Tuesday, July 31, 2007


According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the current drought condition here is "Severe." Actually, we are right on the dividing line with "Extreme," but I like to look on the bright side.

It's not that unusual for us to have a dry summer, but it really is bad this year. I had plenty of hummingbirds in the late spring, and they should have produced lots of babies. In a normal year it's not uncommon for me to see 25 or more hovering around the feeders at one time, and they'll go through a couple of gallons of nectar in a week. Right now I have maybe a half dozen hummers, sucking down less than 2 quarts--and that's with very little wild food around. It's been so dry since early June that I think a lot of nests failed, or they just didn't mate at all. Or they went further north where things aren't quite so parched. No water means no flowers, and few insects, which they really need when they're nesting.

A few nights ago coyotes came into our back yard, yipping like crazy, and hung around even after we let the dogs out. We often hear them in the distance, but they have never come so close to the house. It may just be a coincidence, but it's possible the drought has them looking harder for a meal, and the various critters that root around under my bird feeders attracted them.

The park is dry as a bone. Yesterday I walked the creek bed. It hasn't flowed in weeks--at this point it's actually dusty. The deer must be having a hard time of it, with no water and the foliage all withered. They look skinny.

I can remember other droughts just as severe. One summer when I was a kid, it was so bad we actually ran outside and danced in the rain when it finally came. So this may just be the normal cycle of things. Still, I can't help wondering if the climate change predictions are on target, and this is what we can expect every summer. That's a sad thought.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bird report

via Wikimedia Commons

It's a big day for my inner bird geek. She hasn't been around the blog much lately--she is shocked, shocked by all the smut we've been posting--but she's venturing out to tell you about sighting a Bewick's Wren this morning.

It was flitting around in the brush along the trail, and I had to lurk in the bushes for quite a while to be certain of its identity. We have hordes of House Wrens and Carolina Wrens here, but this was my first sure sighting of a Bewick's. Apparently, they were once very common in the South, but the House Wrens have displaced them. In fact, the the Cornell Ornithology site has removed this region from the Bewick's range, but WhatBird disagrees, as does my Peterson Field Guide.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Love the kitty

I Like Little Pussy

I like little Pussy,
Her coat is so warm;
And if I don't hurt her
She'll do me no harm.
So I'll not pull her tail,
Nor drive her away,
But Pussy and I
Very gently will play;
She shall sit by my side,
And I'll give her some food:
And she'll love me because
I am gentle and good.
I'll pat little Pussy,
And then she will purr,
And thus show her thanks
For my kindness to her;
I'll not pinch her ears,
Nor tread on her paw,
Lest I should provoke her
To use her sharp claw;
I never will vex her,
Nor make her displeased,
For Pussy don't like
To be worried or teased.

Attributed to Jane Taylor.

From Anthology of Children's Literature, 4th ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Location, location, location

Readers from the old POL blog know that Dave and I love New Orleans, and have been wanting an apartment there for ages. Dave is down there this weekend for a business conference and has begun the hunt. He reports that there is a one bedroom above Hové going for $900 a month.

So, let's see, the actual cost would be $900 plus utilities and a perfume allowance of, I dunno, let's be conservative--another $900 a month? Make it an even $1000. I gotta buy the occasional gift.

It would be like an alcoholic moving into a distillery.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Earl the Hunter

I just wrote a glowing review of a memoir by one of PETA's fearless leaders, so y'all cut me some slack on this video, which is just too good not to share. The best thing about it is the fiddle music in the beginning--it's Luther Strong, one of the greatest of the old-time fiddlers. If the blood of the hunt makes you queasy, just close your eyes and listen.

I do so miss having a kitty...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

With a little help from our friends...

I was whining a few days ago about my waning perfume mojo, and the generous, loving, scarily intuitive Chayaruchama immediately sent me a care package containing a passel of fragrance samps, among other delights. There are so many I haven't even had a chance to work through them all. So far I've tested Aftelier Cepes et Tubereuse (unbelievably beautiful--where has this been all my life?), Ava Luxe Palisander (the most sensuous woody frag I have ever encountereed), and Ava Luxe Moss (I am so smitten with it that I have already ordered a bottle of my very own.)

I can't wait to try the rest, and the more muscular beauties in my own collection are starting to appeal to me again. I don't want to jinx anything, but I think BitterGrace has got her groove back.

Of course, those of you who know Chaya understand that her insight and discernment are as powerful in the spiritual realm as they are in the sensual. She included a copy of Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy in her gift, with what she described as "some trepidation." I guess she feared the Pagan in me might not appreciate Cohen's intimate conversations with YHWH.

In fact, eavesdropping on Cohen and God pleases me much more than listening to Cohen coo to his lovers. The love poems make me cringe a little. These prayers are beautiful, and more genuinely passionate, I think, than Cohen in love. (Anyway, dear Chaya, have you forgotten that my grandfather was a Nazarene preacher? How could I not have a soft spot for this stuff?)

Here's a passage I especially like:

"From you alone to you alone, everlasting to everlasting, all that is not you is suffering, all that is not you is solitude rehearsing the arguments of loss. All that is not you is the man collapsing against his own forehead, and the forehead crushes him. All that is not you goes out and out, gathering the voices of revenge, harvesting lost triumphs far from the real and necessary defeat. It is to you I speak, solitude to unity, failure to mercy, and loss to the light."

From Book of Mercy, Leonard Cohen, 1984.

In case you missed it...

NPR's All Things Considered did a very good two part report this week on rape of Native American women. Part 1 is especially gut-wrenching, so be prepared. Part 2 is pretty damn sad, too. The whole issue is a great example of how racism and sexism combine to render some humans worth less than dogs. I mean, I'm pretty disgusted by the Michael Vick thing myself, but isn't it interesting that there's absolutely no chance this rape story will push Vick's alleged crimes off talk radio this week?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Enough already with the heavy posts...

Let's have a little musical interlude with the glorious Stuff Smith.

Hillman analyzes George and Dick

Writing yesterday's post led me to revisit various writings by James Hillman, and I stumbled upon these comments on the paranoia of the state. Hillman wrote them in 1988, but they seem especially apt to our present leadership.

"The deepest problem of statecraft is how to govern the inherent paranoia of government so that its symptoms not exacerbate into corrupt tyranny and Byzantine paralysis, symptoms such as secret police, loyalty oaths and lie detection, electronic surveillance, fear of weakness, systemized defenses and predictions (domino theory), and the absence of those soul qualities, humor, aesthetics and softness replaced by grand eschatological ideals: order, peace, humanity, fraternity, rights and God.

Given this inherent unconscious paranoia, there will be a need for a projected fantasized enemy and fantastical defenses against the fantasized enemy. Situations will always be valued by constructs of strength and weakness, winning and losing. Demand for unconditional surrender and the fear of it will be paramount. Treaties based on compromise will be all but impossible to negotiate. A nation in league with others will be forced--whenever it becomes unable to dominate the group--to veto or withdraw. The potential for open hostility is ever present and will be denied."

From On Paranoia, James Hillman, 1988, as reprinted in A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman, 1991.

If you're a James Hillman fan, or a determined non-fan, you'll find an interesting, happily brief critique of his work here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Strange Place

**Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, RI, Photo by husband Dave

"He laid down his hat and stick and climbed the carpetless stairs to his room. When he entered it he had the shock of feeling himself in a strange place; it did not seem like anything he had ever seen before. Then, one by one, all the old stale usual things in it confronted him, and he longed with a sick intensity to be in a place that was really strange."

That quote is from Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. It describes the state of mind of Ralph Marvell--failed writer, betrayed husband, ruined scion of an Old New York family--in the moments just before he blows his brains out. There are a lot of memorable suicides in fiction, and lord knows Wharton was fond of dispatching characters that way, but I think Ralph Marvell's is one of the most heartbreaking. He's a delicate soul shredded by the world, not a personality bent on self-destruction. Wharton makes it easy for us to imagine a different fate for him. She was a very cruel writer.

Everyone wants to talk about the "why" of suicide, and there are always plenty of motives on which to speculate: anger, despair, grief, guilt, failure, fear of age and decline--any negative emotion is a plausible culprit. All of which is valid enough, but the trouble with thinking about the cause of a suicide is that it obscures an understanding of what it's actually like to be suicidal. A person about to kill herself--really about to kill herself, with gun bought or pills hoarded--isn't generally tangled up with all those emotions that keep us tied to the world. She may have been pushed into detachment by emotional pain, but she's made a decision to leave that pain behind.

I admire that passage above because I think it captures very accurately the existential state of someone moving toward suicide. At its root, the suicidal impulse is a profound desire to be elsewhere. The suicidal person says, "Anywhere but here, anything but this." She's stating a fierce refusal of what the world offers. But she's also embracing the unknown, and, in a curious way, committing an act of faith. She is consumed with that yearning for strangeness Wharton describes. Humans have an innate desire to see what is over the next hill. Sometimes the hills run out or we go blind to them in this life, and the place of supreme strangeness begins calling to us. That's why it's futile to try to talk someone out of killing herself by telling her how much she's loved, or how this life will get better. She can't hear comforting words. She's listening to something else.


Members of the perfume community will know that I was inspired to write this because of the recent death of Theresa Duncan, who, among other things, was a widely admired perfume writer. But, as the ever-insightful Leopoldo said elsewhere, the suicidal impulse is ordinary. I am intimately acquainted with it, as I suspect many of you are. I'm not trying to analyze Duncan or pass judgment on the manner of her death. I'm just trying to get a grip, however uncertain, on the mystery of self-destruction as I have known it and observed it. I'm sure some of my thinking is shaped by A. Alvarez's The Savage God, which I read as a teenager, but only vaguely remember. Time to revisit it, I think.

**Swan Point Cemetery is a very beautiful old graveyard and arboretum in Providence. If you are ever in that city, it is well worth a visit. There are some pictures on the website I linked to, but they really don't do the place justice. Dave took some much nicer ones which I'll post one of these days.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sublime Rockabilly

There was never a more adorable rock 'n' roll hottie than Wanda Jackson. She's still around, singing gospel mostly, but here she is at the peak of her sweet sexiness.

UPDATE: I'm behind the times--an anonymous reader tells me Wanda's show is no longer gospel-centered. She's back to her rockabilly roots. I just clicked over to her website and checked out her tour dates. Looks like she's playing Nashville in a couple of weeks. Good for her.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

France is for lovers

Wilder Shores of Love, Cy Twombly, 1985

It seems some French lady has been busted for kissing a *Cy Twombly painting. Not that I approve of defacing art or anything, but I understand just how she felt. I love Twombly.

*Scroll down on Twombly's Artchive page for a list of image links. Use the "image viewer" to see the pics full size.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Child in the House

Frukosten ("Breakfast"), Amalia Lindegren, c. 1866

The problem of beauty has been on my mind today--specifically, the way that age corrupts and diminishes our perceptions of beauty. Do you remember what it was like when you were a kid, and things just delighted your senses without evoking any judgment? I think of people I fell in love with when I was small, and marvel at how beautiful I found them just because they had my love, and because my vision was not tainted by cultural or (god help us) consumer convention. Once we grow away from that state, it's lost forever, but we remember it. It defines the tone of childhood memories.

I don't know of anything in literature that captures a child's experience of beauty better than Walter Pater's "The Child in the House." Pater is considered one of the fathers of the Aesthetic Movement. Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins were both his students, and he's seen as a major influence on 20th century writers from James Joyce to John Ashbery.

"The Child in the House" is probably Pater's most widely read piece. There is something hypnotic, seductive about it, even though its tone is coldly rational, almost severe. I think it's best approached as a prose poem. Read it out loud, and the sentences that seem bloated on the page will begin to flow like a warm current.

Below are couple of passages I happen to particularly like, but do click on the link at the bottom of the post to see the whole essay. It's not terribly long, and there are some extraordinarily lovely passages on linden trees and the like--perfect for the scent fiends among us.

"Let me note first some of the occasions of his recognition of the element of pain in things–incidents, now and again, which seemed suddenly to awake in him the whole force of that sentiment which Goethe has called the Weltschmerz, and in which the concentrated sorrow of the world seemed suddenly to lie heavy upon him. A book lay in an old book-case, of which he cared to remember one picture–a woman sitting, with hands bound behind her, the dress, the cap, the hair, folded with a simplicity which touched him strangely, as if not by her own hands, but with some ambiguous care at the hands of others–Queen Marie Antoinette, on her way to execution–we all remember David’s drawing, meant merely to make her ridiculous. The face that had been so high had learned to be mute and resistless; but out of its very resistlessness, seemed now to call on men to have pity, and forbear; and he took note of that, as he closed the book, as a thing to look at again, if he should at any time find himself tempted to be cruel."


"Thus a constant substitution of the typical for the actual took place in his thoughts. Angels might be met by the way, under English elm or beech-tree; mere messengers seemed like angels, bound on celestial errands; a deep mysticity brooded over real meetings and partings; marriages were made in heaven; and deaths also, with hands of angels thereupon, to bear soul and body quietly asunder, each to its appointed rest. All the acts and accidents of daily life borrowed a sacred colour and significance; the very colours of things became themselves weighty with meanings like the sacred stuffs of Moses’ tabernacle, full of penitence or peace."

Go here to read the entire essay.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Books, Books, Books

Okay, boys and girls, here are a few more recs for your reading pleasure. First up: Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir. It's the autobiography of Dan Mathews, the master propagandist for PETA. Mathews is a likable, fascinating guy, and a first-rate writer. For the record, I am no fan of PETA. In fact, I find much of the animal rights contingent insufferable, but I was completely hooked by Mathews' exuberant voice. His biggest failing is a serious tendency to name-drop, but that's part of his charm. You can read my full review here.

The Story of Cruel and Unusual by Colin Dayan is, as you might guess from the title, absolutely no fun at all. In fact, I'm not actually recommending that you read it; but I did for this brief review, and I must say it was an eye-opener. Dayan is a Vanderbilt professor. Her book is a dense academic examination of the evolving interpretation of the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment. It's a complex argument she makes--click over to the review for a fuller explanation--but her basic point is that we have always legally tortured prisoners in the country, and the Supreme Court led by William Rehnquist guaranteed that we'll continue to do so. Like the Eric Rudolph controversy, it's another reminder that prisoners' rights ultimately matter to all of us.

I've got no published review to shamelessly promote, but since the Palestinian situation is very much in the news just now, I want to recommend David Pratt's Intifada: The Long Day of Rage. Pratt is a mainstream journalist, currently the foreign editor for the Sunday Herald in Glasgow, Scotland, and he has been covering the Israeli-Palestinian situation since the first Intifada in the late 1980s. This book focuses primarily on the second Intifada beginning in 2000, and ends with Pratt visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon during last summer's war. If you find yourself interested yet tuning out in confusion whenever the talking heads start blathering on this topic, then Pratt's book is for you. It's a good narrative of the recent history of the Palestinians, but it's told as a first person account of a reporter covering the conflict. It's engaging and readable. Pratt doesn't assume the reader knows who the players are. He provides a timeline and a thumbnail guide to the main Palestinian groups. I do wish the publisher, Casemate, had shelled out a few bucks for an index. Any book of this kind needs one. But that's a quibble. It's a terrific little book. You can see a lengthy discussion with Pratt about the book here.

I feel the need to note that Pratt makes no bones about being fundamentally sympathetic to the Palestinians. He is not anti-Israel. As I said, he's a mainstream journalist, and not reflexively partisan. I know this is a touchy issue for a lot of people, and I generally stay away from it in my blogging. I don't think I have anything to say that is sufficiently valuable to risk pissing people off. I don't think my bloviating is going to change anybody's mind. I really think this book provides a glimpse into a side of the story that isn't told much in this country, and is worth checking out for that reason alone.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Got bugs?

Go check out this wonderful site, whatsthatbug.com. It's got gorgeous pics, lively bug banter, and scads of info. Be sure to click on the link for "Carnage."

It ain't Disneyland

Orb-Weaver Spider

One of the consequences of hitting a wooded trail early in the morning is that you get a lot of cobwebs in the face. The spiders work all night putting up their nets to catch a nice meal, and then careless humans like myself come charging through and demolish them. Usually I just have to brush a few strands of silk from my eyes, but every so often I'll run into a major arachnid construction and be left covered with stickiness, not to mention ensnared prey, or even the spider herself. I always apologize, but the spiders still seem quite put out.

If I run into other early hikers, they will often complain about the cobwebs. One guy even swings a stick out ahead of him to clear the trail. I understand why he does it--picking spider silk off your glasses and out of your hair is not much fun--but I can't help thinking that he and I see our time in the woods very differently. Carrying a cobweb cudgel is about the last thing that would occur to me. It seems so hostile. Even if I could magically wish away the cobwebs, I wouldn't. The truth is, I kinda like the little annoyances of the outdoors: the cobwebs, the mosquitos, the yellow jackets, the sudden rainshowers, the occasional anointing with bird poop or squirrel pee--all those things are as essential to a walk in the woods as the scent of the cedars or the sight of a fawn.

I don't want to wrestle rattlesnakes, and nobody avoids poison ivy more diligently than me, but I wouldn't want my little taste of nature to be too blandly idyllic. Just as part of the charm of the city lies in its touch of chaos and mild dangers, so the lure of the forest is incomplete without a little possibility of hurt.

Another thumbs-up for Mr Sebastian...

Maureen Corrigan had a very positive review of Daniel Wallace's new novel on today's Fresh Air. If you're waffling on whether to put it on your reading list, you might give her a listen. WARNING: Don't click if you really hate spoilers. Corrigan's prone to them, and lets go of a couple in this review.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I want a pony for my birthday

Free Speech for Everybody. Even Terrorists

It seems anti-abortion fanatic Eric Robert Rudolph is still preaching his idiotic gospel via a web page, in spite of being locked down in a supermax prison. His surviving victims are horrified, and feel that he is "taunting" them from prison. They have all my sympathy. But as galling as it is to say so, he has all my support.

I don't think convicted felons should be able to make money peddling the story of their crimes, but that doesn't mean they should lose all right of expression. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, and it can't be denied even to vermin such as Rudolph. The state doesn't have to underwrite prisoner communications--I certainly hope Rudolph has to do something to earn his internet access--but it is not in anyone's interest to silence people who are incarcerated. As I listened to the NPR story about Rudoph, I kept thinking of Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail--a crucial catalyst in the civil rights movement which would never have existed if the advocates of gagging all prisoners had their way. I also thought about a wonderful man here in Nashville, Don Beisswenger, who was imprisoned at the age of 72 for participating in a protest against the School of the Americas. He kept a journal in jail which was published. Would we want him silenced?

The tough thing about being a free speech advocate is that you so often find yourself pushed into the position of defending bastards. For every Martin Luther King or Don Beisswenger, there are a hundred Eric Robert Rudolphs. It's nasty work protecting all the scum in anticipation of the rare saint. But nobody said democracy was easy.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

But I could show my prowess, be a lion not a mou-ess, if I only had the nerve.

Dear readers, the post below is a frag rant, directed primarily to my fellow perfume freaks. The rest of you might want to skip it and just amuse yourselves with a few minutes of the luscious Andrew Bird:

I've been avoiding daily contact with the perfume forums for over a month now. I do visit the blogs, of course, but they provide a much lower intensity exposure to 'fume fanaticism. It's one thing to read a lively and thoughtful review of a scent, or even a whole slew of scents. It's quite another to have hourly contact with with the perfume crises of dozens of people--"Does my Sira des Indes smell like poop?" "Has Opium been discontinued?" "What nefarious conspiracy causes LT to claim that Joy has not been reformulated when it clearly has!" You all know what I'm talking about. The sturm und drang, baby

I assumed that staying away from all that would calm my own frantic obsession. I was even a little afraid I'd lose interest in scent altogether, which would leave a big gap in my psyche just waiting to be filled with meaningless anxiety and free-floating animosity--two things that are already taking up more than their share of mental space. And jettisoning the addiction would leave me with hundreds--okay, thousands--of dollars worth of useless juice which would have to be disposed of. (Don't say, "Send it to me!" I know every one of you already has enough perfume to float a battleship. I can't be enabling people that way. I have my karma to consider.)

Anyway, what seems to have happened is that I haven't lost my obsession, just my nerve. I've always loved my "pretties"--Caleche, Muguet du Bonheur, Ma Griffe, Yardley Lotus, Ivoire. They're all sweet girls, little nothingburgers that are easy to love and present no challenges. But I've also always loved scents with some moxie, including floral screamers (Fracas), civet-fests (Tabu, Jicky), and frank weirdos (Fairchild). Lately, though, I can't seem to work up the courage for anything the least bit exciting. It's all bland florals, day in and day out. Today I spritzed on good ol' Norell, and even that was almost too much, with its potent mix of galbanum and carnation. I've made 3 perfume purchases in the past 10 days: understated, inoffensive Nocturnes; "eau de NOLA debutante" Marguerite; and the most virginal of the urn perfumes, Narcisse Blanc. All of them old faves, all of them guaranteed not to clear an elevator.

What's wrong with me? Where's my sense of scent adventure? It seems to me that having a perfume addiction and no spirit of scented rebellion is the worst of both worlds--expensive and boring. *Sigh*

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A. K. Ramanujan

Just recently I seem to have lost my ability to ignore the horrific music that pervades every public space in the developed world. I used to be blessedly deaf to it, but no more. Now, I am no music snob--I have voluntarily listened to some pretty god awful pop music in my day. And I live with a saxophone player who loves free jazz and noise bands. We have begun many a musical conversation with me saying, "What the hell is that?" So, I'm not a sheltered or prudish listener. But I have my limits, and being subjected to the tinny chorus of "Afternoon Delight" while wheeling a cart through Kroger exceeds them. Mightily. Yesterday I was in a TJ Maxx and they were playing a cover of a Jewel song. Not an actual Jewel song, which would be bad enough, but a cheesed-up cover. It was the auditory equivalent of having hot needles inserted under your fingernails. (I would have run screaming from the store, but there was a new shipment of gray market 'fumes that had to be checked out first. I'm sure some of you understand.)

I am completely baffled by this sudden curse of awareness. I don't know why my underworked brain has suddenly decided to latch onto evil sounds. It's just a mystery of the brain's filtration system. We receive a constant flood of sensation from without, and there's a constant tide of memory within. It's far too much to process, so most of it just flows away unnoticed, but a seemingly random portion gets stuck in the mental drain. Then, for better or worse, we have to deal with it.

So, I bet you're wondering what all this has to do with A. K. Ramanujan. Frankly, nothing, except that his poetry is some of the better stuff that's gotten stuck in my mental drain lately. Here's the backstory: Ramanujan's wife, Molly Daniels, has led a writing workshop in Chicago for decades, and I was a student of hers for a couple of years. ConsequentIy, I got to know Krittika Ramanujan, their daughter. Krittika is a very fine artist, and we are lucky to have a little pastel of hers hanging in our house. We've had it for 15 years, so I had gone pretty well blind to it, but the other day, for no particular reason, it caught my attention--and I remembered a birthday party for Krittika where I met her father for the first and only time.

He was an academic celebrity, both a celebrated poet and a respected South Asian studies scholar. He was the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. His students worshipped him. My own reaction to his poems was "eh." I just didn't get them. I didn't get him, either, when I met him. He was perfectly nice and all, but he was a small, rather unattractive man, and at least that night, was not especially witty or fascinating. Still, people clustered around him reverently. He died suddenly not long after that, and his students and colleagues openly mourned him.

I never felt the need to revisit his poems, but something about that flash of memory made me seek them out--and gee, what a difference time can make in one's perceptions. I've been happily obsessed with these poems for days now. His connections between homely American life and the mythical imagery of India always seemed false and forced to me; now they seem brilliantly syncretic. I missed his passion and humor before--a failure which amazes me, because they are certainly obvious. There's something both wry and giddy in the tone of this one:

"Chicago Zen" (Second Sight, 1986)

Now tidy your house,
dust especially your living room
and do not forget to name
all your children.

Watch your step. Sight may strike you
blind in unexpected places.

The traffic light turns orange
on 57th and Dorchester, and you stumble,

you fall into a vision of forest fires,
enter a frothing Himalayan river,

rapid, silent.

On the 14th floor,
Lake Michigan crawls and crawls

in the window. Your thumbnail
cracks a lobster louse on the windowpane

from your daughter's hair
and you drown, eyes open,

towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.

Now you know what you always knew:
the country cannot be reached

by jet. Nor by boat on jungle river,
hashish behind the Monkey-temple,

nor moonshot to the cratered Sea
of Tranquillity, slim circus girls

on a tightrope between tree and tree
with white parasols, or the one

and only blue guitar.

Nor by any
other means of transport,

migrating with a clean valid passport,
no, not even by transmigrating

without any passport at all,
but only by answering ordinary

black telephones, questions
walls and small children ask,

and answering all calls of nature.

Watch your step, watch it, I say,
especially at the first high

and the sudden low
one near the end
of the flight
of stairs,

and watch
for the last
step that's never there.

You can read a number of other poems here. I especially recommend "A River" and "Prayers to Lord Murugan."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Daniel Wallace's new novel

If you're looking for a good vacation read, I'd highly recommend Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, a nifty little novel from the author of Big Fish. It's not exactly an intellectual workout, but it won't make you feel like you've been pigging out on literary Peeps. Click over to the Nashville Scene to see my review.

I am delighted to report...

...that Michael Sims, who let me quote him for the scandalous sex post, will be writing a biweekly column for ReZoom.com. Go over there right now and read his first column. Michael is an elegant, funny writer who has an absolute genius for connecting conceptual dots. You'll love him.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Proverbs of Hell

(I promise I'll be back to blogging shortly. Meantime, here's something less pretty to meditate on.)

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish smiling fool, & the sullen frowning fool, shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once, only imagin'd.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit: watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.
One thought, fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, c. 1790. Go here to see the complete text.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Friday, July 6, 2007

La Vie En Rose

Our celebration of July 4th consisted of going to see this biopic on Edith Piaf. My inner Francophile is an anemic creature, but she does love Piaf. Dave, whose love of things French is considerably more robust, also loves Piaf, though not as much as he loves Jacques Brel (who was not technically French, but never mind.) Dave declared La Vie En Rose "a mess"-- and so it is, narratively speaking. The chronology jerks the viewer to and fro, characters appear and disappear unpredictably, and there seems to be a more or less complete amnesia about WWII. All of which counts for nothing, really, because Marion Cotillard's performance as Piaf completely overwhelms everything else about the movie. It's like watching a train wreck. You know you shouldn't be so enthralled by the vision, but you just can't look away. If Cotillard were potraying anybody but Piaf you could dismiss the performance as scene-chewing indulgence; but Piaf's life was scene-chewing indulgence from start to finish, so it works. If you have the smallest sliver of interest in Piaf, it's worth seeing Cotillard bring her back to life. If you're asking yourself "Edith who?" you might want to save your money for pizza.

For a little glimpse of what Piaf meant in her day, here's her 1963 obituary from The New Yorker, written by Janet Flanner. There's a trailer and music at the website for the movie.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Where is everybody?

After my morning hike I usually swing by the pond to visit the frogs and turtles. There are almost always a few little green guys hanging out waiting for breakfast. Yesterday I watched 2 snapping turtles engaged in a turf war. This morning, nobody. Seemed weird. Then I saw this guy lurking in the water, his head propped up on a clump of algae. I was thrilled to see him, but I guess I was the only one.

More Cowper

Not exactly happy Cowper, but more whimsical than most of his verse. Cowper liked his bunnies.

Epitaph on a Hare

Here lies, whom hound ne'er did pursue,
Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose foot ne'er tainted morning dew,
Nor ear heard huntsman's hallo,

Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
Who, nursed with tender care,
And to domestic bounds confined,
Was still a wild jack-hare.

Though duly from my hand he took
his pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
On pippins' russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads failed,
sliced carrot pleased him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round-rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out all his idle noons,
And every night at play.

I kept him for his humor's sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
and force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more agéd, feels the shocks
From which no care can save.
And, partner once of Tiney's box,
Must soon partake his grave.

William Cowper, 1783

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

What do you mean by that?

When I was a student at Mt. Holyoke--a long time ago--one of our big battles was eradicating the use of the word "girl" to refer to females past puberty. Seems kinda quaint now, but it was a big deal at the time: "Don't call me girl," "Don't call this a girls' school," etc.

I was with the program, but only half-heartedly. I saw what was wrong with calling a 25-year-old a girl, but I could never quite keep a straight face calling high school kids "women." Or "wimmin." Or "wymyn." Or whatever. One of the reasons language orthodoxy is bad is that it always leads you, sooner or later, into that kind of absurdity. Language will make a fool of you if you try to box it up.

This ancient issue has been on my mind today thanks to a couple of very different encounters with "girl." The first was listening to a news report about the situation for women in Gaza with Hamas in charge. A young woman was talking about being accosted on the street by a man who objected to her being unveiled. He told her, "Hey, you girl, cover!" and she objected to the "girl" as much as to the order to don a veil. "I'm not a little girl, I'm a woman," she said, and I was completely sympathetic to her. It's not a trivial thing, to infantilize someone in that way. It's an assault, as surely as if he had hit her or thrown a stone. I felt that familiar burn of sisterly rage as she talked.

Then yesterday afternoon I was sitting outside a coffee shop reading when a little boy, about 4 years old, walked by with his mother. I was wearing a pair of rhinestone ear cuffs. He looked at me and turned to his mother, excited. "Hey, Mommy, that girl has ice in her ears!" Being called "that girl" at 45 cracked me up even more than his fashion commentary.

Of course, it's obvious why the kid's use of "girl" is funny and the zealot's isn't--or maybe it's not so obvious. You could argue, in classic PC fashion, that the little boy's choice of word is distressing, because it's evidence that he's already being inculcated with sexism. A certain brand of language purist would say there's a parallel between his "girl"ing me and using a racial epithet. He's doing it innocently at age 4, of course, but learning the lingo is the first stage in hate training. Somewhere in his infant mind he's filed away the concept that females are to be regarded as perpetual children, even when they've got four decades on you.

Then again, maybe he figures that anybody lolling around a coffee shop, apparently jobless and unburdened by children, doesn't qualify as an adult. Most likely he just doesn't know many words, and "girl" was the only one he had available. I can't possibly know exactly what nuance of meaning he attached to "girl" at that moment. Same for the man with the veil problem. Though he was clearly angry, veil guy might well deny he had any especially offensive intent in the use of the word, and sincerely believe that. Likewise, neither of them can really be expected to know what "girl" means to me. I obviously couldn't say in the abstract what the word means, since it meant wildly different things to me in the different contexts.

The meaning of a word is never a fixed entity. It's a dynamic event constructed by all the parties involved, within the cultural and historical context of the exchange. (If you'd like to wander around that notion a while, here is a good place to start.) The burden we get along with the gift of language is a constant responsibility to negotiate meaning. Well-intentioned efforts to ban certain words, or strictly control them, are wrong-headed because they deny this basic fact about language. They are invested in a static concept of meaning that has nothing to do with real-world speech. They seek to escape from that responsibility to negotiate meaning, which is impossible outside of some universal state of Borgian mind-meld.

My point--yes, I think I have one--is that in order for us to talk to each other, we have to, you know, talk to each other. We have to ask people what they mean, and tell them what we hear. You can't stop people from insulting you by trying to take a word away from them. They'll always find another. People are clever that way.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Are we happy yet?

Lou had a very interesting post on happiness recently, which sent me hunting for this poem by William Cowper. The poem will be especially resonant, I think, if you read Lou's post first, and keep in mind that Cowper spent much of his life in an agonizing depression, and attempted suicide many times. Cowper was a fervent Christian, so the poem is written in that idiom, but if you "translate" it into the secular, there are some interesting parallells with Lou's observations.

from The Winter Walk at Noon

He is the happy man whose life even now
Shows somewhat of that happier life to come;
Who, doomed to an obscure but tranquil state,
Is pleased with it, and, were he free to choose,
Would make his fate his choice; whom peace,
the fruit
Of virtue, and whom virtue, fruit of faith,
Prepare for happiness; bespeak him one
Content indeed to sojourn while he must
Below the skies, but having there his home.

The world o'erlooks him in her busy search
of objects, more illustrious in her view;
And, occupied as earnestly as she,
Though more sublimely, he o'erlooks the world.
She scorns his pleasures, for she knows them not;
He seeks not hers, for he has proved them vain.
He cannot skim the ground like summer birds
Pursuing gilded flies; and such he deems
Her honors, her emoluments, her joys.
Therefore in contemplation is his bliss,
Whose power is such that whom she lifts from earth
She makes familiar with a heaven unseen,
And shows him glories yet to be revealed.
Not slothful he, though seeming unemployed,
and censured oft as useless. Stillest streams
Oft water fairest meadows, and the bird
That flutters least is longest on the wing.

They're back

Shakesville.com, that is. And even though I have been critical of some of the content in the past, I'm very happy to see them back up. So happy that I finally made a donation, which I should have done long ago. This whole DOS thing has reminded me of how easy it can be to silence a dissenting voice these days, so I thought I should pony up. I'm sure Shakesville needs all the help it can get.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A message to the faithful

Husband Dave puts forth a profound theological question regarding The Butter Cow.

Could this be any sweeter?

I was in the park early this morning and was rewarded by seeing the cutest critter possible, a fledgling screech owl. I startled him (somehow, I feel certain it was a him), and he flew right in front of me to perch on a low branch of an oak tree. He just sat there looking at me with that wild WTF? that young birds always seem to have. I am such an idiot, I blurted out, "Oh, you're so pretty!" The Paris Hilton of naturalists.

Go check out The Owl Pages to find out about Screech Owls and listen to recordings of their beautiful, eerie songs. (You can read about the baby in the pic here.