Saturday, February 27, 2010


Interesting article in the NYT yesterday about choices. I'm interested in choices because I'm so phenomenally lousy at making them: At any given life crossroads, major or minor, I may freeze up, weep, holler, gnash my teeth, whine for help, hide, or shiver.

Which delicious breakfast item should I order? (howl; grovel).

Whom should I marry? (implode).

You get the idea.

(To those of you who have had to endure my company while I was in the throes of decision making -my deepest apologies.)

But it turns out I'm not alone. According to Alina Tugend's column, research suggests that humans confronted with too many choices become paralyzed. We may think we want unlimited choice, but what we really want is the appearance of unlimited choice. When it comes time to do the choosing, we want a few options or, even better, none.

This really resonates with me. I am happiest when I make small, emotionally weightless choices between a few carefully curated options. I like tiny bookstores and farmers' markets, the only flight available and the only course I can take. Choice is supposedly about freedom, but for me it stokes fear and self-doubt.

I can't shake the feeling that the scale of things is wrong these days. Everything -cities, stores, cars, social networks- is too big. Our small-scale human brains are ill-equipped to deal with our enlarged lives. We operate best on the human level: our globalized, scaled-up, macro-economized world is simply beyond our ken.

I don't know how to get back to a world that fits. Advice -or wholesale disagreement- welcome.

Also, here is a picture of a cat. Because I like cats. And because I had trouble choosing a picture to go with this blog entry.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Amateur Hour

Professionals play for pay. Amateurs pay to play.

You'd think it would be easy, given a distinction so stark, to define yourself as either/or, but it turns out, for me, to be insanely complicated. Partly this is because the dichotomy is nowhere near as pat as I made it appear: I have known professionals to pay -in one way or another- to play, and I have known -and played with- amateurs who, once in a while, cash checks.

In addition, there's more determining professionalism than dollars. At a minimal level, there's professional training and associated questions. Can someone self-taught ever really be a pro? It's insanely rare for a self-taught player to make her living playing classical music, but other genres are another story. How much training makes you a pro? Majoring? Minoring? Having the knowledge to offer formal training to others? What if you have the training but do not play?

Then there's your living. If you make 25% of your living -say $10,000- making music, are you a pro? What about 50% of your living? Would you be more of a pro if you made the same $10,000 but did nothing else? Does it make a difference if you have an archetypal "day job" versus a bona-fide second career?

I probably made a third of my income playing this year and the other 2/3 working in a completely unrelated field. Last year I made a little less playing and a lot more in the unrelated field; I was still trying to work full-time while gigging. Yearly, I struggle to locate myself on the pro- to amateur continuum. The question is not, at least according to the IRS, academic.

Perhaps most interestingly, there's the question of love. An amateur plays for love; a professional plays for...what? It's not entirely love, otherwise you'd never take a gig you didn't like. But it's not entirely money, either, or most of us musicians would be doing something else. In my case this truth is particularly stark: I can earn 2 times as much money per hour as an SLP as I earn as a musician. Therefore, every hour I spend gigging, practicing, or teaching comes at a hefty opportunity cost. In a way, you could say I pay to play-

which puts me back in the amateur category.

But I don't feel like an amateur, in the sense of taking unadulterated, uncaring joy in what I do. I'm more often tired from traveling, or worried about sounding excellent, or concentrating very, very hard on getting it right. There's room for joy in there, but it's mediated joy, joy tethered to very hard work and high stakes.

Contrast this with singing. This weekend I attended a reunion of my college Collegium, an early-music choir in which, for four years, I sang soprano. Like most people in the choir, I was a musician but not a singer: looking around the room at Saturday's rehearsal -a full six years after our last meeting- I saw organists, instrumentalists, people who'd chosen other paths but still loved music.

We were amateurs, in the best sense of the word. We sang for love. We tried hard but not too hard, forgave ourselves our mistakes, celebrated our achievements. We hit most notes, missed a few, sang with gusto and un-self-consciousness.

I miss being an amateur.

Guess I've answered my own question. Time to tackle the damn Schedule C.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Manhood for Amateurs

There's an undeniable savor to reading something that's not for you. Wedding manuals when you're not getting married. Syllabi for courses you are not taking. Your parents' dilapidated, poorly hidden copy of the Joy of Sex when you are twelve. Especially, those copies of Martha Stewart Living which contrive to thrust themselves into your hands even though you are not now, nor ever will be, the kind of human being who glue-guns pine cones together to make a centerpiece.

That savor, that delicious tang of none-of-your-business, probably explains why I read so many books about men. The number of books I've read about womanhood is a big, fat number that rhymes with "hero," but I've definitely plowed through The Dangerous Book for Boys, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, Monster: Adventures in American Machismo, and, most recently, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon's book of essays on boyhood, manhood, husbandhood, and fatherhood.

That's a lot of hoods! Fortunately, Chabon is an enthusiastic and articulate tour guide, trotting you up and down the streets of his life like a one-man welcome wagon. Here are his wife and kids; here's his mother. Here's the woman who took his virginity; here's his first love. You sense, throughout, Chabon struggling to close the gap between these archetypal placeholders -mom, wife, kids- and the acute specificities which preoccupy him. It's as if he's trying to pull a construct of manhood -a man-shaped, man-hearted Frankenstein- from the general muck of being alive.

It's tricky. In part, this is because manhood -the very notion that maleness isn't the great wide everywhere- is a newfangled concept. Maleness was, for a very long time, the default point of view: a vantage point so universal not too many folks felt the need to articulate it. Then, too, self-reflection is stereotypically the province of women. For a man to practice it, to turn an assessing gaze not only on himself but on his entire gender, he must possess, well....


And Chabon is ballsy. He's also not quite a natural essayist in that, time and again, he makes the same turn in his writing, the pat, safe turn that says: oh, here's something interesting, but now we will back away from it very slightly and let it become mildly & poetically blurred while we stand very still on the edge of the existential abyss. It's the kind of turn familiar to any safari-goer, as well as to any reader of short stories written by graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. It's a lovely literary motion, but it works better in Chabon's novels, where you don't learn to anticipate it, like a rat jonesing for a pellet, every eleven pages.

Perhaps most interesting is that, for all its stated preoccupation with manhood, Chabon's book made me think only glancingly about what it is to be a man. What it is to be human, yes. What it is to be a child, to grow older, to slip rung by rung down the generational ladder. Even more so, Chabon's book made me think about pace. Could it be that the rhythm of your reading, the pace at which you take a book -a life- is as important as its text? Some, you consume headlong. Others, you pick up and drop, pick up and drop, marking in their margins, staining them with coffee, shoving them under the bed and rediscovering them, all the way through winter into spring.

Monday, February 15, 2010

French Press

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

1) You are dark and handsome.
2) You are tall, dark, and handsome if we adopt the measurement system of the ant.
3) You smell like Hallelujah.
4) You know just what to get a girl for Valentine's Day. Specifically, caffeine.
5) While I am waiting for you to reveal, in the fullness of time, your truest shape, I sight, out the window, that old black cat. It has gotten into the funeral home's parking lot again and is rolling around there, heedless of the mounded snow. It wriggles its haunches. It injests, then disgorges, its own tail. It eyes its shadow and leaps.
6) Wait.
7) Push.
8) Pour.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hawthorne & Hunter

The evanescence of home is old hat.

The moment we’re cognizant enough to call home home is the moment we begin to leave it, boxing up our clothes and books, our souvenirs of self –yearbooks and love letters, snapshots and diaries- and shipping them forward into some blazing future in which home has evaporated like puddles after a blow-through.

Either you leave home or home leaves you: these are the rules of doomed love.

You love anyway. Who among us can draw ourselves up short, force our hearts to heel, beg, sit? You grow up in a place so you let it enter you, train its history to yours. The berry patch where you discovered blood; the intertwining of tree roots with dead gerbils; the porch where the neighbor took a rifle and, after decades of hogging the cherries, stopped his mouth with red.

Oh, home. Fireflies; stars; wet earth. The reek of the place, lily of the valley mixed with worm and hill and rotting wood. You learn the names of everything; you learn the uses. Grape vines and may apples, sassafras and tulip trees; swinging and bursting, tea and glory.

To harp on home’s disappearance, to chart its vanishing tide, is formulaic at best and, at worst, cliché. Who hasn’t lost home -mislaid it or wandered away from it or let it slip or torn it, with deliberation, to bits?

Yet, like the immortal interval stuck in the craw of Beethoven Five, the theme needs rearticulation. Sounded not once, but again, again, transposed and transformed, diminished, trilled.

Every grain of home that dribbles away, every stone heaved up, is fresh. Home has a million ways to break you. No two fractures are alike, they say, and no two fingerprints; we have a hundred ways of telling these things these days.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Age of Innocence

I'm the queen of the innocent explanation.

As a certified scaredy cat, I grasp, immediately, the darkest possibilities of any situation. Your cat coughed up a hairball.....of death. Your Aunt is whispering...about how much she hates you. The phone rings...presaging Armageddon. My thoughts leap, graceful as ballerinas, to the furthest extremities of pain.

That's when I generate, like a flustered snow machine operator in some muddy corner of Arkansas, the innocent explanations. The cat simply ate too much! Your Aunt lost her voice! It's your mother on the phone; she wants to know where you stashed the washcloths on your last visit. The blizzard of innocent explanations, white and thick and reassuring, obscures all those black futures.

At 8:15 AM, I stood on the stoop of a dirty, smoke-filled house in a shabby part of town. I knocked and knocked again, waiting for the mother of the homebound child due for therapy to come to the door. The wind stung and the snow drifted; I swayed from side to side, balancing, against my hip, a giant light-up toy, some cymbals, and a notebook.

One house over, the door slammed. A large man, coatless and hatless, leapt into his car carrying nothing but a baseball bat. He paused, squinted at me, glared. He resettled the bat in his lap. He peeled out of the driveway and drove off at top speed.


Maybe he had invented the new and exciting game of polar baseball? Maybe he sold artisanal bats for a living? Maybe he had shaped, with dazzling verisimilitude, a loaf of bread to resemble a baseball bat and was taking it to his grandmother, the baseball fanatic, a woman who, at her advanced age, could keel over any moment, thus necessitating a NASCAR-reminiscent style of driving?

Help me.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Certain Kind of Death

Every so often, I stop watching trash and start watching documentaries. Usually it's when I forget to check my Netflix queue and am ambushed at home by something I stuck in the queue while pretending to be someone who watches documentaries.

As opposed to, say, someone who watches endless remakes of Jane Eyre.

I never want the documentaries when they come. I watch them anyway. I know from experience that documentaries are like practicing: you never want to start, but once you do, you never regret it. I've seen some great stuff. I've seen some galvanizing stuff. I've seen some gross stuff. A Certain Kind of Death, a documentary film by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, falls into all three of these categories.

The great: The film, which follows the progress of unclaimed bodies through various City of Los Angeles departments, is spare, silent, and graceful, a ballet of bureaucracy.

The galvanizing: Through grudging accretion of detail, the bureaucratic machine actually manages to humanize these most dehumanizing deaths. Slowly -painfully- a life takes shape: a stepmother's will, drill bits, roaches, receipts from a homeless shelter thanking the deceased for his weekly contributions. Everything sold at auction for $300. The $300 goes unclaimed.

The gross: dead people. Decaying on the toilet, spread-eagled in the shower, passed out from rectal bleeding on the bed. Death is uncouth.

Uncouth, yet commonplace. A crime scene investigator takes a call from her husband with one hand while dragging a corspe on a sheet with the other. An assets investigator, bent over a cache of the dead man's papers, tells her coworker that no, sorry, she can't go to lunch; she brought a frozen meal. A sign above the morgue's drinking fountain admonishes workers against washing out their food containers there. It's unsanitary!!! the sign screeches. 30 feet away, a pathologist scrapes the maggots from someone's shins.

I recognize this disjunction, the slow collapse of the extraordinary into the ordinary. I know it intimately, as do most of the other inner-city-school folk I know.

Somebody's homeless!


Somebody's abused and neglected and has no food!


Somebody's drug-addled baby justifies supplemental social security income which is spent not on the child but on more drugs!

Same old, same old.

It's alarming, how quickly you adapt. Wondrous and awful and terrifying all at once.

Thursday, February 4, 2010