Friday, January 30, 2004

Prête à snorter

The university gives its new hires a special brochure for their spouses with Ph.D's. The brochure bears the euphemistic title, "For Faculty in Transition." I wonder if this means I will have to join some sort of 12-step program.

Step One: A manic Professor of “fashion technologies” has invited me to join a three-person "Fashion Think Tank." We’ll plot a cultural studies-oriented fashion minor, beg grants from Vogue and Vanity Fair, and look damn good doing it, I suppose.

Upon hearing of my new job in the “Think Tank,” my husband blurts, “Have they seen the way you dress?” (Uh, no.) Apparently, my pink fleece turtleneck is “so 1988.”

Is the honeymoon over when a husband, who previously said only nice things about his wife's appearance, suddenly admits she's a fashion emergency? And what kind of person mocks a turtleneck when it’s 3 degrees outside?

Hmmm… He will regret his incredulousness. I’m going to climb into my tank and think pink turtlenecks pink turtlenecks pink turtlenecks. For men.

Monday, January 19, 2004

You say it's your...

Birthday cheers for Benedict, 25 years old today.

Long and happily may he speak, write, live.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Summer, 2001

Found these jottings in an old notebook. I think I wrote these in Cape May.

"What if a deathwatch ended with something like a morning alarm [clock]? At the sound of that sour beeping, would we start and then laugh--the burst of ache and relief? Or would we all start bawling, the tragedy finally come?"

"We pretend to admire each other's situations, but, in reality, I pity her and she pities me."

"We always develop crushes on those who have what our loves seem to lack."

"I climbed in bed with my cello..."

"Insight: I fear less the ways that new relationships will hurt me than the ways that they will hurt the other person."

"This is not a house that's cursed. It is a house of clarity."

Sunday, January 04, 2004

French Restaurant

In the late 1990s, I signed up for a women's bookclub, eager for a woman-identified experience of sisterhood and solidarity. The experience was a lesson in "buyer (or reader) beware."

Each month, the group selected a new "hilarious tale of the modern single gal," every one of them a rip-off (or precursor?) of Bridget Jones Diary. After each club meeting, I felt more like Ground Hog's Day's Bill Murray, trapped in a recurring nightmare of frothy, fictional dames whom the book jackets (invariably!) described as "obsessed with chocolate, the dreamy boss, and losing that last 5 pounds."

Bleh. The publishers that churn out this crap I had once cursed as both condescending and unimaginative. But now I understood. If our little bookclub was any indication, they were simply responding to reader demands. After too many months of this, my teeth started to hurt--in an unhealthy, self-hating way. Chocolate started to taste like a nasty cliché. I contemplated giving it up, and maybe heterosexuality, too, if that would help me avoid becoming one of the women we read about.

Finally, it came around to my turn to select a book. Since some of the women were teachers, I thought they might like Pat Conroy's The River is Wide. (I was in my brief Conroy phase then, having just heard him speak in Minneapolis.) Well, they didn't like it. In fact, they politely suggested that I either a) forfeit all future turns at picking a title; or b) leave the book club.

Gratefully, I made my exit. But not before an evil plot had taken root in my mind. Why are there no esteem-crushing books out there for twenty-something men? Shouldn't somebody start writing some?

p.s. Maybe the secret to writing bearable fiction about self-absorbed women is to give them British accents? That's certainly true for self-absorbed male characters. Much as I admire John Cusack, I found him insufferable in High Fidelity. Yet—and this is tough for me to admit—if they'd properly cast Nick Hornsby's protagonist with someone with a British accent, I'd likely have considered him an annoying, but oddly amiable, fellow. Oh, wait. Is Hornsby already writing the frozen-in-adolescence male fiction that parallels the Bridget Jones (Helen Fielding) genre?

p.p.s. This rant was originally going to be a report on last night's visit to a yummy French restaurant. But that reminded me of a previous visit to a French restaurant, one owned by the husband of one of the book club members. Proud of this guy's success, the book club women made a special trip to dine (for free, it turned out!) at his swank Stillwater eatery. The food was gorgeous, but also so very rich that I puked in an alley afterward. Little wonder they kicked me out of that club.

Friday, January 02, 2004

A Christmas Memory

We'd heard that the town of Oregon (IL) is a dreadful place, on par with Syracuse in its aura of resignation. Yet we found ourselves charmed, perhaps because the antiquated "downtown" matched some nostalgic notion of what a little town at Christmas should be. Still, I'll take my sister-in-law's word for it. She wants out. But apartments in Chicago are costly. They'll miss their back yard. And what to do with their kids?

That's a question that has stopped me in the past. What to do about kids, period? This thought most often comes to me when I'm engrossed in reading, one arm tucked around whatever cat has nestled at my side. I gaze at my furry companion appreciatively and praise it for not being a baby.

We decided to take our nephews on a walk around Oregon. But we made it only as far as the high school before conceding that it was too damn cold for walking. The five-year-old’s cheeks were on fire. The eighteen-month-old did not have enough blankets on his stroller. We returned to the yard, where my brother-in-law unceremoniously tipped the stroller to set the baby free.

But one of us hadn't minded the chill. Joshua had fallen asleep, and was startled to find himself on his feet. He staggered like a tiny inebriate, then toppled sideways into the damp mulch of a winter flowerbed. Instinctively, I shot out my hand, which he grasped without complaint.

My nephew and I moved carefully around the house, the better to watch his aunt and uncle play street soccer with a desiccated, flat squirrel. Joshua babbled contentedly, pointed skyward at the “woof-woofs” (live squirrels), then absentmindedly gripped my thumb again.

Something about that tiny hand returning so trustingly to mine. Something inside absolutely melts. This kid is so darling and unspoiled I could cry. Even Adam is moved.

Lucky for us, the five-year-old was bratty at Christmas. We exchanged relieved glances and declared ourselves (temporarily) cured. Cats never behave like that.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Pencils Down

Reading the Autumn 2003 issue of "The American Scholar" is how I ended one year and began another. For the most part, this marks an auspicious closure and start. An avowed cat person, I still laughed out loud at the most engrossing story I've ever read about a canine. (Andrew Hudgins' "Exploding the Dog"). I also squirmed through one of the more exploitative, self-aggrandizing stories I've ever seen on prison writing programs. ("The Writing Class," by an author whom I won't incriminate here. His ego shouldn't surprise me; in his previous work, I've just better tolerated it.)

This morning I read Ellen Ullman's, "Memory and Megabytes," a surprisingly non-clichéd reflection on computer upgrades and the vagaries of human memory. Ullman cites NYU researchers Karim Hader and Glen Schafe and their desire to understand "how [human brains] get a memory out of storage, think about it now, [and] then put it back."

As Ullman writes, "What Nader and Schafe discovered ... was that the brain is not a file cabinet. There is no 'back.' It is a network of neural connections constantly being strengthened, weakened, broken, and formed, and each time we recall something, the researchers found, the connections become labile again. We make new associations, abandon old ones. We refit the memory into the web of all that has happened to us since we last called the thought to mind. And what we then store 'back,'—the definitive-seeming 'I remember it happened such like this'—is not the original incident, not even the last memory we had of it, but the product of a teeming plasmatic event, whole portions of the brain rearranged and reconnected: an enlightened but temporary judgment on the meaning of experience."

Thus, if the current research is correct, the only human memories that endure, unaltered, are those memories that we never, ever access.

Ullman weighs this fact as she contemplates dumping the full contents of an older laptop into the expansive memory storage space of her new machine. The older machine carries emotion-laden documents and scars she might rather forget, but obviously, in the digital world of her new laptop, these cannot be buried in a file marked "basement" or "attic." How alarming to have one's fresh start marred by an accidental click of the mouse, by which that which one had deliberately repressed "all pops out at you: fresh, unyellowed, cruelly unchanged."

And so Ullman comes to her epiphany on the supposed weakness of human brains: "...I realized it is the fact that memory changes that allows us to have something called memory in the first place. If we could not continuously reinterpret the past—could not turn experience over and over, and so interview it with hope and unknowing—memory would be a tyranny. It would be unbearable, a torture, a bad recurring dream. Like data spinning away on a disk: forever the same, the same, the same."

Welcome, 2004. Now we're at liberty to revise 2003.