Friday, January 30, 2009

A Big Box of Beige

Last night we tried out a new restaurant in town. It's another in what seems to be a long and well-worn, traditional line of upscale Italian restaurants in our area. Since we've been frozen under three inches of ice for the past two days, I was looking forward to not cooking or doing the dishes.

I'm not sure I'll ever get around to recounting the food we had, because the decor has left me with so much to review. How many types of beige can you imagine?

Honey beige (that's for Dad)
Organic Egg
Underside of Mole
Jersey Sand
Elementary School Tagboard

The entire interior of this restaurant is decorated in various types of tan, more numerous than the list I just jotted. Two large glass doors greet you into an open foyer with beige walls, cream wood trim, and a brown hostess station. The theme continues through the rooms of the restaurant: Beige walls. Sepia toned photographs. Cream tablecloths. Tan ceiling. Carmel swags. Ecru window blinds.

The three of us started to discuss what the designer might have been thinking. We decided that they were going for a "do-not-offend-or-excite" ambiance. Before the bread arrived, Helen already had the room we were sitting in newly designed with deep red walls, curtains made of paper, and some beaded light fixtures. Dan asked what I would do to redesign it. "Call Mark," I said.

On the upswing, this restaurant has no televisions, except for in the bar, which was gratefully out of our field of vision during our meal.

After our dinner, we were able to focus more on the brulee of shades going on in the artwork. Each sepia-toned photograph is double matted in two tones of beige, then framed with a light wood. That's some commitment to the Law of Beige.

I left feeling like I'd been in a sandstorm, my memory of the meal erased in a static of tan.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sing a Song of Self-Consciousness

When I’m awake early and writing at my desk I can catch a glimpse of myself in the reflective surface of the window. At five or six a.m. I look a mess. I tilt my head a little – what is that? A sagging jowl? This is not writerly. It is exactly who I am. Almost forty, taking notes on jowls.

How lucky I am to be just waking up, at all. I remind myself that I have friends who didn’t make it to forty, who left behind students who adored them, or their own children. So soon I will be forty, and then I will have to say that I am forty, not “nearly forty,” which sounds so much better than “forty,” which is definite, even, and very much in the middle of a long life if I’m lucky enough to have it.

I read a poem recently by a writer who I know has ego issues, and the poem was beautiful, and I wished I didn’t know anything about the poet. I figure that every writer has one issue or another, or multiple ones, or at least I hope they do so it is not just my aging face reflected in the glass but a whole chorus of us. Yes, this makes me selfish. Who wants to be alone, really? When the sun swings its magic wand and the morning hits that point where everything shimmers we will no longer be an image pressed onto the window, but part of the entire landscape. Just the words, not our faces. If we're lucky. It's something to strive for anyway. If I can stop thinking about my jowls long enough to write something with elegant virtuosity, or eloquent virtuosity. I can't remember the phrase -- not writerly, but written in a genuine and honest voice.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Unfinished Symphony of Augury

A mazurka of birds casts shadows on the snow. The cat’s tail swings in a half-hearted quarter time. I sink into the background, doing my best to disappear in the open score of January, to erase with the syncopation of bleak days. Yesterday, the word “peace” spelled itself out in shadow across the road. Who knows how long it will last – probably a few more days when the municipality decides that the holiday season has wrung out its final arpeggio. With yesterday’s events the word peace felt like augury. Our chimney smoke draws itself along the neighbor’s page of yard. I’m not sure if it’s God that makes a red barn cast a blue shadow in January, but it sure is a complex and beautiful symphony.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pop Quiz

My daughter and I discuss an upcoming trip, and I explain the itinerary and switchover at the airport. "We might have to run a little to catch the next plane. I'm not sure. I have to check. Hope we don't miss it." My insecurity is obvious. "Ha, ha! You're the one in charge. You have to get us there," she laughs. Many moons ago, I became a mother. I am the map, the guide, the latitude, the longitude, the compass, the clock, the necessitous, bulging, and often embarrassing luggage.

MapQuest does not get you to the right gate at the airport. It's a do-it-yourself operation. With any luck, you're not at O'Hare. Arriving at any destination for me is a combination of luck, pluck, intuition, and winging it. That is what I've been teaching. I should plan more, and pay attention to the details.

My daughter squeezes in a last minute study-session in the car on the way to school. "Mom, what's didactic?" I stumble around my morning brain. "Preachy. Well, poetry or stories that teach a lesson. Not necessarily negative, but sometimes. Like a speaker can be didactic. Yeah. I'm pretty sure that's it." I turn off the defroster, feeling pretty good about myself. "Ok, so what's a bildungsroman then?" Son of a. I haven't had coffee yet. "Sounds ancient, and faintly this a matching test? I hope for your sake it is."

As soon as I get home I check the dictionary and find this:

/ˈbɪldʊŋzroʊˌmɑn; Ger. ˈbildʊŋksrɔˌmɑn/ [bil-doongz-roh-mahn;
Ger. beel-doongks-raw-mahn]
–noun, plural -mans, German. -ma⋅ne  /-ˌmɑnə/ [-mah-nuh]

a type of novel concerned with the education, development, and maturing of a young protagonist.

So it is ancient and faintly poopy! Parenting.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Day of Sounding and Resounding

I've heard Paul Dutton perform once when we were invited to give a couple of readings in Toronto and Ottawa. We were in the Victory Cafe, and Paul stood behind me on a bench and began reading a poem which was filled with a series of sounds that I couldn't believe were being created by a human. His was the most memorable reading of the evening. I don't remember what anyone else read, including myself - I remember Paul's marvelous and surprising utterances.

Yesterday I participated in a Soundsinging and Sound Poetry workshop with Paul. We organized a reading and workshop with him for the community at the studio, and we partnered with Wilkes University so he could give another reading through the Creative Writing Program. (It's tonight at 7 p.m. in Kirby Hall - be there if you can!)

Our Third Friday reading series has a cast of regulars, but there are always a few new people to visit. There was a good energy with the people in Paul's audience on Friday, and surely a few who were unsure what was going on exactly. A young newcomer and her mother shifted uncomfortably in their seats with the first sound poem. One of Paul's poems, titled "Um," starts with him shifting through his papers and saying "um," in a way that makes you think he's forgotten something, or lost his place. The tension builds between the performer and the audience as he continues to shift papers about and say "um, er..." and then you realize that this is part of the poem. It's perfect. Friends I spoke with afterward said that they felt themselves tensing up at first in the reading and then finally relaxing into all of the sound.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the workshop, but I knew what I hoped to gain from it - a better sense of what type of house my body is for sound. Paul started us off with a short talk on the physicality and mechanics of sound in the body, and how the body holds tensions and memories in the muscles. He led us through a long relaxation and deep breathing session, where we were all supine on the floor, with heavy limbs and sleepy eyes. This was probably the longest deep breathing exercise I have ever done, and it was completely relaxing. We didn't make any sounds using the larynx yet, just inhalation and exhalation. From that relaxed state, he encouraged us to get up when we were ready, find a place to stand (and we could also move around the room), and begin making sounds. The group split up and found places - one in a corner, one in the bathroom, I stood in my little office for awhile, a few stood in the front near the door. My first sounds were windy, and reminded me of the howling wind of my childhood bedroom at night, which made me cry a little in the imitation of it, and the surety of the memory, which was not an unhappy or scary one, but a kind of comfort and connection with nature that I miss now as an adult. Paul walked around the room. Other workshoppers were making rhythmic noises, and he encouraged us at times to move the sounds we were creating into other parts of the mouth, throat and head (earlier, he gave us a great visual of the mouth as a cave). I was at times aware of the others in the room, and at other times unaware of their sounds. Some of the sounds I made were primal, gutteral, monsterous - and I couldn't keep myself from moving my hands as I made them. The total sound in the room (when I was aware of it) had peaks and valleys I think. There was some laughter, but it was experimental. None of this felt weird to me at all. Before we broke for a long lunch (enough time to digest), we shared our experiences of the session.

The afternoon session included a more improvisational group effort, where we were encouraged to listen to one another, move about the room and create sound. My experience at first was a little more self-aware and awkward, but I eased into it. We finished the day with some group exercises, and a chant. Everyone left feeling energized. And they didn't leave, actually. Most of them came to the house to join us for dinner with Paul.

My friend Mischelle always surprises me, and last night was no exception. She played the piano as soon as we got into the house - some Beethoven sheet music I had on the rest. She's been to the house many times before and never touched the piano. I sat with her and we played duets, and she is such a good sight-reader that I begged her to play some Sondheim, which she did. I sang. When Paul arrived with Dan (and the ingredients for our dinner!) he sat down at the piano and played improvisational boogie woogie and blues. Bananafish (our bird) sang along. Another friend danced. The whole house was sonorous songlorious.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Food Memory for Dan

It was the year of the recurring earache, the year of the pink fluoride tablets, the year of the rental A-Frame, the year of hiding under the stairs, the year of wheat germ sneaked into morning cereal. It was also the year of the Not-to-Be-Forgotten Liver Dinner. Liver and onions. My father and mother enjoyed liver, and my sister and I, both young (I was seven and she was ten), hadn’t really had the opportunity to try it yet. While I played post office under the stairs or tidied my box house in the loft, my mother was working her secret machinations with liver in the kitchen. I wasn’t aware of it, and didn’t recognize the smell. When my father got home from work, we all sat down at the dinner table. Dad was probably tired, and really looking forward to the not-meatloaf, not-spaghetti meal. My memory is a little hazy here, and the story has been told a bunch of times. It’s one of those perennial family favorites, told with joyful gusto to every newcomer to our clan. The meal was served. I think I winced. I must have made a face, or grunted. I was told to try it anyway. I balked. The liver smelled funny. It was covered with wormy onions. My father’s face reddened. All he wanted was to enjoy a good meal, and his shaggy-haired second grader was ruining it. “Enough, Jenny. Try it.” I pierced a piece with my fork and put the liver to my lips. My sister suggested the “hold your breath” technique, which fueled dad’s furor. Holding my breath didn’t work. I could still taste and smell the liver’s metallic tinge, and I gagged. Then I cried. My crying made my sister cry. The sight of us crying, her frustrated husband, and all the hard work and preparation that went into a meal all gone to hell in a handbasket, made my mother cry. There were all of my father’s girls, crying in front of plates full of cold liver. I don’t remember if dad finished his meal. I know I didn’t.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Word List

While looking at the all-forgiving snow floating in sun and onto the ground today, I wondered how many words I really know. What is my total vocabulary? I started to list the words beginning with the letter A in the notebook I keep in my pocketbook, then I realized I need the OED (which I have, thanks to Dan!), to make sure I don't miss any. Not that I expect to have a really impressive list by any means, but I want to make sure that I don't cheat myself either. I have a bad memory. Today I begin my list of words in my working vocabulary. There will be two parts to this list: words I know, and words I know and use. Who knows how long it will take - maybe two days - maybe two years? I'll let you know the outcome. I expect it to be humbling.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fortieth Birthday Parade

She closed her eyes, chewed on her fork, and imagined two small poodles walking on their hind legs. Each wore a pink sequined hat and a little matching bow tie. Walking on back legs made their front legs dangle like gloves on a clothesline. Would they be able to keep up if they led everything? Would it be humane? Probably not. Someone would have to whisk them away after the first few steps. What would follow after the poodles was harder to imagine, but the cast appeared -- 80’s hair bands. Duran Duran. Flock of Seagulls. The old guy who rode his aluminum foiled bike down Main Street every day to collect recycling should make an appearance, and also the one who wore a bike helmet to walk around town. No politicians, no clowns, no causes. Then her float, covered in middle-school dance tissue paper flowers, soap bubbles lifting from its cushioned surface. The parade would be over as quickly as it began, a metaphor for life’s pomp and circumstance. Perfect. She’d wear a tiara and those white patent leather shoes she always wanted as a kid. Her husband and teenage daughter would probably stay home. There would be no crowd. Any spectators would be the elderly neighbors who just happened to be sitting out on their porches that morning. It would take place in an alley, and pass by the backs of bars and their beer-stained carpets. The township wouldn’t notice, so there would be no reason to ask permission to close off a street. She’d wave and pop bubbles. She’d curl her toes in those shoes.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Flappy Gnu Rear! A List (ordered by whim) for 2009

1. Don't be a lazy writer, be a scrupulous one.
2. Take a class in something you're interested in that isn't related to writing.
3. Take a class in something that is writing related, but not poetry.
4. Collaborate with someone who scares you a little.
5. Take more walks in the woods.
6. Be honest in your writing.
7. Sing more.
8. Be more patient. This includes patience with your own writing/reading cycles. However, you need to finish two projects this year, and you know which two those are.*
9. Don't be afraid to say no. You can't do everything.
10. More risk taking. Don't be afraid to say yes, either.
11. Travel and visit far-flung relatives.
12. Work out a better submission/pub schedule.
13. Resume driving lessons with Helen.
14. Help Helen with her portfolio for college.
15. Blog when you feel like it, but not when you don't.
16. Write every single day, even if it's complete drek. The drek doesn't need to be shared.
17. Read more.
18. Do more work with seniors and memoir.
19. Exercise.
20. Put a door in the back room that leads out to the patio.
21. Spend more time with friends.
22. Work on the garden.

* I am not good at being patient.