Monday, December 19, 2005

Nuts to the Nutcracker?

In one of life's deepest ironies, a performance of The Nutcracker that I was scheduled to attend on Saturday with my mother and sisters was canceled due to--get this--a dancers' strike.

I'm not hyperlinking to any articles out of the fear that they will quickly be out of date, but if you want more details, search Washington Ballet strike.

Although I will receive a refund for my tickets, I'm still trying to get my mind around the idea of dancers on strike. I didn't know artists needed to strike about things. I thought they were in a different category of workers, the "doing it for the love of it" category, not the "breathing in coal dust while trying to support my family" category.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Ice Storm

I awoke this morning to a world of intense beauty, the cars and handrails glazed with ice and the trees clicking and sparkling in the sunlight. Wish every morning was like this: sliding carefully to my car while my housemate heroically breaks the ice before me with a shovel; ten minutes or so of vigorous exercise whacking at my car windows, with big pieces of ice sliding off like the top layer of crystallized sugar when you make rock candy. (Opening the frozen door was interesting: my housemates and I took turns grabbing the handle and flinging ourselves backward before it finally broke loose.) Life starts turning into tiny streams . . . dropping off the icicles hanging from my sideview mirror, faintly tapping onto the snow. I hear my neighbor's windchimes. I hear ice somewhere, everywhere, slowly beginning to crack and craze and peel off and melt away. There are infinitesimal rainbows glimmering on tree branches, like many rings on the hands of one of those rich ladies who is very thin and very quiet.

Ice storms always remind me of Robert Frost's poem, which you should read in its entirety, but if you need encouragement to do so, here is its most applicable portion:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Quote Door

Every year my office door accumulates quotes written in colored ink on post-it notes. Then the quotes must be taken down in deference to my department's Christmas door-decorating contest.

I hate to lose these quotes, though. So here they are.

Dove chocolate wrappers
"Chocolate . . . who needs a reason?"

"Decorate your life."

"Make 'someday' today."

"Sometimes one smile means more than a dozen roses."

People I know
"You're the type that will write great novels and influence the rest of history." KT to me

"I feel like the toilet paper fairy." Donna

"We are two Americans in search of Masterpiece Theater." My aunts while visiting England

"It's not so much the size of your mouth or the volume of the communication that proceeds therefrom, it's more the content that makes you so fascinating." John Caleb to me

"Whenever I think of you, I always think of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her three pals have finally made it to the Emerald City, but they have to get cleaned up before they see the wizard. The tin man gets placed under this huge buffing machine to polish him, and that's how I see my dear editors." Attorney at my organization whose work I frequently edit

People I don't know
"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." Unknown

"The multitude of books is making us ignorant." Voltaire

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." Thomas Mann

"Without silence words lose their meaning." Henri Nouwen

"We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public." Bryan White

"There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings." Hodding Carter

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination." Oscar Wilde

"You will lead a rich and successful life." From a fortune cookie

"Pass no day in idleness or you will be beaten." Amenemope, ancient Egyptian scribe, to his pupils

"Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple." Barry Switzer

"I used to wake up at 4 a.m. and start sneezing, sometimes for five hours. I tried to find out what sort of allergy I had but finally came to the conclusion that it must be an allergy to consciousness." James Thurber

Church secretary to the Grim Reaper: "You'll just have to take a seat and wait. I have a newsletter that has to go out."

Isaiah 40:31
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Washington Square

No, not the place; the book. I finished Henry James' masterpiece at midnight last night, and as proof of its beauty, have found myself mulling over it at sudden times throughout the day.

There is a severely unemotional quality to James' writing that is striking. James neither restrains nor ignores emotion; he simply does not discuss it. In some ways, he writes around it. He describes personality and location and mood in his distinct, precise manner, and after he has built up a scene of words, the emotion is suddenly there--an inevitable result of the specific situation he is describing. To my mind, he is the perfect--the only perfect? though not my favorite--writer.

The book posed two questions as I read it. Why is it called Washington Square? It is less about place than Rebecca or Brideshead Revisited or Wuthering Heights, yet it is named after a specific location in New York City. And what is the broader significance of a narrowly focused character study of a woman who discovers in herself the resources to quietly rebel against the personalities around her? My working answer, slapdash, responds to both questions.

Start with a small, old neighborhood in New York City. Fill one of its homes with a tiny household consisting of a widower, his daughter, and his silly sister. That's a triangle. Add a would-be husband for the daughter, and we have a square. (I know, I know--who gives me the right to transform plot setting into a geometric figure?)

So the story is about this little square of people existing and interacting in a square neighborhood (not all the action takes place in Washington Square, but even when traveling in Europe, Catherine's world really remains no larger than the neighborhood she came from). Now if Morris Townsend had not added a fourth angle to the shape of Catherine's world, she would never have lost her illusions about her father, who in turn forced her to lose her illusions about Morris. Townsend does not only change the world's shape; he changes its meaning.

It's a tragic story because it has a cruel ruler (Dr. Sloper), a false lover (Morris), and an evil villain (Aunt Penniman), who between them manage to suck Catherine's world dry of meaning and replace it with--nothing. They define the only "love" that exists for Catherine, and they all claim love as their motivation. When she discovers each person's love to be false, she has nothing to replace it with. Her "triumph" is merely that she manages to hold on to a shred of dignity to the very end.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Road Trip Impressions

If you ever visit Columbia, South Carolina, go to a coffee shop called Cool Beans. It's full of cigarette smoke, but they give you your drink in a real mug. My mug was a solid, squarish shape and it was mustard yellow. The best thing to do while you're there is sit around a table with four old friends and talk about what you've all done since you last saw each other. At least, that's what I did.

It rained almost the whole way back. Visibility was fine until the sun set, when all the truck drivers on Interstate 81 turned into demons straight out of hell. It's like they get on their CB radios and yell, "C'mon guys! There's heavy traffic, a downpour, slick roads, and patches of fog! Let's all drive twenty miles over the speed limit . . . and ain't nobody gonna slow us down!" Every time a truck passed me, it would kick sheets of raindrops onto my windshield, temporarily blinding me. I started playing a grim game called "Race the Trucks": whenever I saw a truck's headlights getting bigger in my rearview mirror, I would get into the left lane and speed up to pass the entire length of cars that was driving too slowly in the right lane. Then I'd move back over, hoping that the truck, upon passing the same line of cars, would get behind me. It actually works; however, it's also terrifying.

But I was saying. Between daylight and dark, there was a lovely stretch of road just after I exited Interstate 77 onto I-81 north and was heading through the mountains toward Roanoke. The mountains huddle right up by the interstate there, but I could only see the closest ones because the air was dim and foggy. The Appalachians are very quiet anyway, but when they are scarved with fog, the silence gets deeper. They seem mysterious and secretive--if you hid in them, they would protect you. And that same characteristic makes them frightening as well.

That was the best part of my drive.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Election Day 2005

Vote YES for . . .

1) My sister, who turns 21 today. I love you, K.!

2) Irish breakfast tea

3) Country music

4) Funny people

5) 6) 7) My housemates (all three of them)

8) The Village soundtrack

9) Waking up to Michael W. Smith's Freedom CD this morning

10) Not waking up to jackhammers outside my window. This is not something you want to know more about.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Twilight Zone

My department, as the "creative" wing of our organization, hosts a yearly Reformation Day celebration. We turn off the lights, plug in electric candles, and post "Theses" on the door. We set up a table with a Diet of Worms (a pail full of gummy worms), a basket of indulgences (candy with mottoes attached--"Good for 5 years off purgatory," etc.), and fruit for the more spiritual. Under this table is a boom box playing Grunt. We send out an email to the entire organization, which then spends the day tramping in and out of the department while we try to work.

I wish I could explain the effect of pidgin Latin droning in a lowlight environment for eight hours straight, as the sugar from the chocolates, gummi worms, and caramel apple dip courses slowly through my veins. The lyrics are funny, but the music soothes. The repeating CD begins to wear grooves into my brain. I begin to believe that there is no other music in the world, no other sound even, and then, all of the sudden, a particular phrase seeps into my consciousness and I want to scream with laughter. This music is silly! This dim cavelike office is silly! Everything is so, so silly! This kind of silliness requires maniacal laughter, which I would exhibit if I were not dressed professionally and editing words that will be read by thousands of people.

This sensation of being suspended between reality and surreality, with surreality somehow becoming more and more like everyday life, is indescribable. And I only experience this very particular shading of it one day a year.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A Day in the Life

Yesterday morning, running late for work, I dashed out the front door and into my car. There I opened my purse and discovered that all my keys were missing (or, did not discover my keys). I did not even attempt to test the front door; I had purposely made sure it was locked on my way out. And both my roommates had already left for work.

After considering various solutions in a slow and leisurely fashion (you know the old ad, "This is your brain on drugs"? Try tweaking it to "This is your brain in the morning"), I decided to call a friend who drives past my neighborhood on her way to our mutual place of employment. "Have you left for work yet?" I asked when she answered her cell.

"No," came the reply, with something peculiar lurking in its tone.

"I locked my keys in the house, and I was wondering if you could give me a ride to work!" I said with relief.

" . . . I did the same thing," said my friend, again sounding like she was speaking to me from a very distant moral height. I found out later that, upon locking her own keys in her house, she had arranged to be picked up by a roommate who was already on her way to the aforementioned mutual place of employment. When I called a minute later, my friend seriously thought that I had somehow discovered her plight and had called to tease her. I was able to convince her, and she and her roommate gave me a ride to work.

Now I ask you: What is the likelihood of two former roommates locking all their keys in their respective houses at the same time on the same morning? I dare you to try it.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Thoughts on a Postscript

I finally finished reading Our Mutual Friend. It was on my summer reading list, and it's October now, so that tells you something about the book's length and flow. But I stuck it out all the way to the postscript, which Charles Dickens wrote "In lieu of a Preface." The postscript is a jewel. Dickens writes,

[I thought] it worthwhile, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist . . . may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience . . . .
What a revolutionary thought, in this destructive Age of Literary Criticism. Dickens also comments on the difficulties of the serial novel:

[I]t would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom. Yet, that I hold the advantages of the mode of publication to outweigh its disadvantages, may be easily believed of one who revived it in the Pickwick Papers after long disuse, and has pursued it ever since.
This puts me in mind of a book duo written by Daniel Poole. Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters: The Rows and Romances of England's Great Victorian Novelists interweaves a truly interesting history of the Victorian novel with gossipy biographies. It explains how oddities like the three-volume novel provided economic benefits to publishers (and by extension, authors), and how such seemingly arbitrary literary structures led, in turn, to the modification of plots. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is an indispensable companion volume to any Victorian library. Wondering what a "quid" is? Or why certain country houses were called "abbeys"? What kind of indoor plumbing existed in the 1880s, and why poor people sifted through trash for bits of bone to sell? Read this book.

Finally, Dickens describes how he nearly lost part of his manuscript (and his own life) in a railway accident.

I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book:--THE END.
It's rather touching, when you consider that this was Dickens' last complete novel.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


One lunch break, done properly, can loop you into eternity and back--and today is the last day I would have expected such a thing. The sky is a metallic grey and everything is damp from the rain that they keep telling us to expect but which I'm not actually seeing. A sort of Holy Spirit rain (if you're Baptist).

This is a drab fall. Again, the rain is at fault: apparently we got too much of it in the spring and nowhere near enough in the summer. Silly us, we forget how lovely a shy, subtle fall can be. This is pointillism at its best: each tree's leaves alternating between faded green, dry brown, and soft yellow or red. Once my eye is caught by such tiny details, I begin to see that the overall effect is like a giant bolt of tweed being unrolled beside the road. The landscape is shot through with subtle gradations of color. Occasionally I drive through a sudden patch of fallen leaves.

I roll down the windows and turn up the country music . . . "Living on Love" is playing. Whoever thought that this warm, damp air, smelling of mildew and exhaust and diesel and dead leaves, could be so delicious? And the pale golden sunlight, trapped below the dully shining clouds close to the earth, sets off the earthy colors beautifully. In some spots, the clouds have moved aside from the sky's delicate blue. Everything is beautiful--pavement, dirt, grass, cars, faces, cigarette smoke. The things I had given up on as being ugly and meaningless are suddenly lit from within.

On a day like this, I think I understand redemption.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

An Ideal Husband

The other night as I descended to my basement bedroom, I noticed a gangly splotch on the bathroom floor. Revealed in the half-light being shed from the stairwell, it proved to be a massive grey spider, so large it was literally floppy. I cannot remember if it was hairy, but my memory endows it with a striped appearance. I would say it was about the circumference of a soda can. The body itself was an oversized mass of random body parts, too big, I really believe, for the legs to properly convey it anywhere. So it was just resting there on the cool tiles, its legs splayed out around this otherworldly body, fatigued from its laborious journey across the floor.

My first attempt to squash it failed, for it darted behind the bathroom door. My next weapon was a can of hairspray, which only drove it out onto the carpet, stumbling triple-jointedly toward the back of the basement. I followed, spraying an aerosol trail straight across the carpet. There, the spider's legs finally gave out, and it paused long enough for me to leap straight up in the air and land on it, squashing its many parts into the carpet. A laugh of victory, sardonic yet hysterical, emerged from my throat at exactly that moment.

This is not the first run-in I have had with a larger-than-life spider. And it occurs to me that some sort of cosmic solution is needed.

If I ran the universe, I would give every unmarried woman a spider-killing husband to keep in a closet. I don't know what would be in the closet--probably just a vacuum cleaner and the coats you don't need in summertime, but maybe it would be like the wardrobe that lets you into Narnia. That would be the husband's concern, anyway. The husband would just live in the closet until one day he heard his unmarried wife say, "Dear, there's a spider in the bathroom!"--or maybe she'd just emit a strangled cry of rage--and he'd come out of his closet and kill the spider and clean up its remains. The more expensive husbands would say, "You are so cute in your pajamas," before going back into the closet. The cheap husbands would say, "That's all I'm good for--just killing spiders." The mid-range husbands would be the strong, silent types and would put their time inside the closet to good use by panelling it with cedar and handcarving lovely scrolled designs all over it. Then, when the wife sold the house later, she could get more money for it and upgrade to a more expensive husband.

Monday, September 26, 2005

We Are Now Going Public

Whenever I doubt God's love or existence (the former happens much more frequently than the latter), I don't think about the crucifixion, as numerous sermons and books have advised me to do. I think about the stars.

For one thing, the stars are always less than twelve hours away and visible from any location. You just can't miss them, whereas I could have missed the crucifixion if I had been born in a time or place that didn't have the Gospel. For another thing, the stars are too tangible for their existence to be doubted, whereas I can doubt the crucifixion when I'm feeling particularly intractable.

The stars tell me a lot about how God does things. He likes beauty, because the stars are dazzlingly lovely. And He's extravagantly good. I just can't imagine how much time and thought it took to make trillions of stars, all over the universe, with different gravitational fields and sizes and ages, so that there could be this one little planet on which He would put this one little person called Me.

This Is Only a Test

A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

Stephen Crane