Poetry, Politics and Hell

Critics note that in the Homeric narrative, Ulysses’ original mariners are dead. A significant irony therefore develops from Ulysses’ speech to his sailors—”Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (56–57). Since Dante’s Ulisse has already undertaken this voyage and recounts it in the Inferno, Ulysses’ entire monologue can be envisioned as his recollection while situated in Hell. —Wikipedia

 

Everyone has a song. Upon hearing it, we declare our possession with pride, recite the lyrics like a religious mantra and exchange knowing looks with those for whom our song is our song. We cobble together a soundtrack of identity, connecting our inner lives to a moment in time, our culture, our history and the human spirit itself.

 

Few people have poems. “No one actually reads poetry anymore.” When my undergraduate Classical Studies professor made this dubious assertion, several of us came over our desks at him in protest. We read poetry. We were not no one. He grinned like the Cheshire Cat and uttered his trademark guffaw. “You read poetry?” We eagerly awaited his praise. “You are not normal.” After class, he accepted our invitation to serve as Master of our residential college and presided over years of bacchanalia and poetry readings.

 

I knew I wasn’t normal. My family wasn’t normal. From my first days, my mother read me poetry from an anthology originally owned by my grandfather. Given its fragile condition, I surmise it was the same book from which he had read to my mother. My grandmother was not well educated but made up for it with an aesthetic sensibility so refined it’s impossible to believe she was born into a family of sharecroppers. My grandfather was the intellectual, though most likely an autodidact. He made my mother memorize poems, learn Greek myths, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, practice the works of classical composers (for which she was rewarded a collection of small marble busts) and study art history – all before the age of 14. She in turn sought to cultivate her own children. We had Longfellow and Keats instead of picture books and cartoons.

 

My mother grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois. I know little about my grandfather, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. There is a photo of him taken at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The rest is apocryphal. After a stint as a Prohibition bootlegger, he oversaw the local ammunition factory during WWII. There he hired the first African American foreman, causing some controversy to which he responded by inviting said foreman’s family to dine at his home. He bought the first television set in town and invited neighbors over to watch boxing matches. He drank, had mistresses, forbade the children from crying and impaled my mother’s seat at the dining room table with a knife. For her posture. The pistol-size cubbyhole mounted under the dining room table was not apocryphal; my brother and I used it in our childhood games. My grandfather was elected to City Hall and active in the Civil Rights movement. After his death in 1963, my mother was so distraught she was sent to live with “family” halfway across the country in New York. In Hell’s Kitchen. I have no relatives in New York.

 

Decades later, my grandmother would schlep us around her small town, introducing us as “Mr. Ladd’s grandchildren.” Old women fawned in adoration. It felt surreal to me that they’d known him but I never would. They’d say something about “everything he did for our fine city” which was a small town and not a city and ask us with intrigue if we knew that he had ridden in the very same car as President Kennedy? We knew. And did we know what an honor that was? Yes, we understood. Our grandfather had been involved in John F. Kennedy’s campaign. A framed letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, expressing condolences and gratitude to our family after the death of my grandfather, hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. You’d have thought my grandfather and John F. Kennedy were best pals. It was a small town.

 

The early death of my mother and inevitable passing of my grandmother dissolved any connection I had to that town. My grandfather’s mystique dissolved as well when, propelled by rabble-rousing idealism and a desire to be part of something greater than myself, I found politics as an adult. Of course a popular Irish Democrat who made his name as a bootlegger and held elected office in a key state had chipped in for Kennedy. He’d met the candidate? I’ve met Barack Obama. Millions have. Professional etiquette dictates one acknowledge the death of a donor or delegate. It was most certainly a form letter with a stamped signature hanging on that wall. My foray into politics tarnished the cachet of my grandfather’s life. But something more meaningful replaced it.

 

“I know it’s silly and I know everyone hates what I do, but in some way I feel a connection to grandpa. I think he’d be proud of me,” I confessed to my brother. “We’re not a political family, Toscha. We’re a mafia family,” my brother replied, as if this were a more honorable option. “Same thing,” I joked.

 

We aren’t a mafia family. My mother never invited her Hell’s Kitchen “family” to visit us back home. My grandfather has been dead for over half a century. My stepfather’s grandfather was sent back to Sicily in the old days, but that scandal predates even my grandfather’s death. We’re not a political family either. We’re not any kind of family at all really. Too many of us are dead. Too many of the rest only call when they’re in trouble, have had too much to drink, both, or another has died. That’s not a family. That’s hell.

 

Yet our patriarch’s presence looms over our lives like God looms over the faithful. We’ve never seen him, but we revere him and trust that he loves us unconditionally. It’s not unusual that he’s mentioned in conversation with my brother, and on this occasion it was in the context of my job. We were hosting the son of Robert F. Kennedy. “Bobby,” my mother had called him, like he was some sweet boy who lived right down the street. “Jay-Effing-Kay’s nephew,” I exaggeratedly impressed upon my brother, to which he replied in an affected old lady voice, “Did you know that your grandfather rode in the same car with President Kennedy?” We howled in unison with laughter. “Well, that’s cool.” I was anything but.

 

When Kennedy entered the pub, he strode right up to me. The man running the event swiftly grabbed him by the arm and walked him toward a group of retirees. I have no internal censor (likely the reason he was yanked from my presence) and yelled in Kennedy’s direction, “I have to talk to you!” Before taking the podium, he removed my purse from the chair at my side, sat down, leaned over, focused his blue eyes on mine and introduced himself. I viscerally registered that oh so this is the Kennedy thing happening now wow ok while he waited for me to express my position on Medicare for All or something. I leaned forward. “What I am about to say is obnoxious and presumptuous and you’ve heard it your whole life and it’s going to bore the hell out of you and I apologize for that, but I have to do this ok?” and I told him about my grandpa and everything his family had meant to mine. He endured it with grace. Before I could embarrass myself further, I changed the subject to the Cape, about which he was more eager to swoon. The man running the event saved me: “Hey Kennedy don’t you have like a speech to give or something?”

 

A friend took an empty seat across from mine and nodded accusatorily. “What?” “It’s true about the Kennedy men and pretty girls.” I clarified that I’d been doing the chasing and, despite the absence of a knife in my chair, sat up straight. After the meeting, I stayed to drink and talk shop. “What he said about Trump being the product of an uneducated electorate is true,” I said, gulping a martini. “You can’t say that in a stump speech!” a political advisor objected. “Well someone has to. Education isn’t just about jobs. It’s about creating an informed citizenry. No, not just informed – people are being bombarded with information – but capable of filtering and synthesizing all that information, otherwise voters will act from a position of fear, because that’s what ignorance breeds. Fear. Education opens minds, cultivates empathy, connects us to history and the whole fucking human condition. You need that stuff when making decisions that impact the lives of strangers.” I should have given the stump speech. “Why didn’t he mention his family?” someone asked. “Yeah. That was weird. I mean, he’s a real Kennedy,” another chimed in. “Right? I wanted him to talk about his dad. Like whoa what was that like?” yet another exclaimed animatedly. I shuddered.

 

The Kennedys aren’t normal either. Americans who would never read a celebrity gossip mag or watch TMZ will discuss with abandon the most gruesome and personal details of this family’s private lives and tragic deaths. They may be an actual family and are most certainly a political one, but our morbid curiosity about them must be its own kind of hell. I was surprised that these cynical political operatives wanted the juicy bits. This is Chicago. We do real politics, not Arthurian legends. Sure, I have a magnet of JFK on a boat and let people assume it is “ironic.” But we don’t want to live in a world where we are judged by our refrigerator art. Judge us instead by our poems.

 

I have poems. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” But seemingly from the beginning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

 

“Ulysses” is a well-known poem, referenced in everything from Frasier to the James Bond franchise. It’s so popular I wince to admit it is my poem. It’s like declaring “Imagine” your song. It’s a good song. And a Miss America pageant answer. I don’t know how it came to be my poem. It is in the Bedford Introduction to Literature I purchased for high school AP English. Marginalia suggests I wrote a class paper on it. In college I posted To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought along with a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and specimens of ironic and erotic art on the door of my Northwestern dormroom. When a long-term relationship collapsed in my 30’s, I wrote Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows on a large scrap of paper and taped it to a wall while listening to Cher. Less publicly but no less ostentatiously, in private moments of success or defeat, I’ve opened the AP English book, its spine having broken at the poem after decades of use, and read aloud, hardly glancing at the pages but gripping them for dear life, tears streaming down my cheeks and the tip of my nose as I reach the crescendo, Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

A few days after the meeting, I went to the library to pick up a book on jazz. Becoming a jazz aficionado was my New Year’s resolution; it seemed more achievable than eradicating fascism. While there, I scanned the shelves for the new Hillary Clinton book and found a series of Kennedy bios instead. “Like whoa what was that like?” echoed in my head. No. Don’t. Using the excuse that I’d promised my stepfather to read more history, I randomly clutched a Kennedy bio and scurried off. Feeling self-conscious, I grabbed one about Peggy Guggenheim too so the woman at the circulation desk would just think I was really into biographies. I got home and skimmed the Kennedy book. The political history I mostly already knew. The private lives were none of my business. But the motif of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” stopped me in my path.

 

My poem was their poem.

 

I’ve never given thought to how it became mine. I just assumed it came to me as poems do: by serendipity or comparative literature courses. I was now confronted with the possibility that I’d inherited it along with the apocryphal stories and literary tendencies of my grandfather. Or worse, I heard it on TV. We weren’t a family who spent evenings in front of the boob tube, but we did eat our dinners with C-Span on in the other room. I was a child when Ted Kennedy gave his famous “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech, which like those of his brothers, borrowed from “Ulysses.” But I was a precocious child. I remember trying to divine the sadness and anger that fell upon our household when Reagan was elected. That I may be less a discriminating consumer of classical literature than an indiscriminate consumer of political rhetoric haunted me. As did the fact that this realization followed the arc of my conversion from librarian to politico. It was too tidy. Too poetic.

 

Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone so bold as to believe their ambition nothing less than heroic, should be drawn to this story of Ulysses. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone born to a romantic, thrill-seeking, stubborn brood, should be drawn to this tale of doomed but glamorous adventure. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who refuses to hang up their sword after enduring unknowable loss, should be drawn to this ode to perseverance. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone whose family history is as much legend as truth, should be drawn to this humanizing of the mythic. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone immersed the terrible world of politics, should know the value of pure oratorical gold. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who has a poem, should have “Ulysses.”

 

Of course, I may very well have discovered the poem in AP English. Let us not discount the power of formal education, not after my moving speech at the pub! I may owe this debt of gratitude to Mrs. Votoupal at Marquette Catholic High School. Or I may owe it to Ted Kennedy. Or I may owe it to my grandfather. I will never know. And as it was for Ulysses, the unknowable is hell.

 

 

 

 

 

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Yesses. August 13, 2017.

“By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” ― E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

 

My devoted and quirky giant tuxedo cat, Oscar. The grace of a great blue heron taking flight. The enchanting arrival of a snowy owl on a winter day. The majesty of a red-tailed hawk swooping low overhead. The breath caught when coming upon a deer in the woods. The respectful nods exchanged when passing a coyote on a dark city street. That humans and animals, and animals and animals, form emotional bonds with one another.

 

Finding people waiting for you on the platform when you disembark a train. The unexpected arrival of a lengthy hand-written letter. Acquaintances with heads full of knowledge generously shared and who remain curious into old age. Thank You and Please and Excuse Me and I’m Sorry. The old world etiquette of never showing up to someone’s home without a gift of wine or chocolate or flowers. The ease with which you make friends when you travel. The endurance of a friendship you can set aside for a decade and pick up where you left off as if only days had passed.

 

The fearlessness and camaraderie city living cultivates. The gritty noirish hue Chicago’s sulfur streetlights cast on the night. The 24-7 street life and fossilized Jazz Age buildings of Uptown. The spic-and span glamor of the Gold Coast. State Street decked out and bustling at Christmastime. Miller’s Pub. The Green Mill. Merz Apothecary. Chinatown shops full of mystery candies and Hello Kitty pencil sets. The elevator operator in the Fine Arts Building. Escaping from the world at the Art Institute and humming the Ferris Bueller song when you look at the Seurat. The view of downtown Chicago from Lake Shore Drive that always induces child-like awe. The view of Lake Michigan from Montrose Point that clears your mind of worldly preoccupations.

 

The first warm day after a long winter when everyone leaves their homes like released hostages, mesmerized by the thawing rays of sun on their skin and the vivid colors of the natural world. The first firefly of the season. The late summer dirge sung by a chorus of cicadas. Autumn harvest festivals that echo ancient traditions beneath their façades of epicurean hoedown amusements. Sweater weather. Charlie Brown weather. October. Children dressed like the goblins they are. Pilgrim weather. The warmth of Thanksgiving dinner. The dance the Peanuts kids do and you do too when you hear that song. Christmas carolers. Real Christmas trees. The quiet that descends upon the city after a heavy snowfall. The way snow looks like diamonds in the moonlight.

 

The cinematic suspense of watching a storm approach from a Midwestern farmhouse or from a North Atlantic cape. Early morning spectral fog. Early evening sunlight filtered through leaves- komorebi. The seductive smell of decaying leaves and mud and moss. Fall foliage and limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River. The way barren winter trees look like haunted calligraphy. Ravens. That there is a lake on the bottom of the ocean floor. That there are places on Earth completely uninhabited by humans. That there are humans living in space.

 

Being able to fly in your dreams. Returning to places in dreams you’ve only ever been to in other dreams. The way when you swim in the ocean you feel the waves again when you lie down to sleep. Sleeping with the windows open to a cool breeze. Sleeping until you wake up naturally. Mid-afternoon baths on weekdays. Slipping into crisp white cotton sheets still warm from the dryer. Mornings when you awake feeling gloriously relaxed and bathed in love. A full body, cat-like stretch. A scalp massage. The shiver down your spine when someone whispers in your ear. Exhilarating sex.

 

The way the bodies of men in cowboy boots move. Riding a motorcycle down county roads and going to biker bars. The petty criminal atmosphere and funnel cake aroma of carnivals. Skinny-dipping. Hitchhiking on a New Jersey back road in the middle of the night and surviving it. The devil-may-care catharsis of crying on a public bus. Campari sodas on long summer nights. A day of sweaty manual labor followed by beers and classic rock. Dive bars. Guys who smoke cigarettes outside of dive bars. Men who fly you to strange cities.

 

Moscow. Paris. New York. Hanging out in the lobbies and bars of posh hotels you’re not staying in. La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that nothing bad can happen at Tiffany’s. Grand Central Station. Waterfront property. Meeting Mary Oliver and her dog on a beach in Provincetown. Being carried along a bank of the Seine by a beautiful man. Falling asleep under the Eiffel Tower. Montmartre. Patisseries and boulangeries and brasseries. Street musicians. Terrace cafes in public plazas. Georgian feasts and toasts. A troika ride across the Russian winter steppe. The mystical pulse under the Russian soil that I think just made up but absolutely believe in. Banyas. Orthodox icons. Catholic goth and ostentation. The blue mosques of Islam.

 

Yves Klein blue. Post-impressionism. Abstract art. Miro. Modernism. Art Deco. Ostalgie. Constructivism. Symbolism. Russian ballet. Bob Fosse choreography. The Costume Institute at the Met. Satin ribbons and miniature perfumes. 1920’s drop-waist dresses. The September issue of Vogue. A man in a well-tailored suit. Palazzo pants. Sunglasses. Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My grandmother’s cat-eye glasses and red lipstick. Black turtleneck sweaters and never out of style trench coats. Calvin Klein minimalism.

 

Sunflowers in blue pitchers. Vases of pale peonies the color of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Fresh cut flowers on the breakfast table. Literally stopping to smell the roses. Formal public gardens full of people minding their own business. Lilac bushes in their ephemeral bloom. The honeysuckle trees that lined my grandmother’s yard. Cars with Christmas trees strapped to their roofs. That sensible modern people bring entire trees into their homes all pagan-like. Vetiver. Sandalwood. Patchouli. Eucalyptus branches hung in the shower. Lavender used in food and drink.

 

An expertly made martini. A Casino Royale vesper. A G&T with elderflower. Freshly chopped herbs and the aromatic stains they leave on your fingertips. Bowls of lemons. Calhoun County peaches from roadside stands. Homemade apple butter. Beach plum jelly. Hibiscus sorbet. Saffron bastani. Zanzibar chocolate ice cream. Jean-Yves Martin’s croissants and Picasso’s Coffee cappuccinos. McDonald’s French fries. 99 cent slices of pizza in Midtown Manhattan. Jewish food. Borshch. Homemade soup and crusty bread. Making crepes for Pancake Day. Blueberry pancakes at the old Lincoln Inn. My grandmother’s latticed blueberry pie. My mother’s peach cobbler. The bowl of spaghetti my mother always made for me when I was out of sorts. Family recipes.

 

Communal meal preparation. Homes where the kitchen is the central gathering place. Sun filled rooms with high ceilings. Built-in bookshelves. Blue and white china. Cloth napkins. Mismatched antique furniture. Down comforters. Deep claw-foot bathtubs. Black and white tile. Secret staircases. Shoe boxes containing small objects of sentimental value. Old photo albums. Apocryphal family stories. Finding the forgotten cemeteries in the woods where your ancestors settled.

 

Ghost stories. Russian novels. The spare, poignant observations of Capote, Modiano and Hrabal. Red leather notebooks. Colored pens. Wood-paneled library reading rooms. Ephemera found in old books: a pressed rose, a late 1930s Austrian train ticket, a pre-revolutionary Russian leaflet… Poems you return to in times of strife or exaltation: Oliver, Whitman, Mayakovsky, Tennyson… The book you can’t put down. The book your mind picks up. The movies you’ve seen a hundred times and mouth the lines to while you watch them. PBS. British murder mysteries and Merchant & Ivory films. Woody Allen films. Going to the movie theater alone.

 

Going on day trips with sassy great-aunts. Unsolicited glances of approval or mischief from old ladies. Smart, courageous women who make you stand up and applaud. Living long enough to know what you need and what is not worth it. The day you realize the world won’t end if you say or do something shocking. An innocuous observation that forever changes the way you think of something. Tipsy-headed, impassioned political debates. The adrenaline rush of a bustling political campaign office. Winning.

 

My mother’s record collection. My grandfather’s Dvorak album. Mozart’s violin concertos. Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” Post-punk and New Wave and 80’s dance pop. Dancing to the radio when no one is home. Listening to opera or soul music while cooking. Listening to Kind of Blue in the wee hours and Time Out on dreary days and Vince Guaraldi when leaves begin to fall. Practiced notes wafting from the music school behind your building. The typewriterly tapping of rain on a roof. The clanging of sailboats in a harbor. The sound of a train in the distance. The faint snores of a sleeping cat.

 

Love.

 

 

 

 

Adult Content and Contentment

a sociological explanation…

After repeated commendations from critic and author Jessa Crispin, I recently read Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Despite the mortifying title and cover art, it’s a compellingly argued treatise on the many ways in which capitalism, feminism and technology, by addressing pre-modern power imbalances between men and women, have unwittingly created new ones that may be no more conducive to happiness than the systems they’ve replaced. It’s not a condemnation of the progress that has been made so much as a sober examination of that which remains. The book surveys heterosexual, middle-class Western courtship codes, critiques contemporary economic, psychological, biological explanations for human behavior and draws heavily upon literary sources, from Roman de la Rose to Austen’s Regency novels, from Madame Bovary to Bridget Jones. While some find fault with casting a net of research so wide, doing so illustrates the ephemerality and malleability of behaviors we often attribute to innate gender differences. Withholding moral judgment, analyzing romantic decisions through the contexts in which they are taken aka “the architecture of choice” and presenting the frequently unsatisfactory results with Chekhovian pathos, Illouz offers a smart alternative to the narcissism or oversimplification of pop-psychology. The result is a cool, informative discussion of a topic typically relegated, at least on bookstore shelves, to mediocrity and predation.

Illouz’s argument resists distillation, but here goes. Capitalism, feminism and technology have given women and men more economic, sexual and experiential freedom than ever. And freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose… Many of her observations are enlightening in their perspective. For example, when smitten men pursued women in olden days it was interpreted as nobility of character, morally transcendent and even the socially responsible thing to do, yet when women do it now men fear it is evidence of a toxic, peculiarly feminine neediness. Illouz’s explanation for this new form of sexism is impressively non-judgmental. She also deconstructs how and why we have come to interpret reciprocated love as a measure of self-worth, an apparently modern idea that would have baffled the lovelorn of yore. Gender roles have always been oppressive, and love has always involved suffering. But as a friend lamented about living in contemporary Moscow, “At least in the bad old days you knew what to expect.”

I take issue with Illouz’s assertion that modern women disproportionately value commitment because they are starting families later and have a smaller window of fertility and hotness than men. Why is commitment to another person as an illustration of respect and maturity not considered outside the realm of parenting? Expectations of commitment are alive and well in other spheres of life. We maintain roles of mutual support in dealings with family and friends. We don’t show up to work on an as-fits-our-schedule basis. And the Dickensian ruthlessness with which student loan repayments are required suggests the Devil himself expects an 18 year old boy to be a man of his word. To bail on even casual acquaintances is considered poor form. Codes of dependability appear, in Illouz’s observations, singularly inconsequential to those with whom we are most intimate and vulnerable. This is bizarre to me. And I don’t even go in for marriage.

Women: Where is their there there?

Illouz’s book reminds us that it remains surprisingly radical for women to forego the roles of mother and wife and to be taken at their word when they do so. The unmarried mother has become almost ubiquitously socially acceptable in the U.S. Married women who remain childless, if equally “tragic,” are increasingly common. A woman who desires neither husband nor child is looked upon with suspicion and confusion, like there’s no there there. I want to understand why. The presumption that women are, zombie-like, compelled bear children is as reductive as the presumption that men are, zombie-like, compelled to spread their seed. Like those of most men, most women’s bodies are designed to procreate. They are also designed to begin deteriorating at a certain age, but it would be absurd to suggest that ergo we must secretly want our teeth to fall out and hips to shatter. There is nothing defective in not desiring parenthood any more than free will is a defect. Marriage? It is a legal contract, a strange thing to be biologically predisposed to.

A common refrain about childless singles is that they seek to evade adult responsibility and perpetuate a state of selfish infantilism. Yet adulthood comes with endless responsibilities, most of which are not optional. The accusation of selfish infantilism is either creepily Freudian or inaccurately conflates the experience of childhood with that of being spoiled. Perhaps it is not adulthood one attempts to evade by clinging to autonomy, but its antithesis. Perhaps perpetual infancy isn’t sought so much as interrupted. A male acquaintance commiserated with my confession that as a kid I couldn’t wait to become an adult: “I wanted to grow up so people would stop talking to me like I am a child and show me some respect,” he said. I shook my head in frustration and replied, “But I am a woman. People still talk to me like I am a child.”

The revival of Twin Peaks got me thinking about the social anxiety womanhood produces. When it originally aired, I watched it religiously. It was the epitome of cool. The music. The clothes. The camp. I had friends over for viewing parties, drank coffee, ate pie, the whole thing. I dressed like Audrey Horne, taught myself to tie a cherry stem in my mouth and fell asleep listening to Julee Cruise tapes. In hindsight, I suspect I must have appreciated the way young women were portrayed as adults, not just through their sexuality, but their composure, sophistication, secrets, pasts, autonomy and power. The teens in Twin Peaks sat at the adult table. But as the series confirmed, young women doing adult things is problematic, even dangerous. You should have seen the look on my mother’s face when I finally got the cherry stem in a knot. Precocious girls induce anxiety because they mature too quickly. Precocious women induce anxiety because they mature too slowly. By mature, we mean become a mother.
Continue reading

The Maltese Courtyard: Cultivating a Garden of Earthly Delights

Contents: Not terribly safe for work but much too long for you to read on the job anyway. Can however be read in the vicinity of your wife.

I’ve seen much written recently, among the journalism, cultural criticism and literary milieux, on the topic of pornography. On the rapid decline of the industry as the internet is inundated by amateur contributions. On its disturbing use as a modality in sex education for young adults in Britain. Informative “it’s a job” accounts from women neither expressly ashamed nor naive about their work. Manifestoes asserting its culpability in the rise of bad sex between couples. Zombie debates among feminists attempting to appraise its moral value once and for all. Creative non-fiction seeking to identify the locus of the genre vis-à-vis erotica. Musing essays on unidentified muses.

I’ve noted its increasing appearance in casual conversation in an era when data privacy, security, access and profitability are the stuff of dinner party-talk. It also feels like an elephant in the proverbial room into which we as a nation forced to choose our next President have been locked, a metaphor for the spectacle we watch day in and out, leaving us feeling collectively ashamed but captivated by the obscenity. Or worse, verbatim reportage from the campaign trail. In more intimate arenas, I, a comfortably sex-positive woman, don’t get far into conversations with men before the subject arises. Usually his opinion as expressed to me hovers between, “Yeah. But it’s lame,” and “Never. It is degrading to women.” Continue reading

Prekrasny Diletant

Vice

My approach to music resembles my approach to booze: I know what I like and what gives me a headache, and I never cook without it. I can get loose-limbed on Charles Shaw, and I can send back a poorly made cocktail. Twice if need be. I have high standards and prosaic pleasures.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music recently, and I keep coming back to my peculiar relationship to it as a field of interest. When I am passionate about something, I usually want to know everything about it, analyze it, be able to craft informed critique, flaunt my discriminating taste and flash my repertoire of knowledge. I want to preface proclamations about it with the word “actually.” I can be a pretty impossible person to be around at times. But I am content to listen to the music I love with willful abandon, sometimes never even asking its name.

I know I’m not a music snob because I know a lot of music snobs. People who are opera singers, who run classical record labels, who DJ at hipster stations, who hang out at the local record store for fun and who go to all those gigs where some band you’ve never heard of killed it. When I think of people who are music snobs, I think of people who know what’s on the liner notes, who have season tickets to the symphony or, hell, who actually buy music. This is not me. Jim DeRogatis is not a person with whom I feel I could ever have an informed conversation, though I can easily hold my own on just about any other art form, even if it requires a good deal of improvisation and charming admissions of ignorance about a particular figure. Though I have remained curious and even a bit snooty about music, my investment in it has always been visceral rather than intellectual.

It’s not just my investment. It’s my addiction. I cannot not function without it. I visit friends or family, wine and conversation flow, food is prepared, laughter fills a room, and if music is playing I think, “This, this is life. This is the answer to the question, ‘Why?'” If no music is playing, I am perplexed, and over the course of the evening I convince myself my hosts are aliens or psychopaths who didn’t get the memo that in order to pass as human you have to listen to music. Because that’s what human souls need. By the end of the night I’m having a psychotic break like a tormented Twilight Zone character and don’t feel safe until I am home. I listen to music to celebrate, yes, but to motivate, to rage, to calm… Routinely to complete the mise-en-scene of my life, which is sometimes the only part of it one has control over.

Saintly Relics

I’ve often read that scent is the sense most evocative of memory. After my mother died, I purchased a bottle of the Oscar de la Renta perfume she wore when I was a child, when she’d come home from a night on the town and the cold night air would carry her scent through the opened door, announcing her arrival moments before I saw her, looking as beautiful as Sophia Loren, swooping us into her intoxicating arms.

Sometimes I still open the bottle and remember her like that. More often, I listen to her music. Like all children, before I had my music, I had my mother’s. Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, The Mamas & The Papas, The Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hair, The Doors, The Dead. It’s the Motown music I associate most with my early childhood, my parents cranking up the car radio while I nodded off in the backseat, their nostalgia lending already soulful music the haunting allure of a bygone-era. I looked up at the stars and imagined a time when everyone ironed their shirts and had velvety voices and slicked back black hair. And Hair. But Hair wasn’t played on the radio back then.

Then there was my paternal grandmother, who taught me to waltz to a scratchy old record compilation of classical compositions like “Humoresque,” “Greensleeves” and “Claire de Lune.” And my maternal grandmother, who watched the The Grand Ole Opry and had us kids listening to Johnny Cash every night such that he may as well have been a family member, a grandfather whom I never met. And my older cousin playing Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt on sunny summer afternoons when her good-for-nothing husband was out of the house. If you searched my playlists today, you’d find all these artists somewhere. Not entirely because I adore their music, but because they connect me to people I no longer have. Because people pass through our lives and their signature scents get discontinued, but their music does not.

Communion

We got cable TV when I was a kid, right around the time the first video killed a radio star. Continue reading