Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Somewhen, Somewhere

My hard drive crashed, and I lost everything.

Everything is an exaggeration. Everything always is.

I lost some of what I had. Not most, not even a moiety, but a portion. To start, a fourth of a novel and all my notes on its development. I miss the novel about as much as I miss the '80s PBS show Mathnet. Which is less than I ought, and which probably means I should give up forcing myself to squeeze out novels 500 words at a time and go back to doing what I do without prompting, like sleep.

And poetry. I miss, acutely, some of the poems I lost. It could have been worse: I recovered more poems than I really had a right to recover, unearthing them from self-addressed envelopes fat with rejection, from files flung into the ether of the Internet, from the printed pages of obscure periodicals, from odd corners of my email.

Thank God for email, which allowed me to reconstruct most of my tax records and almost all of my long-range professional planning, though not the document containing a record of which poems I'd sent to where, and why, and how long ago, so now I run the risk -in addition to the risks of dying, of choking, of having my heart prised open- of saying the same thing twice.

My pictures, on the other hand, are gone. There were three or five left on my camera. I uploaded them, let them huddle together in a vast empty hangar of file space. They are strangers to me. I thought, when I lost what I lost, that I was losing memories. It falls out, though, that memory is even more fallible than hardware. I have already expunged the provenance of this picture. I do not know when it was taken, or why, or where. It happened; that's all.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Five Books I am Actively Avoiding

You Remind Me of Me (Dan Chaon): This is on the floor of my bedroom. It looks nice and appropriate there, as the cover is an airbrushed photograph of shoes. I liked Await Your Reply, so I'm not sure why I'm ignoring the blandishments of this one, except that I have a feeling it's going to be literary and depressing, and I am, on my own, literary and depressing enough that I don't need written reinforcement.

Dust: A Richard Jury Mystery (Martha Grimes): I abandoned this one mid-read a while back and have been ducking its calls ever since. You know you're in trouble when you're more interested in the description of the half-eaten hamburger that constituted the deceased's last meal than in the identity of the killer who interrupted said meal. Yet, it's tough to admit defeat. I will charge through this book like Charlemagne through France! I will prevail against the massed forces of boredom and mediocre writing! Later!

Julie and Julia (Julie Powell): Another half-way through-er. Julie annoys me. And so, at least as penned by Julie, does Julia. For God's sake, just stick a tortilla in the microwave already! This one is holed up underneath the nightstand plotting culinary malfeasance.

Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): Love AND disease in one lengthy and very serious mash-up? I need a few more months of fortification and possibly a case of gin.

Ulysses (James Joyce): I have been fleeing this one for as long as I can remember. It hasn't caught me yet!

What are you avoiding?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Money Can't Buy You Love

Or mulberries!

(Except it can sometimes buy you love, or at least a semblance of love, because people are awfully good at fooling themselves about what they feel, and a well-heeled mate is, to many folks, an attractive mate. And actually I could probably buy mulberries as well: even though they don't travel well enough to make it to grocery stores, I could pay some enterprising ten-year-old to stand there and pick them for me. Or I could buy a mulberry bush and wait a decade or so. DAMN YOU, BRAIN! Be less ornery!)

Monday, June 21, 2010

#3: Tam Lin

Here's my thesis: Books that people love -truly, heedlessly, painfully love- contain love. Even if the books aren't love stories -and many of them are- love will be there, intermingling with the plot, intermixing with the language, pushing one or the other of them forward or back. Love begets love, and you don't love -or rather, you don't love more than fleetingly- if you don't receive love back.

(All those Medieval songs of unrequited love might say differently, but I'm sticking to my guns!)

And lucky for me I'm reading books you love this year, which gives me the opportunity, if not to prove my supposition, then at least to amass supporting evidence. And so far, I have to say, my theory's been borne out. The Thirteen Clocks , a love letter to the English language, admonished, in addition, against covetous love, and An Equal Music was one long love affair.

Tam Lin, Pamela Dean's retelling of the old ballad, goes one step further, pitting love against death.

At least that's love's ostensible role in Dean's young adult novel, a meandering traipse through the college experience of one Janet Carter, a red-headed faculty brat who fences, quotes profligately from Shakespeare, and is a mostly satisfying mix of nerdy and plucky. Janet attends Blackstock College, an institution of higher learning that appears to be differentiable from Minnesota's Carleton College only insofar as it is lousy with fairies.

(Full disclosure: I almost went to Carleton. It was my favorite of the four colleges I chose between, and had I not gone haring off after music -love, again, damnable love- I might well have matriculated.)

You know the story of Tam Lin. I've even blogged about it before. A young woman saves her lover from becoming the Fairy Queen's human sacrifice by pulling him from his horse and holding on to him as he is transformed into a lion, a snake, a burning brand. She wins him in the end, returning him to life and, more tellingly, to humanity -a victory for love in the face of change.

That scene is in Dean's book. It is almost unaltered from the original, and it takes up two paragraphs toward the very end of the novel. That's two paragraphs out of over 400 pages, which should perhaps clue you in to the real love affair in Dean's Tam Lin, which doesn't involve strapping young men or loyal swains or even fairies. Rather, Dean's Tam Lin is one long, lingering affair with the (selective liberal arts) college experience.

Janet is consumed by her passion for learning. She lusts after her classes, pines for her books and the experience of wrapping her mind around them. She has lively debates with her equally erudite friends, dithers over declaring her major, attends theater events, delves into poetry. She challenges her professors and finds them challenging; and even her mischief, lovingly undertaken with the help of her various brilliant cronies, is recondite. Her love affair with the title character, stuffed hurriedly into the final eighth of the book, seems by-the-by.

The trappings of the ballad, accordingly, feel close to incidental, and the book's loose ends, of which there are many, can grate. Yet, I don't begrudge either Janet or Dean her love. College is, indeed, a wondrous time, a time when we are allowed to be -expected to be- most ourselves. And Janet's sojourn there, so lovingly depicted, is something I don't mind holding on to.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America

The number of houses in between my house -or not properly my house, but the house from which I bent curfew, left for college, married, etc.- and the house of Alfred Charles Kinsey, noted sex researcher, is six.

To get there, amble up a damp and creviced slant of sidewalk. Duck under the maples and the prideful oaks, past the white house, past the red house that recently sold, past the day lilies and the lawn care sign and the lilac branch that guillotines, sweetly, your throat.

It's not the nearness that cuts. It's the distance.

By which I mean: I wish time moved more slowly and with less precision; I wish it were off its game.

Double back, because I've missed the house of the girl who captained my state champion high school spell bowl team, spell bowl ranking not as important as sports in the eyes of my fellow prisoners of taxpayer-funded education, not one fifth as important, not one twentieth -but nevertheless possessed of a certain satisfying rhythm, an in/out thrust by which words entered your brain and then exited, whole, impressing themselves only insofar as their letters were pleasurably ordered or, occasionally, chafed-

but there's a suicide in there. We've forgotten, but here he is, stitching his consonants to his vowels like a sweatshop granny, riding beside us on the bus. We stop at KFC for too-late lunch; he gets biscuits, no chicken. He's only a freshman. He's someone's little brother. We ask him what flowers we remind him of. He says peony, cat tail-

Kinsey, it is rumored, loved flowers. Loved to look at them but also to lure them, to tease them out of the muck and sweat and the bang-bang-bang of the hoe against the earth. The earth doing what it was supposed to be doing, all of us doing what we are supposed to be doing-

Except we do more. After the state championship -cheap medals, no glory- we drive home. It's seventy miles south and east, the hills opening up, the sky folding shut. We are quiet on the bus. We disembark. We graduate. We fuck. We blink. None of us gardens. One of us dies. Our captain builds canoes, counsels students at Kinsey's alma mater, administrates arts programs, collides with an SUV.

Her parents fly her back, put her in a nursing home south of town. They return to their house, the blue one that's the last house before you reach mine, the one I'd stop in front of if it weren't almost dark, almost home.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Putting It In

PERSPECITIVE, PEOPLE. It's a superhero. Perspective differentiates your foreground from your background. Perspective exsanguinates your roads into dental floss, then bloats your dental floss into roads. Perspective takes you from washboard to wahoo! in the 7,865,927,084 seconds it takes you to figure out how to draw anything other than stick figures.

I still can't draw anything other than stick figures.

This despite having agreed, in a moment of mimosa-induced insanity, to attend something called Wine and Canvas, in which you stand around in the downtown of a midsized midwestern city and attempt to copy a painting of puppies or wildflowers or perhaps a disgruntled unicorn whilst tippling.

I think, in retrospect, that the attraction must have been the tippling.

See, lately I've been wondering if my awesome lack of artistic aptitude isn't symbolic: I can't seem to master mental perspective, either. Yes, I'm moving. Yes, I'm (hopefully temporarily) jobless. Yes, I have to sell my washer/dryer set on Craigslist and inventory which cardboard boxes in the basement were mortally wounded in the Great Sewage Overflow of 2010, and somehow divest myself of a small pipe organ.

But other people are dead!

I must fix this thought to my brain like a kick me sign to the back of a recalcitrant babysitter. I hereby resolve to recognize that other people have real problems. They are abused and divorcing and homeless and hungry and maimed.

The things I have are inconveniences. I can't quite stomach the word opportunities, so inconveniences will do for now.

Also, if you would like a slow cooker, a coffee maker, a toaster, any of an assortment of mildly dilapidated furniture, half-eaten pantry staples, a 1970s Rogers pipe organ with full pedal board, a Kenmore washer and dryer set, some ugly refrigerator magnets, pots containing dead plats, a gold fireplace poker, or a chair attached to a combination lock to which no one knows the combination, I'm your woman.

Monday, June 14, 2010

In Which I Confess to Sly-Dialing

It was me! I did it. I sly-dialed.

You know sly-dialing. It's a sneaky little service that lets you bypass much of the actual business of calling someone by connecting you directly to their voicemail. You pretend you've called a person; you create the illusion of having called. But in fact you never intended, and in fact went to some lengths to avoid, real-time connection.

I suppose it's understandable. Real-life communication -communication that is two-sided and live- is tricky in way that email is not. And email and its little brother, texting, are our default these days. I can't remember the last time I chose to communicate by telephone when email was available. Emailing is just easier. It's more securely under your control; you can shape -and reshape- it in advance; you can fine-tune what you want to say.

It's the coward's mode of communication, and I am nothing if not a coward. I telephone when it's unavoidable, or when things are too complicated or too large or to say over email, or when I want immediate dialogue. Or when I don't have your email address.

Enter sly dial, ridding me of any last vestigial need to converse! I might as well become a card-carrying monologist, because I sure as heck don't need to listen anymore!

Though, to be more precise, what sly dial actually relieves you of is not so much conversation as uncomfortable conversation, those dialogues you're just too chicken shit to have. In my case, craven people-pleaser that I am, I didn't want to tell a nice landlord in live conversation that I had signed a lease on someone else's place. But I can see sly dial being used to deliver a whole plethora of rejections, personal and professional, as well as to pass along bad news, unload emotional baggage, and to just generally be a jerk.

All of which begs the question: Will we miss uncomfortable conversation when it's gone? Is there something essential, or at least instructive, in facing your demons, in having to look in the eye -or at least tangle your voice with- the person you're about to hurt? Does experiencing discomfort make you more empathetic, less ruthless, more, well, human?

Good stuff to think about later. First I have to go sly dial my brother.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On My Radar

There's a storm coming. I can feel it, for starters -the air is scratchy, like a woolen blanket- and I can hear the first mumblings of thunder. And, because I live in the twenty-first century, I can track it on the radar. It's live and red and spreading, a rash or a Chinese dragon or an arsonist's masterpiece, and it activates, momentarily, the tornado sirens. They are startling, a deluge of noise, drowning the whipping of the branches of the trees.

What must it have been like before satellite images, before weather radio, before klaxons, when the only tools you had to tell you what was coming over the horizon were contained within your skin? Your nose, maybe your eyes and ears? Your trick knees, your gouty hips, your pulsing, pick-axe headaches? Do we lose anything, forgetting to watch ourselves for signs of storm?

But of course I am over-romanticizing. It has never been just us; humans are tricksy creatures; we have watched everything -weather vanes, dogs, sundials, red sky tonight, sailor's delight- we have watched everything we could, because it was important.

(It's raining now, great globs of rain; the forecast said torrential and it is almost impossible for me to prevent this word from streaming into the space behind my eyes.)

And we've forgotten that, weather's incalculable importance. Or at least I have. When the sirens went off I was scared, yes, but welling up under the fear was a cold kind of comfort. Tornadoes, to an Indiana native, are old hat. The ritual is soothing, familiar as an incantation. Get the flashlight. Take the radio to listen to, maybe a blanket. Go down into the basement and hunker there with the ones you love.

The sirens have shut off; the rain, fierce guard-dog rain, has not. But I can't help but think we're fooling ourselves -I'm fooling myself- with all this predictive equipment, our safeguards and our reflectivity composites. Yesterday, two dozen people were swept away by flood waters in Arkansas. Katrina may have receded into memory, but its scars have not. And tornadoes -not everyday, but sometimes, and not only to OZ- carry people away.

Get the flashlight. Take the radio. Go down to the basement. Love, listen.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gold Star!

I've been thinking a lot this past year about feeling appreciated. You either like your job or you don't, insofar as you enjoy or loathe or tolerate the constellation of activities that makes up your particular galaxy of employment. (In the case of one of my jobs: manipulating small children, filling out forms, entering data, emanating a general odor of schoolmarm. In the case of job # 2: practicing, schlepping, shamelessly promoting oneself, occasionally performing, haggling over calendars, calculating tax liability, begging.)

But how you feel about the day-to-day grind of your job can only take you so far. What you really want -what most people really want- is to be appreciated. This is why musicians lap up that post-concert schmooze while pretending mightily not to. This is why people in some positions -jobs that require you to give and give more as par for the course- burn out. This year I had one parent out of 40 tell me they appreciated what I'd done for their kids. The praise was searing, almost painful, as if I'd quaffed ice-cold water after a month in the desert.

So I've been trying to do more appreciating. I have become fulsome in my praise of reference librarians. I sent my exterminator a thank you note with a Starbucks gift card. I emailed our secretary, thanking her for keeping us from exploding in a fiery ball of disorganization. I want you to know you're doing a good job.

You're doing a good job, readers! Now go hunt someone down and tell them the same before I vomit from the cheesiness of it all.

Friday, June 4, 2010

#2: An Equal Music

It took me an inordinately long time to get through this book. In fact I have to confess that between page 25 and page 275 I devoured at least eight other novels, possibly nine or ten or eleven, each polished off with the bravado that only a reader avoiding another, more labyrinthine work can muster.

It wasn't that An Equal Music was a difficult read. It was actually fairly engrossing in its detailing of music and music-making and obsessive love. I'm a musician, albeit not a member of a string quartet, so much of the stuff of the life of Michael Holme, the second violinist of Vikram Seth's fictional Maggiore Quartet, carried that perfect, balanced savor of familiarity and novelty.

Rather, it's that the novel shares the structure of a dense Classical chamber work, unspinning itself slowly, and often repetitively, over a protracted span of time. Michael plays music; he pursues his lost love; he plays more music. Not a lot happens, but what does happen makes noise.

An Equal Music
is a double romance. Michael loves music; Michael loves Julia, the Musician Who Got Away. The novel's chief device is to conflate these two loves; Michael, and the other musicians in the novel, struggle to disentangling the musical from the human:

Michael on Julia: "To say that there was a naturalness to her playing does not say very much: after all, everyone plays according to their nature." (p. 32)

Yet, "Billy is far too fat, and always will be. He will always be distracted by family and money worries, car insurance and composition. For all our frustration and rebuke, he will never be on time. But the moment his bow comes down on the strings he is transfigured. He is a wonderful cellist, light and profound: the base of our harmony, the rock on which we rest." (p.10)

And, "When I play this I release myself into the spirit of the quartet. I become the music of the scale. I mute my will, I free my self." (p. 10).

Helen, another member of the quartet, dates an early music nerd almost entirely because he skillfully restrung her viola. And Julia, in the book's midsection, is revealed to be keeping a secret that strikes at the heart of her musicianship and thus at her sense of self.

What is me and what is not? It seems like a stupid question, but in fact the ultimate power of music is to confound one's sense of self. Because music is backdoor communication, springing from a place unpolluted by words, it's very tricky to integrate into one's (mostly verbal) consciousness.

This is perhaps why, in the novel, both Michael and Julia display the fabulously annoying tendency to interpret events and random environmental fluctuations as personally significant, a symbol of their relational or emotional states. It is tricky to delimit yourself when your job is to blur the boundaries between you and sound.

Another confession: Over time, I came to hate Michael and Julia. They were petty, self-absorbed, and far, far, far, far too serious. Nevertheless, An Equal Music rose above them. It's a luminous novel, a sustaining novel, a novel of profound grace. Just as music subsumes its players, so the novel subsumed its characters: a hymn, at last, to the power of art.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


It used to be called post-performance let-down, and I haven't experienced it for a while. Once you start performing regularly, the end of each individual performance is merely an opportunity to get your shit together for the next one. This June, however, is the perfect storm: I gave 14 performances in two months, self-produced three, and then stepped off the cliff into complete giglessness.

Not to mention that I am otherwise unemployed and entering the second-to-last month of my lease. That kind of stuff will throw you.

I have responded with fortitude and vigor. Which is to say, I have been lying around napping and watching episodes of The Bachelorette while attempting to subsist on a diet of bread and cheese.

Ennui: so classy.

Sure, there've been a couple of novels in there, and a chore or two, but overall I've been drifting. The Bachelorette is emblematic of this drift: watching it feels vauguely like pleasure and vaguely like punishment, the force of both blunted by the benumbing brainlessness of the contestants. Dialogue this insipid CANNOT BE MADE UP. It's so bad it's inspirational. I will shut down the synapses of three quarters of my brain and live in happy witlessness with a shirtless yahoo named Hunter. Yes We Can!

Only it's too late and I've grasped the show's deeper meaning: The Bachelorette is a bowdlerized, three-legged version of The Wings of the Dove, in which an enterprising young man, out to make his fortune and further his own ends, woos and wins a wealthy heiress. Only wealth in this case is the lucre of life on the C-List...

Even IMMORALITY is deteriorating, people. God, I need more cheese.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Way Afterward

Four rehearsals, three concerts, two day drives, a publicity campaign, and six nights later, I'm exhausted. For the first time, I taste the interior of this word, the scraped-out nothing at the core. I've used the whole substance of myself; there's nothing left to give any shape to my skin.

I can't say this is unpleasant. There's something very similar to drunkenness about exhaustion; the same blurring of the edges, the same fixity on the vein moving across the wrist, the fly across the window, the shadow over the skin. I am interested, for the first time, in the saccades of the eye: all the small movements the ocular musculature must make to transform print into words. Why does this work? Why does anything work?

I've been tired before, of course. But It's been a long time since I've worked so hard for something I wanted so hard. It's been a long time since I've let myself want.