Saturday, October 31, 2009


I was kind of dismayed to discover that I've penned not one, not two, but three previous posts on how much I despise individual holidays. Apparently I am a Curmudgeon for All Seasons -an honorific which, if not quite as venerable as a Man for All Seasons, at least does not presuppose that I am addled by testosterone.

Or weatherproof.

It's just that holidays have so many requirements. They're the worst kind of high-maintenance girlfriend or boyfriend, demanding gifts and speeches and niceties of feeling. Thanksgiving demands gratitude. Valentine's Day insists on love. Arbor Day exacts, of all things, trees.

Halloween is the worst. Halloween demands fear. Because I resent fear, because I begrudge the daily clutch of its fingers at my throat, I resent Halloween most of all. I dislike buying candy. I dislike dressing up. I dislike the invasion of my property by fourteen-year-olds dressed like sheep.

Except, this morning, I walked under a low sky from the old brick library, now my office, to the old brick theater, now a coffee bar. I ordered a latte and listened to the girl behind the bar tell ghost stories. The chess pieces move by themselves. The door opens and closes in the night. The leaves drop off the oak in a great big rush.

This year is different. I could get excited about ghosts, this year. Maybe because death has ridden so close these past few months, tromping alongside me with its head tucked under its arm. Cancer of the blood; old age; a heart attack on the back of a tandem bike. The dark, the rain, an SUV. Maybe Halloween is supposed to help you try on death, to pull it over your face like a Dick Cheney mask and then, stuffing your mouth full of sweet, throw it off.

From Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year:

A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away- and yet I alive!

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

No Hits No Hat No Heat No Heart

Even I am no longer interested in me. I'm not sure how this happened. One day I was humming along -usually Purcell, driving everyone nuts- and the next I shut up. Gone are the ruminations, the meditations, the chewing over of the cud of the world. In their place: lockjaw. I go about my business. I'm not even bored -just boring.

If I could muster up the mental energy to hypothesize I would say: vitamin deficiency. I would say malaise. I would say soul rot, jaundice, heartsickness. Not heartsickness: too vivid. Anemia. Grey.

I used to love the color grey. Shy, shifty, smoky grey with its ambiguous spelling, its cold heart. Now I crave ocher. I want salt and metal and heat. I need a physick or a poultice or a brand new skin.

What serves? What snaps you back to yourself?

To try:
  • Work
  • Poem
  • Run until the nausea sets in
  • Teapot
  • Hot dog
  • Slippers

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quartet for the End of Time

Boiled beets; October beans; salad with lettuce and arugula; corn tortilla with maple-mashed sweet potatoes, red pepper flakes, and feta. We're coming up on the last week of the CSA, and I am sad.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fall Back

It is sunny for the first time in five days and there is a small cat on the hood of my car. The cat is fully-grown but delicately built, with petite feet and a button nose. It's huddled and rapt, torn between pursuing a fleeting patch of sun and bit of stray leaf.

I'm huddled and rapt, hugging my arms to by body -or what I trust is still, under the three shirts, two sweatshirts, and an inexplicable plaid hunting parka someone dug out of the downstairs closet, my body. The floors of the old house take cold and keep it. The bones of my hands and feet take cold and keep it. This morning the bedroom windows were dressed in frost.

I've tried to sex this cat -and failed. I say she; my husband says he. Who doesn't try to sex cats? If you don't try to sex cats you've lost all curiosity about life and you might as well go home, buy a recliner, and use it. The difficulty is that sexing a cat is a graceful pas de deux between curiosity and knowledge, and what I know about sexing cats can't dance.

The cat comes around infrequently yet frequently enough that I wish it were mine. I've knelt in the first of the strawberries and in the summer grass and in the steadily encroaching tide of yellowed walnut leaves to entice this cat -and failed. And sometimes, fingers extended, legs doubled up, tongue clacking against my front teeth, I've succeeded. When stroked, the cat alternates between an outsize purr and silent, full-body seizures, as if the urge to flee were lifting it up and dashing it back to earth.

I tell the cat -sexless, gormless- I know the feeling. Down comes a walnut, bang against the hood of the car, and off goes the cat to god knows where. Off goes the warmth to god knows where. I scurry through the house after the last sweet scraps of sun.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

#9: Netherland

I read this book months ago for my year of reading dangerously, and then shit happened. Which is a paltry excuse for not alerting you earlier to the delicate dangers of Joseph O'Neill's critically-acclaimed hymn to dislocation, cricket, and the American dream, but there it is.

The perceived dangers were these:

1) I do not like novels about immigrants in America.
2) I do not like novels written by handsome men.
3) I do not like novels that treat Big Issues.

The actual dangers where these:

1) I do not like being forced to confront my own prejudices.

Netherland is gorgeous. I used the word "hymn" deliberately: O'Neill's book is measured, tuneful, and serious, a full-throated song. Hans, the novel's narrator, is a displaced Dutch financial prognosticator living in New York City. His wife leaves him. He meets a guy who plays cricket. That's basically the sum of the plot, but the writing plumbs every inch and color.

From p. 200 (Hans describing a thunderstorm):

In my last American August one thunderstorm followed another: I can still picture a suddenly green, almost undersea atmosphere, and hailstones hopping like dice on asphalt, and streams criss-crossing Chelsea, and huge photographical flashes visiting my apartment. It's hard to believe, from my Englander's perspective, in those subtropical weeks, when the humid air could be so blurred with reverberated light as to leave me with a mild case of color blindness. Everyone scurried in the shadowed fraction of the city. Few things were more wonderful than hopping into a cold summer cab.

From p. 201 (Hans at a restaurant with his friend Vinay, describing his wife's new squeeze):

"The guy specializes in boiled potatoes and turnips and beetroots," Vinay told me. "Old English vegetable ingredients. Very interesting." He said pompously, "I'd classify him as a cook, not a chef."

No doubt, I thought, he was also an expert in reviving Anglo-Saxon erotic traditions. A sensualist who embodied a classic yet contemporary approach to carnal pleasure.

I told Vinay the score.

"Oh fuck that," he said.

"Yeah," I said.

"Jesus. Martin Casey."

"Yup," I said, feeling brave.

Vinay, excited, said, "The dude's short. He's a fucking dwarf, Hans. You're going to blow him out of the fucking water."

It was good of Vinay to say this, but Vinay, in spite of his own six feet, had a terrible record with women and was, I knew for a fact, a bonehead about anything he couldn't eat or drink.

From me: Read Netherland. Soon.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Back Home

Again in Indiana, where the bus driver welcomes you aboard and the grocery store checkout lady grins her lopsided grin. I love the Midwest.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Queued Up

Let's talk about lines. The line between hunger and irritability is narrow. The line between John Taverner and Milton Babbitt is thick. The line between Yanni and Vladimir Putin is a sturdy black fortification constructed by a cautious fief-holder in a granite-rich territory overrun with bandits.

Thick or thin, lines are there to help us distinguish things from other things. Parsing the world into discrete entities helps us process what to do: If we couldn't distinguish Yanni from Vladmir Putin, how would we know when to run?

OK, maybe that's a bad example. But, in general, lack of lines is bad news. Lack of lines makes us woolly-headed and wobbly-limbed, weak-kneed and wacked-out and far, far too fond of the letter w.

Which is why things get particularly tricky when you blur the already micron-thin line between vocation and avocation. Most people go to their jobs. They enjoy them or not. They come home. They leave their work-selves at work -or at least at the home office- and enjoy the meat of their living outside of 9-5. I'm thinking banker, truck driver, office drone, postman.

There are a few jobs, though, that charge the line between avocation and vocation like a mean, husky nine-year-old through a Kindergarten game of red rover. Suddenly the thing you love and the thing that pays the bills are rolling around on the ground together, bloody and inextricable. Suddenly you're supposed to make money and joy simultaneously. And it's tough.

The ministry is one of these jobs. I've discussed this with my friend H, the seminary graduate. H struggles to distinguish at any particular point in the day when she's working and when she's living. Is she a pastor or a friend? Is she the interpreter of God's word or someone who likes stilettos and margs? If she's both, how does she integrate her two selves?

Musician is another. Especially for someone like me who is semi-pro, making a portion, but not all of, my living from music, it's difficult to figure out what's what. Is music my vocation or my avocation?

If it's my vocation, I should play as long as I get paid, even if the experience is less than fulfilling. After all, unfulfilling stuff you do to collect a paycheck is what "work" means to most of the world. If music is my avocation, on the other hand, I should play only what I love but prepare to do it in exchange for three crackerjacks and a pack of Juicy Fruit.

What's the right balance here? Maybe four crackerjacks and a Capri Sun?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Two months ago, I cupped my hands and took a tiny sip of the Pacific. Yesterday morning I lapped up a palmful of the Atlantic. Yes, this highlights my disturbing addiction to salt, but I also think it speaks to how, in this new millennium, we’ve telescoped distance. How can we take geography seriously if all it takes is a six-hour plane flight to slam one side of the country up against the other?

We’ve tamed space. Time may still seize us by the scruff of the neck, but space we’ve wedged into a miniature sweater, thrust into a monogrammed pet carrier, and taken to the vet to be declawed.

I can’t decide whether this is a good thing. Yes, it’s amazing to be able to turn my back on both sides of the country, to hold in my head the limits of land, in my mouth the salt of the limits of land.

But if we had a bodily understanding of distance, if we knew, in our bones, all the inches between here and there, would we be so eager to put a Lowes in every town, a Panera on every block? Would we try to make every place just like the place we left if we grasped space on a human, rather than a vehicular, scale?

Maybe yes. It’s hard to resist the dastardly tractor beam of Panera. But maybe no. Maybe no is what gets me up in the morning.

That and salt. The Pacific was tastier than the Atlantic, In case you were wondering. Though possibly not as tasty as the Bonneville salt flats. Mmmmm.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Praise of Dicking Around

My schedule has gone cattywampus as a result of the madness at home, and I've been making dinner toward 7 rather than 6. I know: big deal. Only it is a big deal, because it means I've exchanged Marketplace's smug Kai Ryssdal for the smug-bordering-on-insufferable Terry Gross of Fresh Air. Sigh.

(Aside: I found the true spelling of Kai's last name shocking, as I did the string of photographs of a man in a boring suit that appeared when I googled him. Why is it so startling to match faces and orthography to the familiar, aural-only input of the radio? Do I want to know that Terry Gross resembles my fourth-grade teacher? Am I better or worse for being assured -long story- that the reporter Ann Garrels is the most physically attractive NPR personality of her generation?)

Anyhoo: Fresh Air. John Powers was on a few nights ago, talking about Mad Men, a show I enjoy in the kind of way you enjoy the ebbing of pain after you've banged your toe against the eight-pound weight you left lying on the floor. John Powers is frustrated by Mad Men: he watches it compulsively, even as he bemoans its heavy-handedness and schematic character development. My relationship to the show is similarly tormented, for a reason that Powers articulates only glancingly, in his description of a scene from a recent episode: Don Draper returns home, joyless as ever, to his wife, Betty, joyless as ever.

Joyless as ever: this is exactly the trouble with Mad Men, which takes itself -and its characters- much too seriously. It's a problem endemic to most "art" these days, and it's driving me nuts. People weep, sure. They yearn, they consummate, they rage.

But I suspect the average person spends more time messing about -cracking jokes, poking fun, spinning their wheels- than they spend doing any of that heavy stuff. And they do it even when their lives are in shambles: I know from experience that the divorced, the cancerous, the homeless, the dying, the bankrupt, and the foreclosed upon are all out there practicing one-liners.

This isn't to say that art must imitate life, that seriousness is verboten, or that shows like Mad Men are bound to portray people as they are rather than people as they are under the influence of the powerful drug of narrative. But a joyless show -and that's exactly what Mad Men is- wears on you. No matter how critically acclaimed, no matter how masterfully constructed. Mad men needs less mad and more (genuine, stupid, silly) men. And women.