Tuesday, March 31, 2009

#5: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The idea of reading books in translation has always gotten me hot and bothered. I'm keenly aware of the rhythms and colors of words; I have to be careful, in my own writing, to prevent style from dragging substance along by the scruff of the neck. Many's the time I'm scrapped precision or truth in favor of some tempting turn of phrase -and I can't even dredge up much guilt about it.

To me, translated books -and don't even get me started on translated poetry- are like island nations with fragmented, unstable systems of government. There are too many would-be dictators: overarching issues of plot and narrative, the rhythm and play of the words in English, and of course the question of fidelity to the original text. No matter how good the translator, the finished prose always seems to have the awkwardness of a shy woman playing strip twister. It feels contorted, stilted, ashamed: someone with a fake smile and her rear end higher than her head.

The issue of translated writing cuts to the heart of why we read. Is it for the details of story and plot? Is it for the glimpse into someone else's mind, life, or culture? Or is it for the pure pleasure of the press of words against the skins of our minds? Ideally, it's a combination of all three, but I find that without a good, solid foundation of words, reading palls. I've read a number of translated novels for school and a fair amount of translated poetry: nothing I've ever read in translation has stuck with me for longer than it took to put down the book and go hunting for cheese.

Yet, every time I admit to my prejudice, I feel like a backwoods literary bigot. There's that obvious counterargument: isn't it better to read stories and authors in translation than not at all? If you restrict yourself to languages you can read, you've walled yourself off from whole cultures, rich streams of thought.

To which I say: Good thing I'm doing my year of reading dangerously. My fifth pick (actually my sixth, but I haven't gotten around to reviewing number 5 yet) was Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. Larsson, a left-wing journalist, died of a coronary event in 2004. He left behind three finished mystery novels he'd completed in his spare time, all three of which are being published posthumously. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of the these.

According to Wikipedia, the Swedish title of the novel was Men who Hate Women, and I can see why. Larsson's hero, left-wing journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and his strange, traumatized heroine, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, stumble across a veritable viper's nest of men who prey upon women. Using the 30-year-old disappearance of heiress Harriet Vanger as a starting point, Blomkvist and Salander investigate whole generations of wrongdoing. There are two or three mysteries here, some of which overlap and some of which slither off toward their own corners, but all of them trace back to gender-based violence. I enjoyed the MI-5-style descriptions of information gathering, as well as the off-hand details of Swedish life. How can you fault a book that describes bacon pancakes with ligonberry jam?

Still, there was that troubling stiffness to the prose. Characters seemed awkwardly drawn, as if a pencil was lifted from the paper every few millimeters and set back down. I couldn't quite get a handle on the tone of the book: one of the hallmarks, to me, of books in translation is that their linguistic atmosphere seems to shimmer from color to color, never quite coming to rest. Was it off-hand? Formal? Racy? A smattering of all of these?

Its faults aside, this was a big (465 pages), meaty, overflowing mystery novel in the tradition of Elizabeth George and Sara Paretsky. (Interestingly, we witness Blomkvist reading books by both authors, along with several other notable crime novelists: the man has good taste!)

Also, I started the thing at 8:00 AM and finished it by 3:00 PM. They say actions speak louder than words. And there's no need to translate.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Changing Room

I'm supposed to believe in change.

After all, I live in the land of reinvention, where more people have plastic surgery than live without televisions. What's more, I work as a therapist, and what the heck is a therapist supposed to be if not an agent of change? My whole professional life is predicated on the assumption that I can help children to change for the better.

And yet, I've always doubted. I've long suspected that more of brain functioning, more of personality and ability, is pre-programmed then we care to admit. I've long wondered if I actually help my clients in any meaningful way. And I've long questioned whether the person I am at 28 is substantially different from the person I was at 8.

So anyway, I've spent the last three days attending a lengthy professional conference put on by my state association. It's the kind of event that has always terrified me: three whole days of hobnobbing with strangers punctuated by periods of furious note taking. But I needed the continuing ed credits, so off I went to drift through a sea of SLPs. They -I should say we, though I appeared to be the sole individual with two x chromosomes and no purse- are a remarkably homogeneous lot: 98% female, 98% white, 98% sweet, socially-savvy, and sorority-minded.

At the conference, change was everywhere. Laws were changing; there were workshops about this. Preferred practice patterns were changing; there were workshops about this. A dapper old man played Before and After vocal samples and told us we were "trainers of cells." Exhausted, glazed, hopped up on bad coffee, I started to believe. Not because I'd taught any cells to roll over or play dead, but because by the end of the conference, I'd collected three email addresses, two business cards, and an invitation to someone's son's barbecue.

A friend once told me it took her years to understand that she was beautiful. In high school, she'd been a geek, and for almost a decade afterward, she assumed that's what people saw when they looked at her. Her beauty finally dawned on her sometime in her twenties. She was at a party, well-dressed and carefully made-up. Some guy was hitting on her, some conventionally-dressed, conventionally-minded everyman, and suddenly it occurred to her: he had no idea she watched anime and played chess, that she'd won the state Spell Bowl two years running. He couldn't tell.

At 8, I would speak to only two people in my ballet class of 20. I was terrified of adults and the telephone and people I didn't know, and if my parents took me to a party, I would find someplace to hide. At 28, I still dislike parties, the telephone, and people I don't know. I still like to duck into the bathroom. But a couple months ago -in my other life a musician- I subbed with a group successful enough to have a booking agent. Unbeknownst to me, the agent came to the concert to make sure the subs were up to snuff. I played and bowed and came out into the lobby as usual to do the dreaded yet required post-concert audience schmooze.

Later, the booking agent introduced herself backstage. "You played well," she said coolly, and then her eyes lit, "and you were terrific with the people afterward."

You could have knocked me over with a feather. No one can tell.

It's a strange thing, to realize you're passing, you've been passing, you've possibly passed for years. It's both liberating and oddly sobering, as if a distant, imperfectly-loved relative has died. You're free. You're on your own. You're not who you thought you were.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mall Rat

Things to do if you accidentally stumble into a shopping mall:

1) Run.
2) Glare balefully at howling children; look away before their mothers catch you.
3) Run.
4) Marvel at pink-velour-clad, stroller-shoving women who somehow make time, in the middle of the day, to try on 15 lipsticks from Sephora. Wonder what their husbands do for a living. Wonder what their brains do for a living.
5) Come up with alternative names for food-court stalwarts: Arteree-freeze! Big Nap!
6) Circle "Cheese Shoppe" with vulture-like intensity, despite taking umbrage at double p.
7) Engage in half-assed cultural criticism.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I despise malls. I shop when I need to and stay the hell out when I don't. Or else I work up the odd enthusiasm and then afterward feel positively ill, as if I have eaten a whole bag of marshmallows. To me, malls constitute an embrace of all the worst elements of living (muzak, fake plants, unfettered greed) and a repudiation of the best (silence, reading, the outdoors). Sometimes, though, they're unavoidable. As when, say, you're trapped in a hotel with 900 polite women and the mall is the only way out.

Ergo, I walked in the mall today. I didn't buy anything. I wasn't even tempted, save for those few fraught moments of cheese-lust. Instead I stared at the big stuff: potted plants, waistlines, price tags, window displays. I scuttled past the gaping maw of the Abercrombie stores and tried not to choke on the perfume wafting from Origins. I juddered to a halt, cotton-mouthed and disoriented, in front of the Lucky Brand jeans store and stared stupidly at the words splashed across its plate glass: Turn off the news. Turn on the music.

Sure it's a platitude, but, like the mall, it can be teased apart, dissected and analyzed as an excrescence of mainstream culture. (What else did I do all those owl-pellet labs for, if not to conscript them to serve in my army of lackluster metaphors? Hmm?) To me, the arresting thing is the implied dichotomy: You've either got news or you've got music, but you can't listen to both. I'd say Lucky was talking out of its expensively-clad ass, except there was the controversy that recently flared to life on my local public radio station. Next month, to the disappointment of some and the jubilation of others, talk radio will replace the last few remaining hours of prime-time classical music programming.

So the conflict is out there in the cultural ether. But does it need to be?

Sure, I recognize that we only have one pair of ears. And simultaneous streams of sound, while popular in student compositions, seldom make for easy listening. But there's an unacknowledged variable here, and that's time. Most of us, unless we live sorry, gnat-length lives prior to being run over by a truck, have more than one opportunity to listen. Why not make use of it?

The mall troubles me because it's not a balanced environment: you have innumerable opportunities to consume, but none to produce, to create, to give. I have the same difficulty with Music vs. News: Clash of the Titans: it doesn't allow for the possibility of balance or moderation. Maybe I want to listen to Chopin for a while and then Fresh Air. Maybe I want to chase This American Life with Different Trains. Maybe I want to turn off the damn radio.

Monday, March 23, 2009

#4: Olive Kitteridge

I like the way Elizabeth Strout's prose locomotes. It doesn't race, like Victor Hugo's breathless 19th-century effusions. It doesn't strut, like David Foster Wallace's chest-thumping, maximalist outpourings. Nor is it hobbled by the crippling self-consciousness that seems to plague the recipients of the modern MFA, as if the degree were a bullet to the leg and everything the author did thereafter bore its gimpy stamp.

No, the writing in Olive Kitteridge, the third offering from former law student Elizabeth Strout and my fourth selection for my year of reading dangerously, is like a good walk. It's purposeful, natural, engaging, and functional; it gets you where you need to go. It is seldom showy but often lovely -and it's a loveliness that unfolds subtly, with the steady tempo of a stroll.

Here's the book's opening paragraph:

"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold."

By the end of this paragraph, I was hooked -but gently, so that it took me several more weeks and many more paragraphs to work out how the story was lodged, the ways in which it pierced me. Olive Kitteridge takes the form of a series of interlinked short stories, each viable on its own but echoing in the next, so that the various resonances and cross-currents build into something loud.

That something is Olive, a big, capable, angry woman living an ordinary life in coastal Maine. Olive is at the heart of some stories and at the margin of others; in a few, she barely registers. It's a fractal portrait, a juddering biography, and it is enormously compelling. I was afraid of this book because I'm not especially partial to short stories: I find them too self-conscious, too neat; they try too hard. In a good novel you can feel the characters stretch and breathe; in a good short story, the breath and the reach are almost without fail the author's.

Yet, somehow, Olive Kitteridge splutters to life. There are a few misteps, a few stories in which Ms. Strout's hand shoves you a degree too hard and you feel, for an instant, as if you might fall, but for the most part, you walk. A long way, and sometimes over rough ground, but you end up in the right place.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I'm with Stupid

There are a lot of memes circulating about how many places you've traveled, how many brave things you've done, and how many important life milestones you've achieved. I much prefer this meme, about how much stupid shit you've perpetrated. It's far too long, of course, but it does offer an unparalleled opportunity for mild public self-abasement.

Mark the things you've done.
Calculate your total by counting the number of questions you marked.

1. [X] Forgotten to put the lid on the blender
2. [ ] Gotten your head stuck between the stair rails
3. [ ] Broken a chair by sitting in it
4. [X] Had gum fall out of your mouth while talking
5. [X] Choked on your own spit while talking
6. [X] Had people accuse you, falsely, of blondness
7. [X] Been caught staring at your crush by your crush
8. [X] Have looked for something for 5 min. before discovering it in your hand
9. [X] Tried to push open a door that said pull. More times than you'd dream possible.
10.[X] Tried to pull open a door that said push. Ditto.
11. [ ] Believed someone who said they knew how to make a love potion. UM.
12. [X] Hit yourself while trying to hit something else
13. [X] Fallen UP the stairs
14. [ ] Exploded marshmallows in your microwave
15. [X] Gotten gum stuck in your hair
16. [X] Had gum fall out of your mouth while you were trying to blow a bubble
17. [X] Had the juice from a mini tomato squirt out and hit someone.
18. [X] Had your drink come out your nose because you were laughing so hard
19. [X] Called one of your good friends by the wrong name. It's always fun to call people "Mom."
20. [ ] Skinned your toe playing soccer or kickball wearing flip flops. I would never voluntarily subject myself to sport.
21. [X] Gone out in public with a sticker on your forehead. Also on my rear end.
22. [ ] Fallen out of a moving vehicle.
23. [X] Run into a closed door. More than once. Sober.
25. [X ] Searched for your cell phone while talking on it
26. [X] It has taken you longer than 5 min to get a joke
27. [ ] Gotten your hair stuck in a blow dryer
28. [X] Gotten your hair stuck in a fan
29. [X] Tripped on a crack in the sidewalk
30. [ ] Said "5:30 o'clock" or "6:15 o'clock."
31. [ ] Stepped in dog shit after someone told you it was on the ground
32. [ ] Worn a white shirt when you knew it was raining
33. [X] Walked up to a stranger because you thought he or she was someone else. Before I got my contacts, this was a daily ritual.
34. [ ] Been kicked out of a grocery store
35. [X] Touched the stove, the curling iron, a hot pan, etc., when it was on
36. [X] Taken off your clothes to change into something else before accidentally putting the old clothes back on
37. [X] Wondered why something wasn't working, then realized it wasn't plugged in. Oldie but goodie! I recently called tech support at work and ascertained with their help that I wasn't plugged into the Internet.
38. [X] Put the cereal in the fridge, or put the milk in the cupboard. I found my lost mitten in the freezer last year.
39. [X] Walked into a pole. Also two different trees.
40. [X] Worn two different earrings or shoes by accident
41. [X] Put your shirt on backwards/inside-out without realizing it, then left the house
42. [ ] Tried to take a picture of someone's eye with the flash on. Who does this?
43. [ ] Gotten a ring stuck on your finger because you put it on even though you knew it was too small. No. This is one of my secret terrors.
44. [X ]Walked out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe. Hell yes.
45. [X] Gone to go do something but forgotten en route what that was.
46. [X] Drunk someone else's drink
47. [X] Fallen out of your chair while attempting to pick something up
48. [ ] Poked yourself in the eye
49. [ ] Gotten in the shower with your socks on
50. [ ] Melted your hairbrush while blow drying your hair
51. [ ] Crafted a stupid things test
52. [X] Accidentally stabbed yourself with a pencil
53. [X] Sung the wrong verse to a song without realizing it. Tragically, the "Batman smells" version of Jingle Bells is indelibly etched into my brain.
54. [X] Given an odd answer to a question because you didn't hear it and were too afraid to ask for a repetition.
55. [X] Told someone you were the wrong age because you temporarily forgot how old you were.
56. [ ] Looked into an overhead light purposefully while it was on
57. [X] Gotten ready for work/school on a Saturday
58. [X] Forgotten your own phone number
59. [X ] Tripped on a cord after someone told you to watch out for it
60. [X] Laughed at a joke no one else thought was funny. Story of my life.
61. [ ] Done the Macarena to the electric slide or vice versa.
62. [ ] Said "funner." Please, people. I have my pride.
63. [ ] Repeated yourself at least twice in the same sentence
64. [ ] Brought up an inside joke with the wrong person
65. [X] Didn't do the backside of an assignment because you thought that there wasn't one
66. [X] Did more work than you had to on an assignment because you didn't read the directions
67. [ ] Corrected someone's grammar/pronunciation, then figured out you were wrong. I is never the wrongerator!
68. [X] Put something in a special place for safekeeping, then forgotten where it was
69. [ ] Put ice in your drink after the glass was full of liquid
70. [X] Told a lie, forgotten what you'd said, and gotten caught
71. [ ] Pulled goggles away from your face and let go.
72. [ ] Forgotten to make sure that the lamp was off before you replaced the bulb
73. [X] Run into a door jamb. Especially when attempting nonchalance.
74. [ ] Told someone you never do stupid things immediately prior to being stupid
75. [ ] Told someone to watch out for an obstacle, then run into it
76. [ ] Licked playground sand
77. [ ] Repeatedly flicked yourself with a rubber band. There's an oddly masochistic subtext to this quiz.
78. [X] Been accused of drunkenness while sober
79. [ ] Been so hyper you scared people
80. [ ] Put duct tape on your body, then pulled it off to see if it would hurt
81. [ ] Put duct tape on someone else's hair
82. [ ] Put a clothes pin/hair clip on your lip
83. [ ] Sat and wondered why men's dress shirts have a loop on the back
84. [ ] Made up a code name for someone
85. [ ] Gotten a hairbrush stuck in your hair
86. [ ] Used a straw to blow the wrapper at someone
87. [ ] Shaved your tongue because you thought your taste buds looked funny
88. [X] Used your spoon as a catapult
89. [ ] Flung forks at people in a restaurant. OK, these are just odd.
90. [ ] Tripped and made the waiter drop the food.
91. [ ] When writing, you move your head back and forth with your pen/pencil
92. [ ] Drawn finger puppets on your fingers then named them
93. [ ] Wrapped someone in toilet paper
94. [X] Inadvertently used another person's toothbrush
95. [X] Started to tell a story but forgotten what you were talking about
96. [X] Read a whole book without paying attention. Hello, Heart of Darkness.
97. [ ] Spelled your own name incorrectly. Absolutely not.
98. [X] Looked for pictures in the texture of the ceiling.
99. [ ] Used your calculator as a form of communication
100. [ ] Popped a balloon in your mouth

51/100 = More stupiderer than not.
And you?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Beach Blanket Bingo

I'm a brunette, but I've spent a lot of time holding my egregiously white arm up against the arms of blonds and redheads in the pale people's version of chicken. I am, to put it politely, fair. To put it impolitely, I couldn't tan if you basted me with cooking oil and strapped me to a supernova.

Yet, I used to try. The summer after seventh grade, I unearthed a ratty bath towel from the linen closet and spread it on the lawn. Perched uneasily atop the terrycloth flowers, I stuck my skinny, bone-white legs in front of me and willed the sun to do something, anything. Sure I knew about cancer, but I also knew that you couldn't wear shorts unless your legs were the delectable shade of cinnamon toast. And if you couldn't wear shorts, you couldn't get boys to like you and, even more troublingly, you were always too hot.

I lasted only a couple of months. The trouble was I'd take a book with me -some sci-fi tale of faraway suns- and inevitably there would be the issue of how to hold the book without shading some portion of your legs. The position required of you would be uncomfortable; and there would be ants crawling on you, interrupting, at critical plot points, your reading; and soon you would remember how comfortable it was to read in bed, how the whiteness of the sheets and the softness of the breeze from the open window carried you up up and away like a titanic space cruiser.

In eighth grade I moved to England where there was no sun, and by the time I moved back, I'd given up. That was the end of tanning, for me. Yet, why had I tried it in the first place? I wasn't stupid: I knew the risks, and it should have been obvious to me that genetics were stabbing me brutally in the back.

When I look back on it, I interpret my tanning travails as a petty consequence of the larger issue of limited perspective. Much later in life I saw pictures of pale women who were beautiful; I understood that beauty, like fungus, is not a single organism but a constellation of species. But in Indiana in summer in the early 1990s, all I saw in front of me were JV cheerleaders with leathery legs.

And scrunchies! And penny loafers! And crimped hair! Thank God my perspective widened when it did. It was good for me, that expansion of understanding. It enabled me not to fry like cheap bacon. In fact, I'd argue that broadened horizons and exposure to multiple streams of thought and culture are good for most folks. So why do we keep trying to keep people on the straight and narrow?

I work in three radically different fields. Each and every one of them gives me flack about it. People in one field have no conception of the rules and requirements of the other two and no use for their practitioners. Everyone howls at me for not giving 100%. Any divagation from one field toward another is viewed as a slackening of commitment.

An even more disturbing example is the way we've allowed the de facto resegregation of our urban schools. I work at a school that is 90% black in a city that is 70% white. I saw a white child in the hallway the other day and actually rubbernecked. How is that we think it is OK to immure our children in communities of others just like themselves? How does this allow perspective to ream us in the way it must if we are to become not just residents, but citizens?

Keep this up and our children will die of skin cancer.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Potty Go Bragh

A flirtatious, monosyllabic Kindergartner surprised me today. And I'm no longer especially vulnerable to surprise: in the course of a year or so at my current job, I've gotten up close and personal with every bodily fluid you can think of save for semen, and a certain bodily solid, besides. I've seen kids with shoes so worn you can see their feet through the soles, kids who come to school in flip-flops in the dead of winter, and second graders making gang signs to kindergartners in the hall. I consider myself, if not jaded, then at least shellacked.

But, inevitably, the moment you think you've seen it all is the moment you spot a fist-sized spider with nine legs and a cocktail umbrella. I was running a session with two kiddos from the severe disabilities class. One, Reynaldo, I'm trying to teach to use a communication book. The other, Ramon, I'm trying to get to answer questions and convey his wants and needs. Ramon is a fat, fast six-year-old with big brown eyes and an indecorous lust for bubbles. It's a rowdy pairing, and I need to keep on my toes.

10 minutes into the session, Ramon babbles a string of sounds that may or may not have contained the word "bathroom." Ramon jabbers a lot; only a little of what he says is intelligible. I ignore him. Kids aren't allowed to go to the bathroom in speech: it's a phenomenal time-waster, and once a kid has pegged you as a bathroom pushover, you may as well flush your therapy.

(Though I do make exceptions, ever since a first-grader named Kevin asked to use the facilities twice, announced he couldn't hold it, then favored me on the spot with "number three." Kevin has a bathroom pass with his name on it.)

So three or four minutes later, as I'm trying to get Reynaldo to ask for a blue marker with his book, Ramon snatches the book out of Reynaldo's hands, navigates until he finds the velcro picture of the toilet, then rips it off and places it after "I want" on the front of the book. I sighed, rolled my eyes, and took everyone on a potty field trip. All in all, I spent a third of my session in the boys' bathroom yodeling verbal cues about pulling up and down pants and remembering soap.

It was only much later that I realized Ramon had been my first student all year to use in a real-life context a communication strategy I'd taught. This, theoretically, is the entire goal of speech therapy; yet, for the most part, years go by while kids tear pictures of markers on and off of velcro strips. So what if it wasn't HIS strategy: Ramon had tried talking first, and I hadn't listened. He used what came to hand.

Probably my only bona fide victory of the year, and I was so irritated about the bathroom I almost missed it. In any case, it gave me a good shake: I've become so accustomed to directing, managing, and structuring communication that it's easy to forget to listen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yellowknife; White sky

It pains me to admit this, but for the past 24 hours or so I've been engrossed in a History Channel reality show called Ice Road Truckers. The premise is so simple it verges on idiotic (Truckers! Driving! On Ice!). Truth be told, the show is kind of idiotic, too. Trucker Hugh Rowland and his crew of five drive multi-ton loads of supplies from Yellowknife to remote diamond mines in Canada's barren lands across frozen lakes. For 25 episodes. (Truckers! Driving! On ice!)

I've watched 2 of the 25 shows, and so far nothing much has happened. All five men have driven trucks on ice to the mines. And driven back. And driven out again. Portentous music howls alongside stock shots of ice cracking as the narrator stresses, again and again, the imminence of disaster. So far the worst that's happened is a blown transmission.

Still, the show keeps trucking (truckers! Driving! On ice!) and I keep watching. Ice Road Truckers is not a show I would ever have sought out on my own (c.f. the hazards of sharing a Netflix account), but there's clearly something in it that grabs me or I wouldn't have already devoted an hour and a half of my life to goggling at flickering shots of truckers. Driving. You know where.

Part of the lure, I confess, is the mystique of the captial-N North. The Northwest Territories are one of those featureless spaces on the globe I used to run my fingers over as a kid, trying to osmose whatever it was that existed up there in the white. Now, suddenly, the emptiness has grown a mouth.

Another attraction is the accidental ethnography. The culture of northern Canada in general and the truckers in particular is a far cry from any of the cultural milieus (academia, early music, Indiana down-home, inner city) I dip my toes into day-to-day. I like to listen to the accents and analyze the jokes and wonder about the particulars of each trucker's life off the ice. Apparently you can make $75,000 in the two-month season before the ice melts. So what do you do with the rest of your time? Especially given that it's -35 outside and dark as the inside of a sock?

Perhaps most fascinating, though, is the audacious stupidity of the whole operation. Building and maintaining the ice road -heck, even living close to it- requires an egregious logistical investment and a big-rig-sized load of work-arounds. Yet, raise the lid on Yellowknife or any other northern outpost and there you see us: humans scuttling roach-like in the dark. Our ability to adapt impresses the crap out of me. It's also arguably scarier than taking a truck across some frozen lakes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wascally Wepublicans

There's a beige sedan in the teacher parking lot which bears the following bumper sticker: Drill Offshore Now: Vote McCain. In addition to the humdrum of actually doing what I'm paid to do, I have, since the beginning of the year, been staking out this car to try and figure out to whom it belongs. Every day, as I arrive and as I leave, I watch to see which teachers fold themselves into which middle-aged and elderly vehicles. Then, as the teachers pull away in their Neons and Odysseys and Civics (other notable bumper stickers: Coexist, Go Green, Obama, Kids First, and that one about bake sales and the military), I cross them off my list, steadily whittling away at my list of potential snakes in the grass.

For the last few months, I've mentally assigned the sedan to one of the teachers I like least, a teacher who brags about her rich father and constantly yells at her kids. I was positive the car belonged to her -well, either her or the woman with the bleached blond hair. It was only a matter of time before I'd catch her in the act of driving it. Then I'd be free to dislike her without even a trace of guilt: not only was she mean, she was a Republican!

Finally, this Monday, my prime suspect left. On maternity leave. And Lo, on Tuesday morning, I spotted the beige sedan hulking in the parking lot, its very lineaments radiating conspicuous conservatism. Something shifted uneasily in my gut.

I forgot, of course. I bumbled through my first post-DST work day, herding children and blowing bubbles and practically shouting Osanna when a colleague stuck in her head in my office door to say she was making coffee. 4:00 rolled around. I packed up and left.

And there, climbing into her car, was the owner of the beige sedan. It was one of my favorite teachers, a pretty, young, enthusiastic woman who has a positive word for every child and every adult, who earned her degree with the specific intention of teaching poor urban kids, who gets to school at 5:00 AM sometimes to set up stations for her kindergartners.

Spending all these hours in school like I do, I should have remembered learning hurts.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Time Out

I love daylight. The sun always tugs my mood upward, pulling me along like a balloon on a string. Dark, when it comes, is a needle: all the possibilities I've envisioned, all the small happinesses I've collected during the day burst, leaving only a sphere of dull air.

I also love saving. I opened another CD yesterday morning and walked around all afternoon with a sloppy smile plastered over my face, the kind of expression I imagine a squirrel wears when it buries a really round, really satisfyingly-nut-colored nut. I like to squirrel, to amass, to hoard. It may not be pretty, but then, genetics usually aren't. For every Giselle Bundchen, there are a thousand bucktoothed APY junkies.

Not that I know anyone like that.

Why, then, do I so passionately loathe the dreadful sleepless torment that is Daylight Savings Time? Yes, I am aware that, all across America, people are matter-of-factly setting their clocks an hour ahead with none of the eye rolling or foaming at the mouth I feel the exercise warrants. I recognize that, yes, the injustices of the universe are legion, and, furthermore, that in the pantheon of Really Bad Things, Daylight Savings Time lurks somewhere between accidentally running over a hedgehog and lying about finishing War and Peace.

But O the indignity! Daylights Savings Time is unnatural, unhealthy, and unwieldy. It disrupts circadian rhythms and forces most of us to rise for months in the dark. In the summertime, when the sky clings to cerulean until past 10:oo PM, it addles children and inspires adults to wait until long past a decent hour to deploy fireworks. To top it all off, the argument that DST saves energy is probably bogus: a recent study suggests that because people run their air conditioners longer, DST actually increases energy consumption.

In April of 2006, Indiana became the 48th state to fall into the Dark and Sinful Thrall of our corporate overlords. Hyperbole, maybe. Cantakerous, yes.

That's the other thing: DST makes me cranky. For a few weeks after each time change, I am mildly depressed, moderately irritable, and maximally sleepy. It's that third word of the trinity: time. No one likes time. It fades daylight. It spends everything you've saved and more.

Monday, March 2, 2009


It's always a question whether I'm going to vote in my own blog poll. Sometimes I plunge in: that's me up there in the sidebar, casting the inaugural vote for 9 hours of sleep, which, all other things being equal, is my preferred period of somnolence. Time-consuming, yes; decadent, perhaps; but all in all a lovely way to paginate the days.

Sometimes, though, I don't vote at all. I can't choose, or I don't want to, or I'm not really interested in my own answer but just want to hear everybody else weigh in. This is especially true when every answer is mine, as when I asked you, fearless readers, to claim a fear from amongst my own pantheon of bugaboos.

Most often, though, I hang back, waiting most of the week for the answer to round itself within me. It's always the right answer; I've never changed my vote. I find the finality of marking it down both tragic and reassuring: the suspense is gone, but so is the anticipation.

Yes, I know I spend entirely too much time thinking about polls. It's a disease.

Last week I asked about home. I floated the word up there in the corner and then underneath it slotted an array of options: Plate, and away, fries, made, body, Star Runner, Depot. It was a gloss, a gewgaw, nothing of substance. As always, though, I was riveted by the results.

One of you is a baseball fan. Two of you like to make things from scratch. One of you likes Home Star Runner; one of you is partial to home improvement; one of you likes to stay home. Four of you like home fries, and I empathize: home fries are damn tasty. I had some this morning, in fact, for Second Breakfast, and I made sure to spear every last particle of garlic and potato skin.

In the end, though, I chose Home and Away. It felt right. I believe Home and Away to be the name of the AAA membership magazine, and also the title of a long-running Australian soap opera popular in England, but that's neither here nor there. When I depressed the mouse over that little circle, I understood that, deep down, I believe happniess lurks in the flip-flop between indoors and out, between comfort and discomfort. I like home. I like leaving it and I like coming back. The conjuction is important: and, not or or but.

You don't have to choose. Like I said, neither here nor there.