Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Friar Trek!

The points upon which the conservative arm of the Catholic Church and I reliably agree are two:

1) Poverty = bad
2) Renaissance polyphony = good

Other than that, the Pope and I don't have much in common. I do occasionally admire his ability to pass silly hats off as solemn ceremonial garb, but most of the positions espoused by the pontiff and other conservative Catholics scare me at best and anger me at worst. The misogyny! The authoritarianism! The disregarding of empirical evidence in matters of national and international public health!

So the last thing I expected was to be moved by this article about friars. An acquaintance posted the link on Facebook, and since I was trying to avoid cleaning the toilet, I clicked through. According to the Washington Post, six Franciscan friars, young and old, walked the 300 miles from Roanoke to DC, stopping along the way to talk to anyone who wanted to talk, but generally trudging single file along secondary highways and county roads.

The Franciscans were making the trek to commemorate the wanderings of the founder of their order. They saw themselves as participating in a spiritual pilgrimage, an expression of their faith in God. I see them as six men doing the most basic, sacred, life affirming thing a human being can do: walk.

So, to my list, I humbly append:

3) Walking = awesome

In every sense of that term. Godspeed, men. Maybe next time you'll let the women walk, too.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hamlet: William Shakespeare

Hamlet: Will you play upon this pipe?
Guildenstern: My lord, I cannot.
Hamlet: I pray you.
Guildenstern: Believe me, I cannot.
Hamlet: I do beseech you.
Guildenstern: I know no touch of it, my lord.
Hamlet: It is as easy as lying.

Act III, Scene 2: The recorder as sinister prop. I actually think lying is kind of difficult

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Be More Variegated

Friends, the DMV has changed. First of all, it's called the BMV. Or maybe it has always been called the BMV in the great state of Indiana but was called the DMV in books; three guesses where I grew up. Secondly, my transaction took all of four minutes. Or three minutes and fifty two seconds if you want to be precise.

Four minutes! That's all it took for me to saddle myself with a truly appalling photograph for the next five years of my life. And we're not talking throwaway years, either: 29-34 is the prime of life, the good stuff, a time when you still have your health but are finally wise enough to appreciate it. Precisely that time of life when you don't need to face down a pasty, sullen, chinless, wall-eyed sanitarium escapee every time you open your wallet.

(A third change: Indiana BMV's no longer allow smiling. Come in for license renewal and you must face the camera dead on, as if you were a game animal hypnotized by the glow of approaching headlights, then stretch your lips into a strange, close-mouthed rictus. No tilting of the head; no showing of the teeth.)

Still, four minutes: not bad! I'd blocked off an hour and a half, so by the time I completed my transaction, 86 minutes early, I was so exhilarated that I voluntarily spent another half an hour perched contentedly on the misshapen plastic chairs in the BMV's holding pen, ogling the crowd.

And crowd it was! I saw a surprising number of children: white, Asian, black and Hispanic. (I shushed one of them by accident: working with kids is hazardous to your sense of what you'll put up with.) I heard parents, in between driving tests and license renewals, scold their progeny in three or four languages. I saw gangsters and hipsters, grandmothers and teenagers, the tattooed and the coiffed, the downtrodden and the upwardly mobile.

Our schools are largely segregated. Our neighborhoods are stratified by income. Our advertising is narrowly targeted. Our planes have sections.

The BMV may be smelly and ruled by an army of women in navy T-shirts, but it may also be the last bastion of integration. I wonder how often I can get my license renewed without attracting suspicion.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I stole the title of this post from J. Courtney Sullivan's debut novel Commencement, an engrossing yarn of a book which twists together the collegiate and post-collegiate stories of four Smith College graduates. In doing so, the book illumines and amplifies the double resonance of its title, exploring the bewildering interconnection between beginnings and endings in college life and beyond.

It also works as straight-up Chick Lit, albeit Chick Lit largely absent that perennial standby of the genre, men. Or perhaps Commencement is Chick Lit distilled to its essence, and men are, and always have been, rhetorical flourishes in a genre that fundamentally speaks to women's conceptions of their lives.

The fluidity of these conceptions -the assumption that they are both dynamic and interpersonally mediated- is one of Chick Lit's central conceits. Strip away the bad dates and the Christian Louboutins and the brooding ad execs with inexplicably rent controlled pre-war apartments, and what you'll find is a find a bunch of women changing their lives through chatter.

It's a vision both seductive and off-putting. Do women, in this post-feminist age, really still need to view men as trophies or predators or anything other than flawed and complex human beings? Does the insular female world described in Commencement and other novels presume that men are either precursors to, or rewards for, transformation, rather than partners in a woman's process of self-actualization?

The lure of women's colleges, and more broadly of women's friendships, is that you are evaluated and cherished as a whole person, rather than merely as a potential wife or mother or fuck. Perhaps society has moved beyond when Harry met Sally and informed her that men and women can't be friends "because the sex part always gets in the way." But why risk it, Chick Lit asks, when you can stay up all night talking to your girlfriends? In Commencement, the wedding of one of the main characters is one of the novel's major events not because it binds her to a man for the rest of her life, but because it temporarily reunites her with her bridesmaids.

Yet, I wonder if women's issues aren't Commencement's red herring. It's true Smith is a women's college, but perhaps the second word of the pair deserves as much emphasis as the first. In these days of increasing specialization and ever-lengthening work weeks, when unfocused resumes are liabilities and dilettantes are scorned, the undergraduate years are the last time of life when both men and women are encouraged to diversify, to try new things, to be whole and variegated human beings.

Commencement may mark the start of "real life," but all too frequently that life proves to be narrow, cramped, and breathless. It's no wonder the women of Commencement cling to a time in their lives when The End was just the beginning.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

#8: Catch-22

Because I read the bulk of Catch-22 at music camp, it seems only fitting to describe the novel in musical terms. Catch-22 was like a baroque trumpet fanfare that, despite containing only three notes, nevertheless saw fit to carry on loudly and with great exuberance over an extended period of time. Catch-22 was the brassy, drawn-out exegesis of single chord.

I GET IT! I wanted to shout at Joseph Heller twenty pages in (and 40 pages, and 140, and 400). WAR IS ABSURD: I GET IT. Enough already.

Catch-22 was a book I'd dreaded -guiltily- for years. I hate war novels. But even the title was a cultural touchstone! People were always citing Catch-22: it had become one of those books so integrated into the fabric of contemporary culture that to not read it seemed untenable. The perfect candidate, in sum, for My Year of Reading Dangerously.

Except I should have read the thing years ago. I mean this both in the sense that I have been culturally delinquent, and in the sense that Catch-22 seemed to me to be a novel profoundly sympathetic to the adolescence predicament. Yossarian, Heller's infamous bombardier, is the only sane man in a universe full of lunatics. Isn't that what most teenagers feel like every day?

Catch-22 was clever, funny, and boring as all get out. Just because a whole line of baroque trumpets playing a C chord in tune is impressive doesn't mean you want to listen to it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Life is Friends! Or something.

I've never been much for self-help books, but I picked one up on a whim at the library the other day anyway. It's called "Life is Friends" and was written by Jeanne Martinet, author of other instructional tracts on areas of personal deficiency like "The Art of Mingling." (BAH MINGLING.)

"Life is Friends" is basically one giant exhortation to socialize, with subheadings like "How to Create Friendship Flow Energy," "The Five Fatal Guesting Sins," and the somewhat disquieting "Playmates for Life." In no uncertain terms, Martinet orders us talk to strangers, chat up new friends, host dinner parties, and host house guests. I can't think of anything I dread more.

Like many of you, I am finding it harder and harder to make friends as I go through life. What used to be simple ("Hi. I'm Anne. Do you like sand?") has become dishearteningly complex ("You live all the way up there? And you have three dogs, two small children, and a parakeet? And you're only free Tuesdays at 9:00 PM?"). I do have a wealth of lovely, already extant friends, but an unfortunate majority of them live in other time zones.

Martinet's book reassured me that I've got the basic techniques down (test lines, laughter, low-stakes platonic dating), but illuminated my rather profound shortcomings in the area of effort. The effort required to make new friends outside of a university setting is just so...EFFORTFUL. Never turn down a party invitation, Martinet orders. Invite people into your home. But socializing is so draining! Hosting house guests sucks, and you have to clean twice!

Nevertheless, Martinet (her last name is hilariously suitable) has bullied me into resolving to do better. I will do better! I predict this resolution will last at least 45 minutes, until I have to decide whether or not to attend tonight's retirement party.

I hope the following sticks with me longer, because for all that I'm attuned to the differing positives of differing friendships, I can be obtuse about the negatives:
"One of the areas that gives us trouble is our expectations when it comes to the people in our lives. Often we are disappointed by a friend who [sic] we feel has not behaved the way we believe a friend should, and that disappointment hinders our continuing a relationship with him.

"It is very helpful to realize that you cannot expect all friends to be the same. Some friends will give more to you than you feel you are giving to them; some friends you will give more to them. Some people are better listeners than others; some are more entertaining. Some friends can offer sympathy; others can only provide practical help. Some friends can help you solve a problem; others are wonderful at showing appreciation when you help them..."
and so on. This I found less useful:
"So there you are, floating down the river of life in your canoe. What can you do, if anything, to cause friends to flow toward you more than they flow away from you? ...let me put it this way: You have to make your canoeing look good. People trying to navigate in their own canoes aren't going to want to get too close to you if you are flailing around, causing dangerous waves and splashes, and yelling, "Help me, I don't know how to steer this thing!"
I like the cranky splashers. Makes canoeing more interesting.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bargain Basement

Haggle: even the word is ugly. It rhymes with nothing lovely or wholesome, only gaggle (a word that conjures up avenging geese), waggle (canine posteriors), and Fraggle (strung out, hermetic Muppets). What's there to love, or even to enjoy?

Plus, the martial reality of haggling -the feints and stabs, the desire to make a killing- sends me scurrying for cover. Haggling is like laser tag played in the daytime by slow people without laser guns, and as anyone who had the misfortune to witness my sole arcade outing can attest, I suck at laser tag. (Though to be completely accurate I ended up in the middle of the rankings thanks to my devilishly clever strategy of crouching in a corner for the duration of the game. Good stuff, crouching.)

Needless to say, I avoid haggling whenever and wherever possible, which has led to overpayment for a shocking array of goods and services. Rather than haggle, I seek out like-minded anti-hagglers, usually identifiable by their midwestern accents and advanced age. When I went to buy a car, I bought not from the dealership that dropped their price $5 below my lowest bid, but from the single dealership that didn't highball me in the first place. I want straightforward pricing and straightforward interaction, not half-veiled jockeying for cash.

Recently, though, I haggled. It was an accident, pure chance: after a year and a half in Indy, bored with running and running and running again, I was exploring joining a gym. My friend recommended hers, a fairly comprehensive outpost of a major national chain. It had pilates, step, a whole bunch of other classes, plus a pool. And she was paying $25 a month.

I went in on a guest pass and asked about pricing. The manager took me on a tour, gave me a slick, canned sales pitch. Then quoted me $60 a month. I gasped: my friend had never mentioned bargaining. I suspected I was seeing discrimination in action: my friend is tall, blond, and gorgeous -a definite asset for a gym looking to attract new members- whereas the only time I stop traffic is when I fail to merge before the lane ends. Was she getting the pretty girl rate? Was I handed the rate for schlumpy t-shirt wearers?

My eyes must have bugged out, because the manager quickly dropped me down to $50, then $40. I emitted some kind of dissatisfied squeal, and he cracked $35. "But," I said, still not bargaining, "my friend is paying $25."

His eyes darted from side to side. He looked her up on the computer. "That was...a special deal," he said.

"Can I get that special deal?"

"Well..." (long, confounding monologue on the rare and time-delimited nature of the deal).

I told him thanks and, sick of the deception, the misinformation, and the ickiness of it all, headed for the door.

Six hours later, my cell phone rang: $25. Unknowingly, I'd played the trump card of haggling: I'd walked away. I went back and signed a contract. I still feel dirty.

Why do I loathe this kind of interaction so much? I recognize that haggling is integral to the fabric of many cultures, that it's a profoundly human activity. I recognize that I would get eaten alive in the Middle East. I recognize, too, that deception is important to civilization, that it greases the wheels, that speaking truth to power is one thing but speaking truth to your mother is another. Maybe, too, it's not haggling that is most dishonest: we all have agendas, and perhaps it's disingenuous to pretend we don't.

Fortunately, I'm comfortable with fiction. Name your reasonable price.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

An Affair to Reflect on

Everyone is having an affair. This is what I get for reading beach books, even if they were recommended by Janet Maslin in her New York Times feature on junky books for summer. (It turns out that reading NYT-recommended beach books is a little like saying preemptive Hail Marys before sinning all over the place.)

The dust jackets of the beach books feature bare feet or raffia hats or cool, frosted daiquiri glasses someone -or multiple someones- just put down. Full body appearances are reserved for inside (and under) the covers, wherein a host of folks -old and young, pretty and more pretty- are unapologetically or cravenly or delightedly or wretchedly unfaithful.

So what is it about the affair that inspires such voluminous treatment in print? Affairs seem like a lot of work to me, both emotionally and logistically, like taking on a second mortgage when you haven't paid off the first. Americans don't like to expend energy: we're a couch-sitting, mile-driving, moving-walkway-taking nation. Does anyone bother to have affairs in real life?

The answer, of course, is yes, occasionally. Sometimes I even hear about them. My mother's first husband stepped out on her with a sweet-tempered Quaker who eventually became his wife of 35 years. A friend's father waffled for two years between his younger mistress and his older wife. A middle-aged mother of two cavorted with a middle-aged father of two in a small town in the Midwest until two marriages cracked; everyone stayed civil.

Love can be simple, but affairs are always complicated. There's an inherent double narrative, not just the unfolding of passion but a concurrent unfolding of betrayal. Affairs encompass not one relationship but two or even three, and those relationships play off of one another. A strong marriage is rocked by something stronger, or a weak relationship bows to tepid desire.

If courtship is a narrative thread, then an affair is a knot, a nexus of multiple strands of plot and character and place. I understand why it's catnip to authors. And I wonder if real life affair-havers -old and young, pretty and bulbous and gnarled and stooped- aren't just looking for a little story in their lives.

Likely, though, it's more complicated. It's an affair, after all.

Monday, July 6, 2009

In Praise of Want

It is difficult to articulate adequately the joys of mild privation. After all, no one wants to want: we spend our lives scurrying around, hunting for fingers and toes and words and danishes and lawnmowers and puzzles to stop up the holes in ourselves. We build contentment carefully, bird by bird (if we are Annie Dillard) or tot by tot (if we are unrepentat tater tot whores. Mmmm....tater tots). Contentment is a permeable bulwark, an inconsistently effective dike; it's the way we try to reclaim ourselves from the vast grey sea of desire.

And yet.

I've just returned from two weeks living alone in an old stone house in a tiny town. I had two mattresses piled on the floor, one chest of drawers, a stove that smelled of gas. In the mornings I rose with the sun, padded across the wooden floor through the gold and the must to light the flame under the kettle. I brewed tea in the single mug, stirred it with the single spoon, added milk from a glass bottle. The tea was black and smoky. I downed it, then brewed another mug before cramming my feet into my sneakers and running until the town ran out and the borders of the roads were overgrown with corn.

There was a lot of corn, but there were more stars. At night they were everywhere, yellow and sweet and insistent. I drew the dusty curtains across the windows and brewed more tea. I made what dinner I could with the two old pots and the saucepan, then ate it on the single glass plate shaped like a star. I did the dishes and read and went to sleep and dreamed of waking up alone in an old stone house wanting tea.