Saturday, January 30, 2010

18 Degrees

Winter farmers' market booty: arugula, butternut, bread.

The bread was made twelve hours ago by a math PhD student I've known since I was eighteen. That year, he took me to my first and only contra dance, which I wanted badly to like but did not, because sometimes you are not the person you want to be, and also because the contra dance is the group project of the dancing world, plus sweat.

Three years later he served my then-roommate and me mushroom sandwiches made from a specimen he'd found in the scrub land just beyond town. We are, miraculously still alive. Six year afters that, he married a girl who teaches French to preschoolers. They moved to my hometown. They are building an oven in their backyard.

There are the people you can't unravel from your life, who run like the warp to your weft. And then there are the people whose lives glance against yours, just a few skips on the surface, a stone thrown low and true.

I like to eat their bread.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heap O' Cats.

I've birthed an ensemble! This is a little like birthing a litter of kittens, except with more yowling. Hopefully that yowling will be -mostly- tuneful.

We've wrangled players, taken pictures, put up a website, scanned avelanches of sheet music, researched program ideas, programmed, and recorded some sample tracks. It's been more work than herding fifteen preschoolers to the toilet.

On the other hand, it's kind of fun. Plus we've settled into natural -and naturally complementary roles. One of us does logistics, booking, and marketing. One of us does research, writing, and programming. Some of us just play the pants off things. It's so nice when your weaknesses click, like puzzle pieces, with someone else's strengths. The thought of marketing, for example, makes me want to change genders and experience kidney stones. (HINT: I'M THE ONE IN THE LIBRARY).

Anyhoo, I wrote a deeply empurpled website blurb for the group (anytime you use the words passion and turbulence in the same sentence you are either an pilot fetishist or a shamelessly self-promoting musician). I also used the word innovative. As in, Wxxxxxx Sxxxxx is committed to sharing the music of the early Baroque through "innovative programming."

One of my oldest friends, a smart seventh grader transformed, via the magic of adulthood, into a policy wonk, called me on it: "How can you be innovative," she wrote me, "if you're playing music from the 1600s?"

To me, the answer is crashingly obvious. You present music of the 1600s in a way that's different from the way people are currently tending to present music of the 1600s. My friend, at a much further remove from the tiny closet that is early music, hasn't seen enough concerts to even register that there is a norm.

This is a problem of vision and of distance. It's as if my friend is far-sighted, only able to see clearly from thirty yards out. Whereas I am nearsighted, nose-to-the-wall, taking in the wood grain, the microscophic chips, the squashed bug. In a way, we are both right -but it depends on where you're standing.

I am reminded, forcefully, of the interview I heard on Tuesday as I was careening around the city from one job site to another. Susan Page (where is Diane Rehm anyway?) was interviewing a man whose research suggests that babies develop an almost immediate preference for faces of the ethnic groups into which they were born, and that both babies and adults are much more adept at distinguishing between members of their own group than between members of others. The researcher went on to outline the sobering implications for our legal system: If we assume that witnesses are color blind, and that a white woman can distinguish as reliably between two black men as she can between two white men, then we are ignoring empirical evidence and helping to institutionalize racist outcomes.

The closer you get, the finer the distinctions you draw. And if you don't think that's something worth looking at, well, there's always kitten piles. Do a Google image search and prepare to die of cute.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Getting Busy with Your Books

Here goes: my to-be-read list of 13 of your beloveds! I'll attempt to read 12 in 2010. Books you love stupidly, helplessly; books to which you are in blinkered thrall; books adored by someone you love.

I confess to doing a smidge of picking and choosing: If a particular person supplied me with more than one read, I picked the one(s) in which I was most interested. If there was a book you loved about love, I couldn't say no. And, finally, I steered clear of books I've already read.

For the most part, though, you imposed these upon me. Like a prison sentence. Or a benediction! Or knighthood! We'll have to see which. Also, I may have to reconsider my overarching adultery metaphor, as it is difficult to cuckold someone who is pimping his or her mate. Good thing the book world is polyamorous.

So thank you! In no particular order:

Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein
The Body in the Cornflakes, K.K. Beck
An Equal Music, Vikram Seth
The Thirteen Clocks, James Thurber
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
John Adams, David McCollough
Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Love, Toni Morrison
Tam Lin, Pamela Dean
The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles
Video Night in Kathmandu, Pico Iyer
Frost in May, Antonia White

Should be an interesting year.

Friday, January 22, 2010

American Nerd: The Story of My People

I'm something of a nerd.

[Pause for discomfiting absence of fainting and gasping.]

Nerds are human and humans are narcissists, so when I heard of a whole book devoted to my particular phylum of humanity, I pounced. The books is by Benjamin Nugent, who has a deliciously nerdy last name, but who, in his cover photo, stares fixedly out at the camera from a far-too-handsome face. The explanation for the disjunction is revealed, casually, in early chapters: Nugent is an ex-nerd, a nerd who ran from, then got tangled up in, his roots.

There should be a neater label for this. There should be a word which circumscribes the dimensions of ex-nerddom. Refugee implies too much will: Nugent believes he tore himself away from nerddom, but I believe he was simply too good-looking. A good-looking nerd, like a billionaire nerd or a computing-giant-founder nerd, bobs helplessly to the top of nerdery's primordial ooze like an opera singer in a salt bath. Although Nugent correctly divines that nerdhood chose him, that he had little choice but to have "a rich fantasy life in which [he] carried a glowing staff," he is less astute about who ditched whom.

Back to words: Judas captures only one dimension of ex-nerddom. Recovering implies an illness. After reading Nugent's book I wonder if a better word isn't survivor. Teenage nerdhood, as depicted by Nugent, is a trauma. It's a natural disaster, a seizing and shaking of the self. However you choose to live your life post-trauma, you bear its marks.

Hence Nugent, picking over the bones of nerddom. Hence me, tracking his progress. American Nerd is part history, part reportage, part memoir. It's a volatile mix, and, thrust into a 224-page test-tube, the history, reportage and memoir explode all over the place. Nugent goes haring off in one direction after another, juggling anecdote and theory, fact and observation. All of it is interesting, but very little of it is thoroughly or convincingly explored.

Within the first 100 pages Nugent has thrown out:
  • A theory of American racism interpreted in relation to constructs of jock and nerd
  • A short discourse on Endicott Peabody, Groton Headmaster and anti-intellectual
  • A history of the nerd in Western literature from Mary Bennet to Gussie Fink-Nottle
  • An eye-witness account of a Thursday meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society
  • A survey of back issues of the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute Bachelor
  • An SNL sketch
  • A memoir set-piece about his Jewish grandmother's interrogation of his poop
There's probably a book down each of these alleys, but Nugent plows through all of them at top speed like...well, like a nerd. Nugent's archetypal nerd is someone who craves order and rules, a way to make sense of the jungles of everyday life and social interaction. But I'd argue that another key feature of nerdhood is interest. Nerds are interested. They wanna know. They turn down every dead end, crack every door, hoist open every treasure chest in the dungeon. It may be tough to be a nerd, but it's also tough to bore one.

Nugent misses this because he is, as he explains in his prologue, blinkered:

"Running through the halls with a backback that was capable of doing real harm to others didn't do much to draw sympathy, so nobody raised serious objections when every once in a while somebody hit me in the crotch with a clarinet case or a hockey stick. All of which is to say my journalistic objectivity with regard to my subject matter is seriously compromised. But I am trying my best."

Nugent's best, fortunately for us, is very good. And when, in the second half of the book, he abandons frantic theorizing for an exploration of his own nerdy past, American Nerd blossoms. Nugent tracks down Darren and Kenneth, two D&D brethren he befriended and -propelled by good-looks and self-loathing- betrayed. He inveigles answers about their shared past, their present, and their future: all of it shot through with nerdhood. Here's Nugent taking his leave of Kenneth:

"We go outside and say our good-byes, lingering, suddenly aware of how much older we are than the last time we parted. I'm almost thirty now; he's thirty-one. Our hairlines have receded by the same amout. He walks the excitable squirrel-mutt, which he informs me was rescued from a nearby house of cocaine addicts who used to shut it in a closet. It noses the ground obsessively, accounting for every speck of dust, until it's finally pulled away. I think about death; that is, I think about how little time we get and how much time we spend inventing and following rules that makes us feel immortal and safe."

When Nugent finally abandons his pose of objectivity, American Nerd coalesces from a loose constellation of facts into a luminous tale of survival. It's a late bloomer -but then, most nerds are.

P.S. I'm still taking last-minute entries for my 2010 book challenge. A huge thank you to everyone who's already given me the names of books they love! Heedless, witless love! Stupid, blinkered passion! Step up, if you haven't already.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Benediction, FL

The waiter kept forgetting the wine so I ordered a sidecar. He had to look up how to make it. He came back and recited the ingredients like a small, besotted prayer and asked, Am I right? I said yes because how would I know? I'd drunk it exactly four times, remembered only the bubbles bursting against the inside of my cheek.

It was a long table in Florida. No one I knew was there. At the concert hours earlier, someone in the audience had handed me a plastic bag of clementines, and now I was eating them them one by one under the table, sneaking off the peels. I had swordfish. I had raw salmon on a bed of seaweed. I rested my head on the table and, just for a minute, closed my eyes.

Across from me there was man with a silver necklace and too-blue eyes. Every morning he walked to the end of the pier to make sure the sun got up on time. He paid a dollar for the privilege. He'd once been a preacher. He wrote his own songs. His wife, the artist, had well-shaped ears a cap of copper hair. They told me marriage was hard.

I said yes. I had nothing left inside me to tell, so I said I was scared of flying. I have to hold the plane up with my mind. I hate when the sky shakes, disrupting the tenuous operations taking place at top speed in my skull. I drink tomato juice, always, and afterwards crunch the ice: this is part of the physics of how the plane stays aloft.

At the end of the night the man said he'd pray for me. The woman gripped my arms, looked deep into my eyes, and told me I was a treasure. Did I know that? I was a treasure. I said yes, because what else is there to say?

The thing that puzzles me is that I remember this. It's that I keep remembering, of all things, this.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Three Feet; Two Cups

I'm sitting in my second-choice cafe drinking my second cup of coffee, though it is only my second cup if you discount the first bitter half-cup I mainlined up against the coffee bar. Who needs milk when you have desperation?

I have desperation because it's January, and January is grey and gormless, with no cultural rituals of consequence and no distinguishing feature besides unremitting chill. January is when, bereft of a bearable outdoor existence, you turn against yourself like an auto-immune disease. You attack your interior life. You break out the yardstick.

The yardstick is, of course, metaphorical. The last known exemplar of the literal species disappeared into the maw behind our refrigerator when I was seven. It was not particularly missed. The literal yardstick was too big to measure the wings of insects and too small to measure how far you had to walk. It was good for nothing but hitting one another on the shins.

So the yardstick is a ghost, a discarded carapace of a word. It measures the distance between who you are and who you should be, or who you are and who you would be if your twelve-year-old self had a time machine and an iron will. I wield the yardstick ruthlessly and find:
  • I am a heck of a lot older than I thought I would be.
  • I drink more coffee.
There are probably some additional discrepancies, but by this time I've put down the yardstick because H, across from me, is talking about her trip to Sweden. She spent three weeks there over Christmas and gives me a play-by-play, including pertinent family history, her opinion on various second cousins once removed, and the things she ate and drank. The Swedes have the second-highest coffee consumption per capita in the world!

I contemplate moving to Sweden but realize January would be even worse.

H keeps talking, recounting her experiences day by day, and I'm surprised to realize I'm riveted. Someone else's travelogue is up there with strangers' home videos and academic presentations on planaria: it's supposed to be snoozeworthy.

But it's not. Partly, it's that H tells a good story. But also there's this: Somewhere in the gap between twelve and now, I've given in to my own nosiness. It's not as shiny as musicality or as useful as facility with words. It's not the gift I thought I'd treasure. But it is a gift: the desire to listen, to get the details, to poke into your business. And, downing my second second cup, I accept.

P.S. Five more of you need to step up and supply the names of books for my challenge! Books you love stupidly, without volition. Books someone you love loves. Lovely books.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Not My Beloved

I want to do another reading project. My Year of Reading Dangerously capsized my reading life, dumping me out of the latest Anne Tyler novel (which, OK, yes, is #1 on my To Be Read list) and into a whole mess of books I otherwise wouldn't have cracked.

No more danger this year. This year, love.

But not my love. My love is old hat. I know what moves me; I know what shakes me. Instead, I want to get my hands on yours. I want to stray. I want to commit a little bibliophiliac adultery; I want to wade into someone else's passion. What grabs you? What can't you extricate from your heart?

Leave me a comment with your title. Or, failing that, the title someone you love loves. If I haven't read it, it's going on the list.

Um. Hopefully there are at least 12 of you out there...

Sunday, January 10, 2010


According to Grant Barrett, my (not-so) secret celebrity crush, SNOMG is the word of the young winter of 2010. 2009's word was tweet, and SNOMG comes attached to a twitter hash tag -that insouciant, much-tattooed cousin of the dowdy old Library of Congress subject heading.

Hash tags let you sift through all the online chatter to hear about what you want to hear about and talk about what you want to talk about. And what we want to talk about, these days, is SNOMG. As in snow, oh my God. As in, holy crap, we're cold, and look at all this white stuff!

But seriously...snow? We're busy conducting more wars than I can keep track of, overhauling health care, and superheating the planet and all we can talk about is snow?! Well...duh. We're human. We're set up to operate on the level of the small and the immediate. It's both our Achilles heel and our saving grace. We especially like to compare notes. How much snow have you gotten? I've got six or seven inches sitting on top of my car right now. And check out that ice!

Contrast SNOMG with Wayne State's Word Warriors campaign. Wanna be a Word Warrior? Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is "to retrieve some of the English language's most expressive words from the dank closet of neglect." To make this more manageable, the Word Warriors have selected 15 antediluvian words with which you can festoon your New Year's bloviating.

(It appears I either live in, or frequently rummage through, the dank closet of neglect.)

I feel some sympathy for the Word Warriors. Why use three or four words to corral your meaning when you can tree that meaning with a single really good one? On the other hand, words aren't sheepdogs. And fighting for words that are disappearing seems both retrogressive and futile. So we're too quixotic to be unctuous. So we've been bamboozled out of our galoshes. So we no longer succumb to concupiscence every numinous dawn.

We can still be slimy in our rainboots. We can lust in the morning. And check out these icicles: SNOMG!

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Lately, I've been down on stuff.

By which I mean, I skipped the post-Christmas sales. By which I mean, I skipped the pre-Christmas sales. I did not buy that book in the airport and I am minus a purse that isn't a) a grocery bag or b) silly.

It was the bedbugs that did it. On an online forum, a woman described sitting in her New York apartment thumbing through her books. She perched on the edge of the bathtub, her legs pointed toward the toilet, her arms over the white surface of the bottom of the tub. The white color was important, because then you could see the bugs. She picked up one book and rifled the pages, moving her thumb so that every crease, in turn, was exposed. She picked up the next book and the one after that. She thought: Maybe human beings aren't meant to have stuff.

After I lugged seventeen garbage bags of stuff to the curb, after I heated to killing temperature (114 for bugs, 120 for eggs, at least an hour, subject to debate) two-thirds of the contents of my home, after I encased the mattresses and bagged the toiletries, I thought: The more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to defend.

The bugs are gone. It's taken me three months post-treatment to say that, so I may as well say it again. The bugs are gone. But my relationship with stuff remains queasy. I am gathering clothes and books to take to Goodwill. I've already put some tchotchkes out on the curb. And do I really, truly, need that slow cooker?

Yet, I haven't stopped acquiring. I think we're set up to procure. It's a stand-in for the hunting and gathering that kept us alive when we were worm-ridden and running around in skins and didn't give a crap about bedbugs. We're driven to it; it's in our blood.

Purchased thus far in 2010:
  • Barbecued brisket with collards, mashed potatoes, relish, sweet potato pie (eaten, also with relish)
  • Magazine in airport (recycled)
  • Small coffee with craisin biscuit (gone in 60 seconds)
  • Fingerless grey wool gloves (handmade)
I've been drawn, these cold months, to things handmade. If stuff is going to cost me time and energy to defend, if I am going clean it and exterminate it and drag it across state lines, I prefer that stuff to be something someone paid, in time and energy, to make. I want the effort of owning to be balanced by the effort of crafting. I want stuff to play hard(er) to get.

The gloves I bought were knitted by S, who makes beautiful things. The hand-printed postcard in the picture is from L, who, as long as I've known her, has made beautiful things. The postcard is lying on the handmade coffee table my parents gave me for Christmas. It's a beautiful table, dark wood inlaid with light. It took someone hours to make and I am glad.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dangerous Librations

I came! I read! I got really freaked out! Huzzah!

I'm wrapping up My Year of Reading Dangerously. Last January, I compiled a list of thirteen books of which I was, in some way, afraid. The goal was to read twelve of them, one a month, slowly inching my way through biliophiliac terror toward enlightenment or education or at the very least nearsightedness. Along the way, I would point out the dangers, real and imagined, of my reading list. I would slap fear up against reality and catalog the carnage.

And that's exactly what I did, less a few hitches. During the fall, I lost three months of reading time as real-life fear blew literary fear out of the water. I worried I wouldn't be able to finish, but I picked back up in December, powering through the final book with three brave days to spare. When everything was said and done, I'd finished twelve fearsome, fearful, awesome, awful books. Sometimes my fears were realized. More frequently, they proved baseless. Every book taught me something different about danger.

So here they are again, defanged, muzzled, and neatly corralled:

Required Reading
  • Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
  • Netherland, Joseph O'Neill
  • An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
Fearsomely Good
  • American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld
  • My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, ed. Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Downtown Owl, Chuck Kloosterman
Nothing to Fear
  • An Abundance of Katherines, John Green
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
  • The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
  • Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  • Twilight, Stephanie Meyer
  • I See you Everywhere, Julia Glass
But wait a minute, you think. There were thirteen books! Which one got away? What was the one book I was too craven to confront?

The Great White Whale
  • The Ambassadors, Henry James
This probably isn't a shocker. Maybe next year.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

I Am Here

Austin, TX