Friday, December 31, 2010

Bye Now, 2010

Today, my mother-in-law showed me a Christmas letter in which the author detailed one thing that had happened in her life in each of the previous 52 weeks of the year.  Also today, I read through a whole bunch of other folks' blog entries in which bloggers recounted the highlights of each exciting, wholesome, & overachieving month.

To which I say, bite me, bloggers.

Still, I feel like I owe myself some kind of 2010 wrap-up.  And by 2010 wrap-up I do not mean the bottom of the champagne bottle, though there's still time.  For posterity, then!

January:  Um...what happened during January?  I think I was cold. I think I also played a concerto with a very small orchestra.
February: Has vanished entirely into the dark and terrible maw of time.
March: Ha!  I'm pretty sure I went to Florida in March!  And spent the entire two days waiting out torrential rains in an old folks' home!  Is it possible I also played in Missouri?  Ooo!  And I did my taxes.
April:  .....right...April.   I think I went to Ohio.   Twice.
May:  I found out I was leaving Indiana.  I toured West Virginia, visited Virginia, ate at Tudor's Biscuit World for the first and only time, rented an apartment, orchestrated part of a tour for my ensemble, finished up my Indiana schools job, did five or so school outreach concerts, and was generally insane.
June: Lolling.
July: Packing.  Low spirits.  Music camp.  Moving.
August:  The power of the porch is revealed to me.
September:  Back on the gainful employment horse, having sold my soul to industry.  Also cheese.
October: Train to NYC.  I love trains!  More work.  No trick-or-treaters.
November:  Baby, it's old inside.
December:  Worried intermittently/futilely about the increased complication of 2010 taxes, esp. as had previously judged 2009 taxes equivalent to passing comprehensive doctoral exams in Macedonian Studies.  Contemplated the very exciting life I lead.  Played first VA concert in the dark.  Tried Xanax.

Heck yeah, people!  If nothing else, I hope this exercise allows you to reflect smugly on your own considerably more interesting lives.  Love to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Every year, due to the vagaries of scheduling, my hometown college basketball team plays an early conference game during the final week of the year. 

The timing makes things interesting: College towns over college breaks are ghost towns -albeit ghost towns in which the ghosts are kicking back and enjoying life.  Faculty, staff, and townsfolk know there's nothing sweeter than an empty college town.  You enjoy all the upsides of academia (culture, progressive politics) with none of its downsides (surplus of barfing 18-year-olds).  The streets are quiet, tables are available at restaurants, and the town's general level of compliance with traffic regulations vaults five or six notches.

During that time -precious, precious time- just about the only way to catch a glimpse of a student is to cheer on one of the lanky specimens on the basketball court.  Mostly, this is good: less barf, more silence.  But it does present a problem for the athletics department: How do you field a pep band when all your musicians have gone home for break?

There's a clip of the answer above.  The alumni pep band, comprised of folks 23-85 who used to be student members, plays one or two games a year.  The alums drive in from all over the state, dusting off their instruments to stare, cross-eyed, at their tiny music stands.  The band generally starts out kind of rank, but by the end of the evening, win or lose, the pep band has improved.  Tuning is better, ensemble tightens, and the tubas dredge from the depths of their memories the fine skill of turning back and forth without knocking one another over.

I love the alumni pep band.  Every time I see it in action, live or on You Tube, I cry.  I find it difficult to articulate why it moves me, except to notice that each of these people, the insurance salesman from South Bend, the retired accountant, the housewife, the middle school band teacher, the unemployed barfly- has within them a secret pocket of music.  It's as if each person is clutching a bowl of water, carrying it through the long months and at last, at the tail of the year, pouring it out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


A friend on Facebook described this week, the week after Christmas but before New Year's Day, as a "limbic" week. I don't disagree, although the word "limbic" smacks too much, to me, of fear and spinal cords. I prefer "lambent." As in effulgent, aglow, alight. The world has whitened up and quieted down. The year is playing out and gathering in. Where are you in all of this?

I'm tromping. Tromping is an activity distinct from, although related to, walking. You walk to get somewhere (the store) or something (svelte buns). You walk easily; the air parts around you; you barely break a sweat.

Tromping is the kind of thing you do to no purpose by yourself in the snow. It's early, so I fight with my family and tromp down to the graveyard. It's late, so I tromp past the empty storefronts toward a particular bend in the road. There's resistance involved in tromping: you push through, breathe hard, keep going.

I take care, too, to touch all the secret places, all the little nowheres that offer themselves to the dedicated tromper. The secret sidewalk joining one dead end street to another. The backyard you can cut through to get from one neighborhood to the next. They alley through which you have a straight shot at the courthouse. The hidden graveyard. The house in which, two owners ago, you stayed up the whole white night.

What good is all of this, the minutiae of place? No one but a native would know what you're supposed to do in that fountain, what store used to be there, what field was divvied into condos. To me, the town where I grew up is hypertextual, every house (street, tree, sidewalk) linked to a memory. But what's the prize? What can I do, as a native, that you can't? So I know a two-second shortcut: Where's my cookie?

Plain text is simpler. But you're born where you're born, and I'll keep tromping through it all this last, long, limbic, lambent week of the year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

On Chesil Beach

Clearly, I failed to retain with enough fixity of mind the sheer gut-twisting malice of Atonement, because I just went back for more. I picked up On Chesil Beach at the library two days before Christmas, finished it in a single evening, and was forcibly reminded of why I've refused to read any McEwan for the last half decade. The books are beautiful, sleek-muscled, shining, but they'll claw you throat to knees without blinking. It's like going to bed with a lover and waking up with a rabid rottweiler.

On the other hand, p. 164:

"It is not easy to pursue such hard truths in bare feet and underpants."

Thursday, December 23, 2010


So this is the way it would go down. First, I'd sidle up to the Express Checkout. Then, I'd spend fifteen minutes figuring out how to work it. (Express checkout is a misnomer. It would be faster to hand your card to the confidently bespectacled individual skulking behind the circulation desk, but then you'd have to reveal to someone who is sentient and ambulatory that, yes, you are checking out Match Me If You Can.) I'd swipe the last decade of my life under the little red scanner thingy and finally, BING, it would renew. My twenties: a do-over!

Only this time I'd do it smarter. This time I'd say no, I don't want to date you instead of hiding in the closet. I'd ask out the amusing boys and ignore the pretentious ones; I'd cotton to the fact that skeezy men are, in fact, skeezy; I would refuse to be seduced by vocabulary. I would not try to major in four different things at once; I would not try to live four different lives at once; and I'd accept, once and for all, that just because something is hard for me doesn't mean it's worth doing.

If only I'd had guidance! An instruction manual, a handful of proverbs, something! I refuse to enter my thirties so grossly unprepared. Ergo: a fresh round of Library I Ching!

Library I Ching works because our books do indeed reveal something about who -and where- we are. I'll read romances when I'm tired, mystery novels when I'm afraid, literary fiction when I'm restless. Nonfiction when I'm feeling especially virtuous, popular fiction when I'm feeling especially alienated. And within each category are the subheadings: nuances of feeling and mood as encapsulated by a range of writerly effort. Margaret Atwood: wistful disconnection. Alice Munro: trees & fatalism. Anne Tyler: the sweetish nausea of home.

In other words, there's guidance in there somewhere! I went to the library today. Now, if I just take a page from my book(s):

"Of course he didn't do it," said Caroline, who had been keeping silent with great difficulty. "Ralph may be extravagant, but he's a dear boy, and has the nicest manners."

-Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Translation: Have faith. Or etiquette? One of the two.

Let me begin at the beginning. Julia arrived on the dot of our appointed hour. For a wicked woman, she is always surprisingly punctual. And she didn't seem at all winded by the stairs. The stairs are a kind of test, for people of our years.

-Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

Translation: I am old. Possibly also wicked.

But the zip could not be unfastened with one hand alone, at least, not for the first inch or two. You had to hold the top of the dress straight with one hand while pulling down, otherwise the fine material will bunch and snag. She would have reached over her shoulder to help, but her arms were trapped, and besides, it didn't seem right, showing him what to do. Above all, she did not wish to hurt his feelings. With a sharp sigh, he tugged harder at the zip, trying to force it, but the point had already been reached when it would move neither down nor up. For the moment she was trapped inside her dress.

-Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

Translation: Undressing is tricksy. Alternatively: avoid zippers.

It's not much to go on, but heck, it's more than I had at twenty.

Monday, December 20, 2010


We used to sing.

Sure, some of us still do. I have two or three friends who are bona fine opera singers, and I know countless more folks who sing for smaller or larger portions of their suppers in church choirs, chamber choirs, symphony choirs, etc. They're trained, most of these singers. They've been given specific instructions on how to inhale and exhale, how to shape their vowels, whether to roll or flip their /r/s.

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us whose idea of proper singing technique starts and ends with opening our mouths?

Casual singing, day-to-day singing, is in a bad way. There may be a hundred contestants yelping their dignity away on American Idol, but you have only to stand in a Sunday morning congregation to observe people whispering the words of the hymns, frowning at their upside down hymnals, zoning out, or snapping shut their books. Gone are singalongs, caroling parties, lullabies. Singing has become like surgery, something you're only supposed to undertake if you know what you're doing.

Which is a pity. Not that I am so hungry to be serenaded by our enmassed and tuneless populace, but there is something visceral about singing, some basic human quality that's tough to articulate and even tougher to do without. We open our mouths together; we sing. We don't do it for remuneration or praise or to hear the sounds of our own voices: we do it because we can, because we can do it together, because our throats are choked with song.

This month, I've decided, is for singing. I crooned the communion anthem yesterday. This evening, I'm headed over to a friend's house to howl madrigals. Last weekend, I donned a silly hat, grabbed a mug of nog, and belted the indifferently-voiced alto lines of Christmas carols all up and down the rain-soaked streets. It was not lovely and amazing. It was not even lovely. Nevertheless, there I went, human and making noise.

Friday, December 17, 2010


I'm not a Christmas letter person.

You probably could have guessed this given the ancillary data: I am not a Christmas tree person, a Christmas lights person, a wreath-purchasing person, a Halloween costume donner, a gift wrapper, a manger arranger, or a spreader of holiday cheer. (I always picture the holiday cheer as butter, the kind you forget to take out of the fridge resulting in a block the texture of a pencil eraser, impossible to distribute evenly over bread.)

I am, it should be noted, an enthusiastic consumer of eggnog, but that's about all I've got.

Still, I've been thinking about Christmas letters. My Great Aunt Marian and Great Uncle Fred, both of whom died in 2009, were enthusiastic and literate composers of Christmas letters, and I always enjoyed curling up with their offerings. Fred was a retired Shakespeare scholar, Marian a retired poetry journal editor, and each of them, always, felt that the year they'd just passed deserved commentary, dissection, summation, beauty.

If we don't transmute our days into words, how do we know we've lived? Pictures are not the same. They're casual, the brushing up of the world against your senses. Words are for keeps. And by words, I don't mean diaries, which have always struck me as shouting in the dark. Rather, communication: the conscious delivery, via language, of then into now. I am reminded of Calvin stepping into the transmogrifier, emerging as a subtle variation of himself.

(I have lately become preoccupied with Calvin and Hobbes. Or perhaps a better word is occupied: they inhabit me, urging naps and mischief.)

Last year, no letters came. The year trundled past, a train with every window dark. We don't keep addresses, anymore, or at least I don't: mailboxes seem outmoded, like the ultimate bones of your spine. If I want someone's address, I ask via email. But you can't solicit addresses for Christmas letters. Part of the ritual is faith: you scribble a direction, let the letter go, and trust your words will fetch up at friends' doors.

Dear Friends,

This year I closed doors and changed places. By which I mean I took a place I understood the worth of and broke it into silver quarters. Or maybe I mean I left a place and it closed behind me like a door. There is a lot of silver in the world, and some of it is here, in rivers and pools and rain against the roof of the porch. Every time I drive north from the city I wish I were somewhere else and in 10 years I'll wish that somewhere else were here. Never mind: You're mine out there somewhere, you with your worlds and your ears.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Snow Day!

Ah, the apocryphal snow day. You know, the snow day that sent Calvin barreling down the hill after Hobbes, the day made of angels and cocoa and wet wool, in which the sky cracked opened its jaws and the rest of the world -finally- shut up.

That particular snow day hasn't been real in a while. Snow these days pretty much means you'll spend twice as long as normal creeping along the roads toward work in your metal death box. You'll get neck cramps from clutching the steering wheel, back spasms from scraping the ice off your windshield, and eyestrain from peering through the sleet. After the storm passes, you get to drive home and shovel your sidewalk.

Except in Virginia!

When I awoke up this morning at the relaxed hour of 7 AM, a winter storm warning was in full swing. 3-6 inches were forecast. In preparation, the entire city had shut down.

As a lifelong midwesterner, I find this bemusing. I routinely drove through six-, seven-, and nine-inch snowfalls to reach a workplace that opened punctually and without fuss. The only time I recall so much as a two-hour delay was when a foot and a half of the white stuff appeared overnight. In VA, the schools appear to have pre-emptively folded up their tents for a sixth of that.

At some level, it's irritating. I can't go in to work; ergo, I don't get paid. On the other hand, the neighborhood kids are out in droves. The cocoa is brewing. The snow is shawling down and the world is on its way to white.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Squirrel by Squirrel

It happens when we're asleep, one of the multitude of things that happen when we're asleep. Teeth grind. Temperatures drop. Skirts lift. Breath hitches or lurches or dies. Night is granular in a way that day is not; it is instant rubbing up against instant, darkness against darkness, where day is a wash of light.

Night by night, the pumpkin disappears.

It's not magic. Some Vespucci of a squirrel discovered the pumpkin about a week ago, and since then, rodent explorers have made nightly forays to the porch. I check on the pumpkin every morning, just as the sun starts to get its thumbs into the world. I hunt up my slippers, drink a full glass of water, step out into the coldening world to discover, each day, another inch gone.

The neighbors are done with pumpkins. They've affixed wreaths to their doors, lined their railings and gutters and stairs with twinkling lights. Through their shut shades, their Christmas trees scold me. I have not put up a tree, not even a fake one. I have not made Christmas cookies or advent wreaths or stockings or nog. My pumpkin, not particularly festive even during its October heyday (it remained stubbornly small, single, chaste) and only tolerable during Thanksgiving, has nothing to do with Christmas.

It does have to do with waiting, though, and this is the time of the year that we wait. If you're Christian, it's Advent, and you're waiting for Christ. If, like me, you don't believe, you're still waiting. You wait for the days to trickle through their narrowest point; you wait for your family to gather you in. The day slivers down to nothing, a thumbnail moon.

I'm not done with the pumpkin. As of this morning it's gone soft inside. There are bits of orange, like shrapnel, scattered at its feet. I wait. Soon will come more teethmarks, less flesh, fatter squirrels, mold, darkness, spring.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Perfect Gift

Something from home + big hunk of chocolate = top that.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Kitchen Express

I've fallen in love. Three years into my marriage, eight years into my relationship, I'm ready to chuck it all so I can run away and have Mark Bittman feed me minimally.

Or, preferably, maximally.

Failing that, I'll have to resort to this cookbook. I adore this cookbook! I worship this cookbook! I've been waiting for this cookbook my whole life, not realizing that everything I thought I was doing -working, acquiring graduate degrees, marrying, buying cheese- was a gussied-up form of waiting for this cookbook.

Meet Kitchen Express. Bittman has compiled 404 of what are less recipes than templates, organizational scaffolding upon which you can erect your PARTHENON OF DELICIOUSNESS. They're seasonally inspired, contain few ingredients, and can be made in "20 minutes." "20 minutes" is food industry speak for "half an hour, or forty minutes if you lose time extracting the cilantro from the bowels of the refrigerator," but it's close enough. And did I mention yummy?

But here's the chilling question: Do I grovel at the feet of this cookbook because it's really that good, or because Bittman panders so expertly to my twin kitchen neuroses of laziness and desire for yum? There's some academic research to suggest that the people of the same sex we rate most attractive are the people who look like us, only prettier. Bittman cooks like me (quickly, using templates and not very many ingredients), only WAY MORE SMOKIN.'

Oh well. I'm going to retire to bed with my book again.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Forever Schlub

Last night, I dressed up. By which I mean I donned more than five articles of clothing/underclothing and none of them was stretchy or fuzzy. I put on earrings, for God's sake. I drew the laziness line at make-up, but my hair was brushed (!) and there were no pony-tail holders in evidence. I even dug out -get this- a hair accessory.


I confess: I'm a schlub. I've pretty much been a schlub since birth. My baby blankets were drab. In preschool, my goal was to wear as few articles of clothing as possible (see also: terrorizing neighbors with nudity) with as few fasteners as possible. If I had to learn to dress myself, I was going to set the bar low.

In high school, I favored long skirts and limp hair. I rallied briefly in college, entering a strange period in which I actually stood in front of mirrors and tweaked my outfits, but, like a kidney stone, it passed.

Since going off the dating market eight years ago, I've allowed myself to descend ascend, by degrees, to my rightful schlubby throne. My closet contains an ever increasing percentage of chunky sweaters, long-sleeved T shirts. and elastic waist pants. I do not own a pair of heels. I do not own a blow dryer. Most of my make-up dates from the late nineties and I wear my hair jammed back from my face in a three-second knot. I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but my day-to-day work purse is a cloth grocery bag.

I'm not gonna lie: There are distinct disadvantages to schlubhood. I would probably be passed over for promotion, were promotion possible in my chosen fields. A lack of care for your personal appearance, the thinking goes, betokens laziness, and if you are lazy with yourself you will be lazy on the job. All of this is true: I am lazy. It just does not seem rational to me to expend any more effort than you have to, especially when that effort comes at the expense of reading Dorothy Sayers and/or doing the crossword.

I also think that schlubhood disadvantages me more subtly, in that people, subconsciously or not, respond more favorably to people who are attractive. There's been a great deal of research backing this up, and the effect is noticeable across cultures and milieus. And although you cannot alter your baseline attractiveness -if you have a harelip you will always have a harelip- I can't deny that you can move yourself up or down several rungs of the attractiveness ladder by means of wardrobe, grooming, etc.

Why, then, do I persist? Why raise low high the flag, sleep through sing the praises, etc?

Well, first off, see the aforementioned laziness: It takes me all of 12 minutes and shower, dress, and prep in the morning.

But there's also this: When I do dress up, when I actually put forth the effort to don boots and tights and a dress and a scarf and a nice coat and earrings and hair product, the effect is actually shocking. It's like I've suddenly become the star of my own (slightly wonky) makeover show. One minute I'm shclubby, and the next I am magically transformed into normal.There's something baroque, almost grotesque, about it, like I have sawn a lady in half or plunged a sword through the belly of a rabbit before releasing him to frolic, unharmed, in the grass.

It's kind of awesome, and I wouldn't want to give it up. Not to mention heels hurt, people.