Wednesday, December 26, 2012

the mess was delicious

A few years ago, when my girlfriends and I went on our annual beach trip, we ended up having dinner at the house of a friend of my Florida pal Stacy's. The friend was newly divorced man with a small toddler. At one point someone spilled a glass of red wine on the floor, and the adults began cleaning it up. The little boy, meanwhile, stood a couple of feet away, riveted by the dark splotch on the carpet, repeating as if mesmerized, "It's a mess. It's a mess. IT'S A MESS." Watching his rapt incantation, all of us shot a wide-eyed look at each other: Dang. A mess really upsets that kid. Bless his heart, and Lord help the person he marries. 

I really shouldn't make fun, though, because messes make me nervous, too. Recently, I brought in one of my recent dreams to talk over with my analyst. In the dream, I had assigned my first-year writing students to prepare homemade mushroom soup. Each student had to make his or her own version and turn it in. I would taste it, evaluate it, and give it a grade. On the due date, the students showed up, each with a pot containing his or her batch. Some of the soups had whole mushroom caps in them, and others had been completely pureed, but it was clear that each of them had gotten the broth base right, because they were all various shades of dark, rich brown. I walked down the line of pots, ladling a scoop of soup from each into my bowl. Then I realized that I was putting all the students' versions in the same bowl, and I felt foolish and a little panicked: there was no way I was ever going to be able to distinguish among the batches in order to assign a grade to each one.

Friday, December 7, 2012

six hundred dollars' worth

Poems I keep thinking about lately: Kay Ryan's "That Will to Divest" and Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." That section in Robert Hass's "Regalia for a Black Hat Dancer" where he talks about his divorce from his first wife, how during the whole process he imagined the moment when he would finally, deliberately, and ceremonially declare it finished. He visits a Buddhist shrine in Korea and considers leaving his wedding ring there but then decides not to.
In the months we were apart, I had endless fantasies
about when I'd finally take it off and how. And then one day,
I was moving, lugging cardboard boxes, I looked down
and it wasn't there. I looked in the grass of the driveway strip.
Sowbugs, an earwig. So strange.
I was searching in the rosebed of a rented house
inch by inch, looking under the carseat where the paper clips
and Roosevelt dimes and unresolved scum-shapes of once
vegetal stuff accumulate in abject little villages
where matter hides while it transforms itself. Nothing there.
I never found it.

He ends with a statement of baffled resignation: "Apparently I was supposed to wait / until it disappeared." In her poem, Bishop is similarly breezy, but of course she's whistling through the graveyard as she names things she's lost, from little to big: "And look! my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went."

Well, Elizabeth, by summer, I too will have lost three loved houses.

Friday, November 30, 2012

november photo-a-day challenge

I was amazed to realize that November marks my eighth month doing photo-a-day. This has been so good for me, particularly the way it's forced me to view the world less in terms of words and more in terms of images. I'm a fan of words. Too much of a fan, sometimes.

Here is the list of this month's challenges:


And here are my photos from the month:

Friday, November 2, 2012

haint tales

Today many in the Western Hemisphere are celebrating the Day of the Dead, All Souls' Day, or both. It is a day when they remember dead friends and relatives by visiting their graves and leaving food for them. For Catholics in particular, it is a day to pray for the souls of those believers who died un-sanctified of their venial sins and thus linger in purgatory, waiting for the intercessory appeals of their loved ones to help them gain entrance into heaven's visio beatifica.

Speaking of lingering spirits, I have a confession to make: if the show Ghost Whisperer is on TV, I will watch it. (The same is true of Sleeping with the Enemy, but that's a subject for a different post.) While I'm always interested to see Jennifer Love Hewitt's latest lingerie-inspired outfit or fairytale hair extensions, I know that's not the whole reason why it's so mesmerizing. When I confessed my weakness for the show to D, he laughed at me. Until one day when it came on while we were hanging out. He watched the hokey opening credits and said disdainfully, "I don't get it. What's the appeal?" I replied, "You just wait. This show is a black hole. By dinnertime you will have watched several episodes and you'll wonder where the afternoon went." Three hours later I asked him, "So? It's compelling, right?"  D just shook his head slowly and said, "How did that happen?"

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monday, October 15, 2012


I've always resisted the notion that things disappear. In metaphysical terms, this stubbornness manifests itself in my credulity about the existence of ghosts, angels, demons, and other paranormal residues of entities that linger just outside our ability to perceive them. Similarly, there is a part of me that responds to D's or my habitual loss of keys or important documents with the bald pragmatism of the law of conservation of matter: "Well, they can't have disappeared into the ether. They have to exist right now somewhere." In the end, I guess I just have a naïve faith in the intrinsic findability of things (though I would add that my life would be much easier if it came with a Command+F function).

For over a month, I've had an open Word document that I keep minimized on my computer's desktop. It's the beginning to a poem that I'm not sure yet how to finish. Here's what it says:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

september photo-a-day challenge

Beginning my sixth month of the photo-a-day challenge! Here is the list of themes:

Click below to see the photos from the month of September!

Monday, August 13, 2012

the anger muscle

I've said this before: in high school, when I was upset, I would smoke, curse, and play the piano. I wrote that in my journal when I was seventeen. Imagine my stunned recognition years later, when I read about Lucy Honeychurch, the apparently prim heroine of A Room with a View, who also deals with her choleric tendencies by losing herself at the piano.

Over the course of the story, Lucy transforms from a docile, conventional girl into a woman capable of various kinds of passion. Her anger plays an important role in this shift. During one conversation with her mother and her priggish fiancé Cecil, she moves rapidly from voicing a casual dislike of Reverend Eager to declaring: "I hate him. I've heard him lecture on Giotto. I hate him. Nothing can hide a petty nature. I HATE him." Mrs. Honeychurch responds, "My goodness gracious me, child! You'll blow my head off! Whatever is there to shout over?" For his part, dismayed by the vulgarity of Lucy's outburst, Cecil yearns to tell her "that a woman's power and charm reside in mystery, not in muscular rant." (We understand implicitly that this comment points to his unsuitability as a match for her.) Later, Cecil is taken aback when she directs her ire at him. As a joke on the local snob, he deliberately engages unsuitable tenants for a neighborhood villa in Lucy's hometown of Summer Street.  She responds like "a peevish virago," snapping at him that his little dig at Sir Harry has made her look foolish instead, and that she considers him "most disloyal." Never mind that the tenants he has found include the same young man who impetuously kissed her on a violet-strewn hillside in Fiesole during her trip to Italy. 

Happily for us readers, she doesn't attempt to curb her turbulent impulses for very long.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

august photo-a-day challenge

A new month, a new set of challenges! Here is the photo-a-day list for August:

And here are my entries for the month:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

that joke isn't funny anymore

Lately I've had occasion to think about what I used to sing when I didn't know from sad. When I was fifteen, one of my best friends, a girl who lived across the street, playfully tackled my boyfriend in someone's yard after a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting, and then she kissed him. The boyfriend I had already decided I didn't like anymore. Her act should have been a mercy, a convenient ending to a relationship I likely wouldn't have had the gumption to cut off myself, but instead of making up with her and thanking my lucky stars for an easy way out, I suddenly decided that I did after all want to keep him as my boyfriend. I don't think it's any coincidence that my change of heart allowed me to draw myself up to my full sanctimonious height and, wrapping myself in a shroud of wounded trust, inflate her act of treachery until it was so huge that we almost never recovered. So this is what betrayal feels like, I kept telling myself, my chin held at a proud yet mournful angle. She felt guilty for the rest of high school. In my yearbook, she wrote, "Thank you for forgiving me for something I haven't forgiven myself for yet."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

july photo-a-day challenge

Here is the photo-a-day challenge for July.

What follows are my photos from this past month. For most of that time, I was staying in Knoxville at my Nana's house with her sweetheart Al and my mom, waiting with Nana as she was dying. I will have more to say about that in the next post. In the meantime, here are the pics:

Monday, June 4, 2012

absolutely cuckoo

Okay, I've got some chicken lettuce wraps for you today that are crazy delicious.

But first, here is one of my favorite songs by Magnetic Fields (or here's another version, which I can't embed, but which comes with an adorable animated video someone made):

Thursday, May 17, 2012

maïs, je t'aime

Which translates: "Corn, I love you." When I typed it, though, I realized that if you omitted the umlaut over the "i" in the initial word (hence altering its pronunciation slightly), you would have this sentence instead: "But, I love you." Ah, the knotty and fascinating problems of translation.

I've always studied French as my foreign language. This, I think, is a perfect example of the wide impractical streak that, à la Pepé Le Pew, runs the entire length of an otherwise fairly down-to-earth person. (Maybe it's my Pisces moon?) If I had really set out to navigate the actual linguistic terrain of the modern United States, I should have studied Chinese, and certainly way more Spanish than the bare-minimum, single semester of "Reading for Spanish Knowledge" required by my doctoral program. (We had to have "familiarity" with two foreign languages—i.e. just enough to be able to grasp the gist of an academic article or, more likely, just enough to get us into trouble abroad.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

a bouquet of cauliflowers for mother bear

It's Mother's Day. Today I'm reminded of Billy Collins's poem "The Lanyard." Go on, click play and listen. I'll wait right here for you:

I had the pleasure of hearing him read this live a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how funny and how heartbreaking the poem was. Collins calls it an "archaic truth: that we can never repay our mothers." All right, it may be archaic - but it's still the truth. 

I mention my mom so often that when she said, "Well, are you writing a post about me for Mother's Day?" I sputtered, "Mo-om! I have to work hard not to quote you every other sentence." 

But she's right, as usual. There are still some things to say.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

the superannuated woman + white bean dip

This morning, out of habit, I woke up early. Then I remembered what day it was. Lazily, I picked up my phone, checked Facebook and email, and then rolled over and went back to sleep for another two whole hours. When I woke up, I ambled into the kitchen, made a cup of coffee, and piled some egg salad on top of a toasted English muffin. Sitting at the computer, I nibbled at breakfast as I reread Charles Lamb's essay "The Superannuated Man."

In this brief and delightful work, Lamb's narrator describes the effects of his working life, his astonishment at his employers' insistence that he finally retire (with an annual pension worth two-thirds of his salary), and the sudden, unaccustomed experience of now being at liberty to do whatever he wants. He sees his retirement as a seemingly endless vista of days that all run gloriously together. He wanders through gardens and book stalls and museums, sauntering here and there, led only by impulse and whimsy. It feels to him as though his professional career, though it only ended the day before, transpired an eternity ago.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

april photo-a-day challenge

For the month of April, my amazing and fun friend Stacy suggested that a bunch of us do this:

So we have. It's been fun! Here are my photos from the month:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

a bewildering question

If you can hang with me, I have a stir-fry recipe waiting for you at the bottom of the page. But first I want to talk for a bit.

Here is one of my favorite poems by Marie Howe. The Billy in the poem is her brother, who died of complications from AIDS.

I ask a lot of questions of myself. Most of them are not as weighty as the ones Howe mentions. Sometimes I write my questions down. What follows are a few recent examples.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

haiku + quick pickles

Early in Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children, the main character Saleem Sinai explains that as he feels himself getting older, his desire to tell his own story grows more and more urgent. Identifying himself as a man who has "dedicated [his] latter days to the large-scale preparation of condiments," he declares:

            Rising from my pages comes the unmistakable whiff of chutney...
            And my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my
            nocturnal scribblings--by day amongst the pickle-vats, by night
            within these sheets, I spend my time at the great work of
            preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the
            corruption of the clocks.

Warming to his theme, Saleem lectures Padma, his long-suffering wife-to-be: "Things--even people--have a way of leaking into each other... like flavours when you cook... the past has dripped into me... so we can't ignore it..."

I always liked this metaphor. Rushdie uses it to suggest that we are all like pickles, each of us a separate piece of vegetal matter that can be distinguished from another piece. If we are born into the same family or country (or, in the case of the novel, if we are born during the same midnight hour of that country's day of independence), we might find ourselves pickled in a common brine. Over time our shared history, the liquid that surrounds and preserves us, may begin to give us all a similar flavor and color. Nevertheless, each of us is still our own completely distinct, separate chunk of cucumber, beetroot, or watermelon rind.

This also resonates with me because I have a refrigerator door literally crammed full of every kind of condiment and relish you can imagine.

Monday, April 9, 2012

sage + sausage gravy

Years ago, I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and tested off-the-charts INFJ: introverted-intuitive-feeling-judging. It always felt like an apt description of me, both the good and the bad of the type. Some people think the MBTI, a personality indicator with sixteen possible types, is the equivalent of silly horoscopes or tarot readings, just a fun little parlor game, because it's based on a self-reported questionnaire and not a "scientifically objective" measure of personality. Still, I've found it useful over the years. Because it is non-judgmental - it describes a neutral set of preferences - it has helped me to better understand, anticipate, and accept what motivates others and even myself, and how we view and navigate the world differently. According to the seminal text Please Understand Me II, the sixteen personality types are evenly classified into four temperament groups, each of which has a completely different aspiration. SJs want to be Donald Trump. SPs want to be Jimi Hendrix. NTs want to be Albus Dumbledore.

According to this book, like the three other "Idealist" NF types, an INFJ like me aspires to be Confucius:
The Sage is the most revered role model for the Idealists—that man or woman who strives to overcome worldly, temporal concerns, and who aspires to the philosophic view of life. Plato, perhaps the greatest of all Idealist philosophers, characterized the sage by saying that the "true lover of wisdom" is on a metaphysical journey [...] To transcend the material world (and thus gain insight into the essence of things), to transcend the senses (and thus gain knowledge of the soul), to transcend the ego (and thus feel united with all creation), to transcend even time (and thus feel the force of past lives and prophecies): these are the lofty goals of the sage, and in their heart of hearts all Idealists honor this quest.  (145)
But what's funny about this description of the sage is how loftily abstract it is, with its language of rising above the earthly world to a place of transcendence—especially when you look up the word in the OED and read how pragmatically the grandaddy of dictionaries defines the quality of being sage: "Practically wise, rendered prudent or judicious by experience." And also: "Characterized by profound wisdom; based on sound judgment." According to the OED, any transcendence the sage has achieved comes, paradoxically, directly from having kept both feet on the ground, having lived through an experience, and having returned with practical wisdom to dispense humbly to those who solicit it. Sages are sage because they've been there.

Friday, April 6, 2012

the king of bikini island + the dream strata

Dreams are strange things. I think they come from some psychic version of an underground stream, and they deliver gloriously bizarre and circuitous messages from our unconscious. That's why I feel I'm under no obligation to make this post particularly rational or linear. But I do promise a recipe at the end. Not the best thing I've ever cooked—I'm still in the process of figuring it out—but undeniably interesting because it's a recipe I dreamed.

Over a decade ago, I began the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Georgia. Truth: it is an impressive program, where I got to study under a number of brilliant, quirky people whom I admire and write a book-length dissertation that I'm proud of, on a topic that I found challenging and intriguing.

Also and equally true: Rhea and I had secretly always wanted to live in Athens, Georgia, ever since I was in high school and read somewhere that one of the members of the B-52's said they'd gone to an Athens house party where they danced so much that the floor fell in. This may be totally apocryphal; I have no idea where I read or heard it. In all honesty, I may have dreamed it. But it stayed in the back of my mind for ten years, even and especially after Rhea died: I want to live where they dance so hard they break the floor.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

(pain) perdu dans le labyrinthe

Last year on Ash Wednesday, D and I went to a service at a local Episcopal church. The rector had encouraged attendees to arrive early enough to allow plenty of time to walk the labyrinth that had been set up on the floor of the fellowship hall. The circular puzzle itself was painted in purple onto an enormous canvas drop cloth, and the path was just wide enough for one person at a time to walk, single file, through its serpentine loops. Silently, in the dimmed light, we slipped off our shoes, waited a couple of minutes for the person in front of us to gain a little distance, and then entered the maze ourselves. Because multiple people were traveling the labyrinth at the same time, occasionally I would brush by someone as he or she passed, going the opposite direction. It took longer than I thought it would. I admit, I lost my sense of reverence at a couple of points and felt anxious to just finish the thing.

I really hope there's not a minotaur
waiting in the middle of this.
In that labyrinth, there was only the one path. The point wasn't making the right choices. It was slowly and meditatively navigating a series of predetermined twists and turns. I might have been able to see where the next about-face would take me, but I couldn't see beyond that. I would only have been able to anticipate further if I could have viewed the entire thing from above. At ground level, where I was, all I could do was simply take the next few steps and trust that I would eventually make my way out of the maze.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

the green flash

An early Happy St. Patrick's Day to all you lads and lassies. No, guacamole is not Irish, but it's green, and I love green food. You can skip to the recipe at the bottom now, if you just want the how-to. Grab a seat. I'll be there in a minute or two. 

For the past four years, D has attended an annual meeting in Pacific Beach, California, and I've tagged along, feeling lucky that I get to spend a few days gazing at the ocean, eating delicious sushi, wearing white jeans in February, and running on the boardwalk in the sunshine and the low humidity. Pacific Beach is also famous for its sunsets, which frequently feature something called the green flash. Residents of the town and of nearby La Jolla describe this phenomenon with varied attitudes. Some people are openly skeptical or derisive, while others avow that they've seen the green flash numerous times. D himself swore that he had glimpsed it, a couple of years ago, but I could never tell whether he was just teasing or not.

He's not the only one caught by the fascination of this odd natural phenomenon. In 1882, Jules Verne published a novel called The Green Ray, in which a young woman sets off on an adventure with two very different would-be suitors to find the elusive green flash, which according to Scottish legend "has the virtue of making him who has seen it impossible to be deceived in matters of sentiment; at its appearance, all deceit and falsehood are done away, and he who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and to read the thoughts of others." The opening paragraph in the second chapter of the novel gushes: "If there be green in Paradise, it cannot but be of this shade, which most surely is the green of Hope!"

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

little polished gold nugget poems + greek salad salsa

I often say that my cat is a bottomless pit of emotion: extreme highs and lows. In fact, D has said before that Esme has the same quality in her facial expression that my mom and Steve Spurrier have: even when they're happy, their smile looks kind of like a grimace. Esme is easily spooked, loyal to D and me to the point of insane hatred towards all other people, and often oscillates from vicious hissing to trilling and cooing (and back) in a matter of seconds. Her moods ebb and flow like the ocean. When Esme is upset, here is what she does:

My response to being upset is a bit different, but not much. When I am sad, angry, or otherwise angsty, instead of kneading biscuits like Esme, I chop things into little pieces. Hence the recipe at the end of this post.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

teenie sardini

Esme's favorite toy.
Sardines are good for you. Everyone says so. Unlike tuna, sardines have almost no mercury in them, and they have more Omega-3 fats (the kind that make your heart happy) than tuna or salmon. Plus, they are one of the most sustainable types of fish. Win-win-win.

Yet most people think of them disparagingly as hobo food. When I was a teenager and discovered how good they were, my mom used to send me out to the garage to eat them because they smelled up the kitchen. This is the same woman, by the way, who used to tell us to "go outside and run a couple of laps around the house" if we were too hyper before Dad got home and we all sat down to dinner. Honestly, I suspect I was all wound up because of how much I always looked forward to my dad coming home from work.

So let me back up a little and start this post in a more logical place. It will take a bit of a story to get back around to the sardines.