Monday, December 13, 2010

ode to a sorry self


dear friend

rejection arrives
again, fresh
each time
the cut never old
the letter form/from
[prestigious retreat] came
today, sucks to be


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Internal Lynn Swann

I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Girls were expected to be not-athletic. Sports were a boy thing. I went along with the expectation. I did not play organized sports. Being picked for a team in gym class filled me with terrible dread. Often I was picked last, especially for kickball. If there was an outfield, I hung back in it. If there was a lot of action  around the ball, I stayed away. If a ball came straight at me, I froze in panic. I hated sports.

Except that I didn't.

On my own time, with my best friend, Tim, I was fast, agile and tough. I ran, wrestled, and loved to play football. The Steelers' Lynn Swann was my idol, because like me, he studied ballet and played football, proving dramatically to the world what I understood in my body. We are more powerful when we understand that "girl things" and "boy things" are just, largely, people things.

When I was in middle school, I heard about a girl at a high school somewhere who played on the varsity football team. I briefly considered trying out for football, but it was too outlandish an idea. I also considered trying out for track. I knew I was a good sprinter. But I was too shy, and there was no one around who offered to mentor me.

I did have some female athlete role models. My friend Shelly played hockey, on a travel team I think. That was tough, and certainly not a traditional "girl thing." There were girls' basketball and volleyball, and probably softball, teams, but I never understood how those might relate to my love for the rough and tumble of football, for the brute struggle at the line and the great soaring freedom of moving down the field in time to jump up and meet the ball at the end of its arc. Plus, I resented the "girls" team aspect of them. The girls teams were, by definition, less important.

By the time I was in high school, I was enmeshed in theater and punk rock and dating college guys. Tim and I went our separate ways. I was too busy to care that there was no outlet for my contrarian athleticism. But I lost a great pleasure and a source of strength. I lost my internal Lynn Swann.

If there had been a girls football team, I wonder if I would have gone out for it. There's enough interest now that my friend Marie plays for the Cleveland Fusion, part of a women's football league with teams in several cities.

Title IX was in effect in my childhood, but its effects didn't fully reach me. I hope it reached some of my classmates. I think its longterm effect has been profound. Women athletes might still struggle to be valued on a level with men, but women athletes are visible and vibrant. My daughter, and my son for that matter, thinks of sport as one of many important facets of life. Like so many contemporary American kids, they play soccer. Z hangs back sometimes, but she can also be dogged and fierce. Then the two of them come home and analyze fashion on Project Runway. I like to think that things are better for them.

Today is Rally for Girls' Sports day sponsored by the National Women's Law Center. Read more about how sports participation has a positive influence on girls' academic success and physical and psychological health. Help your girl find and keep her internal Lynn Swann.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Miracle of the Brussels Sprouts

           Ceci n'est pas une pipe

We've been busy and then we were gone half the weekend. Sunday was my writing day, so David took ZandO to the winter festival at University Circle. When it came time to make dinner, my cupboards looked woefully bare. I was even (once again) out of pasta. We could have just had sunbutter sandwiches and carrot sticks, but then I wouldn't have had anything to feed my kids for lunch the next day.

What I did have was a lot of winter storage vegetables. A ton of squash ... but, no, squash takes some planning.

Potatoes! Cheesy smashed potatoes, still in their jackets, would make a great base. But what to put on top?

Ah-ha! A big bunch of mystery greens sat in the crisper drawer. Before Thanksgiving, I'd gotten two bunches of these from City Fresh. The first bunch went into a pasta & chick pea concoction with lemon juice and a good bit of Parmesan. The were wonderfully rich and chewy, with a pleasing sharp note that worked nicely with the earthy beans and cheese.

At City Fresh there was speculation that they might be Brussels sprout greens. Turns out they were.

Can you see the baby sprout?
I took out the bag, hoping that most of the bunch would still be edible, and removed a bouquet of sturdy dark green leaves and was surprised to discover that several of them had begun to grow baby Brussels sprouts in the cold dark of my fridge!

There were eight tiny sprouts in all.

I removed them and set them aside, then tore the leaves from the stalks and chopped them into smallish bits.

The leaves seemed like they were on the tough side, so I doubted a simple saute was going to work, but a quick braise might soften them up.

While the potatoes cooked, drained, and sat waiting for the masher, I softened some onion in bacon fat (goes so well with greens of all kinds!), added a generous quantity of garlic (6 cloves maybe?), then tossed the greens in. After they'd softened for a bit, I added the baby sprouts and poured in a cup or so of vegetable broth, covered the pan, and let it simmer for 10 minutes or so.

Sometime during the mashing process, I decided this meal was going to be too squishy and was going to need some kind of crunch. I'd noticed the tail end of a bag of walnuts in the freezer when I went to get out the bacon fat. I'm not sure I've ever had walnuts with greens, but it seemed like the flavors could be complementary. I sent my table setters off to do something quiet for 5 minutes and quickly toasted the walnuts in a little omelet pan then chopped them into small but toothsome bits.

Before serving, I finished off the greens with a good dash of malt vinegar. We added hot sauce to taste at the table.

The finished meal was served in a broad shallow bowl. Potatoes covered by greens, sprinkled with walnuts, all crowned with teeny, tiny miracle sprouts.

 The baby sprouts were tender and a little sweet. They tasted like they'd come from an entirely different plant than the rich greens. The potatoes were a perfect base, and the walnuts were definitely the right choice. Without them the dish would have been fine, but they provided a perfect counterweight to the other ingredients - crunchy, toasty, slightly astringent.

I did good.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gluttony, many kinds

[links forthcoming]

I have been working toward Thanksgiving weekend for most of the fall. Busier than perhaps any other time in my life, I kept telling myself, "if you can just get to Thanksgiving, you can ..." sit down, do nothing, spend a whole day cooking, drink a lot and sleep in the next day, generally surrender to sloth and gluttony.

Not my beet salad, but something like it.

Thanksgiving finally arrived, and as it turned out, we took guests with us, and lots of produce from City Fresh, our CSA (radishes, beets, and cabbage. oh my!). My friend Jess and her family (including Z's old preschool gal pal, the divine Miss L) brought with them an astoundingly fine cheese plate, which even included fig jam and cornichons (you can see why I like this lady); a laudable apple pie, complete with impressive seasonal crust cut-outs; and a larger than average appreciation for the oddball, which I hoped would make them feel at home with my people.

Also joining us the day of the feast, was my mom's friend Pat, who furnished among other things, her family Thanksgiving specialty of chicken "pot pie" -- which is not a pie at all but a squishy comfort stew of shredded chicken and great, fat homemade noodles. She's from Alabama. A conversation with a barmaid at the Smiling Skull Saloon the next day reminded me that homemade noodles are an Appalachian/sometimes Southern thing for the holidays. (In the foothills of Southeastern Ohio, my grandmother reports, this has morphed into a festive dish of noodles OVER mashed potatoes.) If you have further information about the origins of this tradition, please post a comment.

My mother did the meat (turkey and ham, both!), dressing and gravy. My aunt provided pumpkin pies and cocktails. And I supplied the Beaujolais Nouveau and the veg. I set out wedges of red and white radishes with dishes of butter and sea salt for nibblies. They were good, but could not compete with the cheese plate. I was going to do a garlic braised squash dish, but it seemed too much, so I just mashed potatoes, improvised a creamy citrus cole slaw for counterpoint to all the rich and heavy, and made a salad of roasted beets tossed in balsamic vinegar on a bed of sauteed beet greens. There was a bit of goat cheese left on the cheese plate and some candied walnuts, so I tossed those in with the beets (did I mention how awesome the cheese plate was?). The beets were my triumph. 

When our guests left on Saturday, I had a little more than 24 hours to complete my next feat of consumption. I set out to read a complete issue of the New Yorker from cover to cover. A nearly unimaginable luxury! And not just any New Yorker, but the food issue. My hands were still stained red, when I read Alexander Hemon's ode to his family borscht.

No, I did not read all the listings, but I glanced through them. The high point there was the announcement for an improv cartooning event, exactly the kind of conceptual performance event I savor. Nor did I read all of the reviews … they don’t really apply to the food theme, so I figured they were negligible for this experience.

But the main contents of the issue, I … devoured. (Full disclosure: I didn’t get to finish the EL Doctorow short story, which is only culinary in the sense that it is set in a restaurant.) Chang Rae Lee’s memory piece about his Korean family’s assimilation and resistance through food was deft and lovely, its loose structure and tone of gentle self-recrimination both things that I would like to imitate. The article about the fermentation expert and the outlaw food movement was interesting, especially for its portrayal of a successful gay/faerie back-to-the-land commune (there are communes in my BiP, so I am always interested in non-cliche portrayals).

What really sticks with me, though, is the profile of April Bloomfield, the chef of the Spotted Pig. It was inspiring in its portrayal of someone so focused on her craft. It's a bit wonderful to contemplate the arc of someone’s life from Birmingham trade school to trendsetting New York restaurant. The aspect that makes me cringe with envy is the idea that such a person can afford to buy an apartment in Manhattan, something I fantasize about (pied a terre in the city, farm with goats and geese a train ride away ... sigh) and will likely never have. But putting my material jealousy to the side, I love that she has such a commitment to her own culinary aesthetic and yet maintains a humble curiosity about how other chefs run their kitchens and think about food. And I am instructed by the story of how she came to New York … all her talent still needed a businessman to decide to open a restaurant and hire her, backed by an armslength of tony investors to become a foodworld celebrity. Yes, it helped that she had established a respectable reputation among London kitchen workers, so that Jamie Oliver had her name at the ready when he had to turn down the job, but without her business partner and his celebrity friends’ money, she might still be sous chef on the Thames, with dreams of a pub of her own.

I've been thinking about this for several days now (and the description of Bloomfield's ricotta, butter, sage gnudi). What is the moral? That it’s important to have friends in high places? That success in the larger world is as much about luck as it is about talent? That I tend to be naive about how careers are built? Or more optimistically, that the truly important thing is to stay true to one's own passion and artistic vision? I have a feeling April Bloomfield would be content on the Thames, so long as she got to create her own dishes part of the time, but it didn't hurt that she had some charcuterie up her sleeve when Jamie Oliver called.

Last night, I was awake in the middle of the night, fretting about not having finished this post, and fretting about all the things I have yet to accomplish in my life, all the calls from Jamie Oliver I have not received, worrying that who I am now is who I will always be, feeling sorry for myself that I have no Spotted Pig of my own. There are many kinds gluttony. In the morning light, this one looks less appetizing.

Onward to the solstice, another feast ... with gingerbread cookies.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sick Days

I'm on day 2 of being sick, after spending a day with a sick O, and I am fighting terrible feelings of self-doubt and lurking failure. This is a normal way to be when sick, I suppose, but it comes at a time when I was already struggling against despair.

Why despair?

Because I am genetically predisposed? Because I am working too much and I'm worn out? Hormones?

Yes. Yes. Probably.

Because the BiP is more a fantasy than a reality at this point? (For those keeping track, NaNoWriMo feels to me more like NoNeGoWriMo ~ Not Never Gonna Write More.)

The last is probably the clincher. Whenever I lose track of my writing I get desperate. This is an ongoing dance I do with myself. Commit to the writing ~ do the writing ~ neglect the writing ~ hear the writing whispering recriminations ~ avoid the writing ~ loathe self and others ~ eventually get back to the writing (repeat). Wouldn't it be nice if we could lose steps 3, 4, & 5?

Hope in a Prison of Despair, pre-raphaelite painting by Evelyn De Morgan

My friend Paula has taken recently to calling this sort of reflexive negativity "lazy," and to a certain extent I think she is right. For someone like me the pose of despair is an easy, familiar place to land, but is it real or even in any way useful? How do I get back to committing to the writing, and to myself?

When I am avoiding my writing, I also lose the ability to focus in a lot of other ways. My mind is too antsy to settle down to read. If there isn't a task directly in front of me, I don't know what to do with myself.

O has recently developed a habit of asking plaintively, "Mama, what can I do-oo?"

It's really like he is voicing my internal state. What can I do? I have to DO something! Heavens forfend that I sit here and just be with myself. Thus, I have made myself so busy I am on the edge of exhaustion.

What am I avoiding? Is it something in the writing or is it something in me and the writing is just a casualty?

A week and a half ago I went to NYC to see a rock concert (my "Girlie for the Modfather" post has been in the works far too long ... another casualty of my current funk, I guess.) and I visited the World Trade Center site for the first time since 9/11. 

I went to "ground zero" because one of my characters, Lee, works in the financial district and the daily  presence of that place must mean something to him. Plus, and, my book is of a world populated by ghosts ... and there must be ghosts down there, right?

I finally got to see, and touch, the eerie eye mosaics in the Chambers Street station, which I had written about but not witnessed. They were installed in the late 90s, but take on more resonance in the wake of the towers falling.

Read more about the Chambers Street "Oculus" here.

Coming up to street level, I joined the crowds of tourists and gawked at the hole in the ground (the ever-present sounds of construction make a paradoxical soundtrack), I walked around, I took notes, I had a hot dog on Wall Street and watch a Dutch tour guide cracking up his tour group, I heard a chamber orchestra rehearsal in Trinity Church, and I concluded the St. Paul's churchyard is still the most haunted place down there. 
St. Paul's: maybe this is where all the WTC ghosts hang out?

I should write about it ... for real, not just in blogland. But just putting down these notes feels better. So, in the interest of admitting Hope into the prison of Despair, I commit to two things:

1. To make time, real quality time for the BiP.
2. To use this blog to catch shiny things, in other words to stop for a moment, to stop DOing and to sort, capture, and focus on my daily life and observations. 

Dear reader, help keep me honest.

I need more tea ...

Friday, November 12, 2010

AIKSGNP ep. 346 Postscript

O is pictured here enjoying the shirt in question.

To answer a question from Mati re burning the shirt upon arrival: The short answer is that it seems well proven that prohibition breeds desire. So, while I don't have to buy Barbie t-shirts, I am not going deny the ones that come in with other juicy hand-me-downs. Plus, and, I think this way is ultimately more subversive.

The longer answer is much more complicated, as is this whole dance of living within and even enjoying a culture with which I want my children to learn to engage critically. I will continue addressing this in dribs and drabs. (Stay tuned for "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Princesses.")

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Adventures in kinda sorta gender neutralish parenting, episode 346

Getting dressed this morning Z was trying to decide between the brown BFF t-shirt she inherited, I think, from Lily or maybe Makayla, or the pink super-80s (or is it 90s?) Barbie t-shirt that came in the great stream of hand-me-downs from Rachel C., one of my grad school profs. Z looked at them and realized the Barbie shirt is at long last too small. She handed it to me to put in the give-away bag.

Oh so pretty ... but in an 80s way or 90s? (answer revealed below)

But wait, I thought ... Z's too-smalls always get offered to O. This is why my boy proudly sports striped purple leggings, and it makes me happy. It helps that he has a strong sense of personal style (Michael C. was his fave on PR8, he would want you to know).

We have a saying in this house that "There aren't girl things or boy things. There are just people things." Of course, the rest of the world doesn't really get this concept ... those pure-pink and black & red battle-game-du-jour aisles at the toy store are hard to argue against, but I try.

This is partly an ideological decision. But it springs from my own experiences as a child. My best friend was a boy. We played football and Barbie together, watched Charlie's Angels and Battlestar Galactica. A man outside the A&P once asked long-haired Tim, "What's your name, little girl?" then took a look at me - grubby, chop-haired and shirtless - and told me "to be a good boy." We laughed about that for days.

I got older and girlier, but I have always retained a basic sense of androgyny. I wish to pass this on to my kids, because I want them to know it is OK to be whoever they are, however they are, in whatever clothes they like best. (We are after all, Free to Be ... You and Me ... bald as ping pong balls, knowing its all right to cry, with our dolls, and our people mommies, and all.)

So, I dithered for a moment ... O isn't going to want this t-shirt; it's too-too girlie, for real ... wait a second, shouldn't he make that decision? ... and back and forth.

Finally I walked into his room with the shirt. "Do you want this shirt?" I asked.

"Mmmmm," he considered it with his head tilted and his face scrunched up. "Well, I don't want to wear it as an outside shirt ... "

"OK," I said, and started to back out of the room.

"But I do like it," he added emphatically.

"Should we just keep it for a pj shirt?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Yeah, yeah. Put it in my pj drawer."

So I did.

I wonder, what is the perceived moral of this story? It's OK to be girlie, as long as you keep it, you know ... in a drawer ... or some other closed, dark clothes-storage area? Or, more hopefully ...  It is important to dress appropriately for the occasion, and sometimes the relaxing occasion is going to call for a pink Barbie T, so it's good to have one on hand?


OMG! This shirt is 20 years old!

In other news, I heard Loretta Lynn tell Terry Gross last night that she is still, after a stellar 50-year career, not really sure if she is a good singer. This made me sad and hopeful all at one time. #neuroticartistsunite

Friday, November 5, 2010

trinket box

Not a particularly shiny week in America, if I do say so myself, still a few things have inspired me. (I don't have time to go into detail. My friend Cara says "the novel always wins," which means I need to be over there instead of over here.)

+ First, Franzen ... I have a big chip on my shoulder when it comes to Jonathan Franzen. Read The Corrections, found it wanting, resented the hype. What does the hype have to do with me, you ask? Nothing. But I guess I need something on which to focus my writerly longing, envy, and bitterness. (I used to feel this way about Joyce Carol Oates, but I've mellowed on her.) Not particularly productive, but there you have it. So I've walked around for 9 years hating Jonathan Franzen, so much so that knowing he was friends with David Foster Wallace tainted my devoted, frustrated adoration for the latter.Have I written a novel in the last 9 years to counter Franzen? No. Cara is right. That is where I need to be, in the novel writing room.

Yet, I heard a snippet of an interview with him on the radio this week, and before I knew it was him I found myself nodding in agreement at the steering wheel. My friend Halle said he as so depressive, and maybe in the larger interview he is, but I like what he had to say about writing from what is hot in him, the issues he still needs to figure out, and about trying to write the unsayable. The full interview is on the WCPN site here.

+ Another moment of radio inspiration was listening to a story about the singer Buika. She grew up in Mallorca, the daughter of African immigrants. 1. Her voice is amazing. Listen:

2. She talks so eloquently about owning her voice. "'They kicked me out of the church when I'm a little girl because they said I'm singing like a dog,' she says. 'They didn't want me to sing there anymore. Because you hear my voice, obviously it's not very clean. But watch out what happened with me then later.' .... 'what I feel like when I'm singing, we don't need the hope anymore. Hope is for people who wait. And I don't want to wait no more. I'm not scared anymore. I'm not scared of myself. Of my things. Of my fear. Of absolutely nothing. And that's music.'" Full story on NPR site here.

+ In other realms this week ... The less said about the election the better. However, one shiny thing: reports 2010 Elections Gayer Than Ever: Most Gay Candidates Elected in Nation's History.

+And in an email exchange with my friend Julie, I happened upon this snippet of e.e. cummings, which I like even if I am the eternal agnostic: 
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes (cont'd)

This weekend, I'm taking a whirlwind trip to NYC see the Paul Weller, and visit some of my favorite places. Should be shiny.

I won't be back here until I spend some time with the novel, which must win. (PS, my friend Cara happens to have a winning novel herself, out soon from Simon & Schuster. You might like to buy it.)

Happy Friday.

Monday, November 1, 2010

If you don't know me by now ...

Shiny eyed greetings from the other side.

There are a lot of important holidays in this house. Birthdays (of the living and the dead) celebrate the individual. Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrate togetherness and plenitude. Halloween and New Year's are my favorite, though. They are both topsy-turvy days, Saturnalian. And they both celebrate transitions, shadows, the edges of things.

Halloween/Day of the Dead/Samhain. It is the day when the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinnest, they say. Or maybe it is the day when the impending darkness of winter really begins to settle onto us. If we were more agrarian it would be the time of year when the bounty of the harvest and the barrenness of the fields stand in sobering contrast.

Detail of our altar this year, with photo of Meinhardt Raabe, the Munchkin coroner (RIP).

I think we've been celebrating the Day of the Dead in earnest for 9 years. Always a festival I liked the idea of, it became relevant when I had my own dead to commemorate. When death felt so much like a part of my life. Calvin was stillborn in March. The towers fell in September. In October is was important to leave offerings. Each year since we have decorated the mantel, festooning it with flowers, candles, cut paper, and an ever growing collection of skulls and skeletons. (Our first Day of the Dead figurine was given to us as a wedding present.)

We put our altar up on the mantel Saturday night and will leave it up until Tuesday. It bears traditional offerings like almonds, oranges, salt, candy, and water. I wish we had marigolds, which are the traditional flower to include. (Every year at this time, I promise myself that I will grow some next year. Maybe next year I really will. Last night I was at my friend AK's house for a party and she had some out on the table. I think I neglected to praise her.) Instead, I have yellow mums and dark blood red carnations ... if you squint at them the right way maybe they will merge into marigolds. 

Some years we've made sugar skulls. Once our friend Donna brought pan de muerto. This year we are so busy we are lucky we even got the thing up at all.

Calvin and our old cats always have a special place on the mantel. I hope other family members in the beyond know that they are welcome to drop by for a KitKat bar, too. We also include remembrances of people who have died in the past year, people close to us or close to people close to us - a friend's mother, my mother's friend. We give a lot of space to writers and performers and artists and other public figures. I don't think this is part of the Mexican tradition, and honestly sometimes I wonder if these people need an extra dish of almonds. Are we making too much of celebrity? But the ones we include are people whose work has touched us, who have helped shaped our world. Putting them on the mantel for these three days is as much a way of acknowledging the selves they have helped us to become. Tradition says their spirits are close to us now, but really a small part of their spirits are in us always.

This year Louise Bourgeois is featured prominently, along with Howard Zinn, J.D. Salinger and of course, Harvey Pekar. (Robert B. Parker is another writer who died this year, whose books meant a lot to me at one point in time, but I don't have any copies on hand. I remember him here.) Also, Lena Horne, Teddy Pendergrass, Solomon Burke, Alex Chilton, and Ari Up. Dorothy Height, Miep Gies, and Robert Byrd (how's that for a trio?). Dennis Hopper and Tony Curtis and Lynn Redgrave (who I got to see on stage once). Benoit Mandelbrot, Art Clokey, Arthur Penn, and Alaina Reed Hall (she was on Sesame Street when I was small.) My apologies to anyone I have neglected. RIP.

I hope their spirits will stop by for some salt and water, maybe a nibble of pomegranate.

Sing it, Teddy ...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shoes like green beetles

No reflective essay whoopdidoo today, just lust for shoes.

Yesterday, I saw a woman with bright green doc martens. Like this but shorter:

These are from a vintage site
Unfortunately, they've already been sold.

I kept glancing at her as I approached the table she was sitting at, as I passed, and even once as I climbed the staircase near her. When I was on the stairs we actually made eye contact. She probably thought I was scoping her out, or maybe she understood it was shoe lust.

I wish I had been wearing something appropriately shiny to match. My flower docs maybe. I got these lovelies a looooooooong time ago in Toronto, City of Shoes, home to a holy site for shoe lust pilgrimage: the Bata Shoe Museum. This is an entire freestanding, four-story museum devoted to the history and aesthetics of freaking shoes!!! I'll give you a moment to bask in the glory of this idea ...



A couple days ago, a friend posted on FB that she missed her old blue combat boots after seeing a woman walk across her campus sporting a pair. I don't know if the ones she saw were shiny metallic blue like these babies, but I like these a lot. The ones she used to wear back in day (as the kids say) were not metallic, but this same friend also used to wear the awesomest leather jacket with the The The logo painted on the back. <3 

But back to green. I currently only have one pair of green shoes in my collection. A lime green pair of Kenneth Cole loafers.   I got them in Camden, ME, once upon a time.

I used to have a pair of green canvas, t-strap Negevs, but when I had babies my feet got bigger and they stopped being comfortable. I hope someone else took them home from the thrift store and now wears them with a black and white gingham skirt.

Put this all in the shoe lust blender, and I now have a serious jones for some shiny bottle green confections. Green like metallic beetles. Green you can't deny. I like the look of these girls:


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dining in Nirvana with Little Steven

He's pretty shiny, right?

I have a habit of leaving cryptic notes for myself, often in the form of untitled lists scrawled on scraps of paper then tucked away to be found at some later date. I wonder over them.What was the moment in which this group of words seemed important? What was I thinking? What is on this list that is still important? Sometimes they result in lovely serendipities.

For instance, I have a tattered, creased sheet of grid paper I have held onto for 23 years. (It's somewhere in the attic right now.) At a funny angle on the back side (I've no idea what's on the front) is a list of titles of books about theater (Towards a Poor Theatre ... Empty Space ... ) And set off a bit, a guessed-at name: "Castlevetro?" I hurriedly made this list after a conversation with the Great Condee, my dramatic theory professor, whom I coouldn't embarass myself in front of by admitting I didn't know what he was talking about. For a long time I kept this list because I wanted to remember to learn its contents. Over time, without even referring to the list I did. Then I held onto it to remember being the person who made it. Last week, I gave my Intro to Fiction and Drama class a minilecture about the neoclassical response to Shakespeare; I mentioned Castelvetro. It's taken a long time, but I'm finally on the other side of that list.

Maybe Lodovico Castelvetro was shiny on the inside.

The other day, I found another list, this one more recent. A blue square of scrap paper with notes about music that might make good "soundtrack" for the damned Book in Progress (henceforth BIP), mostly rootsy, Americana type music. The Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration from a few years back is on there, and a lot of Springsteen, including an entry for Radio Nowhere (which has tantalizing connections to working title of BIP). I had the list at the library with me, and took the last 10 minutes before closing to try to grab some CDs. No Knopfler/Harris to be found, several Springsteen that I wanted to check out ... but nothing called Radio Nowhere.

At home, working on BIP, without looking too closely I tried to decide what CD I wanted to play in the background - Ghost of Tom Joad or Magic? There are ghosts in the book, but there is also magic, and right now what I need is more magic. (Yes, this is the way I think sometimes. Inviting serendipity, really.) I put Magic in CD player, then looked at the track list ... Do you know what the first song on that album is? "Radio Nowhere." Nice. Very nice. I opened up the case, and on the inside was a picture of Bruce and the band ... Steven Van Zandt beaming on the right ... and I was instantly transported to the time I crossed paths with him. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

20 years ago, when I transferred from the most expensive experimental liberal arts college in the nation to CCNY, the kind chair of the English department suggested I might be interested in a special course with a visiting scholar, an Oxford don no less. An intensive half-semester poetry seminar with an Oxford don who happened to be the great-great-grandson of William Wordsworth's brother. I didn't know crap about poetry and I'd already the year before suffered my first bout of crippling writers block. How could I say no?

The great-great-great uncle, who had a fondness for daffodils.

Jonathan Wordsworth was tall, angular, smart, casually handsome, tweedy, enthusiastic, and ironical. Everything you'd want your visiting Oxford don poetry professor to be, I suppose. I was in way, way over my head. I can recall making one canny observation about a poem by e.e. cummings, but when it came time to begin writing the seminar paper, I was in deep trouble. Faced with the same writers block that had driven me to the edge of the cliff the year before, I tried to protect myself. I went to Jonathan's office (everyone called him Jonathan), and told him I was desperate and I wanted to drop the class. Jonathan guffawed and talked me into staying. (Later he described my demeanor during that visit as "dithering." I've always hated him a little bit for that.)

When the course was finished, before he took his Wordsworth Express on to the next station, Jonathan gave me an incomplete and detailed instructions about where to send my paper, and he took the whole class out for dinner, at Nirvana.

To get there I took the subway to Columbus Circle and walked across Central Park South to number 30. A discreet brass plaque on the building announced the presence of the restaurant to those who knew enough to look for it and pointed the way to the penthouse elevator. I rode up to the 15th floor alone and walked into the bar, the ornate antechamber to a glowing, draped, upholstered confection of luxury with one glass wall revealing the whole breathtaking expanse of Central Park.

I was the first one there. I have no idea if I was appropriately dressed. I sat on a tufted bar stool and ordered a rum and tonic with feigned nonchalance and waited until I was led to the table. Still alone, I sat with my back to the entrance, the park filling my view. Across the small room an expensive looking man with a scarf tied around his head leaned in close to talk to his dinner companions. He looked familiar. Soon Jonathan and the other students arrived. We munched on papadums. I ordered another drink. I flirted with the grad student on my left. I gazed and gazed at the park. It dawned on me that the guy in the headscarf laughing on the other side of the room was Little Steven. How very odd that we had ended up at the same place at the same time. I felt small and important. Completely out of my element at a table I had been invited to join. Magic?

Why is this memory asking to be written? I'm not sure.  I never finished my paper for Jonathan. My permanent record says F-incomplete. I carried shame about that for a long time, regretted not dropping the class. But what's the point? He died in 2006, teacher to thousands (including Martin Amis and me), having forgotten my dithering. Without him I'd never have sat in that dazzling penthouse with a rockstar and a view of this:
Thanks, Jonathan.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bait Fish

David made fun of me when I told him, two weeks ago, that I had "started writing the first post" for this blog.

"You don't get it, do you?" he asked, knowing perfectly well that I do.

I probably threatened to throw something at him.

I erased that fragment of first post. It was too mannered and laborious. It was all about what I want this blog to be about. It was all about my anxiety of influence re certain other writers (namely George Eliot), and about the wonder of coming upon a manuscript of Middlemarch in the British Library about 5 million years ago, and the little paperback reproduction of her quotation-filled blotter I bought in the gift shop.

The paperback looks like this. (I haven't actually read it.)
Miraculously, I was able to find it in less than 5 minutes,
despite the shocking disarray of my bookshelves ... it was on the attic stairs.
(more on bookshelves in some other post)

In the intervening two weeks, I have made a list of possible topics for blog posts - everything from "writing like cooking" to "sexual abuse sucks" to "my life in fantasy careers, foreign service edition," but I still haven't begun the blog.

Sure, it's easy for David to make fun of me. He has about 500 blogs (like this, this, this, and this). He uses them to organize his thoughts, to promote projects, to comment on certain topics of abiding interest to him. I admire and envy the particular kind of creative focus/compulsion of which this is a symptom.

My blog will be different. It will be a compendium of all topics interesting to Toni, depending on what she is working on, teaching, thinking about, or feeling called by. (Likely there will be many posts about books, music, food, shoes, children, and writing). I called it Shiny Things because I am a mental magpie. I collect pretty idea trinkets that glint in the sun, some are diamonds, some tinfoil. Here I will strew them about in a great, festive heap, and hope you, dear reader, will admire them.

When I was young I hoarded my shiny observations and ideas, my inspiration, in a dark, locked box. I feared that if I let them out in the world, I would run out. They dried up and died in there. This was one reason I suffered crippling writers block in my late teens and into my early mid-20s. Then, after writing on deadline for pay, after finally finishing college, after stillbirth, after yoga, after my first graduate degree, I finally came to trust the source. It was innate. There would be plenty. And for a while I thought it was enough to notice them as they occurred and to let them go. Catch and release, occasionally keep one to grill up into a story. If I were a true yogi, maybe that would be enough, but I have now begun to fear running out of time before I get to do enough with them. Now, I want to keep them, fresh and alive not locked in a box, so they can grow on their own or for me to use as bait when I go looking for the harder catch - the bright silver marlin, this goddamned novel I've been working on forever, my all-girl rockabilly movie, the list goes on.

Shiny Things is a holding tank for the quick, flashing bait fish I bring in each day. Watch them as they swim.