By his lights, it was a household essential.

Listen, don't read.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Salted with Fire

I am dealing with an unexpected personal crisis. I will blog again as I am able.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ordinary Time

My life has not turned out like I planned.

I could unpack that statement, the world's biggest suitcase, for days, but for the moment I'll restrict myself to this: for an unbaptized, uncatechized, unrepentant unbeliever, I attend an egregious amount of church.

We're talking every Wednesday and alternate Sundays, plus assorted evensongs and holidays. I wear robes. I endure incense. I sit up front, remain seated while everyone else takes communion, and tune out vast swaths of the sermon. I can sing all the responses and have to restrain myself from accidentally continuing into the priest's bit. I possess a frankly disturbing knowledge of the liturgical calendar.

It's not unpleasant, though the robes can be itchy. I just have to block out the readings, many of which feature biblical passages I find mildly to moderately disturbing, or even offensive. It's pretty clear to me that the bible belongs to another time.

But this Sunday, the fourteenth after Pentacost, my Ignore-0-Matic failed. It was 9:15 or so; some sleepy congregant was stumbling through Isaiah. Suddenly, I was jolted out of my comfortable contemplation of the dust on the rafters. My consciousness had snagged on something: what? I listened in, struggling to identify the errant aural stimulus. Was it an error of grammar? A particularly noxious metaphor? Nope.

It was the sound of Jesus Christ horning in on my professional territory.

Isaiah 35: 5-6

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.

I blinked. Did Jesus possess the Certificate of Clinical Competence? Had I missed the gospel in which Jesus attends graduate school and, through years of irritating busy work and demanding clinical practica, acquires a thorough grounding in evidence-based practice? As far as I knew, he was Jesus Christ, Son of our Lord, not Jesus Christ, CCC-SLP.

The Gospel verse elaborated:

Mark 7: 32-25

And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him.
And taking him aside from the multitude privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue;
and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, "Eph'phatha," that is, "Be opened."
And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

I fumed. Not only was Jesus dabbling in the professions of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology without a license, but by making free with the miracles he was undercutting the slow, often painful process of real-world communicative rehabilitation. Cochlear implants may unstop the ears of deaf children, but cochlear implants provide only a facsimile of normal hearing, and most kids still require extensive aural rehabilitation. Augmentative communication systems may help the non-verbal to communicate, but parents who expect speech to well up from within their nonverbal children are setting themselves up for heartbreak.

Peddling miracles is dangerous. I've seen the families of stroke victims lose their homes to pay for experimental -and ineffective- oxygen therapy in China. I've seen the parents of autistic children hire exorcists. Several years back, Facilitated Communication -an adult guiding a nonverbal child's hand at at a keyboard or letterboard- swept through the special education community like a fever. Parents and school systems mortgaged themselves to hire facilitators until carefully devised experiments -coming on the heels of numerous facilitated accusations of sexual abuse- unequivocally disproved the practice.

No, Jesus isn't doing anyone any favors. Yet, as much as I wish he'd taken the professional high road, that he'd "taken him aside from the multitude, set measurable short-term objectives and worked, Lo, these 12 months of treatment, toward incremental gains in communicative function and activities of daily living," I accept that the revised version isn't going into the lectionary anytime soon.

Jesus isn't an SLP. Jesus -and here the believers and I agree- is a human being. In a way, he's the ultimate human being, rendered by human beings for human beings. I may not believe Jesus to be the only begotten son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, etc., but I do believe him to be a mirror, a reflection of our oldest, most deeply felt hopes and fears. We want the deaf to hear. We want the dumb to speak. We wanted it thousands of years ago in the desert and we want it still.

Acknowledging that want -naked, senseless, timeless- is worth doing. I'll give Jesus that. But I'll be damned if invite him to join the American Speech and Hearing Association.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Walnut Leaves are Falling

Everything else is still green, although the strange, white-flowered vine twisted around the part of the neighbor's fence where his son hides at night has magicked up fat stalks of purple berries. I debate eating one, rolling it around in my palm when I step out to rummage for the paper in the morning grass. The berry bleeds a dark maroon, like Hollywood blood, but if there's anything summer has taught me, it's that you never know. I leave it for the birds.

For most of the summer, the paper person (I try to imagine him -fat, scrawny, old, young, bitter, joyous?) executed perfect parabolas: morning after morning, there lay the paper, flush with the front door; all I had to do was wedge my wrist past the screen. But either the paper person has decided to meet diminishing daylight with diminishing effort or he's hung up his cape: lately the paper has prowled the borders of our property like a restless dog. This morning I find it deep in the dew, fingersbreadths over the line.

Not that I begrudge the twenty-five extra steps. I'm wearing shoes that are too big for me, some coat I pulled off the rack. The morning air, always an inch colder than what the day will draw itself up to, buffets my calves. This early, there's less color, less noise, more walnut leaves.

Why do they go first? I'm sure there's an answer online, but I can't seem to conjure the time to stroke the right keys. The walnut leaves turn a bilious yellow. They plunge headlong, heedless, greedy for down. When the wind gusts, they lift off, a flight of golden birds. It is almost too much. It is too much: lovely swollen to obscene.

I go back inside. I pick the world's problems up by the scruff of their plastic sleeve.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's Meme Month!

And this one, despite appearing to have been penned by a religious tween, is a meme I like! Go forth, readers! All six of you.

Using only the titles of books you have read this year (2009), answer the following questions:

Describe Yourself: Netherland (O'Neill)

How do you feel: My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead (Eugenides, ed.)

Describe where you currently live: American Wife (Sittenfeld)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
Home (Robinson)

Your favorite form of transportation: The Sea (Banville)

Your best friend is: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Larsson)

You and your friends are:
Good Faith (Smiley)

What’s the weather like: Gilead (Robinson)

Favorite time of day: Twilight (Meyer)

What is life to you:
By a Spider's Thread (Lippman)

You fear: The Inheritance of Loss (Desai)

What is the best advice you have to give: Venetian Instrumental Music (Selfridge-Field)

Thought for the Day: Abide with Me (Strout)

How you would like to die: Beauty (McKinley)

Your soul’s present condition:
Commencement (Sullivan)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Is there anything quite so perfect as the olive at the bottom of the martini glass?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Your Friendly Neighborhood Circus

I spent a good hour in the tent. It was a big one, white and multi-peaked, of the sort you don't expect to exist without elephants underneath. Only instead of elephants, there were books. Tables and tables of books, containing more words than you could ever contain in your mind at one time. Reading all the books at a charity book sale was the poorly-documented thirteenth Labor of Hercules.

I'd very cleverly left my bag at home. At 28, I know myself well enough to strategize like a seasoned NFL coach facing a team of testosterone-addled refrigerators. Whatever bibliophiliac spasms overcame me at the book sale, whatever hardcover hankerings hastened my heart, I would, if not stand firm, at least be unable to make off with more than I could carry.

Unfortunately, I've been working out. And did I mention the dastardly volunteers handing out paper bags? Still, I'd left defenders in reserve, timing my visit for late afternoon. By late afternoon, as every skilled charity book sale-goer knows, the good books have long ago been snapped up and everything that remains smells of dust.

Eventually I made off with two distressingly chipper children's hardcovers I can use in therapy. (I now own more children's paraphernalia than is really seemly for someone without progeny). But in truth I would have satisfied whatever my haul. The real pleasure of book sales isn't buying. It's wandering down the street in the dwindling days of summer. It's picking walnut leaves out of your hair. It's listening to an alarmingly young grandmother tell her granddaughter she owns every V.C. Andrews novel ever written. I like to see what people buy, and even more, I like to see what people let go of.

The books are all donated. I scan the covers, trying to imagine what prompted someone to rid herself of 27 Nancy Drew novels or the complete works of Cormac McCarthy. Maybe she died, or moved, or grew up. Maybe I've been wrong about life, the universe, and everything and people DO change, swapping Fern Michaels for Barbara Taylor Bradford, cross-stitching for quilting, in a single do-si-do of the earth around the sun.

The self-help section is especially riveting. Who gave up John Gottman's Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last, and why? Did the marriage achieve some unassailable water mark of success? Did it wither and die? Or did the couple merely decide Gottman had nothing germane to say regarding the Great Cat Litter Debacle of 2007?

What about Success After Sixty? Did this book propel its septuagenarian owner to fame and fortune? Or did he or she decide gardening was enough? Do the three separate copies of The Holy Bible represent three separate crises of faith or one furtive proselytizer? Who won, or regrettably lost, The Battle Against Prostate Cancer?

Used books: double the narrative bang for your buck.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


It's been a summer for death. I've lost my great aunt, my great uncle, and my favorite high school teacher. My next door neighbor currently scores a 5 on a 15-point coma scale. Death has been the house guest I didn't invite and don't enjoy cleaning up after. I can't wait to see the back of her.

My uncle died peacefully. My aunt died pissed off. At one point, pain-ridden in hospice care, my aunt asked if she could have more pain medication. My cousin said she'd go see who she could get to take care of that. She'd gone only ten feet when my aunt called out, "Whom."

RIP MKS. I miss you.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sticky Wicket

I've been tagged in more Facebook memes than there are overfed squirrels, yet I've managed to ignore most of them completely. I either haven't been interested or haven't felt confident that all 300 of my friends, acquaintances, friends' acquaintances, and friends' mothers' friends' acquaintances really care whom I had a crush on in 5th grade.

Readers of my blog merit no such consideration. (It was the nerdy one!) If you've signed onto the site, you've signed away your right to informational continence. Forthwith, the 15 books meme!

You know the one. "List 15 books that have stuck with you. Go fast. Don't think too much." What interests me is the concept of the sticky book; back when the meme was "list 15 books that have made a difference in your life," I couldn't have cared less. Expecting a book to make a difference is your life is asking both too much and too little of books. It assumes a book's duty is to serve you rather than transport you, to be of practical utility rather than impractical loveliness.

Why must we insist a book step into our lives rather than the other way around? Why should we privilege our own world over the world within the book? I much prefer to list sticky books. Sticky books may not be the best books you've read. They may not be your favorites; they may not be the most useful. Still, one way or another, they've stained you. They color you; they've scraped out a life -uneasy or peaceful or lusty- alongside your heart.

1. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
2. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
3. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
4. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
5. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
6. Never Let me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
7. Searoad, Ursula Le Guin
8. Deerskin, Robin McKinley
9. Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
10. Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout
11. Scientific Progress Goes Boink, Bill Watterson
12. Back When we were Grownups, Anne Tyler
13. The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
14. Fair and Tender Ladies, Lee Smith
15. Greenwitch, Susan Cooper

Feel free to leave a list of your own in the comments. I'm curious to see what stuck.

Friday, August 21, 2009

High Noon

My husband brought home an electric water kettle. There were no warning signals, no danger signs: he just showed up at the house with it one day like you'd do with a straggly kitten. Fait accompli. I sat it next to the teakettle and glowered.

"It boils water faster," he said.

"So?" I said.

"So it boils water faster."

"Take it back."

"But it boils water faster."

We were at an impasse.

Over the next couple of days, the electric kettle emerged from its cardboard box. It plugged itself in. It launched its charm offensive using the only trick it knew, which was to boil water. (The electric kettle edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People is not exactly a back breaker.)

I am unmoved. My teakettle may be battered and noisy and slow, but it's a touchstone, a physical link to all the people before me who've boiled tea at a moderate rate and then scrambled to shut off the ungodly howling that results.

Besides, the interval between flipping on the burner and flipping up the lid is sacred space, a bright caesura in the murk of the day. For those five or eight or ten minutes, you wait. You don't go far; you don't get to work. You dabble. You potter. You let your mind wander until the teakettle, like a military bugler, calls your thoughts into formation and marches you, whole and ready, into now.

Plus you've got tea!