Friday, May 28, 2004

All the king’s horses and…

Once upon a time there were three childhood friends. We’ll call them Ay, Bee, and Sea. First, they adored each other like siblings. Then, they adored each other in circles. Ay fell in love with Bee. Bee fell in love with Sea. And Sea? Sea seemed immune to such crushes, until he decided far too late that he might return the love of Bee. But by then, see, Bee had married and divorced Dee, so she could only shake her head at the belated professions of Sea. (See?)

So what happened next to these three? Saturday, Sea marries Vee. This delights Bee, who greatly admires Vee, and who will dance at the wedding with her beloved See. (See the resemblance? No, see Bee's corrected vision.)

Ay can’t be with us for this red letter day. That’s because Ay is now a priest, devoted, you might say, to the Capital Gee.

Now you know my Ay, Bee, Sea. This is all of it true. Swear to Gee.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Excursions, pt. 2 (Delicious Invasion)

Which would you rather hear: the story of a good date, or the story of a horrible train wreck of a bad date? Yeah, I know. The latter are a lot more interesting.

Two nights ago, Adam and I went out to dinner with one of his former advisers, a man whose majestically deep voice and penchant for slipping into exquisite French (or sometimes Italian) make him sound like a caricature of the oily, seductive professor. Trust me, though, the effect is charming, at least in small doses. Unfortunately, the only thing I was dosing on that night was horse-strength Ibuprofen. Also, our disgruntled Siamese just had peed on a drawer’s worth of my clothes, so I had trouble feigning the right enthusiasm when hijacked for the dinner I’d been assured I could duck. Things got better after that, but not before I’d perversely contemplated wearing one of my cat-urine-soaked shirts—the better to ensure the evening would not be a long one.

If you vant to be alone, you have to have a strategy—especially when you’re as charismatic and in demand as I. (Wait. Did I say something funny?) And so it’s not surprising that, as a week-long trip with long-distance friends approached, I began to panic about having to spend all that time together. The only person I’ve ever traveled with (and tolerated) for that long is Adam, and he is apt to disappear behind a book for several hours each day.

Happily, it turns out, the only thing better than Dave and Jenn for an evening is Dave and Jenn for seven. Their intelligent wit flavors just as well by the tub as by the tube. Ours was a week of flavors, sweet and tangy enough to make me salivate for them later: Dancing through the Philly’s Italian Market. Dining on cheese and olives in Washington Square. Re-learning the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall through Canadian eyes. (“It’s amazing how many stories Americans tell about themselves.”) Riding in quiet companionship the hush of the D.C. Metro. Devouring Thai food and crêpes. Hiking Adams Morgan and the Washington Mall until our toes blistered and bled. Toasting to friendship and feet.

Meanwhile, our little get-together had as backdrop a far grander reunion. In the middle of night number one in D.C., I jolted awake to the buzzy thwack! ping! of an insect bouncing on the mattress beside my pillow. By morning, the sidewalks and streets writhed with the muttering hordes of cicadas, preoccupied with mating and death. Then, in apology for 17 years absence, they proffered themselves to the pigeons, a decadent, flailing, birdy-buffet.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

After terror, "that bastard ennui"

I laughed out loud.
Check out Jon Stewart's commencement address at William & Mary,

Off to meet next fall's frosh advisees... (What, so soon?)

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Smells Like Caffeine Spirit

I first heard the term “addictive personality” in 1994, when my best friend’s brother was diagnosed as an alcoholic. The term made me curious. And, as befitted my status as a self-absorbed person, it made me self-conscious. Puritan that I was (am), I little understood how anyone could get hooked on nasty-tasting liquids or scary, mind-altering chemicals. My body seemed fragile enough without such intervention. (Heck, I threw up each time I took a birth control pill.) It took me a few more years and an ugly marriage finally to comprehend the impulse to expand and obliterate oneself.

But, back then, the “addictive personality” label made me reflective for two reasons. First, I wondered if those who developed addictions were actually a little more astute than the rest of us. Was it possible that what we lauded in the non-addicted as “better coping mechanisms” were, instead, better blinders, better calluses? (A romantic vision, perhaps, but one that still makes sense to me.) I also suspected that the person completely lacking in “addictive personality” would, in fact, be deadly dull. The people I love most are all compulsives of some sort—addicted in their sensitive, stubborn ways to reading, writing, learning, and art.

My friend’s strong brother has long since recovered now and made a good life for himself. He who still counsels folks in AA and NA wouldn’t want me to sugarcoat destructive addictions. And I don’t. But the older I get, the more I believe that every person harbors a secret catalog of cravings and dependencies. Some of these we’ll wrestle and suppress. But others—the socially acceptable sort—we’ll find useful as the kernel of an identity.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Excursions, pt. 1 (Geeks in the City)

If only I’d kept a scrapbook of the milestones of academic life. To ward off the chill of old age, I might then have dreamily turned its pages, cooing at crumbling mementos of the early days. First graduate seminar. (First waves of paranoia. First pangs of misanthropy and regret.) First conference paper. First (and final) qualifying exams. Lots and lots of first drafts.

And then, just this past week, First Research-Double-Date.

I spent the days before the big event making excited phone calls (to archives) and fretting over shoes (‘cuz we were without a car). There were some awkward moments, certainly—such as deciding with Dave and Jenn who would take the double bed and who would take the cots in the bedroom we shared. And, naturally enough, there were research-induced injuries. While in the National Archives’ cafeteria, Dave tangled with a sneeze-guard and tossed scalding-hot soup all over his hand, which promptly turned an ominous shade of purple. Still, we pressed on—in part because we still had an appointment with the Library of Congress’ Motion Picture Division. And, in part, because the DJ wasn’t totally lame and, anyway, our parents weren’t picking us up until 11…

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite as double-date-y as that. We planned the trip mostly as a way to stretch limited funds and, let’s be honest, as an excuse to socialize. Dave and Jenn remain two of our closest grad school-era friends. They attended our “family only” wedding last June. They were the very last people we saw, hugged, and wept with before loading up our little car (with four cats and a cello) and driving 2,000 miles East from St. Paul. Now, ten months after that tearful parting, we were going to attempt seven straight days of travel and togetherness. Hence, our nervousness as the week drew nearer. Could everyone play nicely for that long? Would the week end with a relieved goodnight, or with the suggestion that we "do this again sometime"?

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Pillow Book/Talk

"To love makes one solitary, she thought" -V. Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 33.

Words thrumming through my head this morning.
• Solitary.
• Solace.
• Solipsism.
• Solemnity.

Distasteful things on which I'd rather not dwell.
• This country's so-called leadership.
• The conflation of women with their wombs. (story, courtesy Rabbit)
• How little I've written this year.
• The cat hair lurking beneath my keypad.

Discoveries made astonishingly late in life.
• They ain’t studying you.
• To shrug off the role of the academic acolyte, first reject it yourself.
• Inevitably, successful people are—in some regard—selfish.
• There’s a reason people drink caffeine in the morning.
(How did I get through 23 years of schooling without knowing this?)

Reasons to start loving your work, right now.
• You did once delight in this topic.
• Certain people's opinions aside, the Ph.D. is not a waste.
• You choke on the prospect of eternal trailing-spouse-dom/spouse-dumb.
• This is one of those things you can do only by yourself. You only can do.

Lucky girl.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Summer Reading

Yesterday, I re-read in one sitting Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Her book reminded me of some of the titles I'd like to read this summer, including two or three by Virginia Woolf (The Common Reader, The Second Common Reader, and Mrs. Dalloway). Time permitting, I'll also attend to a few other glaring omissions in my education, including Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. (Such a cheery gathering of plots!) And I'll revisit my favorite Sinclair—Sinclair Lewis—via his Arrowsmith, which got frequent mention at the History of Medicine conference that I attended earlier this month.

For more recently published works, my hope-to-read list includes Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (and maybe, too, The Blind Assassin) and George Howe Colt's The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home. I clipped a review for the latter from an August 2003 New Yorker, but never had a clue until today that the author was Anne Fadiman's husband. My in-laws' family reunion will this summer take place in Cape Cod, where I've never been. Reading Colt's book seems a good way to get to know the area. The New Yorker described it as a family memoir plus "a brief history of the Cape, an investigation of nostalgia, a catalog of local fauna, a study of class, and a mediation on the privileges and burdens of the past."

Sounds delicious. Now, if only we had forty-four hours in every day...

Thursday, May 13, 2004

No Littering

The woman ahead of me in the checkout stared intently at the few items I'd placed on the conveyer belt. I registered her gaze with disquiet — and then with a spike of indignation, which quickly gave way to self-ridicule. Why assume that this stranger was judging me, or thinking about me at all? She was just spacing out as her order was tallied.

Then the woman addressed me. "Is that stuff any good? Do you enjoy using it?" [Actual quote.]

She was pointing to a box of kitty litter.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Open the Gates

Today, I wrote to my dear friend Joe about being horribly shaken by the news of the beheading of the young guy from Pennsylvania. I don't know if the fact of his origins (PA) have anything to do with that shock, or what. Obviously, sadly, we've had another beheading in the news not long ago. (Obviously, sadly, it may be my racism and/or parochialism that causes me to be most upset by the murder of a white kid with two siblings from suburban Philadelphia.) It's not that this suffering outstrips that of the injured/killed troops—or the some 30,000+ Iraqis reported dead. But the brutality of it, and the thought of how it happened, is more haunting to me than even the violence that happened in Fallujah or that which is depicted in Abu Ghraib. (Although, again, the question of degree becomes absurd and no comparison of these cases in really possible.) Seeing the family from West Chester, and particularly the face of the anti-war father made me just sick with despair over what is happening in the world and what (for a long time now) has been happening to this country. I keep thinking about the rage and/or destruction that is most often borne of suffering imposed on those one loves. You don't saw off one living person's head, or sodomize and beat to death one person, or burn one person alive. To commit such acts is to "open the gates of hell," as Adam said last night. Those acts exert unspeakable physical suffering on human bodies—suffering that I can't even contemplate being applied to the lowliest of animals. But those acts also rip impossible wounds into the bodies and minds of those who cared about the victims. Here, I think, is where we approach what many of those who write about genocide call the "unspeakable." These things are unspeakable. Also unthinkable. I'll speak for myself, but I can't fully wrap my mind around them—mostly because my imagination won't let me.

And yet there are people on the news chattering about them all day. And you can flip a channel on the TV or radio and find other people chattering about makeovers and characters of silly sitcoms. The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming at these moments. (Makes me better understand W.H. Auden's poem, "Funeral Blues: Stop All the Clocks," although even that seems inadequate in the face of atrocity.) I have an inkling, then, of why Western culture can appear to patently absurd. And everything seems an affront to the families of those who do not have the luxury of tuning out and forgetting; they can no longer choose to insulate themselves against the news for self-protection. Certainly, the insulation, apparent frivolity, or callousness of one's government or fellow citizens must make any hope for redemption very, very difficult. And, if it stokes a rage, who could fully rebuke the person who acts on it?

I really used to believe in this country and what it stood for. Even if I eventually came to see that our country is obnoxious for its selfishness and its swagger, I did still admire the principles on which it operated, at least in theory. But now I do fear that the Bush administration (and the choices of most of those who've led in the late 20th and early 21st centuries) have pissed away any noble legacy. So it is with empires, says the voice in my head. Still, it didn't have to be like this.

I've read a lot about 1970s groups such as the Weather Underground and the SLA. And even though I do abhor their (violent) tactics, I think I understand know, better than I ever have before, the sort of nihilistic distrust that motivated their actions. Is this what people felt during the barbarous slog of Vietnam? If so, no wonder the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 felt so hollow to so many.

I agree with critics who charge that most people in the West are so privileged as to have experienced most of what they deem "despair" through bad romances...or maybe individual tragedies, such as losing a family member to accident or disease. However, I am cautious in ascribing such privilege—maybe because I think it is exactly that accusation of "you haven't ever really lived or suffered" that enables civic complacency. I have a theory that it is this attitude of "you're-so-insulated-and-you've-always-been-insulated-and-you're-heading-for-a-fall" that makes my students feel hopeless and immobilized in the world they stand to inherit. And it permits them (and those older) to make selfish choices with their lives. I say this as someone who (as a kid) always felt vaguely ashamed of my own time, my own generation. I willingly swallowed some of my older relatives' assertions that the golden age (of music, of safety, of civility) was behind us, and I was only experiencing its traces. Now that I'm getting old enough, I feel a similar curmudgeonly impulse to judge my students' formative years negatively against my own. "The golden age is behind us...." But that's damaging and short-sighted because it kills future possibility. And it doesn't equip them to DO anything. It instructs them to despair. And to make selfish choices because that's the only pleasure they have left.

That is why politicians' words of promise can sound so stilted. They don't only sound suspicious because of our general distrust of the "sleazypoliticaltype." (Not such a new animal, it's important to note.) They also sound suspect because they go against the prevailing winds of complacency. And, counterintuitive as this sounds, violence is a form of complacency. It's giving up. It's an admission of impotence, of impossibility, of strangling conscience in favor of the quicker results achieved by force. Or maybe it's better to say that complacency is violence.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Barn Dance

I am in love with my desk. "Scarlet Letter" didn't work out. (Sorry, Nathanial Hawthorne.) It came up far too rosy and meek. At first I thought I could live with it. Then I deliberately buried it in paper. Then it started to give me a toothache.

"What's neurotic?" asked Maria, the most hilarious, unfettered kid I've ever met. She's a sharpie, so I doubt she'll be asking that question again. But, if she does, I won't be offering up my desk as Exhibit A. Too many women disparage their hard work as neurosis. Me, I'll call it "Not Settling."

Round two had an inauspicious name: "Barn." But, when layered on top of Scarlet Letter (and two careful layers of shellac), it produced the most ardent, rousing, dazzling, intuitive work surface ever.

No brilliant outcomes are possible without the failures that preceded them. Remember that.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Pieces of 8

8 is my number. And it is lucky. I picked it by accident in 1980, at a church festival that I was allowed to attend with some older kids from the neighborhood and, more importantly, sans parents. Three significant things happened that night:

1) I rode alone on a ferris wheel with my neighbor Kevin H., on whom I once had a massive, if inexplicable, crush. That was the night I realized how much I liked boys. I liked the funny shape of their knees, their blunt movements, and even (if Kevin were any indication) their incapacity for meaningful dialog.

2) I developed a lifelong relationship to scarcity. My parents had recently bought a house and money must have been tight. My mother gave me a ten dollar bill for the festival (a massive sum!), and I was elated. But then she said, "Well, I hope you're happy. Because you're taking our last dollar." I have a photo-precise image of my father at that moment. He sat in the fading light of the study window, staring pensively at the front lawn. Most likely, they had had a fight, and that had prompted my mother's comment. But, in my kid's imagination, I was the wickedest thing. I had taken their last dollar. And my dad was sad about it. I felt anxious about money for the next twenty years.

3) Okay—that's not entirely true. I've worried over money a lot in my life, but that worry must have started up later that evening, when my mother shook me down for change and marveled that I had returned with less than two dollars in my pockets. (Pretty astonishing by today's standards, but, at the time, I was mortified at this proof of my profligate self.) Apparently, the initial guilt at my mother's rebuke was not enough to prevent me from losing myself in what seemed the high glamour of the festival, eagerly trotting after the older kids across the dirty elementary school parking-lot from the concession stands to the rides to the games...

...and it was the months-of-the-year game that gave me the lucky number. You placed 50 cents on the number of the month you predicted would turn up on an oversized 12-sided die. My friends were playing their birth months, so I did the same, hastily sliding two quarters onto the number 8, which I mistook for representing July. August won and, much to my surprise, so did I. The barker leaned down to place in my arms a homely, stuffed panda. The panda wore an obscenely tight pair of grey-and-red striped trousers and a vacant smile. The oldest neighbor kid thumped me on the back. I felt as if Jesus himself had come down to congratulate me.

8 is symmetry or, with a tilt of the head, infinity. 8 gets the asterisk on the keyboard, as befits its flair. I remain charmed by 8, as several dozen passwords, past ATM codes, and bike lock combinations will attest. The only link to 8 that I resent has to do with sleep. I need 8 solid hours of it, and that seems a crime. Especially when you consider how, in any given August, the 6-hour sleeper experiences 2.5 more DAYS of waking life than I. But this is the only taint of bad luck corrupting 8 and my relationship to it.

Friday, May 07, 2004

The Opposite of Ghost

Something's happening to this house. On all sides of its flaking wood flanks, a chorus of dark-leafy arms have exploded from the earth. Do they beg, laud, or aspire to the sky? We can't be certain. But there is beauty in chaos, and so we bless the triumphal shoots, the inquisitive vines. No longer alarmed by their preternatural growth, we can even smile at the green octo-bush scaling the other side of our bedroom wall.

This is a house with the opposite of ghosts. It's the living things that form the stubbornest roots. I felt that lying in bed last night, in the eerie comfort of the silent lightning storm that glimmered outside. Dark green turned briefly silver, and made visible a matching set of interior vines.

Imagine a shipwrecked sailor, falling into exhausted sleep on the soft, shifting sands of an alien beach. Imagine the sailor's shock to awake in this—this aggressively terrestrial space—and yet feel mysteriously at ease. Curiosity sated. Unsurprised by safety. In this new place that feels like kin, or even part of my own body. This new and fleeting home.