Achoo!





Barbra Streisand raising fingers like cat claws.

Wandering wind—

Winter sun, savage dancer.

Cedar, I hate you.




Well, darlings— it’s mountain cedar season here in South Texas, so I feel like I’m breathing chunky-style soup. And you know what that means— that air-soup is just full of my favorite condiment: allergens. Stupid allergens!

Do you have year-round or seasonal allergies? What’s the best non-medical thing you do for yourself and your loved ones if somebody gets super allergy sick at your house?




ALAS, ALLERGIES. I KNEW THEE WELL. The Condiments of my Childhood

*DUDE, THAT IS SO NOT A REAL HAIKU: This poem is a real haiku. Sort of.

Remembering Mr. Goodman



Stylish shot of an American Flag over a 1940s Army Base.




On the last warm morning of autumn in South Texas, five dozen friends and family gathered in the heat to pay true homage to the beloved Mr. Goodman. Under the shade of Fort —— Cemetery sat women with ankles crossed in their good dresses and the Goodman family. There were men standing at the back at parade rest in American Legion regalia and a gentleman shifting foot-to-foot in his work overalls. There was a baby kicking her silver shoes at her mother’s hip in the overflow crowd that stood out under the untroubled blue sky. To one side of the pavilion were several young men dressed in black or gray guayaberas with the plain stitching and those fine, tailored wool trousers that look so right with polished spectators. Those young men held their hands over their eyes, glancing over at the small, discreet box that held the remains of Tío Goodman.

We were there too— my stepfather was sweating genteelly in his chalk stripe suit coat as he stood next to my mother, who shifted from heel to heel in her low dress shoes. My mother’s soft right hand rested at her side close to my blunt fingered left hand that was busily clutching and unclutching a Kleenex against my black funeral dress. At exactly 10:30, the Ft. — liaison made a path for two members of the honor guard, a young Army man and a representative from the Navy, who unfolded and refolded the flag using the sharp, austere arm movements that give military funerals their sweet and heavy gravitas.




Crewman of an M3 tank looking heroically off in the distance.




But when they presented the perfectly folded flag, a flag smoothed into slow, deliberate creases by the young Army private and offered, with a respectful flourish, to Mr. Goodman’s oldest son, (who took the flag in hand and bowed his head by way of thanks), my eyes welled with a shock of tears— I was going to miss Mr. Goodman. You see, I grew up next door to the Goodmans and their already grown sons; it was Mr. Goodman who taught me how to play pool and how to tell a joke, who showed me—by example, year after year—how a decorated retired military man can also be a good family man, a fine neighbor, a loyal friend, a gentle soul at ease with his own company.

In the middle of last summer, I spoke with Mr. Goodman one day. He was seated in his wheelchair in the sun of his front yard where he was left outside for a moment to enjoy the sun and the day. I was in the old neighborhood to feed our feral cat colony when he called me over in a clear voice, neither low, nor high, not murky with pain, not clouded with age. I set the cat food bag down. walked the short space between the houses. He reached out to shake my hand, but I took his hand in both of my hands and held it, and we joked for half an hour as if it were any hour from the last three decades. If he was hurting, he didn’t show it. If he was tired, I couldn’t see it. Mr. Goodman maintained the talent of always being Mr. Goodman in any season— he was respected and admired universally for this truly rare quality.




An African-American WW II soldier repairs a truck in a color photo.



Truthfully, Mr. Goodman was a popular fellow with his friends and neighbors for decades; he adored his wife and loved his sons fiercely; he had one especially bright expression he reserved for his lithe, tall granddaughter, and another wide grin that he saved for his compadres at the American Legion. But when I think of Mr. Goodman, I see a man with a garden hose in one hand watering his hedge, wearing a gleam in the dark iris of his eye, ready with a joke, an easy rib, a funny story that he’d start while you strode across the grass of his perfectly-edged front lawn: His hands, neatly manicured; his military tattoo, blurred; the face of his wristwatch glinting, always glinting in the sunlight.

After the presentation of the flag to the eldest son, the Fort — Cemetery liaison directed us to turn to face the seven-member Honor Guard for a three-volley salute, and the somber party stood as one to observe the young servicemen presenting their arms on a cue from the superior officer commanding them from their right side. My mind wandered to the obituary on Mr. Goodman from last Sunday’s newspaper. The short piece featured a picture of him I’d never seen before: Mr. Goodman sits on the steps of the uncovered back stoop of a freshly shingled white house. He holds a baby deer on his lap, encircling it with his gentle arms; his face is alight as it always would be, his eyes intent on whomever is taking the photograph— he is so very heartbreakingly young. The fawn in his arms looks sleepy and unafraid and the light is high over both of them in this early afternoon image snapped just one second before forever.



A noise startled me; I came back to the now where the young honor guard, as young as the Mr. Goodman from the photograph in the paper, raised their rifles, notched the gleaming wood stock butts of their weapons to the inside nook of their youthful shoulders, and fired three times in succession into the blue light of an early Tuesday morning. The honor guard trumpet player blew the first few notes of “Taps”; a mockingbird atop a beam inside Pavilion No. 3 sang a sweet counterpoint. Some of the men cried; some of the women cried, but all of us did so in silence. Mr. Goodman was a member of the famed 36th division, serving four years overseas during WWII plus many more stateside after the war with the National Guard. He was a union carpenter like his father before him. He was a parent, a son, a neighbor, a friend, a natural man. Samuel Xavier Goodman, aged 91, died in bed at home, peacefully, without pain.




M-3 tank, Ft. Knox, Ky



A BRIEF NOTE: The names of Mr. Goodman and his family have been changed in order to protect their privacy as well as my own. Thank you.

A Hydrography of Places I’ve Never Been

 





Hugo_Schnars-Alquist_-_Marinestück_(1906)



My eyes change color from blue to green to gray and back again. I say they change, but really, I’m not sure whether they actually change, or merely appear to change. And what causes the so-called change in my eyes’ color? Is it the light moving across an autumn day? Those storm clouds that rush up and over the hills into the city? The sweater you gave me on a whim?

 

Or is it nothing at all? A trick of the atmosphere, a heterogenic prank?

 

I do not know.




I’ve been told that my eyes are startling: I am appreciative of their colors and their shape, but most of all I am appreciative that I am able to see out of both of them. My eyesight in my right eye is incredibly weak. I am astigmatic in the extreme in both my right and left eyes: daylight stings my sight; overhead lighting burns. I had two early eye surgeries to correct an eye that loved to wander away to look at other things than what I had asked it to see. When I am tired, that same eye still slides just out of focus. I hide from cameras when I flag; I look away because I do not want anyone to know how my eye preoccupies itself when it—and I—are tired.

 

Before the surgeries, my eyes used to turn from green to blue to grey to amber. After the second surgery, my eyes never turned amber again. I missed those golden-eyed days the most: I was born in the Year of the Wood Tiger. I wanted to be able to pad through the fog-drowned forest like the endangered Xiamen tiger stalking her prey. Instead my eyes are the colors of the changeable South China Seai, not animal nor mineral but water, an element as chromatically supple as a winter sky.




To be honest, I don’t think about the color of my eyes that much, which is strange, because I am quite color obsessed— I think in color, dream in color, speak in color. When we moved to the house where we live now and were planning to paint the rooms, I kept trying to get The Husband to consider this color for the ceiling or that glossy tone for the wall just by looking at a swatch. Rooms in a sequence tell a story, I told him, one after the next— you need to know what story they’re telling. After all of my pestering, The Husband turned peevish and told me that not everyone can picture a wall in a different hue than the one it’s already got, and not everyone cares about color the same way you do. Sort out the color yourself, he said. Why can’t you remember people’s names the way you remember color?

 

I can hear your voice speaking to me as you reach out to shake my hand— your palm is soft, dry to the touch. I wipe my palm along my thigh to remove the sweat before raising my hand. Your hello is warm and low; the consonants of your name click against your teeth like cool counting beads. I can see your eye and your hand, but that is all.

 

Nevertheless, if you were to ask me about my office, I could tell you that the walls are painted what I call a 1950s Japanese-influenced French schoolroom gray. The ceiling of that same room is a hothouse fuchsia glazed with blood orange to give it that feel of Japanese lacquer made iridescent by time and age. The doors are walnut; the hardware actual aged brass. I look at your face again, your beautiful animated face. Alas, your name is gone. I cannot remember it. Why?

 

I am sorry—I do not know.




When I was a child, adults would sometimes ask me, with a hint of distrust in their voice, why my eyes were a different color than what they had remembered: Your eyes were green last week and they look blue now. What happened? My eyes change color, I would say, indifferently. My mother says they pick up the colors of my clothes. And then my mind would wander off, discarding the distrustful adult’s name in the ever-growing pile of lost names seated somewhere in the celestial reaches of my brain.

 

The distrust from these adults was the distrust that arises from questioning one’s own memory. The impoverished language comes from the shorthand we write about ourselves, a description erected on a frame of miserly surface qualities. When we’re not downgrading ourselves, we are wont to transfer this language on each other. You can say a woman is short and brunette and blue- or green- or gray-eyed— but who is she really? This is the bad fiction of the self.

 

Instead, say this: A man sits at the counter of a diner with slanting floors. A rain-drenched girl with changeable eyes and hardset shoulders comes through the door. The man turns to look at the soggy girl in the doorway; his smile opens up like an umbrella on a rainy night. He grins and he is all the umbrellas on all the rainy nights. The girl purposefully and nervously looks away from him; rain drips steadily from her hair onto the old black and white tiled floors. But the man has already done a terrible thing— he’s fallen in love at first sight with an ordinary, everyday girl he does not know. Yet.




Geneticists theorize that blue eyes came down from a single anomalous Neolithic human living near what is now Romania. Today, Eastern Europe is still a territory of mostly blue-eyed peoples, as is Ireland, as well as all of the countries that abut the Baltic Sea. My own forebearers walked down from the low mountains of one region and climbed out of the lowlands of another: Either way, I come from light-eyed people hungry for the sea. Yet I grew up inland with no taste for the smash of salt waves against the black rocks of the Baltic, nor any idée fixe of the sliding green swells of An Mhuir Cheilteachii. All the same, my face betrays me— I blink and illumined inside my eyes is a hydrography of places I have never been.

 

My heterochromatic grandfather changed his eye color one summer day at the age of four when he stabbed himself in the eyeball while cutting a watermelon. As a result, he had one blue eye and one green. This eye could see, the other could not. At the end of his life when he remembered us and nothing more, a hospital doctor told my mother and my grandmother that my grandfather could have saved the sight in the eye that had not seen anything since it saw a bright red watermelon and the point of a knife on a summer afternoon almost a century ago.

Why would you bring that up now? That’s the rhetorical question my family was too polite to point out. I would have said it. They know I would have said it, and that’s why they told me the story years later, when time had washed the name of the hospital doctor away from anyone’s memory. What was his name? I demanded. Who was this? My grandmother turned her head. She kept her grief in a secret locket inside her heart.

 

I do not know, she said, deliberating the words. I forget.




But I don’t forget. My eyes read blue. They read green. They read gray. I’ve been told that my eyes are unreadable. I’ve been told that my eyes are soulful. I’ve been told that my eyes terrify. I’ve been told that my eyes seduce. Men quote song titles to me: Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (Willie Nelson), Pale Blue Eyes (Velvet Underground), Behind Blue Eyes (The Who). Women ask if my eye color comes from colored contacts, and if so, where can they be bought? I don’t understand it. I’ve never understood it. When I look at my face in a mirror, I am not thinking of the way the light changes the color of my eyes— I am preoccupied with my ability to see anything at all out of them— these green eyes, these blue eyes, these gray eyes washed clear by the late morning light of a sea that I have not seen. Yet.




Max_Jensen_Großes_Marinestück




 

iAlso known as Nánhǎi in Mandarin. See Wikipedia’s entry for the South China Sea for more details.

 

iiThe Celtic Sea. See Wikipedia’s entry for The Celtic Sea for more details. To read more about the Irish language, which is part of the Gaelic grouping of languages, try Irish langauage on my favorite language site, Omniglot.  




IMPORTANT NOTE: The facts of this story originated from this Wikipedia entry on eye color, but were fact-checked using a variety of original sources.

Two Questions





Schlafende



Everywhere I’ve lived, every dingbat, carriage house, and squat, every artist’s studio and writer’s sublet, every house and every castle I built in my mind, I chose based on a yes to two questions:

Can I write here?

Can I sleep here?


And although I owned pots and hats and three chairs that boasted four legs; lamps and blankets and a broom and a mop, the only furniture I cared about were the pieces I used when I wrote or when I recovered from writing: the leather trunk from my great-grandfather that held all of my letters; a futon mattress so dense it carried me downriver to deep slumber; the formica table from my best friend’s grandmother’s house smelling of the soap and bleach with which she wiped its chipped surface; and The Hideous Floor Lamp from my grandmother (“Courtenay, here you go: A hideous floor lamp. I thought you’d love it.”) featuring a saucy 1920s glazed ceramic base and a British postbox red pole and a particularly golden light that puddled around me as I worked, covering my shoulders like a bright shawl, pooling cheerfully as I wrote each first draft in longhand on a legal pad, day after day, night after night.


A few months ago, a newly-published writer publicly opined, “There are too many writers trying to write professionally now!” Here, at home, sitting in my big black chair, I smiled behind my hand at this online confessed frustration, am still smiling behind my hand as I write you this letter, this missive, this little epistle on love and obsession and writing. I turn 39 this month; this year it will be 20 years on since I first started writing for pay. The newly-published writer had opined the wrong thing, I thought, at the time, and now. There can be as many writers as there are people in the world looking for work, and the only question worth asking is: Are any of them any good? Take the yeses and read their words— these will be like honey to you, like a meal, like music. Take the nos and read them too— there are as many songs as there are dancers. Always the bad dancers and the good. And when the time comes to take your turn, none of these other writers will come to mind— you will think of nothing more than you and the music and the darkness beyond the veil of the stage. And know that you, too, will be nothing but a memory to any writer reading your words now taking her turn about the stage.


…the only furniture I cared about were the pieces I used when I wrote or when I recovered from writing…


In the fall, I crave Big Language, so I go looking for The Heavyweights— T.S.Eliot, E.B. White, Jorge Luis Borges; The Magicians— Hilary Mantel, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Atwood; The Wolves— Vladimir Nabokov, Joan Didion, Truman Capote. I settle into a big chair with a light over me and a glass of iced water tinkling as it melts; I turn the flyleaf and the title page and the contents until my thumb lands on the top corner of page one. At night, as I fall asleep, my mind will fumble through phrases from what I’ve read that day, turning the words over and over as if to polish them, sinking me further into a dream state where language is like a forest that one can enter and leave, but from which one comes to understand there are more trees, more languages, more forests than there are writers, more ideas than there are books, and no one can map them all. The writer lives in this forest, and she visits the world— this is the choice she made and will have to make from whatever moment it was that she pledged her life to the written word.


I cannot not write: My hands twitch and move across an invisible keyboard. I narrate stories I have not written yet, telling them over and over, refining this passage and that, until they are fully written out before I’ve picked up a pen. And my mind is routinely reading back to itself what it has read before, sometimes years before, from this book and that poem and this dialogue and that bit of music— I listen to songs in part to enjoy the pleasure of words obviously set to melody instead of words’ implied melody; I listen to compositions in part to hear the music before the words that crowd my life attempt to unite music’s natural airy unspeakable with writing’s more earthy unsaid. My mind, you see, is rarely ever silent. Unless I pick up a drawing pencil or my camera, put on a pair of ghillies or sit down in front of a piano, I would never know the fullness of experiencing absolute silence.


The newly-published writer had opined the wrong thing, I thought.


Everywhere I’ve lived, I chose because I intended to write there. I chose this place or that because I liked the pecan trees or the nonagenarian landlady with her red lipstick or the way the light came through the overgrown ivy in the kitchen window, but the subtext of my admiration were the stories I imagined I would write because of the trees or the landlady or the overgrown ivy on the windows. I live in a house now, but nothing’s changed in how I choose— I wanted to live here because the house wears its roof like a jaunty cap and the wood paneling in the living room smells of books and those first crisp autumn afternoons. I continue to live here because this house is where I keep my language; this house is also where I sleep, and where I dream of new words.






A LITTLE ADDITIONAL PLEASURE FOR YOU TO EXPLORE: In the history of art up until very recently, depicting a woman reading could imply everything from something sensual to something political, but it always signifies a level of intimacy. To see what I mean, please check out Wikimedia Commons’ collection of “females reading in art.”

Get Me a Copy Editor!

 

How is it possible that Merriam-Webster published such a big mistake in their online dictionary?  Aren’t these folks the experts of word wrangling?

 

I guess not!

For your consideration, please review…

Exhibit A!



Obnoxious correction of Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

I need to show no further evidence, your honor—

Your, uh, excellency?

Ma’am?

I rest my case.

Sigh.

 

The Choice We Made

 
 
 
The Choice We Made
 
 
 

Today’s story word is “choice.”

 

As you look at this photograph, I am waking up at home for the first time after nine days on the road with my family.
 

I am in South Texas, walking down a morning hallway, muzzy-headed, but awake.
 

While I make coffee, I am thinking to myself: For every choice I have made, there is another choice I have left unmade, like a bed after a deep and thoughtful sleep.
 

What choice have you made today?

 

Take Your Adventure Where You Find It

 
 
 

20121220-215655.jpg
 
 
 

Today’s story word is “adventurer.”

 
 
 

Why do we love the idea of the adventurer so dearly? Do we have a positive word for people who don’t go out adventuring? What must an adventurer do to be known as an adventurer? Are you an adventurer?
 
 
 

***

 
 
 


*BLUEBIRD BLVD. will be writing ON THE ROAD all week. That means no limits, spotty WiFi, and a borrowed computer (because my computer, Mec the Mac, is in hospital with a serious hardware issue.)

What’s different than the usual besides all that? Well, we will be telling stories together all the way up to Xmas.

Because I believe that we are all telling stories in the dark.

 

A Different Direction Every Time

 
 
 
20121217-004540.jpg
 
 
 

Today’s story word is “directions.”

 
 

Although all places correspond to direct coordinates on a map, are there other kinds of directions one uses to find places both real and imaginary?

 
 
 

***

 
 
 


*BLUEBIRD BLVD. will be writing ON THE ROAD all week. That means no limits, spotty WiFi, and a borrowed computer (because my computer, Mec the Mac, is in hospital with a serious hardware issue.)
 

What’s different than the usual besides all that? Well, we will be telling stories together all the way up to Xmas.
 

Because I believe that we are all telling stories in the dark.

 

The Race Isn’t Finished Yet

 
 
 
The Race Isn't Finished
 
 
 

Today’s story word is “scenery.”

 
 

Is scenery real? Is it an idea? Is it both real and an idea?

 
 

***

 
 


*BLUEBIRD BLVD. will be writing ON THE ROAD all week. That means no limits, spotty WiFi, and a borrowed computer (because my computer, Mec the Mac, is in hospital with a serious hardware issue.)

What’s different than the usual besides all that? Well, we will be telling stories together all the way up to Xmas.

Because I believe that we are all telling stories in the dark.

Tell me more. I am leaning in. I am listening. More coffee? More tea?

Étude for Writers (No. 2)

 
 
 
Page Dancing
 
 
 

This morning, I am the only dancer on this quiet downtown street*.  My chin lifts to the wind that rushes ’round the corner of a high building.  The wind is always in such a hurry during the winter.

And so am I, in my way.
 
 
 

I walk.  My headphones pour music into my ears, giving a rhythm to my steps, to my heartbeat; to the pigeons that rise and fall, rise and fall from concrete to air with a great shudder; to the workmen furrowed over a crack in the asphalt; to the woman wreathed in parcels unlocking the door to her shop.

For twenty years, I have crowned my head with headphones, worn music about me like a silk dress, everywhere and anywhere.   This ritual of music and place is so threaded throughout my person that I do not know how to write without an inner ear turned toward the music of language, trained to hear the music of the day that will rise and fall, rise and fall, from sunup to sundown without ceasing.
 
 
 

I walk.   A poem begins to form in front of me in an incandescent bubble.  I watch the light catch soap and air, and I remain inwardly still while moving forward.  And gently, oh so gently, as I walk, I pull my notebook out of my knapsack to write down the mousseaux of words before it deflates, or floats away.

It has been twenty years, or more, since I first slipped on that revelation of headphones jacked to a Walkman.   I know there are other ways to be and to write, but what I speak of here is preference, and preference is the fundamental music of making new things, as equally as constraints are the lines on the notebook page, the scaffolding of all stories, on which I scrabble and mutter over day after day.
 
 
 

In recent years, I walk without headphones more often than not, because I want to hear the countermelody of an ordinary day.  But when I write, there must be music, real or imagined.  Better yet, there must be music and walking— both, with my eyes turned outward to the story of the street, with my heart pinned like an old brooch to the woolen breast of my winter coat, with my ear tuned neatly to a song that rises and falls, rises and falls, as I haphazardly begin to pick a new route home.
 
 
 

*This line is an homage to an Elizabeth Smart’s book-length prose poem, “The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals.”  I’ve been hoarding that sentence for nearly twenty years, and now I am sharing it with you. <3
 
 
 
 
 
 

MORE WRITING ABOUT WRITING:

*Étude for Writers (No. 1)
 
 
 

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH: I shot this photo weeks ago in preparation for this story. The headphones and notebook you see there are my own. <3
 
 
 
*WHOA! This is my 700th POST for Bluebird Blvd.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Keep Exploring, Up Where the Words Are Thinnest

 
 
 

 
 
 


When you were growing up, there were certain platitudes that got bandied about your person.

Roll with the punches was one of the things you heard quite a bit.

Take your knocks was another phrase that got drummed into you like a hard rain on a new roof.

And so— you did. You did roll with the punches and you did take your knocks.

If you got injured, you knew how to walk it off.

You could take the heat. You were capable of playing through the pain.

Words have purpose. Words are tonics. And words are weapons.

There were days when you sprained everything, and words were your Ace bandage.

There were nights when you made a pillow of words and placed your weary head upon a bed of language.
 
 
 

One day, the platitudes and the sayings and all the old stories aren’t going to serve the bigger purpose in front of you.

One day, those truisms are going to fail you. And then, where will you be?

Words have purpose. Words are tools. And words are weapons.

Words will push against you, and you must anchor your heels into the dark, loamy earth and push back.

That’s what it means to be a writer, you think.

Writers take words as they are, and they push back at them, tame them, make them work.
 
 
 

When you fix words to a thing, expect it to tilt, and you must adjust your balance and fall along with it.

The same goes with words as with people— language moves. People shift. Stay alert. Stay fearless.

Roll with the punches. (Words have purpose.)

Take your knocks. (Words are wards.)

Walk it off. (Words are weapons.)

Language will push at you, daily, and you, with all of your wisdom and your wit, with all of your history and your stories, will have to square up, open your eyes and—

push back, hard.
 
 
 

POKING AROUND AT THE TRUTH:

A PHOTOGRAPH: The Agreement of Opposites

A STORY: The Musée of Unexpected Tears

A SONG: Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fries
 
 

QUICK NOTE ABOUT THE IMAGE: I shot this photograph in Denali National Park in Alaska at one of the viewing areas made available to the public. These steps lead back to the limited road through Denali. I thought this sentiment was an exquisite reminder of a beautiful idea, and really fitting for the great mysteries of Denali National Park.