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


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.


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.