Saturday, June 27, 2009

#7: My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead

More than what I read, it was the way I read it. One story a lunch break, give or take, sometimes a fraction of a story or sometimes two. For that brief half-hour, sandwiched between lunch duty and my 12:30 paperwork prep, I would shut the door, hide behind my filing cabinet if anyone knocked, and read about love.

If you're going to read about love, the time to do it is in the middle of a work day at an inner city school. You keep love in perspective if you do it that way; you understand its limitations and its boundaries, the things it can't do. Love can't feed a child or clothe it or make it happy; it can't help you pound knowledge into a kid's skull or make the school day go any faster. Love isn't an agent at all -it doesn't act, but sits there shimmering soundlessly between the cafeteria tables and the old computer.

It goes without saying that love, despite its lack of agency, is dangerous. Our language reflects this: you're sick in love, you fall. So what could be more dangerous, for the seventh installment in My Year of Reading Dangerously, than an entire book of love stories? Even if it was edited by the spectacularly gifted Jeffrey Eugenides (see Middlesex; The Virgin Suicides)?

I must confess that, in the face of this book, I quailed. My Mistress's Sparrow spent some quality time under the bed, followed by some additional months on the bookshelf, where, day after day, its maroon heart heaved reproachfully against the edges of my sight.

Finally, slowly, I broke. I sickened; I fell. And it was good, really good. A few of the stories I loathed; most of them were OK; some were so lovely they hurt. But such is love: a hit or miss, twisting, flickering nothing of a feeling. Eugenides's singular wisdom was to understand this: instead of presenting stories that orbit around love as if around blazing sun, he chose stories that are prisms, refracting love into a hundred scattered colors.

I read Robert Musil's thankless Tonka over two or three thankless, luckless days. William Trevor's Lovers of their Time, a wistful meditation on ephemerality, I read on a day when two kids threw up in the lunch room and had to be hustled out like surrendering bank robbers. The day I finished Deborah Eisenberg's Some Other, Better Otto, perhaps my favorite story in the book, there was a hot, wet rain of the kind that coops you up but doesn't relieve the pressure in the air.

And through it all: love. Love limp, love tired, love wizened and sad. Love worth closing the door for, perhaps worth propping it open again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Business Time

As I believe I've mentioned previously somewhere in this morass of blog, You Tube rubs me the wrong way. I know everybody loves it. Even my mother loves You Tube: she's always forwarding me this or that video I don't watch, together with this or that forward I don't read, and this or that chain letter I don't send. Love you, Mom.

I may have to reconsider, though, as this made me laugh until I cried.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I've been meaning for quite a while to link to this photo blog (image from site). Usually I like to see people in my pictures: there's nothing quite so boring as a whole roll of ocean and sky, as I discovered at the age of twelve when I ignored all of my Maine summer camp compatriots to shoot dozens of shots of blue against slightly bluer blue. The stuff looked like wallpaper. Blue wallpaper.

People, on the other hand, are riveting. You can speculate on whether a man secretly hates the woman he has his arm around, or if she practices smiling when she's alone with the bathroom mirror, or what the hell he was thinking when he grew that handlebar moustache. You can make snarky comments, hypothesize on what's behind those handy masks of skin.

It took me a while to figure it out, but Heidelberger's photographs of hidden and deserted stretches of Indianapolis have people in them, too. They're not visible people; you can't remark on their make-up or their skin tone or their silly shoes. Instead, the photographs -of abandoned buildings, forgotten trainyards, boarded up homes- show the ghostly shapes of people who have stepped from the frame.

I love looking at these forsaken worlds. They're reverse fossils: not the trilobite but the way the trilobite impressed itself, century after century, into the rock. They're intricate and bare, crowded and lonely, terrible and lovely all at once. And I feel privileged to glimpse them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Monetize This!

So every time I open up blogger to work on a post, I am confronted with this shiny new "monetize" tab. At first I assumed -who wouldn't?- that this was a tool designed to render all lettering and photography in broad, impressionistic strokes, so as to blunt the inherent brutality of prose and make my more cutting asides resemble fat, happy water lilies.

Alas, not so. Further investigation revealed that "monetize" was the work not of a Monet devotee gone mad with power, but of Adam Smith's good ol,' gnarled, hairy, invisible hand. "Monetize" my blog, the instructions intoned, and I could make buckets of money off of my political ramblings or my convoluted musings on cheese.

Needless to say, there will be no "monetizing" of Aphaeresis. In the first place, cheese doesn't pay, and in the second place, ads are really damn annoying. Not to mention that profoundly disturbing word "monetize," which does away with the intermediary verbs that usually come between subject (you) and object (money) (e.g., "make," "lose," "spend"), and dunks you straight into a pile of cash.

Plus it kind of incenses me that the capital M Market is trying to package and sell that last holdout against rabid consumerism, my brain. Come on, folks: we're treated enough like commodities as it is! Do we really want to whore out our thoughts?

The only thing that tempts me is the potential -pleasant, substantial- for ridiculousness. Monetization hooks you up with a sidebar's worth of Google ads, the kind that assess the content of the rest of your screen and attempt to target, narrowly, you and/or your readers. It's a kind of poor woman's tarot, revealing yourself to yourself in unexpected -and spectacularly commercial- costumes.

Facebook does the same thing. Here's a recent sampling of ads based on my profile:
  • Attend Brown University's Infant Mental Health Conference!
  • Buy swarovski crystals to make your stethoscope unique and fun!
  • New Zealand WANTS YOU.
Gotta go, folks. My destiny is beginning to clarify.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Trying out lines for the 10-year reunion:
  • Wow! You're a famous lawyer/doctor/scientist? I kind of hate both of my jobs.
  • Wow! You've found a cure for cancer? I've eaten a lot of cheese.
  • It's been 10 years, and neither of us looks any better.
  • It's been 10 years, and I'm still confused.
  • 10 years ago I didn't like you. Now, I don't like your small child.
  • Wow! You look great! I don't carry my own health insurance!
  • It's been 10 years...are you going to eat that?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Desgin for the Asses

Today, I got off my butt. And it was about time: I had been sitting on my butt, or lying on it, or occasionally using its musculature to waddle into the kitchen in search of cheese, for about two weeks, and that portion of my anatomy was starting to seem overplayed. So I got off my butt, strode bravely out the door, and...went to an exhibit about sitting.

OK, so there was a little more to it than that, but European Design since 1985, a bargain at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, does feature a lot of chairs. And tables, and tea sets, and lamps, and benches, and ladders, and even a compact yet lissome vacuum cleaner.

I trust you know how museum exhibits work. You wander around, speaking in hushed tones, taking care not to touch anything for fear of inciting the wrath of the ancient yet menacing docents who stand against the wall so stiffly you sometimes mistake them for art. Under normal circumstances, I'm a model museum-goer. Today, though, my hands took on a life of their own: again and again, I snatched them back as they wandered toward the smooth silver surface of a spoon, the soft biomorphic curves of a couch.

TOUCH ME! everything in the exhibit screamed. TOUCH ME NOW! It's possible this phenomenon was merely a symptom of my incrementally increasing summer derangement, but there's also this: design, standing as it does at the crossroads of art and function, is different. You interact intellectually with art; you interact physically with design. You heft the pitcher, scrape the plate, drop your seat bones back into bliss.

How odd, then, to chafe against the velvet rope.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Look Hot in the Heat!

"No Regrets."

How many times have you heard that slick little slogan? In upper-middle-class America, forestalling regret is a preoccupation that verges on obsession. We are everywhere encouraged to take risks, to say yes, to seize the day and squeeze it like a pie-bound key lime. If we don't -if we stay home from the party, keep mum about our crush, refuse to ride the mechanical bull- we will receive divine punishment in the form of that most insidious, most incapacitating of plagues, regret.

I've been mulling regret ever since I purchased an issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine in an ill-advised attempt to lull all thinking parts of my brain into stuporous submission. Unfortunately, all I got was riled.

Well, riled and a little hysterical: Cosmo turns out to be a mildly hilarious, severely scrofulous instructional tract on how to become the kind of woman I never want to meet, ever. Its premiere accomplishment -and it is an accomplishment- is managing to be both raunchy and officious, a combination I have not heretofore encountered outside of sexy-librarian porn.

The important tense, for Cosmo, is the imperative tense: At a party, "arrange the chairs so that people's butts are touching. That small amount of physical contact will make the vibe much more intimate." (Or, um, creepy.) "Switch your regular light bulbs for peach colored ones." (For that bordello-meets-sweet-sixteen vibe!) "Pick up a pair of PJs that make you feel hot." (Because sleep is where all the sexy guys are!) "Scoop out the white bread inside of your plain bagel." (Really? REALLY?)

There was mountains of this stuff. Do this! Think that! Eat this! Touch that! Instead of reviewing beach books, Cosmo offered excerpts printed on tear-off cards. Excerpts that contained -you guessed it- additional instructions, on looking pretty at the beach or how not to scare off "guys," a skittish, possibly mythical race of beings the Cosmo girl hunts with the intensity of Dick Cheney pursuing no-bid government contracts.

Still, in that vast haystack of hooey, what needled me the most was the line about regrets: "Just do it! People are much more likely to regret not going after a goal than trying something that doesn't pan out."

First of all, show me the data! Second of all, show me the data! And finally: what is so terrible, ultimately, about regrets? I've got a truckload Sure, I tried not to: I went to prom, took the internship, chose the more difficult road. But there's only so many roads you can take, difficult or superhighway. There are only so many careers you can have -though I maintain that one is stingy- and only so many people you can marry outside of the FLDS.

Inevitably -profoundly- I regret. The trick is learning to make room for it, to let it dwell peacefully in some bottom drawer of my brain.

To co-opt the Cosmo imperative: Live with it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wild & Bland

The ground outside my back door is carpeted with these strawberry plants. You can see the prototypical three-penny leaves, the white and yellow flowers, the small red fruit like knots in some invisible thread.

Of course, anyone who grew up in the midwest knows these tiny strawberries are not the real deal. They're beautiful mirages, the fruit-world equivalent of The Emerald City. They're an old man pulling strings, twenty monopoly benjamins, silicone breasts, RuPaul. They shimmer, then burst. They taste, if they taste at all, of dust.

In late spring, in early summer, nature is Glory. It's generosity, abundance, renewal, grace, everything we've been taught. But it's also that first, terrible savor of disappointed hope.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose...

Or so wailed Janis Joplin. My father used to sing Bobby McGee after he'd piled us into the minivan and driven from the narrow, wormy roads we knew onto the thick roads we didn't, roads that constricted cities and snaked across the country. He'd crack the windows and croon the words, beating time on the steering wheel until my brother and I abandoned whining or reading or fortifying our halves of the backseat to yowl the lyrics like demented back-up singers. Even now, I can recite more verses of Kristofferson's ballad than I can verses of the bible.

As with religion, though, catechism begs exegesis. Is freedom really just a synonym for material and/or spiritual penury? And does the word "just" imply a simple relationship (freedom can be boiled down to penury) or an exclusive relationship (freedom cannot exist outside of penury)? What is freedom? Where is freedom?

I'm asking because I'm free. After 190 days of working moderately hard at a moderately difficult job, I've been released into the great, wide-open maw of the world to do as I wish and collect a paycheck. It's summer -or rather late spring; the peonies are dead but the air is still cool in the mornings. I am drunk, disoriented, enthralled by my ability to sit, to walk around the room, to sit again. I open and close the window. I raise and lower my cup.

Yet, I have things to lose. I've still got my wallet, despite my best efforts. I've got my car and my life and that nice pair of sunglasses and the way my body moves, fast, when I tell it to. Does this mean I don't know true freedom, or that freedom comes in degrees, like summer?

And then there's this: I know from experience that, in another three and a half days, this particular freedom will pall. I will wander around the house, sick of sitting, sick of standing, sick with options. At that point, freedom will appear to me as work, as the cool, sweet relief of the straitjacket.

Freedom, Like Bobby McGee, is a traveler. It lurks in both the removal and reapplication of the fetter. And it feels, every time, good enough.