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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's wonderfulness

The great Flannery O'Connor grew up in Georgia, where her childhood passions included raising feathered creatures of all kinds. My brother Eric just sent me a collection of her works, and though I'd previously read a number of her short stories, today I read an essay -- "King of the Birds -- first published the year I was born. It's about peacocks. Gorgeous. Funny. (The birds and the writing.)

“Although I had a pen of pheasants and a pen of quail, a flock of turkeys, seventeen geese, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silk bantams, two Polish Crested ones, and several chickens of a cross between these last and the Rhode Island Red, I felt a lack."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jazz guitar gentleman

People who know jazz know guitar legend Pat Martino. I didn't hear of him till last week, when I was asked to share info about his weekend gig at Nighttown. Something struck me just in reading about him, however: I wanted to hear him play.

We lucked into front-and-center seats at his Saturday show, and I really did have the sense of being in the presence of someone extraordinary. It wasn't just the stylin' outfit (crisp jeans, necktie, hip shoes). It was watching the dazzling combination of intense concentration and muscle memory at work as he played. People who are passionately driven in the arts -- not to fame, but to mastering their medium -- exude special charisma.

Plus, he was with an ace drummer and B3 player, and they were doing very tuneful, sophisticated stuff.

All of this would be interesting enough on its own, but then you learn about Pat's 1980 brain surgery, from which he awoke with his memory shot through with holes. You can read about it here.






Monday, April 06, 2015

Bird in Captivity


The bathroom scale I grew up with was covered in gold carpet. Your tootsies stayed warm while your blood ran cold. The numerals were marked off every five pounds with little slash marks in between. If you stepped on the scale three times, you could get three different readings. And there were many times, in my fat-obsessed teenage years, that I stepped on the scale three times in succession. 


Had you asked me at 18 whether I’d still be a daily scale-checker at fiftysomething, I would’ve said, “God, I hope not.” But here I am – stepping on dutifully each morning, virtually every day.  This modern scale isn’t so modern as to report on my body mass index, thank heaven, though such models are available. No, it just reports on my character in half-pound increments. 
 But hey – if you step on it three times in succession, you’re likely to get the same three results. That’s progress, right?

I mentioned this daily scale-check to one of my daughters today, and she was stunned. I’ve been known to pack the scale in my suitcase when we go on vacation, but I suspect she thought I was just trying to keep myself honest during one of my flirtations with Weight Watchers.  If only.

Deep into this this lifelong dance with food and fat, I still pay homage to the numbers as a hedge against morbid obesity – or so goes the theory. I’m afraid to look away for too long; I might lose touch with the reality and float out to sea on a raft of bagels and peanut butter.
But it doesn’t really work anymore. Instead, I check in daily and readjust my idea of “normal” as the numbers climb.
This is something they don’t tell you about aging – that the coping mechanisms of youth can weaken along with muscle tone. The dumb workarounds, the crazy habits you depended on for years to keep you passing for sane (or thin), can go the way of the sagging jawline. I am forced to admit, though not for the first time, that “healthy” is less about keeping dates with the scale and more about keeping reasonable promises to myself.

Carry on.






Monday, March 30, 2015

What's left of Easter

The Easters of my Catholic childhood were, as I remember them, optimistic Sundays of budding crocuses and crowded church pews. We woke to birdsong and splendid baskets my mother had fluffed with plastic grass, then were whisked off to Mass to be reminded that Jesus rose from the dead.

Heady notion for a kid just wanting to get back to her malted milk balls. I was never sure how Jesus’s death and rising canceled out our more demonic behavior, but I figured the grownups had worked it all out.

A few decades of living can shoot holes in that sort of trust. To quote Sting, you could say I’ve lost my faith in religion. It had been slipping precipitously for years, and then along came The Revelations (this is how I think of the journalism around the Catholic child-abuse coverup) to  pound the last nails in the coffin.

My trust in the Church has been replaced by certainty in a couple of less mystical truths.

1. The grownups rarely have it all worked out. 
2. Any institution that instructs you to obey its rules without question has something to hide.

All of this has been brewing in my head for the last few days. Easter approaches, and along with it comes wistfulness about the loss of church. Sure, I still have spirit. But how lovely it would be if my mother’s house of worship had been worthy of her trust– a faith she raised her kids to live by, too.  How reassuring it would be to feel that centuries of wisdom and prayer and love had built an unassailable structure where we could find it all: succor and solace, guidance and deliverance.

There is no there there, as far as I can see, though if you find it for yourself I am genuinely heartened. I find the there in here, instead – a small place in my heart that grows with prayer and meditation and shrinks in their absence. No longer dazzled by the altar and the pillars, I remain reverent about Jesus and the purpose of his life.

Love, he told us. Put others first.
Then he did it himself just to show us it could be done.

He would not approve of my road rage, but he might give me a few points for all the times he sees me making effort not to be a complete self-centered jerk.

He would appreciate my kindness toward animals, though he would almost certainly wish that I could extend that a little further onto my fellow humans.

He probably frowns when I natter on Facebook about the weathergirl’s bad fashion. He probably thinks I have enough flaws of my own, and that on the very day I get my own self together in one spiritual basket, then I can start judging how other people live. And dress.

If all of this seems a little flimsy, a little too loosey-goosey, let me assure you that I’m more certain and passionate in this humbler faith than I ever was about all those golden arches. There aren’t many rules, but they’re firm:

My religion tells me to love and be kind. Love everyone, including myself. And be kind to all, not just the dog. This is the spiritual work of a lifetime. This seems to me to be made plain in the life of Jesus, and in the Easter story.  It’s the part of the church I couldn’t leave.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Meg Ryan Probably Hates Hobbies, Too

This drawing is a retread, but speaks to several of my non-hobbies.


DURING AN INTERVIEW for “Inside the Actors Studio,” host James Lipton asked actress Meg Ryan to name a word she detested. Ryan thought for a few seconds, then unfurled “en-joy” with mocking deliberation. Lipton seemed surprised. As I remember it, Ryan explained that “enjoy” was almost always used in instances when the speaker sounded devoid of actual joy.

We really enjoyed our dinner. 
Yawn.
As words go, enjoy is solid beige. It now lives in the dingy old sack where I keep words I regard as fundamentally unworthy of the human experience. The sack is small, and notably separate from the suitcase where I store passionately loathed language trends, i.e. "amazing.But I want to pull another one out of the bag and turn it over for just a moment, so here we go:

Hobby. Do you have one? I don’t.

People must admit to having hobbies all the time. It keeps showing up on questionnaires. 

Whenever asked, the only reasonable answer that occurs to me is, “Yes, I collect coins,” which is problematic, since I don’t collect coins. Yet it’s one of the few activities I can think of that sound dull enough to warrant hobby status.

Yet if I did collect coins, it would no longer be a hobby, because, holy hourglass, Batman, this life is whizzing by, so I'm not going to waste it on anything I regard with the limp, semi-intentionality of a hobby. No, if I decided to delve into numismatics, it would mean I had begun to regard coins with an awe previously reserved for moments of spiritual bliss and/or closeups of Adam Levine's tattoos.

Let me be completely obnoxious: Everything I do outside my job is way more critical to my humanity than the word “hobby” can convey. That includes napping.

I love to read and draw, for pay and otherwise. I’m a half-moon short of a lunatic for animals, and have been known to spend mornings cleaning shit off birdcages just to snag face time with a rescued vulture.  I do none of this with the thumb-twiddling listlessness conveyed by that Poindexter of the h-word.

An allergy to hobby might well be a sign of taking oneself too seriously. But derision is definitely built into its DNA. You can read about it here on the online etymology site, but perhaps it will suffice to say that “hobby” grew out of “hobbyhorse,” which, as we know, is a horse that doesn’t go anywhere.

My horses travel.  They take me to true joy. They also occasionally stop to drink at the stream of sorrow, frustration and self-doubt, before heading on down the road to redemption. And of course, they provide critical moments of deliverance from the jar of peanut butter in the kitchen cupboard.  This is all fulfilling and important, I think.

So, please, have your hobbies if you like. I don’t want to deny anyone pleasure, even if it’s just the pleasure of being able to claim that they have a hobby.

But I wish James Lipton would call me. I like to have a word with him.


















Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Kid Lit: Re-reading Sendak




AT THE BOOKSTORE CHECKOUT COUNTER, the thirtysomething clerk flips over a copy of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (HarperCollins) and breaks into a grin.

“I loved this book!” he said. He repeats this several times, then admits, “I don’t know why.” 

First published in 1963, Sendak’s poetic and brilliantly illustrated book achieved something that not all Caldecott winners can boast. It has become a classic.  You can probably find more learned students of children’s literature with thoughts on why, but here are mine. 

Sendak writes and draws the tale of Max, whose crossness gets him sent, supperless, to his room, where his imagination spirits him away.  He sails to a land full of “things” with yellow eyes and claws and sharp teeth.  These things are both winsome and scary. We and Max suffer that dreamlike uncertainty about whether he will succumb to their mortal threat. 

But in the end, Max tames them – or at least gets them on his side, and they are all wild together, dancing beneath the moon.

The book contains a mere ten sentences. It ends on a proper children’s book note, with Max safely back in his bedroom. But this is still an edgy story. Subversive. 

For a while, Max and wildness are free of parental interference.  It’s a little weird to read this to your own children, who you are likely to wish would simply behave and have no wildness to exercise. But if you are a child, there’s something perhaps reassuring to have your untidy feelings be given such respect.

Twice in recent months, “Where the Wild Things” has come up in conversation as an example of extraordinary artistic achievement. This is why I went hunting down a new copy recently. The last time I’d read it, when my own kids were young, I had either not noticed or forgotten that images literally get larger as Max moves into the fantasy world. As the book opens, Max is playing in his house. That modest first drawing is framed by lots of white space.

By the middle of the book, three two-page spreads are occupied entirely by images of Max and the Wild Things giving way to the wild rumpus. Then the size recedes again. There is no picture at all on the book’s last page. This is one of those moments in literature where the technique seems, in hindsight, to have been inevitable.

It wasn’t. Sendak, who wrote and illustrated the book at age 32, had to think of it first.  Indeed, he invested such attention in every word. Each page is so well-considered. So if you’ve never read “Where the Wild Things Are,” or if it’s been a decade or two, consider discovering it as an adult.

We may be old, but we’re all still a little bit Max, too.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Where the Wild Things Are

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ONE MORNING I CURLED UP in my corner of the sofa to nurse the day’s first caffeine, as custom dictated. Animal breakfasts had been served and inhaled. The other humans slept. Roscoe, chubby sausage-mutt light of my life, climbed into my lap, as custom dictated, and reeled back to ask for a scratch.

Within 30 seconds of my fingertips grazing his soft belly, and reaching up under his front legs to rub the pits, Roscoe suddenly snarled and struck my hand in a single movement. One terrible tooth planted itself in my palm. I pulled back and dumped him off my lap. He shook his coat and hung his head in shame. He seemed not to understand what had just happened. Neither did I.

I went to work an hour later with my hand bandaged and my spirit shot. I felt ashamed; a better dog owner wouldn’t have this problem. For most of the day it was all I could do to keep from weeping. My hand was hurt, but my feelings were really wounded, which was odd. He was, after all, a dog.
The incident came as a shock but not a complete surprise. As a rescue mutt, Roscoe arrived with a lot of emotional baggage. “Fear aggression,” they call it. He behaves badly when he’s tense. I understand this. I’ve been known to snarl at people while waiting to board a plane, or if an elevator seems to be thinking about getting stuck.

Lots of stuff scares Roscoe, but our biggest problem until recently was that visitors couldn’t – can’t – just come into our house and reach down to pet the nice doggie. He’ll snap.  One needs to studiously ignore him, and after a few minutes he stops barking.

But you still can’t pet him.

Yet he is also the most affectionate dog I’ve ever lived with. He’s a face-licker, a tail-wagger, a dog with a preference for being in close physical contact with his humans. At the word “snuggle” he rubs his head against my chest. He crawls under the covers at night and plasters himself against my hip. Inevitably, this makes me think of the poor old Victorians who had only pans filled with hot coals to warm their mattresses.

Over the last few months, though, Roscoe started occasionally pulling a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine with family members when they petted him. As his main fan, I quietly believed they must have been doing something wrong and triggering his fear response. Maybe they were petting him in a sensitive spot, I thought. But there was no common denominator there. The morning he bit me I understood that if the definition of “something wrong” could include the belly rub he’d just asked for, we had a real problem.
So we’re working with a new trainer, a woman who is teaching us how to bring gentle structure to our dealings with Roscoe and our other dog, Daisy. Routines will help, she says. Roscoe is high-strung but will likely be calmer within a framework of play and behavior exercises. Though she makes no promises.
My childhood dog was a dachshund who declared holy war on the mailman five days a week. I spent hours during my youth wishing Rudy could talk. Nothing could be better than communicating directly with him, I thought. 
Adulthood has changed my thinking. I like the mystery animals present. Our friendships with them are strong in part because of the communication gap. We work and study them for clues. I suppose they do the same with us.

This new training seems to be helping, if only by giving me a distraction from my constant worrying about what is wrong with Roscoe. The specialist told us to watch for even subtle signs of tension, and so I notice if he becomes very still, or if he flattens his ears.

He has a crate, and we are trying to do fun things so that he’ll learn that the crate is a place he can go when he needs to feel calm and safe. Still, I admit that just this once it might be helpful, for the good of the order, if the little man had some words.  

 I would be a good listener. I would tell him everything’s going to be all right.