27 November 2011

Migration season

I have finally finished reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, after an entire autumn spent savoring it in small sips and draughts, on buses and curled up on the couch, my breath taken from me with nearly every page and spirited to a place of wild refuge. But my stunned admiration for the book is not, just now, what I am thinking of. It is instead a passage where she talks about the flight of a maple seed – a maple “key,” she calls it, in a marvelous usage totally unfamiliar to me before now – and yes, of course, this little instrument unlocks the entire structure, its scaffolding and all its wings. Reading it, it occurred to me that perhaps I have not seen a single maple seed (or whirlybird, as I have also heard them called charmingly but less strikingly – helicopter, also) this season. How can it be?

Heather and I biked a few miles along unfriendly suburban roads the day after Thanksgiving to visit a little nature preserve I'd heard about, the Anna Oaks Nature Center in Skokie. So, of course, there were oaks, the ground strewn with leaves of several different kinds, as in an illustration for children. On the shores of the pond where the bottom tapered off into featureless murk, the leaves and anything else that had fallen in had become immediately and uniformly covered with green-gray silt, algae, or some other form of matter too delicate for me to name. They appeared spray-painted or cut from construction paper, or the background artist had grown lazy and treated the entire area with a monochrome wash of muddy watercolor after the initial sketch.

The whole preserve had something of an illustrative quality about it. We walked along a path into the 13-acre patch of woods and heard some bird peep above us. Standing still, we eventually followed the sound to its source: a largish bird as song birds go, with a smoothly tapering body, dark up top and white-bellied. It tumbled from branch to branch, at one point landing upside down before hoisting its light body around upright. I wondered aloud what it was, drawing forth and then rejecting the few creature-names with which my mental cabinets were once so full. And then the world answered me: the bird began hammering its beak into the branch in the distinctive woodpecker way, with a sound called up straight from a cartoon.

We covered about all the ground there was to cover in the park, hopeful of living things. Along the shores of the pond I stopped to peer in and stir the muck with a stick. Nothing came. In the middle of a little amphitheater two men were chainsawing pieces of deadwood; there'd been a controlled burn earlier in the day, signs told us, and indeed the ground was strewn with unreadable patches of ash, clinging to the bases of trees like shrunken shadows.

Geese sat arrayed all across the pond, just one occasionally making a low, cowish sound. All the while the two-car Skokie Swift train rattled comically through on tracks just behind the preserve. We were leaning over to look at a handful of sluggish, deep orange goldfish sunken into the pond when something unknown made the better portion of the geese alight and ascend directly over us. The new thing here – perhaps I'd just never been flown over so closely by so many geese at once? – was the noise of their wings: there was a crisp, almost insect buzz produced, I suppose, by the motions of their stiff feathers against each other.

So the city is full of wonders, to be sure; I saw a fox the other day as I was leaving the house, and my mind cycled through “dog” and “cat” before I could finally allow myself to believe that this silver-auburn creature dashing between houses was, indeed, a fox. (I added it to a small, private menagerie that includes the coyote I saw loping through Wunders Cemetery one winter, and a deer that suddenly began to gallop alongside our bicycles as Heather and I rode to suburban LaGrange.) Even so, how can I not have lately found myself in a place where maple seeds flutter down on me unsought through leaf-filtered light? 

Especially in the fall, an ache rises in me to be in deep woods alone for as long as I care to tramp through them, my footsteps rousing the sweet odor of vegetal decay. It's a slightly ridiculous position my temperament has put me in, city-loving hermit, like some sort of amphibian whose two habitats are miles from each other – and now the fall, best season of migration, is more or less over for the year, and I've only made it a little way across the shore between them. Next year I should make a better attempt at a longer escape.

20 November 2011

Some Women in Concert

This summer and fall I've gotten to see at least four breathtaking concerts, all loosely linked by the fact that the primary musicians have all been women and some linked by the fact that they are musicians I thought I would never see, or never see again. In order: Cibo Matto, Wild Flag, the Raincoats (with openers Grass Widow, a new favorite), and St. Vincent. The ones I mainly keep turning over in my mind, though, are just some of these, or a handful of musicians in these, who do something that coalesces into a singular style for me, a certain mode of attack that I only rarely see but that softly nudges me in the gut and releases something I've held there. It strikes me as being one way of making feminine or feminist music, though I'm still working out what I'm sensing when I sense that.

It's hard to know which of these to start with, but as a study in contrasts, perhaps, let me take Wild Flag. I greeted their formation with fangirl glee – Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein, returning to me at last! And the things I knew I would love were as exhilarating as ever: Janet's fierce precision, and Carrie in fine, athletic, high-kicking form, she who was my biggest heroine/crush for years on end, again in the flesh a couple of feet away from the front of the stage where I stood in as much awe as ever. But something there had hardened a little, I thought, into a posture; it was the idea of a rock star that was strutting magnificently across the stage before me. It seems to me that her voice these days is shellacked with layers of mannerism, and the sneer is partly the sneer of the successful. She knows she's great. She is. Determined to be all rock 'n' roll fun, and pulling it off marvelously.

And I want to talk a little about the women rockers who risk not being all rock 'n' roll fun. Mary Timony is Wild Flag's other frontwoman, and her presence was an interesting contrast to Carrie's. She's every bit as adept on guitar and as fully willing a participant in some spectacular stage acrobatics, but there's a different mood there. I'd say a more private mood, but in fact there's no lack of privacy in Carrie's performance, either – the bravado is a kind of wall. It invites your body into the music, but it doesn't invite you into communion with the musician. Mary seems to be doing something else, daring to put her privacy and inwardness on display. Wild Flag's a pretty upbeat group, but in her performance there's a clear connection with the musician who fronted heavy, heavy Helium and carried on the odd, downbeat solo career. One of my favorite songs of hers is “I Fire Myself” from “Mountains:” a catchy, echoing piano riff punctuated by handclaps, which, it soon becomes clear, will repeat obsessively throughout the length of the song, working something out. The lyrics, sung matter-of-factly, are florid in their evocation of the trudging work that is middle of depression, or self-doubt, or some equally internal misery:

I fire myself ten times a day
I fire myself in a watery grave
With fourteen horses on top of my head
I hear the voice again and again

The last line is “the end of fear, the beginning of hope,” but it's sung to the same melody and with the same inflection as the rest of the song; she makes hope sound like a form of exhaustion, a temporary place of rest before the climb up the next mountain begins. The strings and guitars on the rest of the record saw away at the endless pilgrimage of everyday life.

It seems to me that there's a great deal of risk in this sort of thing. No one wants to hear about someone's depression, one assumes, and especially not if it's a woman, and especially if the cause of the depression at hand is obscure, opaque, wholly private. But Mary Timony's not willing to sell it or make it seem more important than it is – and that in itself poses a kind of challenge, to assume that this stuff is worthy of attention all on its own. There isn't any melodrama in the music, and there's no arc. Just an emotional reality to swim into – which can be a source of tremendous comfort and companionship if you're sawing away at a similar emotional state.

(St. Vincent, more upbeat and clever, is more of an obvious storyteller than Timony, and so there's less sense of the personal being laid bare – but she has the same love of obsessive guitar figures, often fuzzing almost into ugliness, and stabbing lyrical refrains that make me want to include her in this general feeling. Paint the black hole blacker, she sings in my favorite song of hers, and she's never afraid to let desperation creep into her angel's voice even while she shreds on guitar. Hysterical strength, she sings on the new album, a fitting summation.)

Then, from out of the past, there are the Raincoats, who I also saw, bizarrely, on their six-city reunion tour. This was a reunion I'd never even dared to dream about, but here they were – Ana da Silva and Gina Birch, fully and unapologetically middle-aged, not apparently having spent the intervening years becoming any more readily saleable or developing any “chops,” with Anne Wood on violin as on “Looking in the Shadows” and a very young male drummer who sensibly faded into the background.

I got into the Raincoats because a guy who was interviewing my high school band (an all-girl punk band called the Cautions who achieved some level of local renown only, it's now clear, due to our novelty and strangeness) compared us to them and later gave me a cassette tape of their self-titled album. I carried that packet of desperate harmony and noise in my tape player for months. It's still my favorite, and their reunion show drew mostly from that album. There's their exuberant, complicating cover of “Lola,” which everyone knows if there's any song by the Raincoats everyone knows, but then there's the rest of the album too, violin and guitar and drums and voices all communicating with maximal intensity about the situation of being a highly internal woman moving through the world -- being looked at and not being looked at and loving unloved and wondering whether she will make it through the rest of the day. The lyrics are often hard to make out; one hears scraps of piercing demands, obstinate and unjustified claims to our attention: Don't ask me anything – I'm not sympathetic; Don't take it personal; Her feeling of being watched / isn't easy to define / so I won't trouble you; I can't do a thing today.

And none of this seems to have changed as Birch and da Silva have gotten older; these are not the passing worries of angst-ridden youth. Their reunion album, “Looking in the Shadows,” released at the peak of the grunge era, was, if anything, even grimmer in content and sound, with slower, more minimalistic guitarwork. They played some songs from this one, too; Gina's more prominent on it, and she's a more outgoing stage presence than Ana, who stood mostly still at the show, small, blunt, and dressed monastically in oddly-shaped black garments. On this album there's an extended musing about methods of suicide, a song about a woman whose “body said no” to children and who attempts to make a dog fill the void – and all of this is delivered rather lightly, with the wit to see how ridiculous pain can make us look and sound.

This is music that figures out how to live within depression, which is treated as personal, existential, and even political at various points. It doesn't solve problems or assert triumphs or romanticize; it refuses to pretend that there is an easy or permanent solution (when love is involved, there is no imploring the loved one to notice/come back/take any action). The bold move it makes is believing that it is worthy of being heard and that an audience will pay attention.

And why do I feel that this is somehow a feminist kind of music? Maybe because the way these women formulate their rock and roll assertion stands so distinctly against the laid-back, cool-guy mode of rock tradition, and against rock-star bravado, while still refusing to be particularly delicate or pretty. I was almost afraid for the Raincoats when I saw them, stout and aging and being so loudly vulnerable. Of course, the audience, being an audience that had come to see the Raincoats, was as reverent as I. But when I hear a woman singing or talking about her small but heavy feelings I tense in anticipation of some attack. There are famous men who have operated sometimes in this mode -- Lou Reed (I'm thinking especially of "Heroin"), Elliott Smith. I can't think of a woman who could have been taken seriously enough in order to reach that level of fame and critical respect while doing the same thing. Famous sad women in music have mostly operated in the modes of the lovelorn or the kick-ass angry babe; there's generally a clear explanation for their feelings, typically relationship-centered, and a clear way to resolve them, with less space to meditate and let them unfold. So even though "The Raincoats" came out in 1979, this keeps on feeling new to me.

I don't think that this is the only way to do music or that everyone must enjoy this way of doing music; it's not even the only way for music to be a form of comfort. It can be as good to lose yourself in light and warmth, and certainly it's sometimes preferable to escape from darkness rather than diving into someone else's rendition of it.

But: the other week I was riding out one of the senseless waves of depression that carries me under every so often, and I wrote a song about it, feeling that I could do this in part because I'd seen and heard it done. It made me feel so teenaged, putting it down so baldly, but underneath all this was a sense of relief at having made anything at all out of this gray heaviness upon me. I debated whether to record it, then whether to send it to the band, worrying it would seem silly, immature, morbid, melodramatic. Not rock 'n' roll fun, not something the boys in the band could get down to. I did record and share it, though; we're going to play it, and it will undoubtedly feel strange to make such private and disreputable sounds onstage. But no one, I figure, is alone in this.

23 October 2011

You Guys Must Be Rich

“Occupy [Your City Here]” keeps going on, somewhat miraculously; I haven't been involved, have only been involved in activism by any stretch of the term tangentially and sporadically since I was in high school, really, and I wonder how I would have felt about it then, when it still seemed to me that my life would be spent in passionate protest. I am a little excited about it now, from a distance, feel that it is good that it is happening; generally I am pleased to see extensive and spontaneous use being made of our public spaces and freedoms, testing them to make sure they still work.

And it is interesting that class is starting to become a part of the public conversation that's harder and harder to ignore, if only in a simplified way. I thought about class as an anarchist youth, certainly, listened to proudly working-class hardcore bands and made conflicted steps towards claiming that identity for myself (all the while cringing against the philistinism of my surroundings and hungering desperately for a sense of security they couldn't provide). Still, the extent of what it meant to be working-class didn't fully develop for me until I went away to college and lived among honest-to-goodness rich kids for the first time and began taking the kind of jobs my family had had all their lives to support me in my leap away from my native culture. Until that point the “upper class” was a political concept that showed up mainly in newspapers and statistics. We stayed out of each other's way.

Sady Doyle has a wonderful essay on Tiger Beatdown that's been making the internet rounds, about her conflicted feelings toward OWS and the understanding of class that lumps an entire 99% together. I recognize intimately the milieu of the childhood she writes about, especially this:

My first stepfather worked the night shift at a grocery store; it wasn’t understood that we were doing poorly. My best friend’s mother worked the deli counter at a different grocery store. You could live on that money . . . So, not all of us had office jobs, or the education or background required to get them. But we had our own houses, we were suburban, the idea that we weren’t firmly middle-class would have been an insult to us. Of course we were. Everyone was.”

Growing up, we lived roughly at the middle of a fairly smooth gradation along the river from the older, shabby blocks of wooden houses toward downtown (and south of those, the only housing project I knew about in my city) all the way to curving streets of well-kept two-story brick homes whose backyards sprouted play structures that looked more solid than our entire aluminum-sided ranch house. My first elementary school there was in the direction of the nicer neighborhood, from which most of my friends were drawn, but differences between us still seemed easily hopscotched over. They'd have the name-brand backpacks and fancier lunches, maybe, but we still played in the same parks. I think we all figured that aside, perhaps, from a handful of celebrities or people living in mythical ghettos or rural shacks, everyone was basically like us.

In fifth grade I transferred to a performing arts school in the inner city. Here I noticed for the first time a few kids who were clearly poorer than me. The trick at this school was somehow to remain authentic, of the street-savvy neighborhood, while still having Starter jackets and nice sneakers; those who couldn't manage both of these things were mercilessly teased. One of the few friends I managed to find was Breanne, a scrawny, clingy, loudmouthed blond kid who lived on the hill up close to the housing project. I went to her house maybe only once; I remember it being dark and cluttered inside, disorienting, and the outside covered in the kind of stick-on siding that resembles roof shingles. We were there just to pick up her homework or something; she never wanted to invite me over.

And in fact, I may have had her over only once as well. During that visit she let slip to my mom that I had a crush on Jake Bullock (10-year-old guitar prodigy, dreamy eyes beneath floppy brown hair) and I wanted to wring her neck for it I was so embarrassed. My mom had recently cleaned house, I think, when she came over; we looked good. Nonetheless I was unnerved the next day at school when Breanne said to me, “You guys must be rich, huh?”

No one has ever said that about my family before or since. In college the common, polite, getting-to-know-you question “What do your parents do?” was a nonstarter for me. “My mom's a receptionist, and my dad drives a truck” was, at an expensive liberal arts college, far distant from the sort of teacher/architect or lawyer/lawyer parings that had brought forth many of my classmates. In my year alone were at least two rumored heirs to big-name business fortunes. My family's history was a thick, blank wall for these interlocutors. What more is there to talk about, in a line of waitresses, cashiers, factory workers? What link can be drawn from those people to the girl waist-deep in Aeschylus and Plato? What is she doing here?

Unless you'd caught me in some chance shibboleth (my freshman-year surprise and envy that a friend had a house with fireplaces in it, for instance, or contemplating out loud pawning some of my stuff for enough money to join the Search and Rescue team), you would not have guessed my origins. More than once I've gotten some variant of “Oh, I thought your parents were professors or something!” In my last job, a woman I was training at one point said, when things had irreversibly deteriorated between us due to her near-pathological incompetence, “You must not have had to work through college.”

I've always worked,” I barked back.

Throughout college I always had a pleasant on-campus job and frequently another less-sheltered service job. The first of these was in a movie theater where I sold tickets and concessions and cleaned. The selling was nominally my job but the cleaning composed the bulk of my time – clearing rafts of popcorn, food, and trash from the theaters after the lights went up, polishing lobby fixtures, wiping down bathrooms, which sometimes included soaking up vomit with a special powder that turned it into a solid substance that could be maneuvered into a dustpan. Even when we were behind the counter and no customers were around, we were not allowed to lean against the cabinets or sit on the one battered stool in the staff area. This connoted laziness. Instead we were to always be cleaning – scouring away grease and syrup from every crevice of every machine and counter. Nearly everyone was younger than me and passed the time saying terrible things about each other.

A boy in my circle of college friends asked, apparently in all innocence, “Why did you start working there? Do you just really like movies?”

And so that was a kind of class realization, there.

When I graduated and moved to Chicago I did so knowing that I'd fit well enough into whatever service job I could find. I could handle the shooting foot and ankle pains induced by long hours of standing, the forthright disrespect from customers and managers, and the fierce, bizarre rivalries that sprout up when people are forced to compete for the only things – the big tips, the days off – that make their jobs bearable. I stayed in my last bad office job for three years largely because I felt that the service industry was the only obvious alternative.

For me, being working-class has meant a certain instability at the foundation of my life. Will I be able to go to summer camp? Will we lose our house? Will I be able to afford to go to college even if I get in? Will I be able to afford my second year of college if I make it through the first one? My student loans? What if my parents are laid off? It has meant that I do not ever fully trust that things will be okay or that I will not suddenly be jettisoned from the ranks of the well-off and the cultured. And it has meant that a slender serpent of resentment slithers quickly through my ribcage when I sense the presence of those who have not been kept continually off-balance by these questions.

Just briefly. In a way I am frequently at home among these people, after all – they are so well-bred, congenial, have had the time to read books and think of art and never felt they were stealing anything from their families by doing so. But there is a little venom in me still, and all the foreign privilege I have lucked into may never be sufficient antidote.

20 August 2011

How do words work?

Composed a small poem on the way back from the grocery store (hauling our weekly bounty of surprise produce from New Leaf), thinking of the way in which I'm pulled toward and always slightly repelled by symbols, allegories, lessons. 

(Title credit: my initial mishearing of the refrain of "Wordy Rappinghood," from the Tom Tom Club record I picked up in Nebraska this past weekend.)

Sunny now, but in the wind the trees
shed pieces of their hoarded silver on me

the excessive richness of this world forever spilling
over into the stiff hands of metaphor, whether
we give it there or no. And that portion
of its assets frozen --
                                   Too hard myself,
to ever chafe at the conditions of
the small security the world ekes out for us
and for itself, parent of limited means and vast
awkward benevolence. Together so we go reforesting
the landscape, wet tree upon
wet, dense, translucent tree.

02 July 2011

Summer is ready when you are

Summer is about saying yes. My schedule is at the whim of every invitation casually tossed my way, my taste buds ready for every bite of fruit and sip of nectar offered. Delightful to set out with friends for an impromptu popsicle at a gourmet popsicle pop-up shop this morning, for instance. (Well, not this morning – soon after I got up, rather, having played a show into the wee hours last night.)

A hazy, humid morning has matured into a shady 82-degree afternoon, bathed by nearly imperceptible breezes. I walked to the grocery store for veggie sausages for Monday's cookout and ingredients for a cucumber gimlet granita. It turned out to be one of those patches of time where the very texture of experience seems to become more dense, where pleasure in existence pools – the one peach in the bushel that has unaccountably ripened more fully than the others – sticking you to while also removing you from your surroundings: everything is supersaturated, and therefore not entirely real. You half suspect that you may have been snatched up by the hand of God and set down in an ideal heaven. And this is almost a source of worry, but not quite. It's something like a photorealistic painting that doesn't quite come off, the painter having zealously lavished as much attention on the feathers of the bird in the sky as on the picnickers in the foreground.

(This is how I was sure it would be, heaven, when I was a a religious child convinced of my own virtue and likely future sainthood, when I'd wander around the soccer field at recess basking in the promise that God had bestowed upon me. It would be this very state of grace and abundance, only forever, untainted by the thought of death – that little vial of poison with the crumbling cork, always perched in some precarious place and waiting to spill over.)

It's easiest to achieve this state in the woods, alone, with endless hours to roam, filling your heart with the afternoon light like a basket with blackberries – which, as it happens, drop from the bushes, too copious for even the birds to eat, while dragonflies hang in the air. I've walked through fields and down paths unable to stop, sometimes, from laughing aloud, even as my eyes filled with tears of diffuse gratitude.

But it's possible in the city, too. This neighborhood encourages such idylls; it blossoms with so much care. Gardens spill over the borders of nearly every yard; husbands trot assiduously with push mowers, back and forth. A man climbs a ladder with a shutter, perhaps thrown down in the recent storm, tucked beneath his arm; another man steadies the ladder, which seems a little unstable; and for a moment I watch this silent scene with bated breath until he reaches the top. I walk past St. Gertrude's Church; all the stained-glass windows are pushed open in the heat, and from inside, music: either a choir practicing, or just an extraordinarily tuneful congregation. It's good to live here. It's good to live.

(Title credit: The Breeders, "Saints")

26 June 2011

Les choses

We moved recently -- Heather and I, to the same place -- and she commented today as we were walking back from the thrift store (a lantern for the porch, some things to hang on the walls) and the garden store (a plant to fill a bare space on an end table) that this whole business of having a home involved spending a lot of money.
"Well, nobody's forcing us," I said, a little unreasonably annoyed, feeling that if one is going to spend money it is in rather bad form to fret about it afterward.
But it is compelling, the desire for these things -- the 1960s European mod accessories and the antique zoological prints and the porch full of flowers and herbs. We think we can construct a happy life with them. 

And they do make us happy. Heather has watched in amused disbelief as I've spent minutes moving furniture and vases back and forth, inch by inch, to find the aptest arrangement. At the same time, if I didn't live with someone else -- if there were no one to observe the details of my daily life -- I would surely not invest this effort. I would hang the same three things on my walls I've hung on the walls of the last three apartments I've lived in and let the initial order of everything else steadily decay until I moved again. But now there's someone to share all this with; plus, we'd like to have parties, and have our friends admire the work of all our good taste.
When I was a kid my mom and I would go out on summer evenings and walk the dogs and look into the lit windows of other people's houses. Richer people's houses, I should say. I grew bored of the same few neighborhoods and occasionally tried to tug us in the other direction, towards downtown and the somewhat more jumbled blocks before it -- my appetite for variety did not discriminate -- but would generally fail. There's nothing to look at there.
We'd walk and ooh and aah over thick drapes, gleaming lamps, expensive-looking just-built decks -- scoff at the super-sized TVs beyond them, too, or anything else in obviously bad or outdated taste. Later I thought my mom was being a little bitchy and judgmental with all this -- she, who decorated our home with faux-global tchotchkes from Meijer and had a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines on the coffee table -- and then later still I thought she must have been propelled by a certain longing.
I've felt it too, the beckoning of other, warmer, well-provided lives. In college during parties at professors' houses, their shelves full of books and desks full of pictures of children radiant with all the love and confidence they'd soaked up in those rooms. Wanting to curl up in -- forget that, even beneath would do -- one of their tastefully plump armchairs for the rest of my life. Visiting the childhood homes of college friends and tripping awkwardly over the casual abundance of their lives, which was being constantly thrust my way by their impossibly generous parents.
Heather and I loved this apartment right away, but it wasn't our first choice. There was this other one, in a building owned by a slightly brusque, flannel-shirted divorcee who lived on the first floor in dim rooms still decorated with the breathtaking stained-glass fixtures her ex-husband had designed; her adult son inhabited the basement. We walked inside and stood in the largest space I've ever seen in a Chicago apartment. Shiny wood and yards and yards of windows; a fireplace; huge wooden beams astride the ceiling. The currant tenant reclined with a glass of wine and a book on a chaise longue in a corner of the room, and looked up serenely as we entered. Her furniture was all very large and sturdy and expensive-looking. This could be mine -- this serenity, this space. I could feel myself moving daily through these rooms, becoming with every step a different and more elegant being.
When we didn't get it, I shed real tears, albeit laughing all the while at my ridiculousness -- that this ache for the inanimate should be so terribly real! 
There is a part of me that is a strict ascetic; I've lived on $20 a week for months at a time and could do it again, and something in me never fails to flinch when I think of spending money on anything not strictly useful. I enjoy camping and backpacking in part because it plays to my Robinson Crusoe fantasies of paring down my needs to a sinewy package of essentials. How is it, then, that things call out to me so strongly, seem to promise so much? 
Certain gifts I got for Christmas or for birthdays as a child deeply satisfied this itch; I felt wonderfully well-cared-for, well-attended-to, when I received the troll doll on a skateboard, the trick yo-yo everyone was getting in sixth grade. Such things were not only symbols that I, too, was loved, but were also keys, it seemed, into a larger world, my letter of introduction into a friendly social web until now closed to me. 
So some of it is surely just a taste for beauty, the chord that lovely objects and well-appointed rooms strike on my heartstrings. But some of it is, maybe, this other thing -- this feeling that I have not yet quite been loved enough, but am about to be. There is just one more thing.

09 May 2011

"We had it before, but then it was going to end"

It's been up for a month by the time I'm finally writing this, but Willis G. Regier has a great article in the Chronicle, “The Philosophy of Insomnia,” a small compendium of notable writings on sleeplessness. A lot there for the eternal reading list, and a lot that resonates.

I don't have problems sleeping much, anymore -- most days I bike enough miles that my body takes over soon after I hop into bed -- but I have at various intervals since childhood, so that now whenever I have the least bit of trouble falling asleep I can pretty quickly work myself into a panic that I will never sleep again. Especially when my days have been full of responsibilities, insomnia has seemed so tragically unfair – I have worked all day to earn this bit of sleep and it is being stolen away from me while I look on with helpless, weary eyes. In my mind I am already living through the miserable, bleary, sun-struck hours to follow, head dull, aching. Perhaps some demented bird will start to sing, and the streetlight will take on the tint of a slow, infernal dawn. I could cry in these moments. You work so hard to make the mind hospitable to sleep that you catch yourself staying awake to welcome it in.

From Levinas: "Insomnia is wakefulness, but a wakefulness without intentionality."

When I was in high school I tried to turn my perpetual sleeplessness to productive ends. I thought I could break up my sleep into little blocks – rest a few hours, then rise, in the cool stillness of the sleeping house, and think, and read, and write. Then maybe another few hours before I had to go to school. This never worked. Frequently, I couldn't fall asleep to begin with, and then, once I finally did, the 3 a.m. alarm clock was not welcome. So I'd get four or five hours before lurching out of bed in the clammy pre-dawn, wracked with anxiety beneath a foreboding sky, off to complete the monumental task of not falling asleep too noticeably during class.

From Maurice Blanchot: "In the night, insomnia is discussion, not the work of arguments bumping against other arguments, but the extreme shuddering of no thoughts, percussive stillness."

Insomnia is the perfect setting for the fear of death. As a child of five or six I would lay on my bed on summer evenings – the light not yet gone from the neighborhood, the shuddering heartbeat of basketballs on the driveway next door, and the mourning doves cooing achingly for my imminent demise – close my eyes, and feel myself shrink, a tiny speck of a barely-living thing, a shriveling spider on a vast desert plain, insignificant atop the pale shroud-sheets.

Before this, even, I worried that if I slept I'd just forget to breathe.

(I wonder how I learned about death. No one I knew died at all until I was already long disabused of Santa Claus, I think -- I didn't even have a goldfish to instruct me. I suppose it's just around. I was maybe four when I became certain, from TV, that I was about to die of AIDS any day.)

The other day at band practice I was talking about how when my last job got so overwhelming I began to get white hairs and Joseph asked if it made me think about my mortality. I said I am always thinking about my mortality. This is absolutely true, especially at night - the all-dissolving fear which can never be got through. Death is certainly intolerable, and I can find only scorn or pity for anyone who tries to argue otherwise, depending on their mode of attack. Says Philip Larkin, perfectly (“The Old Fools”):

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else.”

With no one to see. This is perhaps the hardest part. It is why fame matters in a sense. But it isn't the only hard part – there's also that “million-petalled flower.”

Says Cioran, who, among these affably gloomy souls Regier has introduced me to, sails to the top of my reading list with this: “"We begin to live authentically only where philosophy ends, at its wreck, when we have understood its terrible nullity, when we have understood that it was futile to resort to it, that it is no help."

I cannot imagine being consoled from this (and, if I am honest and impolite, equate such consolation with delusion) – cannot even imagine wanting to be consoled, which is perhaps the test of truest conviction. There is a sense in which I am rigorously certain about only two things: I exist, and am going to die.

At night, unsleeping, the mind comes up against a coldness that is yet comfortable in its solidity and familiarity, like returning to some long-shuttered ancestral home of stone. Its “percussive stillness” echoes with only one's own footsteps, only one's own words that come back huge and empty.

One has always known that this is the place of return -- can only hope it is where one will be buried, should one have the good fortune of remaining undeceived. 

09 April 2011


I work from an office in the sky, and whenever it's the least bit gloomy at ground level, fog presses tight against the windows. Sometimes it will clear for a moment, and then I can look out and see neighboring skyscrapers similarly swaddled within a protective cloud. On a sunny day we can see straight into the very chic European hotel next door. Sometimes I can glimpse a program playing one one of the rooms' large TVs, or a pair of bedside lamps, one on, one off, but the rooms' inhabitants must generally be reclining somewhere out of view.

I work at the crest of a hill, built on layers of roads and girders rather than earth. The city swoops up here before it drops off into the lake, and navigating the lower, sunless streets you feel that even the highest buildings on these blocks might be only the iceberg-tip of stacks of subbasements stretching for miles below. Sometimes when walking here, through this densely-packed space that no longer even registers as land, you come across an empty lot, a missing piece in the puzzle, where a quarry of grass grows yellow at the bottom of its quadrangular well and perhaps a bulldozer dozes to one side. It is as shocking as I found the lake itself the day when, after my first few weeks in the city, I walked to the shore at Addison and for some moments could not at all understand the suddenly empty skyline. And the job is, in some ways, as stratified, as artificial as this landscape. Together, a massive organization works in precise stages, more or less anonymous to the outside world, to achieve the monumental task of selling goods and services to people who must be made to feel that they are not being sold to, that we're all in this together, are all friends.

It does not feel important. It is not. But this kind of insulation from the sort of public that was mine in my previous job fosters a kind of collegiate ease and pleasantness. I come in every day, more or less as I wish, and after some wriggling around to find the most comfortable position atop my exercise ball (that symbol of the enlightened modern workplace), I begin writing. It has never before been my only job to think of words and write them down. This is really about all I must do. I sit among people around my age, whom I genuinely like, who, like me, want to be creative and funny and, being new, as I am, are still a little in awe of the fact that they are being paid (though not a fortune, certainly) to keep making these attempts.

None of it seems permanent in the least; I feel I am entirely prepared for the whole edifice that employs me to crumble rapidly some day, as internet startups are supposed eventually to do. But I'm content to bask in weightlessness a while – strange luxury. And strange, of course, for work to seem a luxury at all.

18 February 2011

Springtime in the near-nothing

We've had some true spring days here this past week, and after a long bout of flu I have only now been well enough to leave the house and enjoy them. The sky this evening just past dusk was an extraordinary intense bright blue, a shade I'd never seen before – I was about to say, in Chicago, but it may in fact honestly be left unqualified. Afterward, the sky was vibrant black, a relief after months of weird orange and purplish tones caught in the low snowclouds.

It's become a reflex, I've realized, to append a “for Chicago” to the end of most expressions of delight. A wonderful sunset, for Chicago. A really good sledding hill, for Chicago. “In Chicago, one becomes a connoisseur of the near-nothing,” wrote Saul Bellow (Humboldt's Gift), and, having moved here directly after four years among the enormous landscapes and cloudscapes and brilliant heavenly bodies of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the surrounding Southwest, this seemed immediately true to me. (Bellow and his cohort were more concerned, I think, with the perceived cultural flatness of the tackily new city, but for a modern rube like me, this is surely the most “culturally advanced” place I have lived.) Even neighboring Michigan, where I was born and which, we have been told, is a rusting wasteland everyone is trying to escape, is far more beautiful than northern Illinois.

Insofar as Chicago is impressive, it is so on a textural rather than a monumental level. It is a sprawling mass of details. Its exciting current is produced by rather small changes in charge as one moves from place to place. This suits the cast of mind of someone like myself, always saying “yes, but not quite” and “some, not all” and “well, maybe,” who has thought of the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China and considered how exhausting it would be to have to pass these things each day. But sometimes it puzzles me a little that I am still happy here, as I also like adventure, or at least think I do; before ending up here I had an idea that I might move from city to city as in fact I've moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. Instead, I have traveled much in Chicago.

A guest speaker in one of my classes the other week was urging us to consider moving to find work upon graduation, and I folded my arms against the idea, although she was probably right. I have all these things here now – a girlfriend, friends, a band, a citizenship of this place. How impoverishing for the connoisseur to be denied the substance of her connaissance. Certainly I'm willing to admit that many other places may turn out to be as rich in yielding the tiny bits of knowledge I pore over jealously. But this is like saying, after shattering someone's collection of rare jazz 78s, that he might profitably turn to breeding show pigeons instead. It may be true, but it is hardly any consolation. 

Public Noises

Above all other train lines, the Green Line to Pulaski is in my experience the most filled with the doomed and the desperate. Every time I ride it is packed shoulder to shoulder with varying states of crisis.

Being poor, or irreparably damaged, or both, is always very urgent business, much of which must be conducted in public. The air inside the cars is loud and heavy with cell phone conversations, often not quite one-sided, since many of these talkers have the volume set so high that one can understand at least the interlocutor's mood: frequently just as repetitive and raging, but sometimes reticent, sometimes putting forth the calm, impermeable realities at hand with initial patience which drains away slowly or quickly.

Sometimes you think a new angry conversation has been dialed up from behind or beside you, only to realize that the person sighing violently and saying “God damn” or muttering “enough, already” is just responding to another's rudeness. You are on the same side of the battle but resent the complainer's choice of weapon, resent the added noise.

On two trips today alone – from downtown to Oak Park for a job interview (I'm getting those now, in quantity) and back – I have been confronted in this way with amputated toes, broken teeth, disputes over the custody of dogs and children and, at greatest length, a middle-aged  and violently ugly man sitting across from me methodically dialing every number he seemed to know and barking into it, “TELL THAT BITCH SHE BETTER PICK UP HER DAMN PHONE.” He rarely offered any elaboration, except at one point when he instructed someone to go to the woman's house and regain possession of his shit.

(A week or two ago on the Harlem bus I sat near a man conducting a much more civil-sounding conversation, which did not begin to filter into my awareness until it became apparent that he was trying to talk a girl into appearing in some form of pornography: “No, no, I mean, unless you were planning to maybe run for office some day, or really break into mainstream movies, there's no way it's gonna matter. We had one girl, she's in law school now.” It seemed unlikely that the girl realized that he was laying out his business plan from the bench of a public bus in the suburbs.)

Even less malevolent conversations can be poisonous, if there are enough of them. You may change trains or disembark and then see sickness everywhere -- passing judgment on all the faces whose features disorientation seems to have permanently displaced by a few crucial millimeters -- and feel as though you are the last civilized being in the city or the universe. 

Then you may remember, for instance, the time coming home so late at night, the last traces of a little too much alcohol helping to weigh down your eyelids, when you found yourself utterly unable to determine how to reach the other, necessary side of the train platform. You wandered up and down the empty Thompson Center escalators in a fuzzy panic, descended to street level, looked around, and still were baffled; you ended up taking a longer route home. It may have been months later when you finally returned to the station and realized that you need have only looked up: a perfectly normal footbridge arches over the tracks.

It is not so hard to imagine this kind of confusion becoming permanent. One thing you hear in this bleak chatter is the kind of schedule it is often necessary to keep when you are poor. You may need to travel two hours each way to reach the single, minimum-wage, full-time job you could find a few months after your unemployment ran out. You may need to awake each day at 4 AM. This may cause you to fall asleep on your way home and miss your stop by miles, costing you more time. If you are ill, or have difficulty moving, travel will be that much more tortuously slow.

If you are a woman, you probably will add all this to the time and effort of transporting your children; when you are not with them, you probably will be on your cell phone with the unreliable web of other persons and institutions that share in their care.

Anyone has had to catch a 6 AM flight without having slept beforehand, or a panic attack in a public place, or a particularly enveloping head cold, one of these thorough burglars of lucidity. There is no reason why such a state could not keep perpetuating itself, especially under conditions of enforced exhaustion. In the wrong circumstances life could certainly become an unending bad dream, in which you are constantly exposed in public, made to conform to standards and fulfill responsibilities that are unfamiliar or had been totally forgotten. This could be a reality from which you would not be able to see out, though everyone could watch you writhe and call out in the throes of your dreaming, everyone could glare your way and say: “Enough, already.”

When I transfer to the Brown Line all is quieter. Here too an older black man with a cane is declaiming the history of his medical problems, near-death experiences, and subsequent recovery through Christ, but he has found a flesh-and-blood listener, a younger white man. The listener is polite and responsive. He is trying to do it right, to engage honestly although he would not have chosen this conversation. He is, I'm almost certain, a young liberal with the luxury of enough space and clarity in his life to accommodate problems that are not his own and conversations that are not acts of dire self-preservation. I recognize him, though I would not do quite so well, I think. Us types. What're we gonna do with ourselves and the world. I suspect we take it on as a kind of social service, to sit and listen, a service which is not entirely unrecompensed; we may feel a shameful impulse to tell our friends about it later, inviting them to marvel at our goodheartedness. But the kindness is at least partly genuine, the sense of duty somewhat realer.

The storyteller leaves the train. I've changed seats and without turning I can't see the listener, who remains. But he does not sigh in relief or exchange a knowing chuckle with anyone else who has been listening less gracefully, as I've seen others do, as I might do myself if I were the type to voluntarily make any public gesture. That's good, I think, observing the space around him. That's a start. 

07 February 2011

As it turns out

This is the last week I'm allowing myself to find a job that I reasonably may like; next Monday I will begin throwing myself at anything that pays okay and won't kill me. It's hard to believe it's been three weeks since I left work.

How dispiritingly easy it is to do nothing. I have the idea upon looking out over any such expanse of luxuriantly ungoverned time that I will be able to do everything all at once. Then I step in and find that here I am, leaving my slow clumsy footprints all over this clean lovely time, not getting much done. It's embarrassing.

The problem I guess is temperamental. When time pressures are released, decisions become far more arbitrary, and I have always greeted arbitrary decisions with apprehension. It seems that if one does anything it ought to be something grand and important but it is hard to think what will really be best, what will really measure up. And neurochemically I am an imperfect specimen -- that doesn't help.

So now already it is dark and I have spent the hours dithering, ill at ease with my leisure. Shall I start to learn some Bach on the guitar. Shall I finally listen to Neil Young. Shall I finally wash the dishes. I sit on a chair in the kitchen for several minutes while the mind offers up irrelevancies: I could eat a tangerine. All day I do little bits of things: read a few documents for class, write almost a verse of a new song, order some poetry online, buy groceries (a vibrant jumble in the grocery basket) which refuse when laid out on the kitchen table to assemble themselves into an appetizing meal. A collection of not-quite-useless fragments in the dustpan at the end of the day. 

Reading the internet too much, certainly. The feeling that I spend too much time with things that are only about other things, and not the things themselves. The insidious ease of criticism.

(I mean, I just like conversations, partly. If I spend time with the thing itself who will I talk to about it. It's just me, in the house or the world or a crowd of people I probably don't like. You read criticism and it's already taken care of.)

It's getting better, but the sun's still going down too early for someone who gets up at nine or ten. Looking out the window I think of the days until spring will become at least a realistic expectation. A vision of all that heavy time stretching out along the snow, compacting it.

(You think it has melted considerably, until you try to clear it away -- as it turns out you're barely strong enough to lift the shovel.)

27 January 2011

"With fragile certainties"

There's an excellent and accurate article right now on Slate.com by Mark Oppenheimer on being a snob. How to define a snob? Let's say, perhaps: someone who has confused an aesthetic for an ethos. And undoubtedly I am a snob, if a self-aware one. (But then it's possible that all snobs are in fact highly self-aware, in that they cannot fail to acknowledge that their tastes are not those of the mainstream -- if their tastes were mainstream they would not be snobs; if they were unaware of this divergence, they would merely be eccentrics and not snobs at all.)

Snobbery as we generally understand it is class-based, but it is not only a phenomenon of the upper class. Any person or subculture acutely concerned with the appearance of authenticity partakes in snobbishness, I think. Snobbishness is always aspirational, but it is fanatical about avoiding the appearance of aspiration. One should have been born with an impeccable set of tastes; all one's choices must appear to emanate from the core of one's being – indeed they should hardly be choices at all, they are simply the natural consequences of one's way of life. This is why snobbery is much easier to pull off for the upper-class: they may have the advantages of not actually having to work very hard and of being tutored in good taste by those within their milieu.

The working-class snob has it harder. She can turn to those subcultures that define themselves in opposition to what one might call the “preppy” strain of snobbishness: punk rock, say, or the thug culture in which the ultimate accessory and badge of authenticity is a gunshot wound. But the bookish and shy are unlikely to successfully pass in such a scene. Instead, one ends up cobbling together an aesthetic from bits of books, movies, magazines, the elite of previous eras, and comes to develop an idiolect of signifiers which may overlap with those of other snobs but never connect one to a larger snob culture. One takes the Pillow Book in which one has scribbled hastily over the years and turns it into doctrine. For the working-class snob, this may resemble the Ten Commandments more than a style guide: without a unified model to aspire to, one works mainly with negative space to create a picture of the appropriate. No, one must not hang a television on a wall, or museum-shop reproductions of famous works of art. One must not wear Uggs or Crocs, or sweatpants, or sea-foam green, or anything with a prominent logo. One walks down every street saying no, no, goodness no, interrupted by the occasional yes, an approving nod in the direction of the object that knows its place, the person who understands how to behave.

Oppenheimer worries about the effects of his snobbishness on his young daughters, and it can certainly be toxic to family life. My childhood years were spent cringing at and railing against the bad taste of my surroundings. There were so many sources of outrage: the plastic bouquets at my father and stepmother's wedding, the enormous “antique,” “distressed,” “Asian” print of a tiger that my mother brought home from Meijer for our living room, the nattering television shows that nobody was really watching but which nobody would ever let me turn off.

Under the tyranny of my taste, over the years my mother has made steps towards snobbishness herself. Her tastes in music, movies and reading material have by this point all been heavily inflected by my own; she is surprised when I do not agree with her, that she can have picked up on the details of my snobbishness without discerning its larger shape. As a teenager, these near-misses irritated me more than if she had wholly ignored my preferences. She was too clearly trying. It ruined the whole thing.

In his essay Oppenheimer mentions, almost offhandedly, “the tragedy of the snob, which is that he needs to think he is grand just to think he is worthwhile.” When love of God or country or money are not enough to shape one's life, other standards are required. The snob knows that, judged on his or her inner qualities alone, she will always be sorely lacking. Better to locate success in the arbitrary, the anti-pragmatic, the obscure. One has so much less competition there, there where the appearance of competition itself is enough to disqualify any competitor. The sovereignty of the snob remains intact.

23 January 2011

Things You Can Do When You're Unemployed

  • Dye your hair a bright color
  • Get in fights (like the kind where you might get a black eye)
  • Eat leisurely lunches
  • Go to museums for free
  • Get arrested
  • Express strange and unpopular views in a public forum
  • Hitchhike
  • Go to the Social Security office to get a new Social Security card because you lost yours
  • Buy groceries when the grocery store is not so crowded

14 January 2011

The Nice Parts

On the eve of my final day of the job that spawned this blog, I feel that I can finally find in it some droplets of affection, however laboriously squeezed from the dense mass of surrounding dread. I've been filling the last few days with words of slightly disingenuous warmth for the place and its residents, so unaccountably nice, saddling me with such heartrending parting gifts as some gorgeous roses and a hideous handbag that smells of chlorine. I know that I will not miss this job. The nice parts of it will be nearly as pleasant in memory as in experience, and the bad parts will, I think, take some minor works of exorcism to lift from me. But I will say this in its favor: it has brought me into closer and more meaningful contact than ever before with people who are truly different from me, and allowed me to like them very, very much.

For instance there is Patty (no, the names aren't real), a guard at a women's prison who has outlived a couple of husbands by now, unassailably tough and radiant with unassuming kindness. There are so many things I could say about Patty. When Barack Obama was elected she took a bus to Washington for the inauguration and came back with two giant black trash bags full of souvenirs – t-shirts, key chains, fake million-dollar bills with Obama's face on it, one of which she gave me. (She tried to give me other things as well.) The first Thanksgiving I was employed there she came downstairs with a whole sweet-potato pie in hand for each of us. Once or twice a week she receives in the mail the “thank you” gifts (address labels, “Indian” crafts) that charities send out to guilt people into paying for them; she tries to send money to them all, and laments when she cannot quite manage it that month.

What is not coming through here is that she is funny. She spends her days shuttling between the inmates on the west side and her elderly, ailing mother in the south suburbs on public transportation and from this material she builds conversations full of humor and totally lacking in self-pity or self-seriousness. Her sister Pris lives in the building too and is more obviously hilarious; you can hear her braying from halfway down the block, and she continues to work blue even upon reaching the echoing lobby. The trick is that she is unfailingly funny and never actually abrasive. It's not clear how she does this.

Pris is huge and compact while her sister seems looser-jointed, more casually assembled, and her demeanor is frankly confrontational when compared to Patty's casual cool. If no one told you, you would not guess them to be sisters before becoming deeply acquainted with the goodness and strength common to each.

There is Mrs. Santos who, more than almost anyone, has indulged my limited Spanish and trusted me to understand hers. She has just a couple words of English: “Hi, honey!” she beams upon entering the office, eyes brimming hugely with good-will and a sort of worry that someone within her gaze may not be entirely happy, her wrinkles alive with an anxiety that seems not wholly unpleasant for her. She has a large family who visit frequently, and they are also very kind, if in a less otherworldly way. Among them are two granddaughters about three or four years old, cousins, one a little sulky and shy and the other flamboyantly sunny. The first day I met them the sunnier one strode into the office behind her grandmother, climbed up on a chair, kicked out her legs and declaimed: “My name is Lulu Modesta!”

And of course there are other wonderful babies. The Carroll girls, a year apart, who need only the prompt “Hello, girls!” to say, in the perfect unison of their slightly froggy voices, “Hiiiiii!” There's Wolfgang, Wolfie for short, who has just recently been transformed from a quiet, highly embarrassable four-year-old who was up for endless games of peek-a-boo into a five-year-old who announces his entry to the building each afternoon with an escalating series of formidable monster noises. He exasperates his saintly mother, Jeanie, who makes beautiful soaps by hand and has shared with me her memories of China, where she grew up: “So dirty! There is dirt everywhere! And just dogs, running around!” In the past year there has been born a new generation of adorable creatures. Now they are just beginning to try to run, having not quite mastered walking yet, or trying out smiles and frowns that gesture towards a real intelligence growing within.

In some ways this job has taught me plenty about human meanness and stupidity. One can take such lessons and use them to recalibrate one's instincts of mistrust or self-preservation, I suppose (though I hope instead to more or less forget them). It's harder for the mind to get a hold on the kind of inexplicable goodness I have also encountered here. Each instance when it comes is apparently sui generis and difficult to schematize. One can only try to preserve a certain attitude towards it, I guess: a standing still before kindness, the mouth slightly open, slightly smiling, for as long as the world will let such peace exist.