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."