Saturday, February 28, 2009

Paradox Lost

Jane and Michael Stern, enthusiastic chroniclers of American foodways, do a lot of things. They crisscross the country, appear on radio shows, and author books. They wax rhapsodic about grilled cheese, conduct an epic quest for the perfect Hot Brown, seek out restaurants both signless and emblazoned, books for the New York Times?

Apparently so. In last Sunday's Book Review, the Sterns recorded their reactions to Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India (I can never remember to capitalize that preposition). Normally, I would have paged past a review of a non-fiction book chronicling 1960s-era treks through third-world countries, but, lured by the byline and by the vague hope of some mention of onion rings, I plunged right in.

Alas, there were no descriptions of fulsome crabcakes or succulent cream pies. On the other hand, there was, buried in the bottom paragraph, a quote from Indian bookseller-cum-traveling enlightenment industry bigwig. The hippies, Rama Tiwari asserted, propagated a singular mistake: "They didn't see we can only live in happiness if we conquer the restless dream that paradise is in a world other than our own."

This statement struck me at once as inordinately wise and irreparably flawed. As an inveterate coveter of Greener Grass, I acknowledged that wondering if what you don't have is better than what you do is both a full-time job and the scourge of peace. On the other hand, it occurred me that curtailing avarice, being where you are, and lying back and thinking of England are all well and good if you're a middle-class white hippie, but may not be so desirable if you're, say, a poor black elementary school student.

I think about this a lot. Here I am, trying desperately to accept where I am in life, to keep my yappy little mind off the grass; yet, in my inner-city workplace, the staff members are pouring bucketfuls of energy into inciting a schoolful of poor black children to want something other than the world into which they were born. Is this right? Or smart? Or even tenable?

Tyrone, one of my five-year-olds, has a dead father and a drug-addicted mother. He lives with his elderly grandmother and greets me solemnly by name in the hall every time he catches sight of so much as the whites of my eyes. Tyrone has a hard time sitting still when he's excited and has several times fallen out of his chair; recently, he won two suckers for doing his homework and gave one to the kid who comes with him to speech, a watchful, intelligent, snotty-nosed five-year-old named Amarion whose shirts always have holes.

I have ceased to be moved by all of this. Slowly, the pathos of these children's stories has worn off. So-and-so's in foster care; so-and-so's mother works the streets; this family doesn't have running water; this one can't afford shoes but somehow comes up with the money for several different game systems. There are far too many kids and far too many stories, and I've run out of outrage and empathy and tears.

What still moves me, a year or so in, is the paradox. We educators are off meditating and accepting and seeking happiness in the present even as ask we ask these children to be latter-day hippies, to rip themselves up from their roots and set off on an unthinkable journey through foreign lands. The last time I cried in school was when a kid showed up with a lunchbox containing a Lunchable and a note that read I love you Jamar: from Mommy. The rest of the kids ate their free lunches and squabbled and talked trash and learned a few things and went home to their parents or grandparents or foster parents or group homes. Yet, here was Jamar's note, flapping on the lunch table like a white flag, a signal of surrender from the faraway world of middle-class lunchrooms. I had to leave the cafeteria.

Jamar is a well-behaved, eager-to-please six-year-old with curly hair and big eyes. Maybe one day he will become a banker or a lawyer or a judge. If he does so, he will have come an unimaginably long way, over mountains and through woods and across dark water. He will arrive in a city where he doesn't speak the language, in a country with alien customs, because he thinks paradise is just a little further on.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paradox Now!

I hate YouTube but I watched this

And other Great Paradoxes of life I can't think of right at the moment. The clip is John Green on how to get 15-year-old boys to like you. Because the throng of 15-year-old boys following me in microbusses and howling for more blog is not enough.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Aliens! Puke! Blither! Skip this post!

If you think about how much effort it takes, how much real anatomical work and unmitigated misery it requires to lose your lunch, you come to the inescapable conclusion that bulemics are extraterrestrials. That's right, folks: aliens walk among us, and they are not little green men. They are little green women in fashionable clothes. Involuntary vomiting is inhumane. Voluntary vomiting is inhuman.

I know this because I spent most of yesterday crouched over one receptacle or another as the contents of my stomach made a valiant charge for freedom and glory. Which would have been fine if they were a ragtag but noble band of fighters standing firm for Truth and Justice, but they were in fact a salami sandwich, some baby carrots, and an orange. No, it was not pretty. Or maybe it was pretty, in that abstract, Damien-Hirst-on-Zoloft kind of way. (Ah! The self-excoriating joys of TMI!)

Hours -decades, centuries, Cretaceous Periods- later, having fought the Good Fight over the toilet, three metal bowls, and the trash bucket; having thought longingly of the great black coolness of death; having felt my diaphragm howl as if deprived of its final, most artful, most incisive hiccup, I fell asleep. I woke up. I ate eight saltine crackers and felt a little better. I tried to come up with something -anything, really, but preferably some profound existential lesson or compelling humanistic insight- that made it all worth it. I mean, if you're going to puke, you should gain something in exchange, right? Right?

Nothing came up.

Except, perhaps, the pure, inexpressible loveliness of nothing coming up. Also, don't eat old salami.

Love, Anne.

Friday, February 20, 2009


I've been losing things. My favorite metal water bottle, the one that cost an arm and a leg and refused to dent, no matter how many times I dropped it. Two months' worth of my gratitude sidebar. My place in the music.

It's easy to lose track of where you are, especially when where you are keeps changing. I'm on my fifth state in 10 days. I've developed a profound appreciation for the nuances of hotel breakfasts (don't eat the eggs). Hotel art is revealed to be a cavernous netherworld of creative endeavor in which the intentions of the artists seem both pleasant and unspeakable, like knitting sweaters out of puppies' ears.

WHY DO I DO THIS? Why do I accept the days and days of exhaustion, terror, displacement, and alienation that come with making music? Why don't I just stick to my day job; why do I keep on hacking at that privet hedge of notes? For years, I tried to divine how I felt about playing music, dowsing for my emotions every couple of minutes like a person desperate for water. Finally it hit me: I hate it. Can't stand it. Ugh.

It's a gift, when I play: a big, fat, bowed, bedizened present from me to me, from my heart to whatever sliver of self listens, heedless, for the cue.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's, WA

I'm lying in a white bed, staring out the white window to where Tacoma unspools down to the water. I see townhouses, a tangle of roads and boats, a gargantuan wooden dome pressed against a square of sky. To reach this bed, I've been traveling since 2:30 AM PST; in six more hours, ten blocks away and on four hours' sleep, I will play the best concert I can. Everyone in the audience will be a stranger. I will be unable to make out anyone's face in the dark. Finally it will come down -as it always comes down- to me fumbling backward toward some specific sound, some white, clear whisper I've heard before -and again, and again- but just can't seem to call home.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

#3: Twilight

Let it never be said that I don't know how to kick it up a notch! My second pick for my year of reading dangerously was a YA novel. My third pick was a bestselling smash hit major-motion-picture-fodder YA novel about teen vampires.

What's not to dread?

If you haven't heard of Twilight and its successors, you've obviously spent the past four years living under a rock. Mormon housewife Stephanie Meyer has penned, to date, four volumes of this ungodly successful series about a lonely teenager named Bella who moves to a new school and falls in love. Standard stuff, except -get this- her Lothario is an ageless, deathless vampire. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

Twilight's principal effect was to make me long with every fiber of my being for the smart, gutsy heroines of the novels of Robin McKinley. Those girls were embattled but strong, intrepid but thoughtful, and, above all, masters of their own fates. Sure, Bella is smart -smart, gorgeous, soft, pale, virginal and perennially in need of hunky vampire assistance! I counted at least four separate instances of Edward rescuing Bella from mortal peril, and we're only one book into the series. (Number of people/undead rescued by Bella herself= 0).

Twilight panders to every stereotypical female fantasy you can think of. Edward is "God-like" in his handsomeness, smart, cool, popular, older, protective, rich, and powerful. He is irresistibly drawn to Bella (she smells, apparently, like the best dinner *ever*), and ignores every other female. Best of all, he's locked in a holding pattern of longing: since even kissing threatens to make Edward "lose control," he nobly resists pursuing his physical desires, content to watch Bella for endless hours while she sleeps. Ick.

Which is not to say I didn't suck this one dry in less than 24 hours.

Monday, February 9, 2009

#2: An Abundance of Katherines

Librarians go nuts for it, but I've always avoided the Young Adult section like the plague. When I was a bona fide "Young Adult," the last thing I wanted to do was read books a bunch of old people figured I'd like; once I'd lopped off the "young" and lapsed into the general fiction demographic, books about teenagers held all the appeal of freeze-dried meal worms.

Thus, at age 28, my first foray into YA fiction. For my year of reading dangerously, of course: what's more dangerous than bottled angst? The plan was to wet my YA whistle with something allegedly not-awful, so I picked up An Abundance of Katherines, the second novel by Printz Award-winning YA Author John Green (who, coincidentally, lives in Indianapolis. Not that I am a stalker or anything. Nope).

In Katherines, 17-year-old prodigy and anagram fanatic Colin Singleton only dates girls named Katherine. After getting dumped for the nineteenth time by a Katherine, Collin sets out on a consolatory road trip with his best buddy Hassan. The pair make their way to Gutshot, Tennessee, where they encounter a nerd-in-hiding named -unpromisingly- Lindsey, her popular friends, and her powerhouse mother, Hollis. Hijinks, explicated by pleasantly dorky footnotes, ensue.

The Gestalt reminded me of a nice conversation you have with someone on an airplane: enjoyable, engaging in the moment, but ultimately forgettable. What I liked best was that Katherines didn't seem to feel the need slot itself into one of the prefabricated adult fiction subgenres. It was neither wordy/fraught in the manner of a literary novel, or taut/formulaic in the manner of a Romance, a Mystery, etc. Instead there was a generous scope for a silliness, as when Collin wallows in his pain:

"Eventually, he found the bed too comfortable for his state of mind, so he lay down on his back, his legs sprawled across the carpet. He anagrammed "yrs forever" until he found one he liked: sorry fever. And then he lay there in his fever of sorry and repeated the now memorized note in his head and wanted to cry, but instead he only felt this aching behind his solar plexus. Crying adds something: crying is you, plus tears. But the feeling Colin had was some horrible opposite of crying. It was you, minus something. He kept thinking about one word -forever- and felt the burning ache just beneath his rib cage

"It hurt like the worst ass-kicking he'd ever gotten. And he'd gotten plenty. It hurt like this until shortly before 10 PM, when a rather fat, hirsute guy of Lebanese descent burst into Colin's room without knocking."

Ah, but danger! I'm supposed to be charting danger, flagging the mines, winkling out the verbal TNT! The principal treachery of YA books is that it only takes one slip, one empathetic step too far, and suddenly you're whisked back 10 years, a pizza-faced geek with seventeen dictionaries and no dates. Or else, like me, you're mortified to confront a neurosis you'd never admitted to in the first place:

"...he couldn't help but feel that he would never be a genius. For as much as he believed Lindsey that what matters to you defines your mattering, he still wanted the Theorem to work, still wanted to be as special as everyone had always told him he was."

Yeah, OK, OK. So I grew up smart and it was hard -actually really excruciatingly hard- to realize I wasn't, after all, going to amount to much.


Saturday, February 7, 2009


I'm preparing to travel, again. Travel and I have a tortured relationship: when I was very young, I used to plan elaborate trips using National Geographic and a battered atlas. When I came to a place where a page was torn, I would fabricate roads, rivers, tiny towns drizzled like fudge sauce over the snowy sweetness of imaginary land. I was obsessed with islands. I wanted -viscerally, with a strength I couldn't muster for dessert or Disney World- to drive to Alaska.

Now I bend over backwards to avoid leaving home. I'm terrified of flying. If I have to drive somewhere, anywhere, I often conclude it's not worth it. I've dodged workshops, weddings, visits to relatives, and countless social events. I still haven't figured out why I recently declined a Fulbright, but every now and then I hope it wasn't because I dreaded the transatlantic flight.

I'm packing my bags next week: IN-DE-WA-IN-IL-IN. I made the arrangements far enough in advance that the trip seemed like a glorious adventure; now, of course, it's a slavering, beady-eyed Tyrannosaurus Rex stumping over the horizon. As I steel myself, struggling to hold still like a patient anticipating the plunge of the hypodermic, I goggle at the disconnect. Why do I want to travel; why do I loathe it?

A thousand reasons, of course. Of which here's one: sometimes I think we've corrupted travel. Now it's about hopping a flight, or merging into a vast river of traffic. It's about moving yourself as opposed to being moved. You navigate through a city, to a hotel, up the mountains, over the channel, across the Atlantic -propelling yourself forward in a cloud of prepositions.

Possibly travel should be about stillness. Staring out the window of the train; flat on your back in a strange bed; listening to weather. Feeling where you are on the map.

Monday, February 2, 2009


And why, you ask, would anyone pay $15 to have a cheaply-made, professionally inappropriate T-shirt Fed-Exed to her home? And why, moreover, would she use the computer's Photobooth application to snap a picture, thus documenting her abject failure to remove the garment from her person?

A stupefying co-occurrence of penguins and awesomeness. That's why.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lost Tribes of Lesbians

It's impossible NOT to read an article with the subheading "Lost Tribes of Lesbians." Try it. Just try to set the newspaper down on the dining room table. You can't! It's stuck to your hand. See? Physically impracticable.

So you read the NYT article My Sister's Keeper by Sarah Kershaw. It's a peek into the lives of older "radical separatist lesbians" who have elected to form closed communities, often in rural locations, in which no men -or even heterosexual females- are allowed. Here the women (many prefer the term womyn) live, love, work -and, now that most of them are in their sixties and seventies, die.

Several women in the article speak of a generation gap, and I feel it. I'm in my late twenties: I grew up in an environment where my sex was not a burden, where I never felt discriminated against based on my gender, where I was free to define my sexuality on my own terms. The women of My Sister's Keeper grew up in a harsher world: many married and had children to hide their predilections; many lost jobs and homes and friends.

Now, slowly, their communities are dying. The separatists have trouble attracting younger women to their lifestyle: younger lesbians do not feel the same visceral need for a safe space, a place apart. The older women are "lost" not so much because they can't be found, but because no one looks.

And yet, the subheading is false advertising: one feels instinctively that the phrase "lost tribes of lesbians" should be followed by "twelve-foot high peanut-loving clown" or "two-headed marmoset." Only, instead of sensational revelations, what you get is a series of wistful, wishful meditations on life in a shrinking circle of women. Less entertaining, but still worth some thought.

So I give it some. I think about women; I think about men. I track the interplay in myself between bemusement and hunger.

I'm married to a man. I could call two or three more good friends. I do not believe, as one of the women puts it, that men are inherently violent, that a man instantly changes the dynamic of any interaction. Still, there's something I envy, here. The circle of women, the female community: this is how civilization gets shit done. Groups of women run schools, rule communities, organize food drives, stage peaceful demonstrations, help one another. Groups of men blow stuff up.

I miss women. Maybe not to the point of becoming an aging radical separatist lesbian, but enough to join a book club, damn it.