Saturday, May 30, 2009

Door to Door

On occasion, it's occurred to me to wonder why The Lord of Rings is so damn successful. Not too many of us wake up in the morning with the desire to plow through six hundred pages of dense, divagating narrative. And raise your hand if you are desperate to read about a bunch of hairy, undersized males stumbling through the wilderness in search of a glittering prize. It's like a a cross between Deliverance and The Price is Right.

Yet, the books (and their cinematic spawn) are blockbusters, sucking in hordes of readers. This can be explained in part by the oversupply of thirteen-year-old boys in the world, but I think there's more to it than that. Using fantasy, Tolkien manages to tap and magnify some of our most basic, atavistic desires. And I'm not talking sex, though that's an incidental theme. Rather, Tolkien lights on wants and fears many of us have forgotten we have, simple, heedless impulses so elementary that we no longer bother, in day-to-day life, to catalog them.

Thus, from Moria, the hobbits break into clean, sweet air. In Tom Bombadil's house, they revel in the pleasure of a good night's sleep. And Bilbo, on the verge of his last middle-earthly journey, mumbles verse:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

For me, the critical lines are the first two: "The road goes ever on and on/ Down from door where it began." The initial line captures the largeness of life, its possibilities and forks and otherness; the subsequent line tethers that largeness to the small, local act of opening the front door.

This conjunction -of everywhere and here, near and far- lurks somewhere at the base of my skull. It rarely impinges on my consciousness, yet nevertheless tugs me -out of my chair, out of the house, down the street. On Monday, it rained. A cats-and-dogs, barking, yowling rain. I let the screen door bang, hopped in the car, and drove a half block south to where the Old National Road threads itself like a needle through the eye of the city.

US 40 is a mountains-to-sea road. It starts in Utah and runs out in New Jersey. Most of it is not Interstate, but local road, with towns and turnoffs and slowdowns and lights. I kept driving. I drove until the city gave way to big box stores and strip malls and the strip malls gave way to new green corn and fields of yellow Rapeseed. Towns sprang up and collapsed like mushrooms. I passed courthouses, yard sales, signs for chicken friend steak.

An airplane ride, an Interstate: these are ways of beaming yourself across distances, propelling yourself across vast, wide blanks until you reconstitute in new place. A road is different. It is where you are rather than how you get there. It is all the small steps between there and back again.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sycamore Weather

Too early, I woke from a night of anxious dreams in which I checked, compulsively, the weather online and found that the whole of the country, from California to the strange state that is Delaware, was choked with storms. And not just any storms, but full-bellied, wind-filled storms with masts of lightning, storms that plied the country with speed and authority. I woke certain I was going to have to fly anyway, that it was only a matter of time before takeoff.

I stayed put. I put on the kettle and hauled up the blinds. I watched the old ceiling fan spin, the blades of dust taking flight. I sneezed, then put on as little clothing as possible and went for a walk. Outside it was not too hot but insufficiently cold. Down the road, that tree with the broad, stubby-fingered leaves released, in clouds, its fluff. It came down milky, light as snow, white-gold against the green. It lodged in my hair, battered my nose and and lips. There's storms and there's storms.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

#6: American Wife

So I'm a little bit like a back-up sprinkler system: cry within my line of sight, and I'll cry, too. Yes, it's embarrassing, but on the other hand, empathy is the backbone of civilization, so I don't really mind having a little more than my share.

And yet, like most of us, I have empathetic lapses: dry, barren places inside me where nothing finds purchase and imagination won't sprout. If empathy is a backbone, imaginative flights are its vertebrae: to empathize, you must imagine yourself out of your own skin and into someone else's. You must live, temporarily, two lives at once.

Over time, I've managed to drum up empathy for a number of folks who initially gave me trouble: cheating boyfriends, teenage mothers, zealots. But still, there remain people for whom, even when I try to squeeze out empathy as if it were a kidney stone, I feel nothing. Mass murderers. People who have significant credit card debt. George and Laura Bush.

I mean, seriously, why the heck would you spend money you didn't have? Unless your liver failed while you were vacationing in a totalitarian dictatorship with no functioning health care system and you needed to buy another liver on the black market, why on earth would you think something was worth paying 22% APR? Have you no self-control, people? Did some kind of alien parasite gobble your brain? Wait, save, AND THEN BUY THAT GIANT FLAT-SCREEN SOUL-SUCKER.

See what I mean? No empathy.

Fortunately, there are books. It's easy to forget in these days when a book is supposed to be either an entertaining diversion or Art with a capital A, but another thing a book can be is a gardener. A good book cultivates empathy. A great book cultivates empathy in those parched, scorched reaches of yourself you thought were forever sere.

American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld's third novel and my sixth pick for My Year of Reading Dangerously, is a great book. Not because of any particular felicity of prose or superiority of structure, but because, by the time I reached the last the of hundreds and hundreds of pages of this pseudo-auto-biography of a (lightly) fictionalized American First Lady, I was a) crying and b) almost able to comprehend how a woman could first sleep with and then marry G. Dubya.

This is, self-evidently, a miracle. American Wife is a readable, thoughtful, occasionally off-putting perpetrator of miracles. And how many books can claim that?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Golden Sate of Mind

Around this time last year, I drove cross-country. Or more accurately, I was a passenger, helpmeet, sing-along partner, navigatrix and occasional (sweating, rabbity, claw-handed) relief driver to my college roommate as she made her way from New Jersey to San Francisco in the company of a multi-colored stuffed monkey.

Road trips often mark life changes, and on this trip, the change belonged to my friend, E. E was moving herself and everything she owned from one coast to another, embracing the classic narrative of westward progress with her usual resilience and vigor. I was, ostensibly, along for the ride- but only ostensibly. Though I resisted acknowledging it at the time, the trip was a last hurrah, a farewell to a certain set of possibilities and a knuckling down to the choices I'd -sometimes grudgingly, often unwittingly, but nevertheless- made.

In other ways it was just travel: beets and beds and rest stops and coconut cream pie; small talk and hail and running down the canyon and growing sick with height.

This summer, I have the chance to do it again. In truncated form, coming to rest just across the continental divide, but still a big, slow Western pilgrimage, someone else's liturgy of leaving.

Do I go? Kansas was an awfully long state. And the thought of retracing last summer's arc -the parabola of the closing door- is close to unbearable.

And yet: Go West. Eat mountains. Stuff your gullet with land.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ship of Friends

Everyone knows there are different flavors of love. The ancient Greeks even codified them, drawing neat semantic lines between Eros and Agape, Philia and Storge. Later, psychologist John Lee interviewed subjects to determine what love meant to them: he cataloged three primary and three secondary "colors" of love, based in part on the Greek archetypes.

In case you were interested, primary colors were Eros (passionate, physical, romantic and intense), Ludus (game-playing, love-as-conquest), and Storge (brotherly, constant, uneventful). Secondary colors were Mania (a combo of Eros and Ludus: possessive and anxious), Pragma (pragmatic, compatibility-focused partnerships), and Agape (selfless, giving love). Different people gravitate toward different colors: I try to be a Pragma girl, though I have to watch that Eros doesn't bite me in the ass.

What I wonder is why, given the extent to which we are willing -even eager- to slice and dice love, we treat friendship like one big hunk of meat. If you're going to introduce someone, you say, "This is my friend, X." Never mind if you've known him from childhood or if you kind of hate her or if your friendship is a combustible cocktail of intimacy and silence. No matter if he once stole they boy you loved, or you don't know her very well, or if, over the years, your friendship has flickered and dimmed like a dying bulb.

I spent time with five different friends this weekend. I've been acquainted with H for two decades. R, I barely know. S accompanied me a on a tour for prospective students of the college we'd attended for nine years combined, conversing with curious parents about our shared, and apocryphal, Delaware childhood. M laughs at all of my jokes, even the bad ones. B is my father.

The color of every friendship, the warp and weft between two people -or three, or four- is different. Sometimes, despite a wealth of good friends, I miss not-so-good friends, people with whom I'm comfortable but not too comfortable, people in whose presence I'm forced to be light and polite and happy. Sometimes I just want a smile from a stranger. Sometimes I miss a specific person, a specific texture of interaction, with all the fierceness of Mania.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

100 Miles

The first CSA shipment of the year came in: spring vegetables and herbs. I made a variation on Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Belgian beer tartine: toasted sourdough, fresh farmer's cheese, chives, thinly-sliced radishes, and fleur de sel. I served it with a salad of butter lettuce, sorrel, lemon balm, and radishes dressed with lemon and olive oil. Everything, save for the salt, lemon, and olive oil, was locally sourced. Also tasty! Now I am smug. And full.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


I've been breaking in a new instrument. Every instrument is different, and you have to accustom yourself to a new one's peculiarities as if it were a long-lost uncle. I search out the difficult notes, work through the various ranges, explore the interface between breath and sound. To do all this, I've been revisiting Bassano ricercares: strange, meandering solo pieces that slip up and down the steps of a particular key.

What's interesting is that, for the first time ever, the pieces make sense. Because I don't know the instrument well, I'm playing awkwardly, hesitantly, listening through the line. Warming up, getting comfortable: this is what the ricercare were created for- and yet, on CD, I've only ever heard them played with conviction and forced narrative arc

Why? Because we've fetishized music. We've elevated it, isolated it, disentangled it from the messy, mushy enterprise of being human. Just as foot fetishists prioritize arch, sole, and toes to the detriment of the naked woman attached, we've turned classical music into a rarefied respite from the rest of life, something that exists outside of, and apart from, the bulk of human experience.

At no time was this more apparent to me than last night, when I sat three rows from a massive orchestra playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's a chestnut of a piece, something we've heard a hundred times on CD and then a hundred more. Fortunately, the symphony stands up to repeated listening: it's a chewy, substantive work that reminds me of sourdough bread in that it's both basic (5-1! 5-1, 5-1, 5-1!) and piquant.

The live performance, by the Indianapolis symphony orchestra, was not as tight or well-tuned as the countless recorded versions. And yet, it was richer. Just as the ricercares pale when divorced from their context, recorded music fails to encompass the way music ripples, visibly, through a person's body. It flattens whole dimensions of music: immediacy, fear, the transitory nature of sound. Recorded music is a black leather spike-heeled boot. It is whips and chains. It's a box of cut flowers, when what you want is a garden.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Alas, Poor Minidress

To Goodwill, I am finally bequeathing the red corduroy flares, the orange suede jacket, the golden shoes, the acid green top, the electric blue halter, and the purple skirt.

Adulthood is suspiciously drab.