Once upon a time, this blog was going to be all about my pet bird, when I got one. But I never did get that bird. So, now this blog is about the beautiful, curious things that keep me in a near-constant state of happy distraction. Ironically, many people find these writings when they wonder what "peristerophobia" means. It's a fear of pigeons. I've made a bird blog after all.
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
My to-do list today is turn the party out.
Some of you (and you know who you are) have been wondering whether I'd make a deadline today, and I'd like to announce that I did, and that that's what a good deal of the fuss has been about over the past few days. It's always a half-nice, half-fearsome feeling to let a piece of writing go; this one is now bouncing its way off some satellites (and other assorted stuff) into someone's e-mailbox on the other side of the Atlantic, which means that I can get back to the trente-six choses I have à faire right here and now. source for this second image of the day: Sooda.com--who knows? All I do is type the thing I want to find and hit "images" and "search," and these strange things appear. Seriously--try it! Abstract nouns are particularly good.
I like to teach my students new words. This fact should not come as a surprise to any of you, since I believe I've made it fairly clear that teaching words is my business. Sometimes, if we run into a particularly good word during a day's reading assignment, I'll joke with them about the word of the day, something that they should try working back into daily use. "Flagitious" was the best of these last semester; "vilipend" might be the best we've encountered so far this semester. (Dickens's bad lobster simile from yesterday, though it's not, strictly speaking, a word, is coming up a close second, I have to say.)
This afternoon, in the aftermath of a couple of late nights and of a very busy Tuesday morning and afternoon, I'm feeling lassitude. Lassitude is hardly a word that has fallen out of the lexicon, of course, but it's one whose Oxford English Dictionary definition contains a couple of interesting nuances about which you should know, in the interests of keeping your linguistic being as spritely and lively as possible (which is, after all, one of my subsidiary desires for you--and speaking of desires, have you noticed that you're getting interpellated as my reader in more and more specific ways as the weeks wear on?). For those of you without OED access, here's the definition of this English successor to the Latin "lassitudo," from "lassus" (meaning weary):
The condition of being weary whether in body or mind; a flagging of the bodily or mental powers; indifference to exertion; weariness; an instance of this.
Of particular interest here: the fact that one can feel lassitude of either mind or body; the fact that lassitude can be either a condition or a becoming, a process; and, my favorite, that "indifference to exertion" is one of its possible dimensions.
I am in a temporary state of indifference to exertion. Often, such a state hits me at about 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, since my Tuesday/Thursday class regularly requires my exertion and thus hits me harder, all around, than my other classes do. I know well enough that the lassitude will lift, that I'll catch a second wind in about 90 minutes, that I'll stay up and relatively merrily get my work done. But for now, I sit just a little.
In case you're not familiar with it, one thing you should know about the Oxford English Dictionary is that it not only defines words but also offers you historical instances of their use. It delights me to no end that the last example offered for "lassitude" is dated 1886 and comes from John Ruskin's tragic autobiography Praeterita: "Periods of renewed enthusiasm after intervals of lassitude." I anticipate precisely such a period of renewed enthusiasm this evening. In the longer view, the pattern and pacing of enthusiasm and lassitude following one after the other, in fairly swift succession, is one that eventually took Ruskin down. This summer, I spent time reading the diary Ruskin kept while writing his autobiographical sketches. Some days, he could barely sit still and reported having gone out to hew things with his servants, having climbed in his incredible gardens, having written from time to time, having gone on long walks or even crossed Coniston Water to spend time in Coniston. And then come the falls: the days and weeks when he suffered, when he didn't get up or come downstairs, when he feared he was going mad, when he was going mad. It's a startling record, and one that makes the patterns of Praeterita even more poignant than they were for me before.
My recoils are not so scary in large part because they make so much sense to me; of course, if you go all out for a couple of days, you must not go all out for at least a space of time. But when I was inordinately proud of being able to do something more closely approximating going all out, all the time, I used to fear the backlash, the fatigue, the forced regroup that my body would pull on me. Even today, I'm feeling a little impatient at the light weight suspended behind my eyes and around the top of my head. But my impatience is kinder--and, weirdly, more patient--than ever. source for today's image:Artophile.com (and has lassitude ever dressed better, really?)
Or, as the kids sometimes write, "hottness"--as in, "He has that hottness about him."
It is warm yet again today, which makes all the walking to and from home that I do on Mondays more pleasant and less grr-charged than last week (though it was pretty warm last Monday, as well). All the work is still in the process of getting done, but it is getting done, and now there's a woodpecker on the tree outside my office, so I'd argue there's not much to complain about. It's no pileated woodpecker, to be sure, but sometimes a red-headed just has to be enough. And now? The woodpecker has dive-bombed a nuthatch that must have been poaching down below, and a goldfinch has landed on the roof, and a squirrel waves his tail about, watching it all--before (gasp!) charging up the tree to vanquish the woodpecker. Astoundingly good, all around--as one would expect from a day that began with my encountering Dickens's best simile: "It...had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar." As one of my beloved friends would say, L-O-V-E.
A postscript, because we haven't had one of those for awhile: After I left my office and headed toward home, I both saw my first spring flower--a wee snowdrop in the college president's backyard--and witnessed the beginning of the end of our warmth (or so I suspect), in the form of an enormous sweep of steely grey, blowing in from the west so quickly that I could barely keep up with it.
And, because I know you're suspecting as much, yes, that first picture is of the windowshade in my bedroom, and yes, I was reading my morning's reading assignment, with my morning coffee, in bed when I decided to take the picture, and yes, because that's not enough for you, here's another picture of another window. Here's how you know I love you, and how much.
I always wondered how everyone who blogs could say so confidently and proudly, "This is my Xth post!" And now I realize that ye olde blogger keeps track for us, so that I can proclaim, "This is post #50!" Unfortunately, my half-century mark is going to pass by without much auspiciousness, for I have miles to go before I sleep. Everything is clicking along at a fairly good and smooth pace, but it's not all done yet.
For more than a decade, I relished the mechanical feeling I slip into when I'm really working hard: determined, goal-oriented, focused, efficient. Now, I alternate between rueing that feeling's absence, when I'm trying to go easier on myself, and fearing its onset, when I feel it snapping to. There's not much more to be said, frankly--or at least, not much that could be said without threatening the pace I've finally hit today. source for today's image: the truly strange--perhaps the strangest site I've pulled an image from yet--Limited Edition RS , where one can get stickers not only of this clock's gear mechanism but also of "faux relatives," in case you need them for collages and such. They've got sheets of 1) Cousins, 2) Uncles, and 3) Aunts and Grandmas, a pretty significant distribution, n'est-ce pas?
This winter has been remarkably mild so far, and today is no exception to that observation. When my evening's multilingual, potluck conviviality let out, I parted from my friends, who were mostly driving home, and strolled down to town to check my mail at the post office and to stop off in the bookstore. Not much was happening in either the post office or the bookstore, to be sure; by 9 p.m. on a Saturday, students and faculty alike are generally elsewhere. After a little sojourn with a celebrity magazine or two (or, okay, three or four), I strolled off again--bearing my pie basket (containing tomorrow's breakfast) all the time, bien sur. Eventually, I made it down to my office, still strolling along, picking up bursts of conversation from the campus night, glimpsing silhouettes of men in suits heading northward, presumably for some kind of fraternity recruiting event.
As I swung out of central campus and headed to my office house, which perches on the edge of campus, just before our hilltop gives way to the plunge down to a state highway, I felt as though I were leaving yet another group behind, stripping myself away from more and more social layers until I was moving utterly solitarily through the dark, under the stars, crunching the gravel underfoot, carrying my basket. I had gone to the office to retrieve the book I'm teaching next week in my course on memory; fittingly, I have been unable, all week, to remember where this book is. Though it wasn't in my office, a student's recommendation letter form was, having been slipped under my door sometime since yesterday afternoon. Adding it to the pile of mail under my arm, I locked the office door and strolled back out into the darkness yet again. There's a kind of quiet here that I've found nowhere else I've lived; it's a quiet born of the fact that there simply isn't much, and aren't many, here, and this quiet breeds an inclination toward thinking, pondering, stretching oneself at odd moments. A half-mile of measured steps later, I was home, where the book turned out to be in the short stack next to my bed (where I suppose I must have finished off that particular syllabus) and where my various new resolutions and hopes all clustered in wait for me.
The quiet glory undergirding all this strolling (all these ordinary peregrinations, I should say, because nothing so remarkable happened anywhere along the walk) was simply that it is so mild, for January, that the night can't chill. Instead, it feels like hope itself, like possibility, like the spirit of endeavor. Nights like this, I wish I had a tower. Or at least part of me wishes for a tower; another part of me wishes to be half of the human element in this van Gogh painting--wishes for somebody who's elsewhere. Enveloping both wishes is a sort of penumbra of desire, itself strangely warm and pliable, ready (if I let it) to curl around me and bear me onward, even in the absence of what and whom I'm longing for. source for tonight's image: iBiblio's van Gogh site.
This morning, I visited a treadmill for the first time in months. My brilliant writer friend, recently returned to Gambier after exciting international travels and intrigue, made a reconaissance mission to the campus's new athletic center, which opened on Wednesday, and this morning she took me along with her. I've been skeptical of this place ever since its name got shortened to exclude "fitness and recreation," which had originally formed a Healthy Triad of sorts, with athletics. And yet, despite its somewhat soulless beige halls, I have to admit: this place is a palace of an athletic center, and I felt damned good striding along to Missy Elliot, working it indeed. And because there's a rotary torso machine, I'll be back again and again. I could use that machine for hours and be ecstatically happy--though also, of course, in deep, abiding pain. One of my students (whom I intercepted on another machine, in my exuberance and inability to maintain the straight-ahead "I don't see any students here, and they're not seeing me, their professor" gaze I'd been studiously keeping up, for the most part, for the last hour) said, "I feel as though I go to another school, all of a sudden."
Now, the point of today's post is not to sing the praises of this multi-million dollar athletic facility--which, for what it cost, should be a palace. Instead, I'm stopping in, before heading out, with the pie that's now in the oven, leaking everywhere as it finishes baking, to what promises to be a truly wacky dinner party and intellectual gathering, to sing the praises of the body itself. Mine is not electric--not most of the time, anyway--but I'll sing it anyway.
In summer 2002, a lovely friend said to me, "Will you help me teach some people to dance for their wedding?" We kicked off a beautiful dancing friendship, and I discovered all manner of interesting things about myself and my clothes (one night, for instance, we started into a waltz turn and discovered that the skirt I was wearing wasn't cut widely enough around my knees for my to swing my leg where it needed to go). The biggest lesson I learned was that I'd spent the previous year utterly ignoring my body. Ignoring one's body is different from, or perhaps just a subset of, neglecting it. By "ignoring my body," I mean that I had actually forgotten that it was there for anything besides carrying my brain around and helping me get some typing done.
What made my realization especially strange was the fact that I had spent so much of 2000 learning what my body, and bodies in general, could do. A good friend of mine--I'll call her my EasternIowan friend, which means you'll have to watch closely to make sure you don't get her mixed up with my OhioanIowan friend--had gotten herself completely, amazingly, formidably cut and buff and stacked and all those good muscle terms, all by doing kickboxing. I still don't think I've had another academic friend who could match this woman for sheer muscle mass and athletic determination. Because of her, I joined a gym for the first time in my life and, also for the first time in my life, started weight-training.
Now, my beloved Brooklynite swears by yoga; she can do amazing things with her body because of that practice. My preferred physical practice, which moves and centers me to the point where it's not unlike meditative worship (though not of myself, to be sure), is weight-training. Doing weights properly requires much more focus than you'd guess if you've never tried it. When I first started, I once said to the man who was training me, "I don't feel that at all." He upped my weight a little bit but also said, "Be sure you're focusing on the muscles that should be doing the work." I tried it--I visualized my hamstrings doing all the work to pull those fifty pounds around--and suddenly things got very difficult indeed, refreshingly and reassuringly difficult. For the rest of summer 2000, while I finished up my master's degree and settled into thinking about my dissertation, I speed-walked on the treadmills and then lifted, pressed, pulled, and twisted my body into the best strength and flexibility it had ever had.
One of the things I do love about my body is that my arm muscles start to show quickly, and they hang around visibly for a long time; I haven't exercised consistently since, mmm, I finished my dissertation. But I can still pop my slowly shrinking biceps up and impress others. I've been in a long, slow process of losing my strength and my good metabolism, though, and in that process--as has been my wont, historically--I have also had a significantly reduced interest in eating. Remember: this process has been going on since 2003.
And so you can imagine with what mingling of excitement and trepidation I stepped into the sunlit, glass-enclosed superhall of a cardio and weight room in the new athletic center this morning. I fumbled the treadmill at least four times before I got myself moving, stretched out, and warmed up. But once I was going, was I ever off. In the picture I've posted above, you can see how, beyond the superhall's right-side wall, there's another, even more super, hall. That one contains the new pool. And all the cardio machines look down on the pool from a second-floor perch. (In this second picture, the weight hall is behind the left-hand wall of glass.) I'm meditating on the post that will pour out (differently than last week's meditation on lakes) my love of water and of moving through water. For now, all you need to know (if you even need to know this) is that I spent 45 minutes striding along, gazing at the mirror-calm surface of the pool below me, working up the nerve I know I'll need to shed a towel down there while students do their own striding and stepping above me. But I also came home and ordered myself a lap suit to replace the old black one that, because it turns ten this summer, is growing threadbare in strategically poor places.
For what I realized, doing rhumba twirls and chaussees and waltz turns with my dancing New Yorker nearly four years ago, was that ignoring the fact that I have a body just plain hurts, and that bringing it back to life and sense was going to hurt, too. On a couple of occasions that summer, I went home and cried and cried over the aching I'd summoned up and couldn't slake. My beloved Brooklynite suggested that there was something to be said for sorrowing gorgeously, and I agreed with her, but when the time came around again at the end of the next summer, I managed, in fairly swift order, to cover back over all those nerves, all those movements and strengthenings and flexibilities, and to dull myself back out to being a brain on feet.
Now, I'm ready once again to stave off this latest phase of ignoring half of what makes up my self in the world--if only so that I can use the four weight machines I love best, the ones that change the way I hold myself, the way I feel myself centered and grounded and ready for kicking some ass. source for today's images: the KAC
In my morning e-mail today, I received a link to Making Fiends, a pretty swell Flash animation series about a semipsychotic fiend-maker named Vendetta and the equally semipsychotic friendly girl who loves her, Charlotte. You can tell who's who just by looking at this picture; the yellow guy next to Vendetta is her giant hamster sidekick, Grudge, and that's Marion getting ready to hide under the table she shares with Charlotte. The series is set at (and around) an elementary school, where the girls (and their classmates, each of whom has a great tic--like poor little green Marvin, whose nasally intoned line is always "My ______!", after one of this things gets eaten, stolen, crushed, or otherwise threatened by one of Vendetta's fiends) are in Mr. Milk's class, in classroom four. Classroom four has terrific alphabet posters hanging in the back; C is for Communism in one episode, while G is for Gorgon in another. It's all crazy fun, really, and the woman who did the animation has images and t-shirts for sale. What could be better? You could be one of the coolest of the cool indie anti-hipster kids on your block when you sport your own Angry Cat t-shirt. To know that you want to watch these little animated episodes (each of which is probably five minutes long), you only need look at this image of Mr. Milk and the bird that menaces him (one of Vendetta's creations, obviously):
You know me well enough by now to know that I'm not going to shill for just any alternate web event out there. Making Fiends has captured my heart today because of the sheer wackiness of it; its sense of humor is pretty twisted without being pained or painful, and even the cloyingly sweet girl doesn't get on my nerves (perhaps because I see too much of myself in her). But there's a bigger point to be made here, as well, and it's one that has something to do with why I finally started constructing the Cabinet.
One of my father's chief beliefs is that everyone is born creative and that we all have the creativity knocked out of us, to one degree or another, over the course of our upbringing--whether by overly doctrinaire schooling, or underappreciative parents, or obnoxious and cruel peers, or crippling self-doubts. My parents did a lot to get my brother and me to indulge our creative sides: we both took music lessons; my brother started getting camera equipment pretty early on; I inherited typewriters and got fountain pens as gifts when I was still in high school. Images turned out to be my brother's game, words mine; sometimes, these days, we shake things up a little and he does some writing, while I do some picture-taking. He knows some basic renovation stuff now--how to rebuild or recreate interior spaces--while I can take some fairly innocuous looking ingredients and produce you a dessert that will make your eyes and your mouth water.
My parents also demonstrated what it means to be creative. My mom has been quilting since the late 1970s; my father has always been a photographer. And you already know about their double-teaming efforts to create and execute mystery trips, not to mention E. Bunny clues.
In a broader sense, I learned from my parents some of the most important constituent parts of what I like to think is a creative approach to life itself. I've got this idea that my days are things to be crafted and experimented with and changed up and used to make something, even if (especially if?) it's an immaterial something. And I've got this other idea that somehow trying to prod or goad or cajole or laugh others into fearless creativity is part of what I'm supposed to be doing around here.
And so, Making Fiends: I love that the woman who designed this show undertook it in the first place, and that she stuck with it until she had two seasons' worth of episodes. And I love that at the center of the show is Vendetta, this rageful little girl who cooks up all kinds of embodied trouble, with the help of Grudge (who's too big for her to hold, by the way), in her kitchen, while the giant red Angry Cat hangs about outside and rraowls a bit--and then that Charlotte, repeatedly and apparently unintentionally, recreates all of Vendetta's creations as a new kind of handiwork altogether: a scissor-beaked bird who cuts a Charlotte-shaped hole in the classroom door so that she can make an entrance; a monster (designed by Vendetta to be a blood-sucker) who goes out on a sugar-cookie-seeking rampage; a chorus of angry, screaming vegetables who learn to sing Charlotte's crazed song about eating vegetables every day. Neither of these girls ever lets up, ever. "Oh! I hope he doesn't have the ague!" cries Charlotte upon finding out that Mr. Milk is out sick for the day, in the episode where Vendetta has to face off with a substitute teacher with an incredible range of nicknames for the kids ("my lugnut," "my rampant squirrel"), the kids take a standardized test, and Charlotte sings a paean to the No. 2 pencil. There's something reassuring about all of it, and you can pretty much bet you'll find me in a Vendetta t-shirt, come summer, when it'll really be time to cook up some mischief, intellectual and otherwise.
Back when I was in marching band, I learned a valuable skill: how to mark time. Keep stepping. Keep stepping when you're not moving. Keep stepping to keep a rhythm. Keep stepping until you get some directions. Keep stepping--quietly, quietly, restfully, preservingly--until a forward appears. I am marking time. It's not my forte.
This week, a new issue of my professional organization's glossy publication arrived, bearing as its cover image a page from Tom Phillips's A Humument. I don't always feel much love for this particular publication, but for having put Phillips's "treated Victorian novel" back in my imagination, I owe it one. A Humument is a project so fine that it deserves its own post. As do Joseph Cornell's boxes. As do my mother's quilts. (I am marking time.) And so tonight, for your edification, I offer one page from the 1970 Tetrad edition of Phillips's work, which has just come out in its fourth edition. Prowl around his site, why don't you? It's a pretty great place, if you've a meantime to get through.
If last night I grabbed the chance to write because the call wouldn't come, tonight I have forfeited my writing time because another call did come. I've just hung up after helping my brother compile the baker's dozen of songs we most love playing on our iPods when we're in the same place--or, for that matter, over the phone when we're not in the same place. I'm not at liberty to list the songs or to talk about them here, because he's using the list for a professional obligation and there's no way I'm going to scoop that (though I hope he won't mind my having said that you'll know the number one if you know another word for pirate treasure). But I will note: there's nothing like saying, "Wait, how about this...?" and hitting the little play button on your iTunes and then holding the phone out so that someone you love, sitting two hundred miles away, can holler back, "Oh YEAH! That's awesome!" And getting to hash out where certain Beastie Boys songs should go in relation to one another, or how high up a certain Toto song should go--well, that's intellectual work moving at just about the critical speed my brain can handle after midnight this grey and snowy day.
For your edification, though, I'd suggest that you hit this site, the source of tonight's image--a poorly lit shot of what you might have mistaken for an apparently innocuous or even banal Lego building, did the site not inform you that it's "Professor Booty's Shack o' Booty Dance Club." Makes you think of that Britney Spears video, no? Come to think of it, her self-enslavement would have been a lot more interesting rendered in Legos, and I believe she would have scooped the White Stripes.
I am expecting a phone call--nothing too major, just a call from someone I've never met, whom I may be taking to dinner. While I wait, I'm left with one of those spots of time that trip me up so often: the few minutes here, the few minutes there, the time that seems too slight to be used but that, in the aggregate, would be mighty enough to make something, move something, do something, see something. About 45 minutes ago, for the second Tuesday running, a Wong Kar Wai film that fascinates me (not the same film as last week, I'd like to add) lulled me down for a fleeting nap, which is a pretty uncommon thing in my world. And now that I'm awake, and poised for departure (with only my boots to pull on and my coat to grab as I head for the back door), I figure that it's a good time to pop in for a memory or two.
How's this: I can remember the phone number my family had from 1977-83 (when we had this yellow telephone, with a piece of orange velcro on the side to hold the number two pencil that hung there until it disappeared despite the velcro; that disappearance always bothered me) because my mother made me memorize it to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," in case I got lost. That was smart; she got the number encoded pretty deep in my neural wiring, and so every once in awhile now I find myself wanting to dial 689-8001 to see whether anyone new has that number. Or to dial 688-6688 to see whether anyone has my small girlhood's best friend's number.
And here's where the switchboard has come alight and the call's gotten picked up; now I'm off and running.
When I was small, a family moved in across the street and took the phone number 688-6688. The mother and daughter of the family were my mom's and my ages, and we became two pairs of best friends. When my mother had surgery for the carpal tunnel syndrome in her left wrist (the result of years of working a cash register at Lombardi's in Detroit, during high school and college), she had to wear a small cast for six weeks; within days of her having had the surgery, the mom across the street showed up at our house, also wearing a cast. Turns out she'd slipped and cut herself open with an oyster-shucking knife. They had matching casts for the duration.
My friend and I were similarly inseparable, though without the injuries. Our matching styles ran more to dresses, though the pictures that survive of us in our matching dresses are funny to behold. I was never a very girly child; much of the time, I had short hair and ran around in corduroys or jeans and t-shirts (one of my favorites had a fake American Express card on the front and said "Don't Leave Home without Me"; another was a navy blue PacMan shirt my dad got as a free gift when he bought that new hot Atari game at Sears; when he brought them home, I was, for some reason, standing on the front stoop of our house's almost-never-used formal front door, and I screamed with excitement--an early instance in my career of doing things with a little too much flair and thereby making others around me uncomfortable or embarrassed). My friend had mid-back-length hair and hated to wear anything but dresses and patent leather shoes. And so even when we rocked the same look, it wasn't the same look at all: she'd be wearing a dress with the tights and the shiny shoes, and I'd be there with a sock falling down or my hair not quite as lovely. (And no, this is absolutely no comment on my mother's ability to dress me. I did my dishevelling myself, and my general lack of interest in those final, feminine touches still rears its head every once in awhile these days.)
When my friend and I were in first grade, we didn't have the same teacher. She was in the classroom across the hall, and I only saw her at lunch. Outside of school, we were thick as thieves. At school, even when I won the weird bonus points that got awarded for who knows what hoop-jumping and got a chance to sit wherever I wanted to in the cafeteria, my friend never seemed very excited that I was around. Sometimes, when I tried to wave hello to her from where my class sat, she wouldn't wave back.
In 1983, my family moved away from that neighborhood, and that state, and set ourselves down in southern Indiana. For the first year, my best friend and I wrote to each other. Sometimes, I recorded cassette tapes and sent them to her. Once, I remember making a postcard for her by embroidering a piece of cardboard with some tinsel from our Christmas tree (that was the year of the cat who defecated everywhere and had to go back to the humane society). And the next summer, we visited, and it was idyllic--even though the people who had moved into our yellow house had taken down the funky cartoon jungle animal wallpaper from my brother's room. During that visit, I finally learned how to ride a bike, at what felt like an embarrassingly old age.
And then? Radio silence. I don't think I ever heard from my friend again after that visit.
In high school, and then in college, and then in graduate school (which landed me only a few hours' drive from where we'd all used to live), I made sporadic attempts to contact my friend, and then her family in general, to find out what was happening in their lives. I would send a holiday card with a photo of my family and my phone number, in case they wanted to try to get together. But nothing ever broke the silence. The cards never came back to me in the mail, so the photos are still out wandering the world, somewhere. The silence is utter and decades-long.
The strange thing about this memory is its denouement: I suddenly realize (as I keep doing, over and over, these days) that some things in my life have been question marks or constants, strains and streams and silences and sorrows, for more than twenty years, all of which I'm cognizant of.
The phone call has come in; the dinner has been called off; I have written myself fully awake; and the time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. My shoes, my ships, my sealing wax, my cabbages and kings--they all await, so I'm ringing off now.
A postscript to yesterday, because I hear that some people have been trying to figure out why a naked guy showed up as the aftermath of Monday. It's nothing more exciting than the fact that the Rodin sculpture pictured there is called "Fatigue," and that's exactly what I was--like some allegorical figure, through and through--by the time I hit my bed last night. source for today's image: a pretty fascinating site memorializing Ma Bell.
Driving between Gambier and Delaware--and, really, between Gambier and any other small town in Ohio--one happens, as a matter of course, upon innumerable ruined structures. As I drove along US-36 today, I rued the fact that I didn't have my camera with me (and thus can only offer you a two-year-old Iowan picture from the mystery trip I told you about in early January as a placeholder until I can get you some genuine Ohio gloom and ruin), because the ruins were everywhere.
I probably passed fifteen crumbling structures in the course of my peregrinations around mid-Ohio yesterday: whole houses being engulfed by weedy exoskeletons, barns crumbling apparently under their own weight, sheds missing glass panes or whole windows. Often, these structures are immediately adjacent to occupied houses; they're also often still in use, particularly if they're barns. (The barn in this picture, for instance, was in the middle of a field and was open to the hot Iowan air on all sides--and yet it was still housing a couple of apparently functional tractors.) Outside one collapsing barn, for instance, I saw a mule grazing; outside another, yesterday, a herd of cows. For me, the most melancholy of these structures are the small houses that seem simply to have been abandoned.
When I had my first campus visit, a day-long trip from Cornell up to the university where I taught for the next year, I took along my then-somebody. (Isn't that a term worth cultivating? My excellently badass friend coined it for me today, and I felt illuminated. A somebody. Its simplicity relieves all my nomenclatural concerns: "This is my somebody." And should things go sour? "You used to be a somebody.") When the lunch and visit were over and we met up again for the drive back to Ithaca--and what a lovely summer evening that was, a terrible heatwave having just broken, the humidity less oppressive than for a week previous, the sun hanging high and clear after days of haze--he suggested that we take the backroads home, instead of the thruway. I acquiesced and made some remark about the farmhouses we'd be likely to pass, and how many of them would be the kinds of places that could just use someone with some good money to bring them back to life. He, as was his wont, instantly read some sort of bourgeois blindness into my comment and responded, "Or maybe they should just be left alone. Things don't always have to be all fixed up."
I bristled because I knew he was wilfully misunderstanding me, and I thought back to that conversation a lot as I drove home today. Here's the thing: it's entirely true that not everything decaying or falling apart must necessarily be made pretty. And sometimes ruins are provocative, worth contemplating as aesthetic units in their own rights. The Romantics knew that meditating on ruins and fragments could lead, for good and ill, to an experience of the sublime. Witness Fuseli's despairing artist.
But I'd argue that some ruins are simply and finally (rather than elevatingly or edifyingly) sad. They're sad to me because they persist, stubbornly and deadly, where something once lived; they're sad because they might stand no chance of ever living again; they're sad because no one seems to care enough to destroy them altogether. They simply blend into the landscape, little by little, as vegetation rises up to enfold them. It doesn't matter what they're made of, or what they were used for; glass, stone, steel, wood, aluminum, and brick all fall prey together, sometimes at haphazardly uneven paces that bring a roof's supports down before the roof itself has started to go, or that leave a whole structure (I see this all the time) listing at a crazy angle, its rectangular solid gone trapezoidal.
In a sense, I suppose that I have the psychological equivalents of those ruins, or of the mysterious mounds in the field across the highway, and that I pass them by every time I make the mental commute to an ongoing, living structure, whether it's one that's already inhabitable or one that I'm building, bit by bit, block by block. I don't need them all to be rehabilitated; in fact, I need few, if any, of them to be rehabilitated. And I suppose the safest, easiest thing is to let those falling structures go, let them get engulfed little by little, rather than to stir up, for the sake of some ideal finality, what might unexpectedly get sharp and hazardous, angry and resurgent.
What this line of thinking puts me in mind of (besides To the Lighthouse, which I continue to hope you'll read, and whose middle section I hope will make more sense the first time around than it might otherwise, in light of this post) is the movie Morvern Callar, a film I first saw with my anti-bourgeois then-somebody, probably a month before our inconclusive confrontation over restoring rural ruins. Morvern Callar is one of the favorite movies of a dear friend of mine, who was seeing it again (for the fourth time, if I remember correctly) the night I first saw it. It's a movie I haven't gone back to since that night, in part because it worked on me so viscerally; it's possible that I've never identified with a character on screen the way I identified with Samantha Morton's Morvern. As she reached her way through the movie's opening frames, grasping and tracing and stroking the off-screen events that had put her on the floor of the apartment where we found her, I felt along with her--so much so, and in such a literal way, that had someone touched me in my seat, the jostle of worlds might simply have overwhelmed me. She is left with a ruin at that movie's outset; theoretically she could have sought some sort of rehabilitation of that ruin, which is what all the narrative's initial vectors seem to suggest she should do. And yet. And yet. Once that ruin hits the landscape, in spectacularly understated, gloriously underjudged fashion, she constitutes herself into a structure entirely other than that which we might have anticipated. And that move struck me, and strikes me, as a thing of grave beauty, and courage, and abandon. source for today's images: 1) me (or my OhioanIowan friend; I can't remember which of us, and I'm not trying to steal credit where credit's not due me); 2) the wacky wild Wikipedia.
On Friday evenings, I go to my friends' house for dinner. We have been eating Friday dinners together now for eighteen months. Though they'd fed me many Friday (and other-night) dinners in past years, those were special occasion dinners, usually marking times when I came through town after a long absence. One of the things I value most about where I am right now is having gotten to convert some of my most valued friendships into everyday relationships. On Friday nights, I don't have to ring the doorbell. And nobody bats an eye if I want to shut our movie off so that we can find out who got booted off Dancing with the Stars (and so that you know: Giselle was utterly robbed; at least we got to see breakdancers spinning on their heads and a quadruplicated paso doble). My friends feed me amazingly well and encourage me to drink my fill of excellent wine. In return, I try to do my part by making them laugh as much as possible. When the week has gone extraordinarily well, or we're celebrating something spectacular, I sometimes get my act together and produce a pie. Their dogs nose around and try to get me to feed them, knowing that I'm a sucker for dog-nosing. We watch a lot of mindless television. Depending on who's got the remote, we watch the weather or the TV Guide channel; generally we compromise with a crime show, though sometimes I request something that doesn't involve dead bodies. When I have a good movie to offer, I take it with me; today, my copy of Junebug arrived in the mail, so it was our evening's noncomestible fare.
What I loved about Junebug when I saw it with my beloved Brooklynite in October is its pacing: unlikely things--rooms, trees, yards--get long, still shots, so that we're given time to see what's there, to make something consequential out of what might otherwise remain merely inconsequential, affecting the development of neither plot nor character. And what emerges is an entrancing (but not, I'd argue, dangerous or reactionary) aesthetic of banality. The movie is full of stuff, and places: popsicles, cigarettes, Zingers, subdivisions, plowed up yards, weirdos, hospitals, church basements, aerobeds, Cliff's notes. They're not really particularly interesting stuffs, or places, on the face of it, on their own. But they're there, and they're a world, and there's something bracingly reassuring about a filmmaker who will look at an exercycle in a bedroom or a bad set of kitchen shutters and just let them be there.
After I said goodnight to my friends and their dogs--to whom I say "I'll be right back," every time I leave them, even though all three of us know it's not strictly true--I walked out into the night and realized that in the hours I'd been at their house, the day's clouds had dissipated, leaving a clear night of brightest stars. If you've never lived in a small, rural town, you should try it sometime, if only for the night skies. Tonight, the stars were so visible that even Orion, out to walk me home, was cluttered and complicated by extra spots of light. It's nearly a half-mile from their house to mine, down a curved street through some woods in the dark, and usually (especially when it's cold) I drive, knowing that I'll come home late enough that walking might make me jumpy. But tonight, it's so warm that I took a chance on walking over, which earned me a beautiful trip back. My footsteps were enormously, crashingly loud, crunching and stone-spitting on a road that needs to be repaved, but I swung along, stride to stride, eyes on the stars and thoughts split between tonight's walk and tomorrow night's excursion. Good night, and good luck, indeed.
Remember the time we drove to Grand Lake and even though I couldn't swim for very long times yet, I was still pretty good for my age and got to paddle in the greeny water near the dock? Remember how we went to Keuka and you got the sewing machine for your thirtieth birthday and you took the picture of him in his fisherman's cap and his blue tank top, holding me (in the striped bathing suit and the Flintstones sunglasses) on one hip, with the Super 8 in the other hand? Remember how you were so little and sunburned so fast that you spent most of the vacation indoors or under cover or asleep in your green and white sunhat? Remember how we used to drive along Lake St. Clair and you'd talk about those early dates, the times you forgot to check the time and stayed out until 3 a.m.?
Remember when we went to Ambleside and you showed me how to skip stones when we were falling in love? Remember when we waded into Cayuga years later, knee deep, and made the stones go farther? Remember when we drove out to Ontario on that cold, windy day and watched the sunset and took pictures of our shadows? Remember how we saw the moon rise and we had to be careful not to slip on the ice-glazed pier, and then we had the best Indian food I've ever eaten? Remember when I picked you both up on the first hot day of the spring and we got ice cream and drove up the lake and ate it while we skipped stones some more?
Remember when we drove to Chimney Bluffs and at first we couldn't find the bluffs because we parked in the wrong parking lot, but then we hiked through those sodden woods and squelchy fields until suddenly there they were, in all their weird majesty? Remember how we picked up stones later, until we realized that I was picking up exactly the same kinds of stones, over and over, and that we needed to go back to the city and clean ourselves up for dinner anyway?
Remember when we sat in the living room of that house and read books and just watched the rain fall, day after day? Remember how I went outside and tried, again and again, to take a picture, just one, just of the swell and the fall and the reflection and the opacity, that would let me bring it all to Ohio?
Remember how you got us tickets for the steam launch and we steamed around the water, with the rain falling so that in the pictures, we're all bundled almost beyond recognition? Remember how we started at the tip of one lake and hiked down to the next one, and we had to run and run to get down the hills?
Remember when we blew that champagne cork out into the water, and you ran back in and swam out to get it? Remember how we spent most of the afternoon on that float, posing for the pictures he took from shore? Remember how cold the water was, and how dark, and how deep, so deep that we couldn't touch the bottom even close to shore? Remember trying to synchronize swim? Remember how we went back a couple of weeks later and sat by that same lake and pretended we would read but instead sat around talking about love and sex? Remember how we danced on the grass and then on that concrete, roofless veranda? Remember how sunburned I got?
Remember how they said Ruskin's family's china was all found in the lake and pieced back together to be displayed? Remember how you'd already found pieces of blue-and-white on the opposite shore earlier, waiting alone for the ferry to arrive, hoping you'd done the signal correctly and they wouldn't leave you standing there for another hour? Remember how you drank in the waters, with every turn of the bus through the district on the way back to the train, because now you live land-locked? Remember how you went to North Point and skipped and skipped and skipped when he wouldn't visit, month after month, and how you skipped and skipped and skipped when the writing wouldn't work, day after day, and how you skipped and skipped and skipped when you just couldn't bear to keep driving north to a place that wasn't home, month after month? Remember how you skipped, and skipped, and skipped? source for today's image: a cyclist's blog
In Ithaca, I once tried collecting second-floor doors that led nowhere. There's a great one on Cascadilla, and a whole apartment building's back full of them overlooking Spencer. I've forgotten where the others were; you might say it was a highly ephemeral collection. To count as a door going nowhere, a door had to be something that had once been functional but that now would pitch anyone trying to use it down a sheer drop, cartoon-style.
On an unusual way home after work tonight, I passed this one, on the side of one of our campus officehousebuildings. I had been looking up to the second-floor lit office of a colleague in that department, admiring his book collection and his geraniums (geraniums? apparently blooming, in mid-January?), and as I proceeded along the path, I was still looking up and managed to see what I know I've seen before but forgotten: that we too (in a collective, collegiate sense) have a door going nowhere. I taught in this building last spring; that door is poised in the landing of the building's main staircase, for no obvious purpose.
Why do these doors intrigue me so much? I suppose it's simply because they're there, even though they're obviously no longer doing anything. Generally, they're not even lovely doors; this one, for instance, is a fairly run-of-the-mill door. And yet, if you look closely, you can see that it actually still has a storm (or screen) door, replete with handle. It's as though a stairway or balcony simply vanished one night, and no one knew what to do with the door that was left behind to signal that once there had been more material, more purpose. I find something melancholically insufficient about a perpetually suspended, perpetually useless door. It is a thing without a mission, a material reminder of its structure's past lives. It is a ghost door.
The rain has been relentless today. Its slapping the roof was the background noise of my waking up; its pattering on the concrete outside my classroom was the background noise of my last first class of the semester; its accumulation on the roads hissed me home after office hours. For the most part, it's seemed to be a hard and steady rain, rather than fast bursts or the kind of light fall we had at the end of last week. But because it won't let up, it's accumulating: lawns are oversaturated, and even my front porch's concrete floor is gathering puddles. I'm living in an experiment now, too; because the roofing guys never returned to put new gutters on the house last week, I live in a gutterless structure. I'm curious to find out what (if anything) that will mean for the house, as the rain keeps falling.
Last winter, when I was home for the holidays (after the Academic Mayhem), my family's town flooded. My mother and I went out for lunch before the flood waters crested and found ourselves agape in the car as we passed water where we'd never seen water before. Most of the roads leading to town became impassable, so that people were left taking hour-long detours to drive what would normally take ten minutes.
Over the weekend, on my way to Cleveland to see a play that I'm still meditating on a response to, I noticed standing water in field after field. (I also saw hayricks; the fantastic things that crop up in winter fields will have to be a topic one of these days, particularly since the fields about a mile from my house grew some particularly interesting mounds while I was away this month.) One thing that I do love is to see standing water sitting clear and calm in an unexpected place on a bright (though not necessarily sunny) day; the shards of sky that end up on the ground in those circumstances are fleeting delights. Driving along the back roads that lead to the interstate, I kept seeing farm ponds, as well--a larger manifestation of those less predictable reflective spots of standing water. This weekend's ponds were all on the brink of no longer being frozen; they all had a greeny glaze to them, the thinness of their surface ice and the continued swell and rise of the water underneath visible from the road. I found myself thinking, over and over, of a Wendell Berry poem that did some important emotional work for me about a decade ago--and now, to my chagrin, I can't put my hands on the poem. It only has six lines. The first one is "Did I believe I had a clear mind?" The poem's central image is one of ice at once covered by running water and barely covering turbid darkness. Somehow, it's not nearly as grim as my description may make it sound. The fact that I can't find it in my cigar box of poems suggests that I've had it hanging about somewhere in more recent years; undoubtedly, I'll turn it up when I find the stash of photographs and quotations that I kept in front of me while I wrote my dissertation.
I'm thinking about these slow and steady accumulations tonight, before making the daily decision that it's all right for me to go to bed now, because of the change in rhythm that going into a new semester always occasions. This semester, the changes are even greater than I'm used to, for all manner of curricular and extracurricular reasons. By the end of last semester, weeks were flying by with frightening rapidity; I'd go to bed on Sunday and wake up to find it was Friday morning already, and while I was relieved that another week was over, I was also shocked that it was gone. The end result was that by mid-December I was not unlike those farm ponds, or the speaker in that Berry poem.
I've finally turned up the poem:
Did I believe I had a clear mind? It was like the water of a river flowing shallow over the ice. And now that the rising water has broken the ice, I see what I thought was the light is part of the dark.
I always get lost in that last image, and yet it always seems inscrutably perfect. I'm still meditating on fast growth, reluctant rest, the accretion of noise and nurturance; so many things are flowing and flown, flux and fluidity for me right now.
And, just as I'm about to stop, the rain's pounding does, as well, changing over to the metallic hiss of what the meteorologists said was coming: sleet, then snow. I'll wake up to a landscape covered over and changed once again. source for today's image: Washington State Magazine Online
Start the day tired but borderline-anxiously wide-eyed. Receive a hoped-for, short but sweet good morning and good luck e-mail. Find out your class will be meeting somewhere different than you've been planning, twenty minutes before you're due to leave. Reread a poem. Find yourself a little more highly strung than you'd expected. Teach your first class. Have a student tell you, "That was fun. I'm not scared anymore." Go home for lunch but don't eat. Go back for office hours but forget your wallet and power adapter. See people aplenty. Go out for coffee and have breakfast. Go home for an errand and then try to settle in and work. Fumble the copier. Keep working. Diffuse yourself into teaching a second class. Sit staring at your desk for a few minutes. Pack up. Go home. Heat up some milk. Try to decide whether to keep working. Recognize that the work will still be here in the morning. Recognize that the afternoon class will get off the ground regardless. Decide to sleep. Decide to sleep. Decide to sleep. Feel hot milk kicking in. Decide to sleep. Go off to sleep. Don't change your mind.
On my way home from my first class, on this surprisingly warm day, I noticed the fast, vast amount of new growth on my neighbor's little front-of-the-front yard trees. I've noticed this kind of tree growth before; the year I moved into Gambier, the electric company (in an attempt to keep our power from blacking or browning out every time the wind looks at us the wrong way) cut down immense amounts of tree material. The tops of any trees too close to roadside power lines got lopped off; the sides of any trees that overarched the streets got lopped off; the overall effect was one of blunted branches all over town. The two trees in front of my house both got sheared squarely off, both on top and on their front sides. These particular little trees of my neighbor's were not affected by the carnage, though he did lose one of his large trees. But these little trees are showing off now what my trees showed off over the summer: their straight-up undeterred determination to get bigger.
I don't think I'd ever noticed, before my trees started springing back, how the new growth on trees goes vertical for what seems an exceeding distance before it starts spreading side to side as well. The first day of a new semester feels this way for me; I'm rocketing up before I'm fully ready to grow out and cover everything I need to cover, and it's not always comfortable, but it's also inevitable. This afternoon has also brought back before me a number of people--students and friends--I haven't seen in six months or even a year, a situation happily not conducive to doing final preparations for classes. And yet, I keep on pushing upward, making plans for the big bursts--even, I suspect, as I sit in the coffeeshop with my returned, much-missed friend and gush like a silly giggly person about things that have nothing to do with what's going on in our classrooms.
Upon reading yesterday's post, people who know me and my dad may have found themselves wondering:
What about the Sit 'n Spin?
As well you might. Like my mother's quilts, though, the Sit 'n Spin deserves its own entry. Which you'll get.
In the meantime, I think we should all hit up Threadless.com (the source of today's image) and get them to start making shirts with this guy's submission. What could be sexier than a wordless Sit 'n Spin shirt?
I have long known that I have the coolest father who ever lived. Sorry, those of you who may think your dads get that title, because my dad has been holding it tight since April 1976. I was prompted to think about this fact some more this afternoon, on my way from the village post office to the village coffee shop for lunch. As I came down the steps of our humble p.o., rueing the fact that I conservatively wore my winter coat even though it's about 60 degrees outside, I heard a motorcycle engine rev and backfire. I looked to my left and saw a couple coming down the road on a modest-sized Harley--not one of the big hogs, but big enough to make some noise in my tiny town. I grinned, and the woman holding on behind the driver unclasped her right arm and gave me a big wave.
My father, you see, has harbored--and may still harbor--hopes of retiring from his career as an automotive innovator to the back of a Harley. He has hoped, against hope, to get my mom a sidecar so that they can go tooling around the country in mad biker style. I know he's not just talking the talk; he worked for a year or so at the local Harley-Davidson shop, helping repair bikes. He could not only rock the Harley but also fix it if it broke down.
But, Harley or no Harley, my dad rocks out.
In November 1980, a little album called Autoamerican debuted. You can do the math and figure out how old I was when my dad found me on the green carpet in our blue living room and said, "Come hear this." We went into the family room and sat on the floor--on the same rug that's now in my own living room--and I listened for the first time to Debbie Harry's sultry croon: "Toe to toe, dancing very close..." And then, suddenly, just when I thought the song was, you know, just some song, came the break: "Fab Five Freddy told me everybody's fly..." And then--it just kept getting better--we were hearing about the Man from Mars, and he'd eaten our head, and we were eating up cars (Cadillacs, Lincolns too! Mercury, and Subaru!), and bars (where the people meet!), and then we stopped eating cars and eating bars, and then we only ate guitars! Get up!
For someone whose musical taste had run to Free to Be, You and Me and Sesame Street (both of which I had in awesome vinyl that I spun on my FisherPrice portable record player like the DJ I'd still like to be, someday), this Blondie group was a revelation.
Things have just gotten cooler from there. At our first house in Indiana, we had six acres of wooded property, and so my father bought a used riding mower/tractor to use for cutting the lawn and vacuuming up leaves. Then, he also used it to cut an intricate network of trails through our property so that my brother and I could play in the woods without coming home covered in poison ivy or weird animal bites or woody abrasions. He kept the trails clear for us for the four years we lived in that house. I count them as one more reason my brother and I get along so well now; we spent a lot of youth-time running around making up stories and stuff, and, well, just running around. In those days, he drove a red Corvair, and then a big ol' Oldsmobile with a bass tube in the trunk (my brother can still rattle things with that bass tube, now that it's in his trunk), and he and my mom picked out an awesomely vintage Airstream trailer that we pulled behind the Malibu for years. This was years after he'd built a monster N-gauge train table in the basement, with a bridge and figure-eights. And that was years after he and my mom had let us draw with markers all over the drywall in the basement that was eventually going to get covered up with paneling anyway. (Note, those of you with children: I'm writing this stuff for you as much as for my dad.)
When my parents went out on their first date, on Bastille Day in 1967, my father's opening gambit was to hand my mother the button she had lost from her chartreuse leather coat months earlier. "Where did you get this?" she said. "My people are everywhere," he replied. Now you know how cool both my parents are. I mean, really: a redhead with a chartreuse leather coat? and a guy who manages to totally deadpan his way through giving a stranger back her lost button? I think my mom might still have that button somewhere.
You already know that my parents used to hide destinations from my brother and me. They also made sure that our Easter bunny, named E. Bunny, hid Easter baskets and left abundant and truly perplexing but hilarious clues for us everywhere. (I should also add that my father, from whom I got my particular sense of humor as well as my awareness of my periodic, blinding gullibility, once convinced me that the Cadbury bunny really did lay those eggs. I had protested that bunnies don't lay eggs. When the commercial came back around again--and I'm certain that we were sitting on that rust-colored leather sofa--he said, "Now just watch." Indeed, the rabbit clucked, got up, and had laid an egg. How could I argue with the evidence of my senses?)
I think my father was the first person to notice that I was becoming a night owl, back when I was in high school. Once, when his mother was about to visit us and was going to stay in my room, he decided that I shouldn't get bounced out of my bed. I remember his telling me that it was important that I should be able to stay up and do my reading and writing in peace. I also remember his coming into my room early some Saturday mornings, while I was still sleeping, and making a space for himself to sit down between me and the edge of the bed. Usually, it was around 6:30, which is late rising for my father. And he would talk to me, about anything and everything, until I was awake, though still drowsy, and would get out of bed and come sit with him while he redesigned or streamlined processes or invented machines with Anvil. I do like my sleep, but I like spending time talking with my father more.
One winter, I wanted very badly to drop out of college and become a burger-flipper (not out of anything like caprice, or reckless love, or anything exciting like that, trust me). My parents wouldn't hear of it and brought me back to school at the previously scheduled time. I did what I could to get them to stay as long as possible, but eventually it was just time for them to make the trip home. After I got myself settled back in to my room (that was the year I lived in the basement), I got myself ready for bed. When I slipped into my bottom bunk, I realized that somehow, without my noticing, my father had stuck a little slip of paper into the springs directly over my head--a sheet from his omnipresent pocket notepad, marked with his signature smiling face, a sketch I would have to show you in order to have you be able to envision it. (We used to draw this face, and bellybuttons, on fish and bunnies too.) I left that face to look down on me from the mattress springs for the better part of the semester.
One of the things I love most about my father is that he is the most fearlessly creative person I know. His visual sense is incredible; he started taking photographs and learning darkroom technique when he was about eleven, if I remember correctly, and even his early stuff is beautifully done. He is a mechanical genius; I have watched him create whole processes from start to finish, from scratch. He continues to innovate even in the face of opposition or (what's possibly worse) blank indifference. And he figures out ways to help people around him figure out their reasons for being here, the things that will ensure that they have something to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. My father taught me much of what I know about how to treat other people well, with dignity and respect; through the way he has always treated my mother (he had her at that button, you see), he showed me the worthy struggle and boundless joy a healthy, strong partnership can be.
Part of the reason I'm thinking about my dad today--I mean, other than the fact that I think about him every day--is that he always wanted me to be a Supreme Court Justice. He wanted me to be the first female Chief Justice, in fact. He still thinks that Constitutional law could be my field. (I think, actually, that psychotherapy could be. Sometimes we disagree about my future.) I don't know if he was right; I do know that he never tried to foist that dream on me, that he never asked whether a doctorate in English would really repay the effort. In other words, he made sure that I could be fearless and creative in my adult life--that I could find my own big dreams and carry them out. And for that, I wish him all the Harley-riding his heart desires.
In large part, I am a night owl because I like to be awake when others are not. I like to see other people sleeping, for one thing; there was that summer in Greece, for instance, when I could not sleep on our bus because I enjoyed watching everyone else lose consciousness. And I used to love to slip out of bed early when visiting my Chicagoan ex-boyfriend (before he was my ex-boyfriend, of course), so that I could be up and about while he was still gone to the world. I like to hear other people sleeping, having spent the nights of my teenage years reading novels and solving advanced trigonometry problems to the rough music of my family's snores. But I'll settle for knowing that others are sleeping, without actually experiencing their sleep sensorily.
Tonight, as if bidden, Orion appeared in my southern sky and beckoned me to leave the car in the driveway and walk back to the office after the television watching was over. The weather has been terrifically warm here today; this evening is something of a replay of those autumn nights just before the temperature dips low enough to chill. The moon is waxing, as well, so my shadow slipped along by my right side as I crunched down the road. When I came back out of the building a few hours later, the moon had wheeled to the southwest, and Orion had made his way westward as well. Orion was at my back the whole silent trek home, and the moon granted everything an impossible clarity--right down to the little orange dragon who's been sitting in a neighbor's yard for more than a month and whom I keep meaning to photograph.
To be a true flaneuse, I suppose I would need to be walking about in a street with others, or in a cityscape of some sort, lounging about a bit in the presence of strangers. But it suits me perfectly to be a solitary walker--and to be able to have my reveries without feeling exiled is to have the best of both worlds.
My senior year in high school, we read a story--and I was about to say I don't remember what it is, but then I realized that I actually sought out a copy of the short story anthology (West and Stallman's The Art of Modern Fiction) after I graduated from high school, so now I'm trying to find the story for you--yes, this is it. We read Katherine Mansfield's "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," and what I remember about the story is, as you may be coming to expect by now, a particular cast of light:
She remembered the times she had come in here, crept out of bed in her nightgown when the moon was full, and lain on the floor with her arms outstretched, as though she was crucified. Why? The big, pale moon had made her do it.... She remembered too how, whenever they were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she gazed all over that restless water. There had been this other life, running out, bringing things in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with [her sister], taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father's trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn't real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?
I will admit to having lain myself down on the living room floor in my parents' house, under the influence of this passage, when I was in high school and the moon was full. It's one of those passages that must have claimed its own particular place in my neural pathways; I think that the image of that young woman lying on the floor, in the moonlight, must have shaped the way I conceptualized every moonlit walk home I took in college. Now, having typed it in for you, I also wonder whether it shaped the way Virginia Woolf characterized both Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse; Mansfield's story is copyrighted 1922, Woolf's novel 1927. But the strangest twist of all, to my mind: my allusion to Woolf's novel (which is my standby for allusions, yet another reason you should read it if you haven't already and you're planning to keep reading here) in the title of this post made itself the refrain of my walk home long before I started musing on other moonlights I have known, literary or otherwise. My Mechanischer Kopf works in ways I don't always understand. These kinds of sinuous-tenuous connections--the ones where causality matters so much less to me, at least for a moment, than sheer correlation--are the ones I love best.
On a night lit like this one last winter, I came into my second-floor study to pick up a book for bedtime. Because I knew where the book was, I didn't turn on the light. Looking down on my snowy, moon-silverblued yard, I saw a doe and two yearlings--the same ones, I felt sure, that I had watched growing up all summer--haunting my side of my neighbor's hedge. The doe and one of the yearlings passed along toward the backyard, but the other yearling stayed behind, chewing at low branches. Then, taking a few steps to her right, she suddenly, silently, reared up on her back legs and arched her neck to capture branches just out of her reach. I'd never seen a deer standing on its hind legs that way. She stayed suspended there for a few seconds, then ambled off to join the others.
Perhaps the great revelation never does come, but at least the small ones do.
(And you know I wanted a swell picture of deer in the moonlight to illustrate my last anecdote, but you try Google Imaging "deer moonlight" and see what you find. At least now I know where to get one of those shirts.) source for today's image:REU program, N.A.Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF
And so we find ourselves at Thursday once again. And you all know what that means. If I were a betting woman, I'd already have my money down on Master P's clomping his way right off the show tonight. But between now and 8 p.m., I must do my best impersonation of this guy:
I discovered Raoul Hausman's "Der Geist unserer Zeit (Mechanischer Kopf)" ("The Spirit of the Age (Mechanical Head)") (1919) in an advertisement for MOMA's upcoming DaDa show, sometime during the break. Hausman was one of the Berlin DaDaists. (Sometime I will tell you more about why DaDa pleases me so reliably. It has to do with, of all people and places, Roland Penrose and the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, not to mention the Spanish Civil War.) The Mechanischer Kopf lives at the Centre Pompidou, that wacky palace of enormous pipes and mystifying escalators and tremendous modern art, in Paris. And he's the best representation I've seen of what it feels like to craft syllabi, which I continue to do--though with a more pleasant expression on my face. These days of high seriousness are also days of high humor.
If you feel like feeding your own mechanical head--because I know I'm not quite holding up my end of the bargain today--hie your way to the Centre Pompidou's website and play with its online library. You'll need your rudimentary French (you know, the French in your brain that could still say, "Je voudrais un cafe, s'il vous plait," because you brushed it up with a crazy Bulgarian who tried to tell you that Julia Kristeva was only famous because of her husband.... oh, right: only a couple of us went through that, and one of us--not me, I'll add--took out his frustration by translating a story about howitzers as a final project) once you get into the searching, but I think you'll do just fine. If you look around enough, you'll find the source for today's image.
When I was in college, I had two dorm rooms: one was my actual, school-assigned room (my senior year, on the third of the east-facing side of a historic dorm, so that I had beautiful views of the sun rising every morning while I finished writing my senior thesis), and the other was the third floor of the building next door, the beautifully and aptly named Ascension Hall. The third floor of Ascension Hall is a reading room, replete with stained glass and hardwood floors and high, beamed ceilings. I moved in every evening after dinner and stayed at my heavy wooden table, beside the heater and the window, until security came to lock up the building and kick me out at 2 a.m. Some evenings I got lucky, and they didn't show up until 2:30. I was always the tiniest bit resentful that I was being made to go home; now I realize that had they not booted me out of the reading room every night, I would probably never have slept in my own bed. As it was, by the time I got home, the fraternity guys who lived below me were usually asleep, or at least quiet, and so I could either keep working or (as more usually happened) fall into bed for a few hours before getting up and starting the whole routine over again.
One of my favorite parts of the whole process of packing up and walking home was that for most of the winter, during the three minutes I was outside, walking from building to building, I could see the constellation Orion somewhere in the sky. Some nights, I think I actually talked to him. I have clear visual memories of the ink-blue vast of sky between Ascension and my dorm, over the trees that dot the slope eastward away from campus, and those tell-tale nine bright stars suspended there to my side. It wasn't long, my sophomore year, before I thought of Orion as my escort home, the figure that would be waiting when I pushed open the heavy wooden south door of Ascension, walked down the stone steps, and paced along the walkway to the room where my roommate lay sleeping already. (She left the light burning low for me, though. I always thought that was nice of her. That year, we lived in the basement, and our windows were like portholes, resting at ground level. You may remember this detail from my explanation of why I don't like reggae. Anyhow, the windows always glowed quietly, making it all the easier to bid Orion goodnight and go inside and down some more stairs. Going back to that subterranean room, after the loftiness of Ascension's top floor, felt like true descent.) When I found Robert Frost's line "I have been one acquainted with the night" during my senior year, I felt as though I'd finally located myself in verse.
What has always made seeing Orion all the more exceptional, to my mind, is that I generally can't see constellations. I, like nearly everyone else (I suspect), can pick out the Big Dipper. Sometimes I think I can see Cassiopeia's big W. But Orion is the only non-Dipper I'm truly confident I'm seeing, and every fall I wait for his reappearance on my eastern horizon. In Ithaca, one year, I saw him first in the southwest, as he prepared to sink below the horizon at dawn, when I had just shown up to wait in line for the opening of the Friends of the Library book sale. I was so excited that I pointed it out to the people with whom I was standing. One of these people, who was breaking my heart slowly but surely, then had to point the constellation out to the woman who, I found out later, was his girlfriend; she didn't recognize it, may not have known it at all. I held this fact against her. The silliness of that whole situation defied reason.
My inability to see constellations--which also, to my mind, defies reason--partners up with a couple of similar, and similarly galling, incapacities. Some power must be on my side this morning, because of the two that just popped to mind, the only one that's stayed around long enough to make it into words is that when I have gone shelling, I have had an excruciatingly hard time being able to see good shells. I want to have an eye for all things detailed, all things rare and collectible and deserving of vision, and when I can't see them, I feel inordinately frustrated with myself. I don't need to have anyone draw me an umbrella in the sky at a party. I'd like to be able to see the pictures others have seen up there in the firmament. I want to find the rare chambered nautilus, the lovely sand dollar, the once-in-a-lifetime seahorse. I don't want to forget the beautiful word. (Perhaps my encouraging students to recirculate dying or forgotten words has come from this longing; I don't want them to miss these things, either.) I feel slightly less alone in my frustration with constellation-seeing now that I know Thomas Carlyle felt it too; apparently he once asked, "Why did not somebody teach me the constellations, and make me at home in the starry heavens, which are always overhead, and which I don't know to this day?"
I thought a lot about Orion as I drove home last night, in part because I'm thinking I may be doing this late-night drive home through mid-Ohio more often, and in part because I realized that I haven't seen him yet this winter, even on my late-night walks home. When I walk home now, I'm northward bound; Orion seems elsewhere. More often, I'm driving home, skittish as ever about a half-mile walk along a dark street, even in my tiny village. The night before our last day of classes last fall, I broke my own record and headed home from the office at 3:30 a.m. It was about 15 degrees outside; I had wrapped my scarf around my head, babushka style, because I hadn't bothered to take a hat with me when I went to work in the afternoon. The whole world was silent, asleep.
The highway felt like that last night; I killed my brights as I slipped through Centerburg and Mt. Liberty and Bangs, figuring that even if the people in those houses nestled up against the road are used to mid-night street-roar and light-flash, I could do my part to help them keep sleeping--particularly because, I'm coming to realize, I may take my abilities to sleep like a rock a bit too much for granted. In Centerburg, all the stoplights had been turned to flashing yellows; people still had their Christmas lights up, and I saw the dog-sized wire-and-lights fake deer that I find so funny (because last year, when my parents picked up a pair for our yard in Indiana, our dog was utterly perplexed by this inanimate thing her own size but with none of the smells she expects from fellow animals). One house also had one of those outdoor projectors, a latter-day magic lantern, projecting "Let it Snow" onto its side. I kept waiting for everything to add up, but instead I think I'm supposed to be suspended in a happy, slightly discombobulated anticipation for a little while longer, getting acquainted with the night in a new way, relearning my landscapes yet again.
Today's postscript: I read myself to sleep last night with more Standage and, aptly enough, came across this very sweet anecdote from Thomas Edison's diary:
Even in my courtship my deafness was a help. In the first place it excused me for getting quite a little nearer to [his second wife, Mina] than I would have dared to if I hadn't had to be quite close in order to hear what she said. My later courtship was carried on by telegraph. I taught the lady of my heart the Morse code, and when she could both send and receive we got along much better than we could have with spoken words by tapping out our remarks to one another on our hands. Presently I asked her thus, in Morse code, if she would marry me. The word "Yes" is an easy one to send by telegraphic signals, and she sent it. If she had been obliged to speak it, she might have found it harder. (qtd. in Standage 142)
I feel as though David Brooks, who wrote an amusingly befuddled "what are the kids up to these days?" column about online communities for Sunday's Times, ought to read Standage's chapter on love over the telegraph wires and the kinds of online communities that sprang up when telegraph operators suddenly found themselves all connected on the job. People played chess and checkers, told dirty jokes, hooked up with fellow operators, helped other non-operators hook up (and even get married) online--lots of the kinds of things that happen in these systems that Brooks thinks might be a sign that we "kids" might not be growing up, or some such thing. Amusingly, within the last month, I've also watched as a blogger on another site I frequent has blown onto the scene and started chiding longer-standing bloggers about the fact that they're blogging rather than getting out into the world and meeting people; it's a little appalling, really, and provoked my ire one time when she got snippy with someone whose stuff I've really enjoyed reading. Mainly, what all this is adding up to is that, as usual, things are more complicated than they at first appear--and none of us may be doing any new things at all. I don't love the Barenaked Ladies, but I think that one song (despite its annoying "woo hoo hoo!" hoots) espoused a philosophy of history that might not be all wrong.
Annie Dillard could have been writing about me when she said (of herself), "I like the slants of light; I'm a collector." Or Willem de Kooning: "I'm like a slipping glimpser." And don't forget Brenda Ueland: "I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten--happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another." But the Beastie Boys might have said it best: "When it comes to panache, I can't be beat." There's a reason I wear a ring that says Badass.