Friday, December 31, 2010

Bye Now, 2010

Today, my mother-in-law showed me a Christmas letter in which the author detailed one thing that had happened in her life in each of the previous 52 weeks of the year.  Also today, I read through a whole bunch of other folks' blog entries in which bloggers recounted the highlights of each exciting, wholesome, & overachieving month.

To which I say, bite me, bloggers.

Still, I feel like I owe myself some kind of 2010 wrap-up.  And by 2010 wrap-up I do not mean the bottom of the champagne bottle, though there's still time.  For posterity, then!

January:  Um...what happened during January?  I think I was cold. I think I also played a concerto with a very small orchestra.
February: Has vanished entirely into the dark and terrible maw of time.
March: Ha!  I'm pretty sure I went to Florida in March!  And spent the entire two days waiting out torrential rains in an old folks' home!  Is it possible I also played in Missouri?  Ooo!  And I did my taxes.
April:  .....right...April.   I think I went to Ohio.   Twice.
May:  I found out I was leaving Indiana.  I toured West Virginia, visited Virginia, ate at Tudor's Biscuit World for the first and only time, rented an apartment, orchestrated part of a tour for my ensemble, finished up my Indiana schools job, did five or so school outreach concerts, and was generally insane.
June: Lolling.
July: Packing.  Low spirits.  Music camp.  Moving.
August:  The power of the porch is revealed to me.
September:  Back on the gainful employment horse, having sold my soul to industry.  Also cheese.
October: Train to NYC.  I love trains!  More work.  No trick-or-treaters.
November:  Baby, it's old inside.
December:  Worried intermittently/futilely about the increased complication of 2010 taxes, esp. as had previously judged 2009 taxes equivalent to passing comprehensive doctoral exams in Macedonian Studies.  Contemplated the very exciting life I lead.  Played first VA concert in the dark.  Tried Xanax.

Heck yeah, people!  If nothing else, I hope this exercise allows you to reflect smugly on your own considerably more interesting lives.  Love to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pep

Every year, due to the vagaries of scheduling, my hometown college basketball team plays an early conference game during the final week of the year. 

The timing makes things interesting: College towns over college breaks are ghost towns -albeit ghost towns in which the ghosts are kicking back and enjoying life.  Faculty, staff, and townsfolk know there's nothing sweeter than an empty college town.  You enjoy all the upsides of academia (culture, progressive politics) with none of its downsides (surplus of barfing 18-year-olds).  The streets are quiet, tables are available at restaurants, and the town's general level of compliance with traffic regulations vaults five or six notches.

During that time -precious, precious time- just about the only way to catch a glimpse of a student is to cheer on one of the lanky specimens on the basketball court.  Mostly, this is good: less barf, more silence.  But it does present a problem for the athletics department: How do you field a pep band when all your musicians have gone home for break?

There's a clip of the answer above.  The alumni pep band, comprised of folks 23-85 who used to be student members, plays one or two games a year.  The alums drive in from all over the state, dusting off their instruments to stare, cross-eyed, at their tiny music stands.  The band generally starts out kind of rank, but by the end of the evening, win or lose, the pep band has improved.  Tuning is better, ensemble tightens, and the tubas dredge from the depths of their memories the fine skill of turning back and forth without knocking one another over.

I love the alumni pep band.  Every time I see it in action, live or on You Tube, I cry.  I find it difficult to articulate why it moves me, except to notice that each of these people, the insurance salesman from South Bend, the retired accountant, the housewife, the middle school band teacher, the unemployed barfly- has within them a secret pocket of music.  It's as if each person is clutching a bowl of water, carrying it through the long months and at last, at the tail of the year, pouring it out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Nativity

A friend on Facebook described this week, the week after Christmas but before New Year's Day, as a "limbic" week. I don't disagree, although the word "limbic" smacks too much, to me, of fear and spinal cords. I prefer "lambent." As in effulgent, aglow, alight. The world has whitened up and quieted down. The year is playing out and gathering in. Where are you in all of this?

I'm tromping. Tromping is an activity distinct from, although related to, walking. You walk to get somewhere (the store) or something (svelte buns). You walk easily; the air parts around you; you barely break a sweat.

Tromping is the kind of thing you do to no purpose by yourself in the snow. It's early, so I fight with my family and tromp down to the graveyard. It's late, so I tromp past the empty storefronts toward a particular bend in the road. There's resistance involved in tromping: you push through, breathe hard, keep going.

I take care, too, to touch all the secret places, all the little nowheres that offer themselves to the dedicated tromper. The secret sidewalk joining one dead end street to another. The backyard you can cut through to get from one neighborhood to the next. They alley through which you have a straight shot at the courthouse. The hidden graveyard. The house in which, two owners ago, you stayed up the whole white night.

What good is all of this, the minutiae of place? No one but a native would know what you're supposed to do in that fountain, what store used to be there, what field was divvied into condos. To me, the town where I grew up is hypertextual, every house (street, tree, sidewalk) linked to a memory. But what's the prize? What can I do, as a native, that you can't? So I know a two-second shortcut: Where's my cookie?

Plain text is simpler. But you're born where you're born, and I'll keep tromping through it all this last, long, limbic, lambent week of the year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

On Chesil Beach

Clearly, I failed to retain with enough fixity of mind the sheer gut-twisting malice of Atonement, because I just went back for more. I picked up On Chesil Beach at the library two days before Christmas, finished it in a single evening, and was forcibly reminded of why I've refused to read any McEwan for the last half decade. The books are beautiful, sleek-muscled, shining, but they'll claw you throat to knees without blinking. It's like going to bed with a lover and waking up with a rabid rottweiler.

On the other hand, p. 164:

"It is not easy to pursue such hard truths in bare feet and underpants."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Renewal

So this is the way it would go down. First, I'd sidle up to the Express Checkout. Then, I'd spend fifteen minutes figuring out how to work it. (Express checkout is a misnomer. It would be faster to hand your card to the confidently bespectacled individual skulking behind the circulation desk, but then you'd have to reveal to someone who is sentient and ambulatory that, yes, you are checking out Match Me If You Can.) I'd swipe the last decade of my life under the little red scanner thingy and finally, BING, it would renew. My twenties: a do-over!

Only this time I'd do it smarter. This time I'd say no, I don't want to date you instead of hiding in the closet. I'd ask out the amusing boys and ignore the pretentious ones; I'd cotton to the fact that skeezy men are, in fact, skeezy; I would refuse to be seduced by vocabulary. I would not try to major in four different things at once; I would not try to live four different lives at once; and I'd accept, once and for all, that just because something is hard for me doesn't mean it's worth doing.

If only I'd had guidance! An instruction manual, a handful of proverbs, something! I refuse to enter my thirties so grossly unprepared. Ergo: a fresh round of Library I Ching!

Library I Ching works because our books do indeed reveal something about who -and where- we are. I'll read romances when I'm tired, mystery novels when I'm afraid, literary fiction when I'm restless. Nonfiction when I'm feeling especially virtuous, popular fiction when I'm feeling especially alienated. And within each category are the subheadings: nuances of feeling and mood as encapsulated by a range of writerly effort. Margaret Atwood: wistful disconnection. Alice Munro: trees & fatalism. Anne Tyler: the sweetish nausea of home.

In other words, there's guidance in there somewhere! I went to the library today. Now, if I just take a page from my book(s):

"Of course he didn't do it," said Caroline, who had been keeping silent with great difficulty. "Ralph may be extravagant, but he's a dear boy, and has the nicest manners."

-Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Translation: Have faith. Or etiquette? One of the two.


Let me begin at the beginning. Julia arrived on the dot of our appointed hour. For a wicked woman, she is always surprisingly punctual. And she didn't seem at all winded by the stairs. The stairs are a kind of test, for people of our years.

-Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

Translation: I am old. Possibly also wicked.

But the zip could not be unfastened with one hand alone, at least, not for the first inch or two. You had to hold the top of the dress straight with one hand while pulling down, otherwise the fine material will bunch and snag. She would have reached over her shoulder to help, but her arms were trapped, and besides, it didn't seem right, showing him what to do. Above all, she did not wish to hurt his feelings. With a sharp sigh, he tugged harder at the zip, trying to force it, but the point had already been reached when it would move neither down nor up. For the moment she was trapped inside her dress.

-Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

Translation: Undressing is tricksy. Alternatively: avoid zippers.

It's not much to go on, but heck, it's more than I had at twenty.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Byrding

We used to sing.

Sure, some of us still do. I have two or three friends who are bona fine opera singers, and I know countless more folks who sing for smaller or larger portions of their suppers in church choirs, chamber choirs, symphony choirs, etc. They're trained, most of these singers. They've been given specific instructions on how to inhale and exhale, how to shape their vowels, whether to roll or flip their /r/s.

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us whose idea of proper singing technique starts and ends with opening our mouths?

Casual singing, day-to-day singing, is in a bad way. There may be a hundred contestants yelping their dignity away on American Idol, but you have only to stand in a Sunday morning congregation to observe people whispering the words of the hymns, frowning at their upside down hymnals, zoning out, or snapping shut their books. Gone are singalongs, caroling parties, lullabies. Singing has become like surgery, something you're only supposed to undertake if you know what you're doing.

Which is a pity. Not that I am so hungry to be serenaded by our enmassed and tuneless populace, but there is something visceral about singing, some basic human quality that's tough to articulate and even tougher to do without. We open our mouths together; we sing. We don't do it for remuneration or praise or to hear the sounds of our own voices: we do it because we can, because we can do it together, because our throats are choked with song.

This month, I've decided, is for singing. I crooned the communion anthem yesterday. This evening, I'm headed over to a friend's house to howl madrigals. Last weekend, I donned a silly hat, grabbed a mug of nog, and belted the indifferently-voiced alto lines of Christmas carols all up and down the rain-soaked streets. It was not lovely and amazing. It was not even lovely. Nevertheless, there I went, human and making noise.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Dear


I'm not a Christmas letter person.

You probably could have guessed this given the ancillary data: I am not a Christmas tree person, a Christmas lights person, a wreath-purchasing person, a Halloween costume donner, a gift wrapper, a manger arranger, or a spreader of holiday cheer. (I always picture the holiday cheer as butter, the kind you forget to take out of the fridge resulting in a block the texture of a pencil eraser, impossible to distribute evenly over bread.)

I am, it should be noted, an enthusiastic consumer of eggnog, but that's about all I've got.

Still, I've been thinking about Christmas letters. My Great Aunt Marian and Great Uncle Fred, both of whom died in 2009, were enthusiastic and literate composers of Christmas letters, and I always enjoyed curling up with their offerings. Fred was a retired Shakespeare scholar, Marian a retired poetry journal editor, and each of them, always, felt that the year they'd just passed deserved commentary, dissection, summation, beauty.

If we don't transmute our days into words, how do we know we've lived? Pictures are not the same. They're casual, the brushing up of the world against your senses. Words are for keeps. And by words, I don't mean diaries, which have always struck me as shouting in the dark. Rather, communication: the conscious delivery, via language, of then into now. I am reminded of Calvin stepping into the transmogrifier, emerging as a subtle variation of himself.

(I have lately become preoccupied with Calvin and Hobbes. Or perhaps a better word is occupied: they inhabit me, urging naps and mischief.)

Last year, no letters came. The year trundled past, a train with every window dark. We don't keep addresses, anymore, or at least I don't: mailboxes seem outmoded, like the ultimate bones of your spine. If I want someone's address, I ask via email. But you can't solicit addresses for Christmas letters. Part of the ritual is faith: you scribble a direction, let the letter go, and trust your words will fetch up at friends' doors.

Dear Friends,

This year I closed doors and changed places. By which I mean I took a place I understood the worth of and broke it into silver quarters. Or maybe I mean I left a place and it closed behind me like a door. There is a lot of silver in the world, and some of it is here, in rivers and pools and rain against the roof of the porch. Every time I drive north from the city I wish I were somewhere else and in 10 years I'll wish that somewhere else were here. Never mind: You're mine out there somewhere, you with your worlds and your ears.

Anne

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Snow Day!

Ah, the apocryphal snow day. You know, the snow day that sent Calvin barreling down the hill after Hobbes, the day made of angels and cocoa and wet wool, in which the sky cracked opened its jaws and the rest of the world -finally- shut up.

That particular snow day hasn't been real in a while. Snow these days pretty much means you'll spend twice as long as normal creeping along the roads toward work in your metal death box. You'll get neck cramps from clutching the steering wheel, back spasms from scraping the ice off your windshield, and eyestrain from peering through the sleet. After the storm passes, you get to drive home and shovel your sidewalk.

Except in Virginia!

When I awoke up this morning at the relaxed hour of 7 AM, a winter storm warning was in full swing. 3-6 inches were forecast. In preparation, the entire city had shut down.

As a lifelong midwesterner, I find this bemusing. I routinely drove through six-, seven-, and nine-inch snowfalls to reach a workplace that opened punctually and without fuss. The only time I recall so much as a two-hour delay was when a foot and a half of the white stuff appeared overnight. In VA, the schools appear to have pre-emptively folded up their tents for a sixth of that.

At some level, it's irritating. I can't go in to work; ergo, I don't get paid. On the other hand, the neighborhood kids are out in droves. The cocoa is brewing. The snow is shawling down and the world is on its way to white.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Squirrel by Squirrel

It happens when we're asleep, one of the multitude of things that happen when we're asleep. Teeth grind. Temperatures drop. Skirts lift. Breath hitches or lurches or dies. Night is granular in a way that day is not; it is instant rubbing up against instant, darkness against darkness, where day is a wash of light.

Night by night, the pumpkin disappears.

It's not magic. Some Vespucci of a squirrel discovered the pumpkin about a week ago, and since then, rodent explorers have made nightly forays to the porch. I check on the pumpkin every morning, just as the sun starts to get its thumbs into the world. I hunt up my slippers, drink a full glass of water, step out into the coldening world to discover, each day, another inch gone.

The neighbors are done with pumpkins. They've affixed wreaths to their doors, lined their railings and gutters and stairs with twinkling lights. Through their shut shades, their Christmas trees scold me. I have not put up a tree, not even a fake one. I have not made Christmas cookies or advent wreaths or stockings or nog. My pumpkin, not particularly festive even during its October heyday (it remained stubbornly small, single, chaste) and only tolerable during Thanksgiving, has nothing to do with Christmas.

It does have to do with waiting, though, and this is the time of the year that we wait. If you're Christian, it's Advent, and you're waiting for Christ. If, like me, you don't believe, you're still waiting. You wait for the days to trickle through their narrowest point; you wait for your family to gather you in. The day slivers down to nothing, a thumbnail moon.

I'm not done with the pumpkin. As of this morning it's gone soft inside. There are bits of orange, like shrapnel, scattered at its feet. I wait. Soon will come more teethmarks, less flesh, fatter squirrels, mold, darkness, spring.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Perfect Gift

Something from home + big hunk of chocolate = top that.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kitchen Express

I've fallen in love. Three years into my marriage, eight years into my relationship, I'm ready to chuck it all so I can run away and have Mark Bittman feed me minimally.

Or, preferably, maximally.

Failing that, I'll have to resort to this cookbook. I adore this cookbook! I worship this cookbook! I've been waiting for this cookbook my whole life, not realizing that everything I thought I was doing -working, acquiring graduate degrees, marrying, buying cheese- was a gussied-up form of waiting for this cookbook.

Meet Kitchen Express. Bittman has compiled 404 of what are less recipes than templates, organizational scaffolding upon which you can erect your PARTHENON OF DELICIOUSNESS. They're seasonally inspired, contain few ingredients, and can be made in "20 minutes." "20 minutes" is food industry speak for "half an hour, or forty minutes if you lose time extracting the cilantro from the bowels of the refrigerator," but it's close enough. And did I mention yummy?

But here's the chilling question: Do I grovel at the feet of this cookbook because it's really that good, or because Bittman panders so expertly to my twin kitchen neuroses of laziness and desire for yum? There's some academic research to suggest that the people of the same sex we rate most attractive are the people who look like us, only prettier. Bittman cooks like me (quickly, using templates and not very many ingredients), only WAY MORE SMOKIN.'

Oh well. I'm going to retire to bed with my book again.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Forever Schlub

Last night, I dressed up. By which I mean I donned more than five articles of clothing/underclothing and none of them was stretchy or fuzzy. I put on earrings, for God's sake. I drew the laziness line at make-up, but my hair was brushed (!) and there were no pony-tail holders in evidence. I even dug out -get this- a hair accessory.

Woah.

I confess: I'm a schlub. I've pretty much been a schlub since birth. My baby blankets were drab. In preschool, my goal was to wear as few articles of clothing as possible (see also: terrorizing neighbors with nudity) with as few fasteners as possible. If I had to learn to dress myself, I was going to set the bar low.

In high school, I favored long skirts and limp hair. I rallied briefly in college, entering a strange period in which I actually stood in front of mirrors and tweaked my outfits, but, like a kidney stone, it passed.

Since going off the dating market eight years ago, I've allowed myself to descend ascend, by degrees, to my rightful schlubby throne. My closet contains an ever increasing percentage of chunky sweaters, long-sleeved T shirts. and elastic waist pants. I do not own a pair of heels. I do not own a blow dryer. Most of my make-up dates from the late nineties and I wear my hair jammed back from my face in a three-second knot. I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but my day-to-day work purse is a cloth grocery bag.

I'm not gonna lie: There are distinct disadvantages to schlubhood. I would probably be passed over for promotion, were promotion possible in my chosen fields. A lack of care for your personal appearance, the thinking goes, betokens laziness, and if you are lazy with yourself you will be lazy on the job. All of this is true: I am lazy. It just does not seem rational to me to expend any more effort than you have to, especially when that effort comes at the expense of reading Dorothy Sayers and/or doing the crossword.

I also think that schlubhood disadvantages me more subtly, in that people, subconsciously or not, respond more favorably to people who are attractive. There's been a great deal of research backing this up, and the effect is noticeable across cultures and milieus. And although you cannot alter your baseline attractiveness -if you have a harelip you will always have a harelip- I can't deny that you can move yourself up or down several rungs of the attractiveness ladder by means of wardrobe, grooming, etc.

Why, then, do I persist? Why raise low high the flag, sleep through sing the praises, etc?

Well, first off, see the aforementioned laziness: It takes me all of 12 minutes and shower, dress, and prep in the morning.

But there's also this: When I do dress up, when I actually put forth the effort to don boots and tights and a dress and a scarf and a nice coat and earrings and hair product, the effect is actually shocking. It's like I've suddenly become the star of my own (slightly wonky) makeover show. One minute I'm shclubby, and the next I am magically transformed into normal.There's something baroque, almost grotesque, about it, like I have sawn a lady in half or plunged a sword through the belly of a rabbit before releasing him to frolic, unharmed, in the grass.

It's kind of awesome, and I wouldn't want to give it up. Not to mention heels hurt, people.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What's in the Bag?

Given the unsettling reality of an impending golden birthday and a really bad photo of my purse, what are my choices?

I suppose I could meditate on my shortcomings, or alternatively on my longcomings, which sound suspiciously like every airplane journey I've undertaken. I could take stock, restock, make stock, whatever it is you are supposed to do upon milestone birthdays of this nature. I could contemplate the big questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? Where have I been?

I select option X: Beating a hasty retreat. For the next 24 hours, instead of answering horrifically introspective interrogations only a mother could love, I will answer concrete, small-scale, docile questions of the sort that appear on mental status exams for the doddering.

First up: What's in my purse?

(This question reminds me, unfortunately and forcefully, of a small, grating song called What's in the Bag I composed for the singular purpose of arousing curiosity in two-year-olds. What's in the Bag,in case you were wondering, features repeated yodeling of the titular line accompanied by the agitation of a paper sack.)

What's in my purse is a nonthreatening yet mildly revelatory question to which I can supply a concrete answer:

  • Directions to Charlottesville
  • MTA Metrocard
  • MTA Metrocard Single Ride ticket
  • Lutenist's address and phone number
  • Bassoon player's phone number
  • Address of dermatological resident
  • 84 NE Regional train arrival table
  • Cheap sunglasses
  • Wallet & contents
  • 2 gold dollars featuring John Quincy Adams
  • Bank statement
  • $0.69
You heard it here first.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

You: Blue, Writerly. Me: Careless, Sad.

I lost a library book.

This is the cardinal sin of library membership, one rung up from ascending a step stool at 11:00 AM on a Tuesday and gracing the reference section with your rendition of "Climb Every Mountain." It's worse than your dilatory relinquishment of the sixth Harry Potter, worse than your seven obscure and ultimately unfulfillable Interlibrary Loan requests, worse than dragging nine contractor bags full of dogeared donations over the threshold, thereby setting off the alarm system on your way to dumping your prize like a bloodied rabbit -nine bloodied rabbits- at the feet of the long-suffering reference assistant.

That's when you run.

You run because you are afraid you might be asked to give up your library card, and you cannot live without your monthly or weekly or daily whiff of sour flesh and old paper. You are galvanized by the Sisyphean labor of the shelvers, haunted by your vertical glimpses -through the gaps left by checked-out romances, wanted mysteries- of the old man who never leaves. You love the reassuring whining of the children, the underlay of grunt and shuffle, the inimitable sound of covers cracking back.

Turn the page. You are six years old and you have made the singular discovery that life is better on paper. You consult a browning sign which informs you that thirty (30) is the maximum number of books you can check out at one time, plus six (6) books on tape. This seems stinting: your parents are older than thirty (30), and no one wants books on tape, which are awkward operators connecting you to the direct line to elsewhere you know awaits inside every one of the thirty covers you have amassed. You totter toward the exit under the weight of your stack. The librarians look at you askance. They like that you like the vehicles upon which they've staked their careers, but they know the trouble you're in for, later.

Back to the lost book: It's by John Banville, one of those old writing men who writes about things which concern old writing men: family, sex, class, old writing men. He wrote The Sea, which is excellent in its undulating way, and other novels you mean to read but don't quite get to because you are not an old writing man and keep being returning to books by people who are not old writing men, either.

The lost book has a title, The Infinities, and a blue cover. You like the blue cover but not the title, which you file away under your list of titles that do not serve the books to which they are affixed (Love and the similarly afflicted). You are reminded of small dogs named Egbert or Smash, and large dogs named Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Where you lost the book is the question. Or possibly the question is how you lost the book: How could you have been so careless? How could you be responsible for releasing a whole trembling world onto the Cincinnati to Indianapolis Mega Bus amongst the middle-aged shoppers, the scruffy dropouts on their way home from college, the token suited man? How could you have left a wilderness shimmering under the fold-out-couch in a half-wired guest room with no heat? How could you have lost a book?

I was thinking of libraries. I was thinking back to all the ways my hand could remove a book from a shelf, the way the absence of a book rocked its fellows. I was thinking of the the way librarians would tilt certain books forward so their covers, slick, shiny, called out to you. The way the library would close one day and reopen the next with only a brief hitch in its song, its Sirens singing out their hearts. The Sirens: a metaphor I learned from a book so old no one speaks its language anymore.

I cannot stand the shame. I renew.

I renew. I renew and renew and renew. It strikes me that renewing a lost library book is like living: you pretend everything is fine, that the story is unfolding, that you will not be, at some unknowable time, recalled. The Infinities, finitely renewable, is out there somewhere and I, too, am out here somewhere. One missed connection in a universe -a library- of missed connections: $25.95 plus the taxing of my heart.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I Am Here

Asheville, NC

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blame Art


In a letter to the editor in today's paper, some citizen wrote: "We should bear in mind that an essential ingredient of a free, democratic society is the ability and willingness to balance competing principles."

An essential ingredient? Maybe. But we've been making apple pie without the apples for a while now. Balancing competing principles may be salutary, even necessary, but it does not allow one to savor one's self-righteousness, nor does it allow one to construct the pleasant us-vs.-them, Empire-vs.-Rebel Alliance narratives to which Hollywood has so thoroughly addicted us.

Compromise? Balance? These have become epithets, replaced by feel-good movie catch phrases like "true patriot," "standing fast," and "fighting for what you believe in." Look out, folks! We've compromised compromise!

The competing principles to which the letter writer was referring were security and privacy, as represented by TSA patdowns and the people who resent them. I confess I can't work up much of a lather on this issue. In general I think safety trumps privacy, but it's easy to underestimate the invasiveness of uninvited touch. Years ago, on a trip to France, I walked past a group of shouting, whistling young men. I ignored them, but as I walked past, one of them grabbed my ass. I was surprised -almost shocked- by how violated I felt, by the week or so it took me to stop feeling disturbed. In the airport, I've been patted down twice, both times by polite female officers. I was momentarily unsettled. But imagine if I'd been a sexual assault survivor, or if the officers had abused their power?

A rational policy would, yes, balance these competing principles.

But do I believe this because it's true, or because I'm a complication junkie? I like my music conflicted, my relationships fraught, my literature nuanced. Just as a steady diet of Independence Day has inured the Sarah Palins of this world to the fine art of compromise, has my adolescent cultural snobbery rendered me unfit for modern-day American life? If I can't ascend to the soapbox which is my birthright, what have I got left? A couple of William Styron novels and a bad film by Richard Linklatter?

We need to get everyone on the same page. Or, more precisely, we need to acknowledge that other pages exist. National book book club, anyone?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Write On, Write Off

So writing: What's the point?

That's the question lurking at the crux of two very different articles I recently read. The first, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, is the first-person account of an academic ghostwriter. That's right: the guy who helps your students and colleagues cheat without being caught by plagiarism detection software.

I wasn't surprised that such a person existed. I was, however, impressed by the scope of his endeavor. Working from half-literate emails, vague notes, and the vast wonderment that is Google, the ghostwriter has penned papers, project proposals, letters of application, award submissions, and PhD theses. He has contributed toward degrees at hundreds of universities across the United States. And he makes a generous living doing it.

I mean, wow.

I'm fumbling for the right questions to ask. Are we really so illiterate that many of us can no longer generate adequate academic BS? Or are we really so lazy? If we are really so deficient, who, or what, is to blame? The K-12 education system? Societal pressure to attend college even if you are not competent to do so? Employers who prioritize initiative and friendliness over grammar? Is writing at its most basic level -stringing words, sentences, and paragraphs together in a more or less grammatical fashion- becoming like typing once was, a skill you can outsource to facilitate the free flow of your ideas?

It's also possible that I'm asking a whole bunch of questions to cover up the disturbing degree to which the ghost writer's career track appealed to me. I enjoy writing on a basic, building-block level. I especially enjoy cleaning up other folks' crappy writing. And endless, superficial research into wildly differing academic fields? No generation of pesky original research or troublesome narrative ideas? SIGN ME UP!

(The whole abetting cheating thing would utimately stop me. But it's a little unsettling to think how close I've come to crossing this line in the past, and for FREE. I've overhauled divinity school applications, grant proposals, academic papers, and job applications in multiple fields. A friend of mine recently landed a competitive position. In a press release, the employer quoted from the new hire's cover letter. Guess who wrote that particular passage?)

You could argue from the Chronicle of Higher Ed article that we're devaluing writing. But according to Laura Miller, we're overvaluing it. Follow the link to Miller's much vilified Salon article on NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is a project that encourages people to write a (short) novel over the course of Novemeber. Folks are encouraged to silence their inner critics, give way to the free flow of their ideas, and just get the words out there.

Miller wonders why:

"I'm not worried about all the books that won't get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say. Writers have a reputation for being tormented by their lot, probably because they're always moaning so loudly about how hard it is, but it's the readers who are fragile, a truly endangered species. They don't make a big stink about how underappreciated they are; like Tinkerbell or any other disbelieved-in fairy, they just fade away."

This article also strikes a chord with me. I believe Miller underestimates the salutary effect of outside motivation, but I do agree that people who write tend to keep on writing, regardless of readership, deadlines, or critics inner or outer. I've been writing poetry for decades, to the tune of 5 publications in obscure literary journals, second prize in the local paper's 1989 kiddie poetry contest (for an ABAB tearjerker on Ishi, Last of His Tribe), and an inordinate outlay for stamps. For four years, I've been blogging away, despite a readership that consists entirely of my close friends from college (hi ladies!). None of that matters; I type and type. I do struggle mightily to produce fiction, which I've been beginning to think means I should stop.

And readers...readers ARE disappearing. For every would-be writer, a couple of readers die in their nursing home beds. I feel the same way about musicians vs. listeners. As a culture we have prioritized speaking as opposed to listening, doing as opposed to appreciating. We applaud our children for yodeling, scribbling, dancing, but not for noticing, absorbing, hearing.

In Miller's view, we write because we feel we need to be listened to, and because we feel we are entitled to creative careers. In the academic ghostwriter's view, writing is a utilitarian skill fewer and fewer of us possess. So what are we to do? Write more to attain competency? Write less because no one gives a fig what we've got to say?

I'm torn. Which will probably have zero effect on my daily word output. But I may have to start chanting THOUGH SHALT NOT GHOSTWRITE 100 times every night before bed.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Match Point

When I get especially run down, I watch bad TV online. It's my dirty little secret, belying my pose as a reader, a cable non subscriber, a writer, a NYT junkie, basically anything other than a person who zones out the couch eating cheese toast while slamming Say Yes to the Dress.

(I bought my own wedding dress for $80 online. Which apparently did not inoculate me against watching, with morbid fascination, women drop $8000 on ugly white marvels of sartorial engineering. What can I say? It's so distant from my own experience it's almost like watching isolated Amazonian tribespeople munch grasshoppers.)

My relationship to The Millionaire Matchmaker, anther reality TV show of astonishing badness, is more complicated. Here's the premise: the titular Matchmaker, an abrasive, judgy, irritating woman named Patti, only matches millionaires. But millionaires are more difficult to pair off then you might think, probably because they are millionaires, and money, and the way people treat money, addles the brain. I get to sit at the front of the plane and sip tiny bottles of wine, thinks the millionaire,and therefore I am a really great catch.

Patti's job is to disabuse millionaires of this notion. Like a particularly powerful plumbing tool, she roto-roots the millionaires' self esteem, unclogging their psyches and leaving them, theoretically, open to the free flow of love.

Often, what ends up flowing more closely resembles the metaphor's literal analogue, but this is reality TV, so that's probably the point. Moreover, Patti's goal is to get folks married, not to make people happy, and this is an important distinction. The old adage to "be yourself" is anathema: Patti wants you to be someone other people like.

"David," she tells us, referring to one of her millionaires, "is judgmental, critical, analytical, and totally sarcastic. Those things, nobody wants to date!"

KERSMACK! This explains a lot about my premarital dating life.

No, but seriously, what are those of us who are judgmental, critical, analytical, and totally sarcastic supposed to do with ourselves? Die in holes? You can moderate the expressions of various of your putatively less attractive personality traits, but it's pretty hard to rip this stuff out by the root. So what's the best strategy? Do you seek out other OCD cynics who are happy to sit in judgment with you? Or do you hunt for someone so ludicrously optimistic and cheerful they are undaunted by, well, you?

I confess to being powerfully attracted to both strategies. I ultimately ended up selecting door #2, but sometimes that can leave me feeling judgmental, critical, analytical, and totally sarcastic. On the other hand, I have endless fodder for analysis! WOOT.

Thanks, Patti.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Where I Love

Walk all the way down seventh street, past the church ladies in broad-brimmed pink, over the disused tracks, past the playground and the weedy young men toying with their bikes. Walk past the bright blue school bus, the house infested with ghosts, the old men on the porch. Eye the schoolyard sculpture of a cat (its message inscrutable: claw your way to learning?); avoid the noses of dogs; dodge rivulets of undergraduate puke.

It's a beautiful morning. The gaps between the houses -cottages, bungalows, Queen Annes- widen. There's a graveyard to your left, rows and rows of people who've been and gone. There's a smaller graveyard to your right. The trees, half-naked, shimmer and twist. Your lungs go about their business. If you walked long enough, and hard enough, you'd wade off shelf of your map into waves of corn.
This is love.

It's not rom-com love or Nora Roberts love. There's no how-we-met-and-kissed, no bride-and-groom cake topper. It's place love, and these days, no one talks about it. In our global economy, with careers that leapfrog from city to city, it's almost shameful to admit to a passion for one particular where in a wide world of wheres. It is okay -almost obligatory- to love a person. To give your heart to a place, to sacrifice for it, to rejigger your life to accommodate your love-
Eccentric at best. At worst, perverted.

To get to my place, I learned, at the advanced age of 27, to drive on the freeway. The first time I attempted the trip, I drove down the back roads white-knuckled, my heart turning over at five times the speed of my engine. I couldn't change lanes. I couldn't adjust the dial of the radio. Every ounce of my energy was directed toward following the curves in the road. The station broke apart, faded into static. Afterwards I ached for days, but I was home.

To get to my place, I booked, at 29, a plane ticket. Terrified of flying, I hopped on anyway, closing my eyes against the bumps and the clouds and the relentless up-down It was awful. I'm already plotting to do it again.
But we have rules about love, about the scope of what you can do for it. You may sacrifice a place for a person. You may not sacrifice a person for a place. And as long as I'm married to the person to whom I'm married, I can never live where I love. It's a bonesaw feeling, like cutting off your hand at the wrist.

We're not supposed to admit how much it hurts. But I'm gormless and sorry and today the sky -my sky- is its stabbing, singular blue.

I Am Here

Bloomington, IN

Friday, November 5, 2010

I Am Here

Cincinnati, OH

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ben Goldacre

"The plural of anecdote is not data."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Don't Tread on Tea

I generally try to avoid politics on the blog. It's not that I'm I'm apolitical -I vote with the zeal of a Jonestown koolade guzzler- it's that I'm fed up. The problems of our city and state and nation and world are real, and problems require problem solvers. But problem solvers are not very entertaining, and politics has basically become wimpy reality TV. We vote people off the island with more forethought than we give to pulling the lever at our respective polling places.

(That's if we can find our polling places. And if we haven't decided to skip the election in favor of WWE-Smackdown.)

Still, there comes a time in every woman's life when she must take a stand, and mine is now: The Tea Party is kind of awful. There's the whole hopped-up-on-righteousness thing, for starters. There's the profound distrust of rational thought, the favoring of rhetoric over substanstive comment. But worse, far worse, is this: They have no tea.

I've looked. I've looked because I love tea parties! I love the ceremony, the heating, the steeping, the pouring. The finger food! The cucumber sandwiches! The tiny china cups and the carefully calibrated conversation!

I keep eyeing Christine O'Donnell's campaign aides, to see where they're hiding the cream cheese and watercress triangles. Is that angry fist shaking, or could it possibly be the sipping of phantom cups? "Real Americans" drink tea with their middle fingers out, right?

Buzzfeed published pictures of their 100 favorite Rally to Restore Sanity placards today, and of all the signs, shown here, my favorite, by far, is the one that reads, "I want a sandwich." Because, by golly, we need sandwiches! Smoked salmon and dill, followed by fig and goat cheese and then a foray into classic cucumber! On fine-grained bread! With the crusts cut off! Party at my house!

Everyone's invited. Bring tea.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Slow Love

I read this one despite its title, which I find both irritatingly vague and unjustifiably persnickity. Is love inherently slow? Or is slow love a particular phylum of love, in which case is this an endorsement, a description, or a warning?

It's also possible that the title is in an imperative, verb-noun, as opposed to a noun phrase, adjective-noun, in which case, whom is the author exhorting? The reader? Or love?

And what's wrong with fast love, or measured love, or love taken andante? Tempo markings in music are high-handed enough; I'll be damned if I'm going to take them from book titles.

When I find a hephalump pit of a title like this one, I tend to take the long way round. But I'm glad, in this case, that I didn't. I read slow love on the train to New York, half of it on the way up and half of it on the way down. It was the perfect place to read the book, or perhaps it is better to say that the book was perfectly mated to its place: the train wound slowly through the countryside as the book wound slowly through its author's firing, abnegation, and reconstruction.

Dominique Browning was -and was is the key word, here- editor in chief House and Garden for Conde Nast. It was the latest in a long line of high-stress, high-responsibility posts. Now solidly into middle age, she'd worked overtime and more overtime, divorced, haphazardly raised two sons, and conducted a longtime affair with a married man. Then, in the space of six months, everything disappeared.

Browning was fired. Conde Nast nixed House and Garden. She'd just broken off her off-again, on again relationship, this time for good, and now she had nothing -that terrifying, existential nothing- to do.

We've all longed, at one time or another for nothing to do. I used to plot for weeks, months, to get a day of breathing space, a day in which there were zero obligations, no meetings, no duties, a day to stare at the wall and paint your toenails and get to all the things you assured yourself you'd do when you finally, finally had time.

The reality of nothing to do is not nearly so sweet. I've been between jobs three times now, each for a space of one and a half to three months, and I can tell you that, after the first glorious fortnight, nothing to do palls. You loll. You languish. You get nothing done, because there is nothing to do, and the nothingness of it, the arrhythmia of of your days, begins to frighten you.

And this was without the anxiety of worrying whether or not I would work again, or love again, or ever collect a paycheck. Browning is at her best when she describes the indignities of her new life, the mornings spent in pajamas, evenings digging ice cream out of its container, glorious normalcy of weekends when, at last, you are not the only one not working. Her descriptions are vivid, terrifying, and surprisingly funny. Browning has an eye for the small, the slow, and the lovely, and, as the lovely begins to show through her scrim of despair, the book flutters to life.

It's when she becomes prescriptive that Browning falters. Yeah, yeah, slow down, enjoy life, drain the smallest pleasures. Not only have we heard it all before, but the advice is hard to take from someone who downsizes by moving into her vacation home and taking on freelance writing projects. Browning is living out many folks' dreams, and the impossibility of her lifestyle, the proximity of her nadir to poorer people's aspirations, is jarring.

Which is not to say that I wouldn't read Slow Love, despite its title, again. I would. Line by line, jolting past the railyards and the graffitied frontages of abandoned factories, the burned out rowhouses, the secret lakes, the rapeseed, the flaming trees.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wait for It

All good things come to those who wait.

I'm not sure where this one came from. Neither are the Internetz, which variously attributed it to Abraham Lincoln, the bible, someone's mom, and that great amalgamation of wisdom of questionable provenance, "Old English Proverbs."

See also: Time and tide wait for no man. Every good proverb's got a friend telling you to do exactly the opposite.

Anyway, it's not true. (The first proverb; the second one is hard to refute. Time is the monster under the bed, the bogey against whom we keep a nightlight burning, count to three and three and then eight, hop sidewalk cracks. We know, when we're young, to be afraid, just not of what.)

I know the proverb is not true because I've tried it, the waiting. I am very much in favor of waiting as a way to get stuff you want. It is much more pleasant and less effortful than vigorous pursuit, fearless leaping, dogged perseverance, all-out assault, and other (arguably more successful) methods of acquiring good things. Waiting requires patience, but little thought, and you can usually busy yourself with something else in the meantime, like drinking tea.

So I wait. Every now and again I check to make sure all good things haven't fallen into my lap when I'm not looking, or at least deposited themselves discreetly on the sideboard, but all I find is my discarded teacup. Occasionally I stumble upon a good thing, like an insight into my tea-brewing technique or a resolution to acquire more mugs, but all good things, fulsomely plural, are singularly elusive.

Here's what does come, reliably and with grace, to those who wait: persimmons.

Yes, that fruit you're afraid of in the grocery store. Buy persimmons anyway. They are orange and lovely and impossibly bitter; you will try, but will be unable, to eat them. Give up. Tumble the persimmons into a pretty bowl. Leave the pretty bowl on a table in the sun. Do the proverbial waiting. In four days, five, six, seven, you'll have bright sweetness the color a cardinal's breast. Persimmons ripen slowly. They force you, ever so gently, to bide your time. Which waits for no man, but might wait for persimmons, if it knew what was good for it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Traintastic

Ways in which the East Coast, despite its overweening share of cranky people, terrifying drivers, pretentious restaurants, and hurry, crushes the (virtuous, corn-fed) Midwest into tiny pieces:
  • Seafood
  • Trains
That's it.

On the other hand, it is difficult to exaggerate the sheer bliss of traindom. It's early and raining; you have bad coffee in one hand and a bag of whatever in the other. You board. The conductor shouts "All Aboard-"

-really, he shouts "All Aboard," as if a small, dead, finely-furred part of your imagination has jolted to life-

and, like Frankenstein, the train roars. Afterward, the cars are quiet and musty and fat with light. The country begins to slough its skin. You ride and ride and ride and ride and ride and ride.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I Am Here


New York, NY

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Play It as It Lays

I own an "emotions" deck of cards. It's sized like a regular deck of playing cards, but instead of queens and jacks and aces, you've got happy children, sad children, bored children, children twisting their faces into rictuses of disgust.

I suppose you could use these cards like semaphores, broadcasting to the outside world what's going on within the besieged fortress of your skin. But your skin has its own semaphores, and unless you are a member of the secret service, folks can usually tell when you're in the grip of joy, sorrow, weariness, or pain.

Most folks, but not so many kiddos with autism. Autistic kids have trouble with theory of mind, the idea that other people have feelings and thoughts distinct from their own. Autistic kiddos have trouble interpreting facial cues and flavors of voice. They don't always pick up on "mad" or "sad" or "afraid." The cards are used to help coach them. Is she happy or sad? Angry or surprised?

It's another sunny morning in Virginia.

I awoke, as I've awakened for the last several months, with a nagging undertow of dread. Today I have to go to church. Tomorrow I have to work. Four days from now I have to travel, concertize, socialize, make it through. Dread, and fear, are cards I understand.

When's the last time I felt excited? Would I even recognize the shape of my own face in the grip of fearless, joyous anticipation?

Study up.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Caramel Apple Upside Down Muffins

Thursday is my free day (OK, it's not exactly a free day, but it's a day in which the only boss to whom I report is myself, which is almost as good). Accordingly, it's plump with possibility, a ripening persimmon, a balloon engorging on the end of a hose. On Thursday, anything can happen.

What actually happens is a slightly lazier version of Wednesday, in which I do all the things I squeezed around the workday the previous day, but I do more of each at a slower pace with more frequent breaks for tea. There's also more checking of email, more staring into space, and a soupcon of additional cleaning. But there remains the idea that I could deviate from my routine, that I could take a left turn and find myself in wild, uncharted territory, that I could bake, for God's sake. It's seductive.

Yesterday I went and did it. I seized the day, or at least the oven dial, and made caramel apple upside down muffins, Melissa Clark's Wednesday NYT brainwave. There was some cutting of apples, some melting of butter, some fearless substituting. Thirty minutes later...


The truth is, they were just OK. This is possibly because I am a disastrous baker, a slapdash measurer, an unrepentant substituter and approximater. There are bakers and there are folks who cut diagonally across the grass to get wherever-the-heck two seconds faster, and I am a corner cutter. Why hew to a recipe when you can guesstimate?

(I am halfway of the opinion that bakerlines is congenital, like handedness or a walleye. Yes, I wish that I were the kind of person who ran around trying to find the 1/4 cup measure instead of underfilling the 1/3 cup measure and muttering a couple of Hail Marys, but truth, and laziness, will out.)

Buy also -and here's the crux of it, for me- the anticipation, the process of dreaming up the muffins and insisting upon the time to make them and watching them come together, was just more fun. By the time all the little muffins had been overturned onto the cooling rack, by the time they were ready to be forked and munched, my Thursday was over. It was time to make dinner, to throw together a quick meal before schlepping to a three hour choir rehearsal, racing home, hurrying to bed. My time was no longer my own, and so the possible, like every souflee I will ever attempt, collapsed.

Happiness:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Longest Summer of My Life

Yes, it sounds like the title of a teen romance, but it's my current state of affairs.

And by state of affairs I do not mean the status of the five imaginary extra-marital relationships I am currently pursuing with the leading lights of contemporary nerddom, alas.

I imagine a fuzzy novel (n.b. tragically distinct from a fuzzy navel), a soft-covered, soft-boiled, soft-core rectangle of wish fulfillment in which a lonely, thoughtful teen, thrown out of her lonely, thoughtful element, loses portions of both of her defining characteristics through the intervention of a) weather and b)a novelicious teenage boy.

(n.b. novelicious teenage boys tragically distinct from normal teenage boys, insofar as the former are thoughtful, lonely, and wise, and the latter are normal teenage boys).

But the only lonely, thoughtful teendom I have lying around is some leftover high school angst, so pretty much I've just had a long summer. The longest summer of my life to be both precise and titular. It started off with a sweatsoaked midwestern May and is ostensibly ending with the last few days' last few whimpers of Southern swelter.

It's October. I'm still wearing shorts to bed. Enough said.

Since I've now endured a record five months of summeration, I have begun, like any good lonely, thoughtful blogger, to catalog the psychological effects of extended warmth:
  • Overfriendliness
  • Tomato entitlement
  • Pathological languor
  • Complacency
  • Pimm's (over-reliance upon)
This must stop. Avaunt, fall!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

All Things Polled and Graphical

Have you taken this quiz? It's the Pew Center's quickie test of religious literacy. I scored in the 97th percentile, which is strange considering that I do not necessarily believe in God.

Or is it? The Pew Center has handily broken down the results of its poll by religious denomination. Turns out we atheists/agnostics ride high. If not for the slightly superior religious literacy of Jews, we'd be the top dogs, denominationally speaking.

I find this pretty darn funny. What I don't find it, ultimately, is surprising. Religious denomination and level of educational attainment are often intertwined, and folks who are better educated in general are better educated in comparative religion in particular. Atheists and Jews, notoriously college-going, have a clear educational advantage.

Still, there's something delightful about The Pew Center's results. If you're going to doubt, it's best to know what you're doubting.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Found This on a Sticky Note

Apparently I felt the need to make note of this. WTF, self?

P.S. Aren't you glad I don't handwrite my blogs?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Next

Is anyone else feeling like adulthood is an anticlimax? You suppose and hypothesize and conceptualize and prepare and way-find, and when you've finally made it, when you've completed, at last, the herculean trek from whining to wining, all you've got to show for it is a paycheck and a stand mixer.

I mean, seriously?

Yesterday, after tea, a quick run, and 500 words of the latest writing project, I got to work. I drove from one side of the city to the other, tackled a small child escaping through the hole in grandma's fence, played endless games of ready-set-go, squealed when another kiddo at long last imitated a car horn, and filled out paperwork. I stopped into Target, exchanged a poorly-fitting shirt for some sparkling water and $8. I went home, wrote some program notes, answered some emails, practiced, and did an hour of disgruntled yoga. My obligations discharged, I attended a friend's 15-minute Taiko drumming performance, hit up the neighborhood gumbo truck, and watched Burn After Reading.

It's not that it was a bad day. It was, all in all, a pretty fair day. I worked half a day at each of my jobs, earned some $, put in some time on my hobby, exercised, ran errands, and recreated. It's more that this day looks pretty dang similar to the day before, the day after, and the day after that.

I miss anticipation. I miss living with the understanding that you're moving toward something, that you're a breath away, that you're crescendoing. I miss the tremulous possible, the feeling that, if you set your ear to the skin of now, you can hear tomorrow's heart's tattoo.

Seventh-Day Adventism never looked so good.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Splinter, Hunger, Funk

You get better, with age, at figuring out what's wrong with you.

Sometimes I think that's what "wisdom" boils down to: the ability to divine, ever more efficiently, the source of your disgruntlement. It could be physical, mental, existential, or a direct result of watching too much VH1, but as you accumulate birthdays you get faster at winkling it out and nailing it down.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a corresponding uptick in your ability to mount a quick and effective response. Partly this is because it's though to beat the catch-all "WAAAAAAAAAAH" of the newborn or the apocalyptic fervor of the toddler's campaign to acquire a happy meal. But mainly this is just because some problems -particularly knotty adult problems- are tough to solve. It may be incumbent on you to try, but there's no guarantee you'll succeed.

So here's what's wrong with me:

(OK, OK, I know the following is a gross reduction of all my fascinatingly intricate deficiencies, but a girl's gotta start somewhere)

I'm lonely.

(I'm also mildly ill with a head cold, scared of moving forward in several key areas of my life, nursing a scraped right elbow, and unable to live in the moment, but the loneliness is what's at the top of the pile right now.)

It took me a while to figure it out, because I've generally, these last six weeks, been surrounded by people. I see people at church, people at work, neighbors on the street, and random people I meet for lunch because I'm trying to build my social network. I'm also married, which means, for those of you who are still savoring the halcyon days of single living, that there's someone else around pretty much ALL THE TIME.

Nevertheless, I'm lonely. A recounting of my symptoms:

I see the faces of old friends in crowds
I dream of airplanes, shaky flights from Alaska, layovers in DC.
I Google old friends
I am hangdog, drained, gray
I don't want to talk to anyone

Richmond is full of very nice people, many of whom I'd call friendly acquaintances and one or two of whom I'd even call friends. But there are friends and there are friends, folks you are happy to see on the street versus the people who help you clean up after your toilet has overflowed. I miss you, shit-stirrers.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

To Market

The fact that there is a farmers' market within walking distance of my house is one of the salves of my new location. It almost, but not quite, makes up for the fact that the sky smells off, the vowels taste wrong, and the air is rotten with myrtle. There's no place like home, and I am not there. But at least I can market!

The market is dinky, dominated by craft stalls that stock wares of distressing inedibility. But there are a few vegetable stands, and, after I have fumed over the stomach-clogging baby hats, the schlocky silver earrings-cum-esophageal lances of death, I pick out some peppers and okra and arugula and call it a day.

Mostly, though, I savor the walk. It is late Tuesday afternoon. The sun is high but slightly deflated, like a balloon the day after a birthday party. I walk down the tree-lined main drag of my neighborhood, cross a big street, head past the old folks home toward the park. Just before the trees close in and the road peters out, an exit ramp arcs above me. There's a pocket of space on either side of this underpass, just big enough for a man to lie down.

A man does lie down there. I assume he's homeless. Why else would you, your foot-long beard, two camp chairs, a sleeping bag, and assorted paraphernalia hang out under the bridge 24/7? Sometimes, when I pass by, he is sleeping. But mostly he sets up his camp chair and surveys his domain, or strolls up and down the dead-end road.

I used to approach with trepidation. There are no cars down that way, and very few other pedestrians. And my experience with the homeless includes agressive pandhandlers and the crazy dude who grabbed and then shoved me toward the rails on an NYC subway platform. But after a few pass-throughs, I grasped that under-the-bridge man didn't want money. He didn't want to hustle people, and he wasn't interested in shoving or grabbing. What he wanted was to talk about the weather.

Beautiful day we're having. Nothing like a walk! Or, Look at those clouds. Maybe we'll get some rain soon. Or, Wow, it's hot! They say it's a drought. He had a wizened grin, a tanned face, and small eyes. I'd say something about the weather in return, and pass on. Behind me I could hear him start up the spiel with the next person.

Weather: the great equalizer. You can live under a bridge, in an apartment, in a Victorian mansion, and you still care about the clouds, the wetness, the first nip of chill in the air. You care about the currents of air, the transfer of heat, the onset of damp. You care if it's summer or winter, snowing or sere. It's the last great shared obsession. And it is wondrous.

It takes a long time for fall to work up steam down here, but a few nights ago I woke for the first time in a long time searching for a blanket. It was chilly on the porch this morning. The sun keeps rising a few heartbeats later each day. It's almost, but not quite, summer's end.

At market they are selling butternut squash and onions. My weatherman is gone. There's no trace of his things under the bridge, and I haven't seen him in weeks. I wonder where he went, how he'll weather the change.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Get While the Getting's Gullible

Hoooo boy!

If you are enrolled in a graduate degree program, have been enrolled in a graduate degree program, or are thinking about enrolling in a graduate degree program, y'all should read this one. The thesis (academics love their theses) is simple: Higher education is a ponzi scheme.

As a double-strength faculty brat (psychology and journalism, in case you were wondering), this is heresy. According to the family gospel, you Go Forth, Interest Yourself (morbidly) in something arcane, write a thesis on said arcana, score a tenure track job straight out of grad school, get tenure, then toil for 40 years before retiring (early) on a cushy retirement package. And, in fact, this is exactly what my folks have done.

But times change. And when I think about degree programs such as the MFA in creative writing, the MM and DMA in early music, and the PhD in musicology (all of which I've thought, fleetingly, of pursuing), I conclude that the casualness with which institutions of higher learning accept new students in these ever-narrowing, ever more harrowing fields is, well....criminal.

It's a pyramid scheme! Professors need students to justify their existence. Students -qualified only to replicate themselves- need more students in their turn. Everyone passes the buck! And the problem just keeps getting worse: more and more students, fewer and fewer jobs. A friend of mine just landed one of only 37 musicology professorships available worldwide this year (to hundreds and hundreds of qualified PhDs).

It's a one year gig. Visiting professorship, half salary. And she is a lucky, lucky dog.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

May 12, 2009

Lately, I've been missing you. Not in the sense of wishyouwerehere. That's picture postcard missing, the kind of missing you execute casually, like a legal U-turn or the gradual drifting of your vehicle from the freeway into the exit lane.

I don't, actually, wish you were here.

What would you do here, anyway? You have no place in my day-to-day life. I don't have the facilities for you; I don't meet your requirements. You've never seen where I live, or who I married, or anything of mine, other than a handful of poems. These you read gimlet-eyed, an editor to the dregs of yourself.

You have no place in anyone's daily life but your own.

Which is why I wish I were there, in your house. Your house, the vital organ. For decades, it sustained you: the careful arrangement of the books under the trio of skylights, the shelf of pots next to the stove. You harvested the garden when it was time, walked down to the bay when it was time, sat and stared at the sea when it was time. The house filtered the poisons of the world. It beat time. Its chambers were choked with breath.

Instead of the house, I think about blueberries. They were all up and down the back of the place. Every morning, you would turn away from them, head into the study to write. Writing made you angry. They no longer made the typewriter ribbon you needed. In order to repair your machine, you drove hours to Bangor down the coastal roads. You decried planned obsolescence: it was a conspiracy, our appliances rising up against us! Dying pissed you off royally. There was work left. There were words left.

I abandoned you there. I dragged an old tin bucket out from underneath the sink and wandered down toward the shore. There were berries the whole way down, constellations of berries, galaxy after galaxy of berries, the earth a stubborn sky. I picked as many as I could get my hands on. There were always more, some deep blue, some covered in a milky caul. Presently, my fingers ached. The dark came drifting down.

At exactly nine PM they'd read a poem the radio. You'd be in the kitchen, waiting. I wandered in and dropped my bucket. You set your hand to the rim.

Listen.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Day 3


1) Remove kitten from washing machine
2) Remove kitten from bathroom trash can
3) Remove kitten from underwear drawer
4) Remove kitten from fallen pile of DVDs
5) It's your own fault, kitten
6) Remove kitten from breakfast
7) Attn: kittens. Mewing & stealth mutually exclusive
8) Remove kitten from three-inch wide space behind stove
9) Who pooped on the rug?!
10) Remove kitten from washing machine
11) Wash rug
12) Remove kitten from skirt
13) Kittens make me hungry
14) Remove snack from refrigerator
13) Remove kitten from refrigerator
14) Remove kitten from snack
15) Eat like a speed demon
16) Sleep

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Catatonic

I just went to type "currently" and typed "kurrently." Behold the power of kitten!

I'm hosting two of them for the weekend. They are grey and small and egregious. Moreover, they are interested.

They are interested in the dripping of the tap. They are interested in my glass of water. They are interested in feet and cardboard boxes and the spaces behind the stove and under the dresser and the corners of newspapers and laser pointers and tails and laundry baskets and canned goods and tea and eyeglasses and drawers and instruments and plastic bags. So far, pursuant to their investigations, they have knocked over two plants, a coffee mug, an alarm clock, half of the mixing bowls, the aforementioned laundry basket and, just now, the DVD remote.

They make me tired.

They also make me -only a little mind you; there are too many tradeoffs, like being unable to type and having to subsist on kibble- jealous. How many of the miracles of my daily life -the teapots, the couch cushions, the faucet, the interstitial space between the cabinet and the wall- do I pass over without a second thought? How long has it been since I've thought my toes worthy of entrancement? My bread worth of an orgy of sniffing?

Go to it, kittens. Maybe I'll learn something. At the very least maybe y'all will get tired enough to let me sleep.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Practice

"Write a little every day."

If you've a writer, you've heard this advice. If you've tried to be a writer, or thought about being a writer, or dated a writer, or had to pass a freshman composition class, you've heard this advice. And for writers, it is sound. Use it or lose it is the great commandment of human neuroplasticity, encapsulating the harsh truth that our brains optimize themselves to do whatever it is we ask them to do.

Which is why, incidentally, we are all stunningly good at driving. Oh, sure, I know you are a far superior Mistress of the Motor Vehicle than the yahoo who cut you off on the interstate this morning, or the moron just ahead of you yesterday daring to drive the speed limit for 15 miles in a no passing zone. (FYI that person was me. What is this mysterious middle finger gesture you are all making? I'm so pleased to be included in your quaint Southern rituals!)

But the mere fact that we are able to execute, at breakneck speeds, as complex an activity as careering a metal box through a crowded field of metal boxes, speaks to the power of practice. Driving is astronomically difficult for a novice, as are socializing and coordinating breathing with swallowing, but because we are forced to repeat these activities over and over -and over and over and over and over- we become startlingly, unthinkingly, adept.

Want to get good at something? Shut up and do it again.

But what if we don't want to get good? Say I am not a writer and do not particularly care to become one (there are more than enough writers in the world). Should I bother to "write a little every day," or should I get busy practicing things the things at which I actually want or need to improve? (E.g., filling out forms; corralling very small children; brewing tea.) What's the point of practicing, if not to improve oneself?

I've been giving this a lot of though, ever since one of my Facebook acquaintances issued a general directive, to all of us out there in cyberspace, to write a little every day. His argument was that writing is a fundamental skill.

But in many jobs, including both of mine, it isn't. Good writing is useful, yes- it smooths out job queries and makes for less agonizing program notes. But it is far from necessary. My therapy progress notes consist of marking the letters "P" and "NP" in a series of blank squares, and it is possible to go through entire concert seasons without putting your fingers to a keyboard that doesn't yowl when touched.

Is my friend wrong about writing every day? Should we practice only what we want, or need, to be good at? Or are there some practices -writing, perhaps- which are inherently valuable, worthwhile no matter whether or not they serve you?

As I get older, I believe more and more doggedly that we should write a little every day. Each of us, all of us: writers and non-writers alike. We should read a little every day. We should sing a little every day. We should walk a little every day. We should persist, with the stubborn persistence that is the pure heart of practicing, in doing things not because we should, but because we can.

Every day, save for Christmas, Thanksgiving, days I spend entirely on planes, and days I vomit, I practice my instrument. I do it because I have to, because if I do not, I will not be as good as I need to be to get paid to play, nor as good as I need to be to satisfy myself. It is instrumental practicing in both senses of that term: I practice to get somewhere.

How much more joyful to practice without expectation! How much more fulfilling (no, that's wrong; not more fulfilling, but differently fulfilling) to repeat an activity because....well, just because! I sing just because. I run just because. I write -I am lucky enough to write- just because.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Marry Him

Another entry from my list of books inappropriate to my stage of life, gender, habits, etc.: Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. I married a man I met at 22, so Gottlieb isn't really talking to me. But Gottlieb's book provoked a media firestorm upon publication, and I was eager to see what got everybody so riled up. Also, much like a closeted bigot titillated by Glen Beck's inflammatory rhetoric, I was eager to see Gottlieb articulate a thesis I'd only allowed myself to whisper.

On the marriage market, women are depreciating assets.

Any sentence that pairs the word "women" with the word "assets" is on dangerous ground ("show me your assets, baby!") and I can see why Gottlieb was pilloried in the blogosphere. It has become socially unacceptable to forward anything that smacks of female disempowerment, and the idea that women, as they age, might be worth less on any scale -let alone one so central to our lives as the ability to attract and retain a mate- is profoundly disempowering.

Which doesn't, unfortunately, make it false.

Most of the anger directed at Gottlieb centered on her (arguably, though not necessarily, cogent) understanding of marriage as a market and on her articulation of women's worth therein. Gottlieb, a 41-year-old single mother, describes unsparingly her decline in "datability," starting with a decrease in real-world prospects, and moving on to matchmakers who are unable to find candidates who will accept a woman in her age bracket, and a demoralizing speed dating event in which all the men looking to meet women over 40 are 76, apoplectic, or dead.

I exaggerate. Gottlieb probably does too, but her anguish seems real: She always meant to get married and start a family, and now, on the far side of 40, she is trying to make sense of why her life didn't go as planned.

And here we get to the real meat of Gottlieb's thesis, a point largely lost, to my mind, in the media frenzy. Simply: we set our expectations too high. Gottlieb's indictment falls heavier on women than men, but she doesn't spare the male sex. We've been socialized, she argues, to believe that good relationships are easy relationships, that without "butterflies" something is missing, that we deserve to have all our needs, big and small, met. Never mind that we might not be up for catering to someone else's smallest desires, or that we ourselves might be neurotic, complicated, or just plain imperfect. We want the best. We deserve the best.

Entitlement. In Gottleib's vision, that's the canker at the root of what's wrong with dating in America. And I do believe Gottlieb has this nailed. We are entitled! I am entitled! We all, every last one of us, deserves fulfilling careers, exciting marriages, rich family lives, because our mothers told us we deserved them, and, moreover, sacrificed so we could have them.

No one likes to part with her entitlements, and Gottlieb's prescription, paring down our expectations and hence our standards, is a tough sell. It's the rational approach, but Gottlieb -and here, in my view, she stumbles- embraces rationality only halfway. She's ready to accept, after speaking with experts such as behavioral economist Dan Ariely, that humans do not always know what is good for them, that our"gut feelings" are frequently off. Yet, Gottlieb never interrogates something else her gut is telling her: that she, and we, will be happier married and with a family.

Yes, Gottlieb craves domestic life. But after spending a whole book explaining that we do not always know what we really want, for Gottlieb to glibly accept the superiority of domestic life seems strange. It's true that there is research to the effect that married folks are happier than singles. But there's also research suggesting that people with children are significantly less happy than people without, and Gottlieb never breathes a word about childlessness.

(And who set happiness as the goal anyway? I, personally, prefer placid contentment, but I respect the rights of those who enjoy a merry-go-round of sturm und drang!)

And finally there's this: Gottlieb argues that acceptance -of our mates' flaws, of the state of our unions- is the key to contentment. Surely, then, if follows that acceptance of one's own marital status is an equally essential ingredient of happy juice? Why, then, isn't Gottlieb working harder at accepting her singlehood? Why all the speed dating and matchmaking and book writing?

Still, for all its flaws, Marry Him -in the narrowest of ways- speaks Truth to Power. And heck, that's always entertaining.