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.

Étude for Writers (No. 1)

 

[Woman playing the piano.]

 

It’s late at night again, and writing isn’t going well.  I stare at the page and the page stares back at me.  One of us will have to blink.  The dogs sleep on my feet.  With the curtains closed and the air conditioner on, it could be any time at all, really.   Writing isn’t going well, and I am not bothered.  Writing rarely goes well— what you see at the other end is the revision, the rewrite, all of me hustling into the sentences with my broad little shoulder to make them go, man, go.
Two weeks ago, in a random conversation, someone I just met referred to my writing as a hobby.  (Writing rarely goes well.  Maybe I do need a hobby?)  This experience of confusion about writers working for actual pay has only happened twice in my life, so it’s more of a novelty than an annoyance.   The other time, a businessman asked me that old saw: ” But what do you do for money?”  “I write.”  “Yes, but—” His hands kneaded the air, helplessly.  “What do you do… for money?”
When writing isn’t going well, and it rarely does, I think of those folks who turn to you, bright faced at a party, and say, “Well, that must be so therapeutic!”  “Which?”  I am genuinely confused.  “Writing.” They explain.  “How so?” I ask.  I really do want to know.  Have I been doing it wrong all these years?  There’s a therapeutic version?  No rewrites?  No long hours?    “You know— you get to sit down and—” They look embarrassed for you, you, the holder of wordy, verb-stuffed riches.  “Talk about your feelings… and experiences, and—”
The clock hands turn slow-fingered on those nights, with those folks, when I try to explain what writing is like— as a professional.  That is, I used to try to explain what it is like to write (which never goes well), but no one really wants to hear that story so much.  The fantasy is a peppy thrill ride.  A pretty window and a desk, hands flying at the keyboard, the crash of the theatrical music piling up as page after page turns into a hardback book that, in the last scene of the montage, is placed prominently into the window of an independent bookstore next to a cardboard cutout of the writer’s head.
And so I sit, here, late at night, on the couch, losing circulation in both feet while one dog sleeps and the other dog dreams.  This is the montage as I know it:  I sleep and I am writing.  I wake and I am writing.  I stand and I am writing.  I cradle the dog’s head in the kitchen as the coffee perks and I am writing.  I walk into my office and I am writing. I sit down and open the notebook where I have written all of my notes, and I take up the pen and I do not write.
After a few tense minutes, I stand and I stretch and I stare out of the window on the birds plucking at the bread we threw in the yard yesterday, and I hum a bit, and I sit down again.  I flex my broad little shoulders and prepare myself to muscle through the part of my mind where the skittish words flock, and I begin to write.  And, just this once, it goes well. That’s not normal. Now, I’m bothered. I blink, and I think, well, I probably do need to get some sort of hobby. Something therapeutic. How hard could it be to learn to play the accordion?

Starting this week, through the end of August, Bluebird Blvd. will be moving to an every other day schedule of Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Every other day may become the permanent schedule. For the moment though, it’s something I’m trying out. I appreciate your kindness, your support, and, in general and in specific, you.

In My Office

 
 
 

Ruth St. Denis in Siamese Ballet. Repository: The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

 
 
 


In my office, you will find a 1930s bias cut silk wedding gown I discovered in a trashcan by the road.
 

It had been left to wilt in the heat. I cradled it in my arms all the way home. Now it hangs in my closet as a reminder. Of what, I am not sure.
 
 

***

 

In my office, you will spot a slim volume on 18th century découpage leaning against Henrietta, one of two plastic owls that roost on a shelf.
 

I hand-tinted Henrietta fourteen shades of turquoise and green. Her bright gold eyes smile in the dark.
 
 

***

 

In my office, you will see a plastic zebra talking shop with an antique brass Chinese horse.
 

Both live near a horn on a stand that will not make a note.
 
 
 

In my office, a very old Japanese jar with bas-relief monkeys holds my paintbrushes.
 

The monkeys may look casually at ease, but they keep my brushes neat and straight.
 
 

***

 

In my office, my mind finds a home in the dress and the owls and the zebra and the horn and the monkeys.
 

When my eye and my ear are parched for new stories, I need only to look around me to find a story in the world of air and breath and image and words.
 
 

***

 

When I photograph the zebra, I wait for his exhale, imagined or not, to begin my work.
 
 

***

 

When I write about my horn, I try not to interrupt its sustained noiseless song.
 
 

***

 

In this way, I am not a writer, really, nor a photographer— I am a dealer in beautiful curiosities.
 
 

***

 

In my office, these objects tell me their stories, and in turn, I tell them mine.
 

Because, you see, we are curiosities to each other.
 

 
 

A Book Dreams Itself: Discovering Ray Bradbury at the Small Town Library

 
 
 

Ray Bradbury publicity photo.  Copyright 1959.  "The Twilight Zone."

 
 
 

I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.

—Ray Bradbury, The Paris Review,
The Art of Fiction No. 2031

 
 
 

I was ten years old when I first read Ray Bradbury.

My mother was in the UK, visiting friends, and it was decided well in advance that it would be best for me to stay with my grandparents, for a month, in the small South Texas town where they had lived since shortly after they married.

My grandmother managed to get me a temporary library card and a secondhand bike.

The bike I could ride up and down the street, but never around the block. My grandmother was strict. She had her reasons.

She drove me to and from the old brick library in her Buick twice a week, and I was not allowed to roam unguided through the strange experience of a small town library.

The town library was strict too, as it turned out.

This library still had a “restricted” section. I found that puzzling. The metropolitan library my mother and I used had no such thing. What was in a restricted section?

I asked my grandmother what books the library restricted and she didn’t give me a straight answer.

The answer I did get from my grandmother and the librarian was that children weren’t allowed around any of the adult books, not just the mysteriously restricted ones.

My grandmother had to give permission for me to use the regular adult section. It was a slow morning in the library, so the librarian followed me into the adult books and proceeded to offer suggestions.
 
 
 

That librarian helped me select Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea —which seems pretty strange to me now, I guess.

I was ten, after all.

But, I read night and day, everywhere, and I could be a royal pain in the neck when I was bored. It was best for all concerned that I have a stack of books and my dance shoes for practicing and a bike to ride up and down the block under the canopy of the early summer pecan trees.

We got home and ate lunch. Tuna fish salad on toast, I suppose. My grandmother cooked well, but hated to cook, so she made simple, meticulous meals. There would be fine diced apple in the salad, and celery for crunch, a little fresh pecan, maybe a little yellow curry powder.

I started reading Fahrenheit 451 that afternoon in my grandparent’s formal living room, perched on the brocade cream-colored couch.
 
 
 

Bradbury shocked me. I had no idea you could tell a story in a way that sounded like music in your head. I didn’t know that prose could be as lyrical and as measured as poetry.

When my grandparents turned on the evening news, I hightailed it for the fold-out couch in the guest bedroom.

I kept reading.

I sprawled sideways on the sagging cushions of the couch in my grandparents’ guest bedroom and the house and the town and the evening news fell away.

Bradbury’s story of the Fireman and the dilemma of his ethics and his newfound love of art, played out in the prettiest, crispest language I had ever heard.

It was a song, my friends. Bradbury had written a piece of music that was also a book.

I had no idea this could be done.

Yet, Bradbury had done it.
 
 
 

I went back to the library with my grandmother three days later with my little stack of books. “I liked this one,” I said, pointing to the hardback of Fahrenheit 451 on the counter. “Are there more? Please?”

Once again, I was escorted to the non-restricted adult section of the library, and this short woman in sturdy shoes and an iron-pressed skirt reached up and pulled down The Martian Chronicles. My mouth opened in a little “o” as I examined the cover. She saw this expression, I guess, because she pulled down The Illustrated Man, too.

That night I read The Martian Chronicles until midnight, with the bedside light on and the blinds tipped shut. In those days, I slept in a long flannelette nightgown, one of the old fashioned kind with the flounce at the bottom and the twee floral print that faded in the wash 20 years before I was born. My hair was tied back with a ribbon that once tied back my grandmother’s hair as a child.
 
 
 

Curled up in the dark of night in my flannelette nightgown, I learned another new idea about writing from Bradbury.

In addition to the musicality of his language, Bradbury was not afraid, at all, to interweave stories and ideas that did not bear a direct relationship to one another.

The Martian Chronicles is often called a novel, but it’s not a novel, really. And it’s otherwise called an interlinked set of short stories, or a “fix-up,” which is a word I learned today that basically means that stories published elsewhere are rewritten in a way to tie them together as a whole.

I don’t think The Martian Chronicles is a novel, or a collection of short stories, or a “fix-up”.

None of those things sounds right.

And with Bradbury, the sound of an idea is the sense of the idea.

For instance, The Martian Chronicles is poetic and full of dream logic.

If The Martian Chronicles is a novel, it is what a novel dreams when it is asleep.

If it is a collection of interlinked stories, they are the stories that belong to night and bonfires and a drape of bright stars.

I finished Bradbury’s beautiful book, then fell asleep as the central air conditioner droned on and on. I dreamed of fire-phials and Mars and dead seas and books that sang as you read them.
 
 
 

The next morning, I got up late. My grandfather was reading in his recliner. My grandmother was out at one of her volunteer jobs. I had The Martian Chronicles in my hand. He closed his paper.

“We-eell, look who’s up!”

I was still in my old long flannelette nightgown. My feet were bare on the carpet. In the night, my hair ribbon twisted sideways around my head.

“Grandpa, you need to read this,” I said.

I held the book out. His scarred, callused fingers looked just right against the cover of the book. I stood in front of his chair and waited for his reaction.

He opened the first pages using his index finger and his thumb.

He looked up at me through his thick glasses. He nodded.

“Rocket summer,” he said. “I’ll take a look at this.”

He began to read. I went into the kitchen and found my breakfast covered in tin foil. I pulled off the foil to cold eggs and toast.

I looked at my grandfather reading The Martian Chronicles through the window cut-out of the banquette.

Rocket summer.

A book that sings.

A book that dreams itself.

 
Rest In Peace, Ray Bradbury.
 

 
 
 

 
 
 
Top photo: Publicity image of Ray Bradbury when he wrote for The Twilight Zone.
 
 
Bottom photo: I couldn’t find a legit copy of “The Martian Chronicles.” That’s me, last night, holding one of my copies of my favorite Ray Bradbury book.

 
 

Roaring Back: Remembering Maurice Sendak

 
 
 

The Big Green Book

 
 
 

For M.L.
 
 
An unseasonable thunderstorm crisscrossed South Texas on Monday night. 

It smashed and kicked outside the windows of my office. 

While lightning x-rayed the trees, I tried to work my way through a set of revisions that curled on the page into a stubborn knot of gnarled roots and words.

After two hours of sweat-hard writing, I put my pen down.

I sat in my chair in the dark and listened to the storm growl and snap.

It rained on and off through the night. 

I woke yesterday to a thin thread of light and to the death of Maurice Sendak. 

He had experienced a stroke several days before, and his body yielded the way bodies do to great trauma.  Sendak was 83.

I was devastated.  Why?  Sendak had a wonderful adult life, mostly. His childhood was grim, but he made his peace with it. He had a strong partner for many years.  He left great art.
 
 
 
The Big Green Book
 
 
 
 

If you think that my devastation over Sendak’s death has something to do with my childhood, it does not.
 

You see, I never stopped reading children’s literature. 
 

Pictures books. Easy readers.
 

Whatever lit ghettoized[i] name you want to apply to it— any artist-writer who can transcend mere pictures and words? I’m there.
 

In short, I never stopped reading Sendak’s art.
 
 
 
The way I read children’s literature deepened, strengthened, as I aged. 

My mother and I continued to check out books from the children’s section until I was old enough to take the bus downtown alone to the library. 

On my own, I still checked out children’s lit— and I watched larger themes of love and loss and mystery emerge— rendered in crisp language with exquisite art. 

I was learning about illuminated manuscripts then, too, like The Book of Kells, so these books for children had special portents and signs.

As this was my mother’s area of special interest, she began to tell me stories, some apocryphal, about these mythical writers and artists who made an impact on generations of readers.
 
 
 
She has two stories about Maurice Sendak.

These tales remain wrapped in the cloth of her vernacular, a language as stylized as a Japanese furoshiki covered present. 

I hope to unfold them carefully for you.

Every artist I know gets The Fear[ii]

When I was in my 20s and things got bleak between writing jobs and projects, she’d tell me the apocryphal story about the time that heavyweight Maurice Sendak met Tomie dePaola in Italy, and one artist asked the other— Do you ever fear it will all go away someday?  The other answered.  Yes, absolutely.

Imagine it!  She would say again and again when I’d call tense with The Fear. 

Imagine these two prolific geniuses sitting down to lunch with an interpreter.  And this? Is the first question on the table? Do you ever fear it will go away someday?  Yes, absolutely.

The second story she tells comes up when I call her with a different fear— Do I tell the story?  What if people yell?
 
 
 
The Big Green Book  by Maurice Sendak and Mallory McInnis
 
 
 
 
She says— Remember In the Night Kitchen.

This phrase is code for Sendak’s seminal 1971 book— which folks have tried to ban off and on because it has a child with no clothes on this page here and that page there.  

When those folks can’t get the book banned, they deface it by covering up the little boy with a Wite-Out diaper, or some other nonsense.

It’s one of my mother’s favorite books, and my own as well— In the Night Kitchen captures that landscape of the fantastic and the banal that populates all children’s dreams.

The subtext of my mother’s code is— What if Sendak didn’t publish In the Night Kitchen?  What if he bowed to popular opinion?  What if his publishers had balked?

That book mirrored my nightly dreamscape as a child. I sleep-thrashed my way through vivid narratives. 

Picture books like The Perky Puppy were not going to help me understand the synaptic tango my brain improvised night after night.

I needed a darker and sweeter tale. A story much more like actual childhood. In the Night Kitchen explained dreams to me and so much more.

Plus, Sendak’s children aren’t like the children in other stories.
 
 
 
In Sendak’s stories, children were children.

His characters refused to do as they were told.

Lions threatened them.   His children roared back.

Why?

Childhood is a fantastic and terrible business, really.

Sendak said famously that he did not write children’s books.  He wrote, and then people told him that what he wrote was for children.[iii] And then he grimaced.

Beause Maurice Sendak, unlike the rest of us, never forgot the complexity that once knotted all of our tiny faces.

 
 
 
It rained all morning yesterday. I sat in my office and wondered at the cool weather, wondered at my own sadness at Sendak’s passing.  

Between watching interviews with Sendak all day, I asked myself the questions that float under the wet skin of all rainy days— how will I proceed?  What artists light the way ahead?

Today, it will rain again. I’m still asking hard questions.

Oh, Sendak. 

I owed you a greater debt than I realized.  You were fierce and true to what you had to say on the page.  Today, I place your name on the altar of my hopes and dreams.  

All these years, you gave me courage and asked for nothing in return. 

The lion roars.  I roar back.
 
 
 
 

The Big Green Book

 
 
 
 


[i] The ghettoization of genre literature— including children’s books, science fiction (Speculative Fiction), mysteries, et. al.— is an ongoing issue and a potent one.  Hence, the loaded term “literary ghetto”— which gets used— a lot— with a great deal of symbolic weight.

 

[ii] “The Fear” is an idea coined by Hunter S. Thompson.  It’s mentioned as a drug reference in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  My friends and I use this phrase casually to refer to artist’s/writer’s block.  It’s apt.

 

[iii] Stephen Colbert interviewed Maurice Sendak in 2011, which my friend J. and her friend A brought to my attention— Maurice Sendak on The Colbert Report Part 1, Maurice Sendak on the Colbert Report Part 2. The intrepid artist M.L. recommended the NPR compilation of Maurice Sendak interviews as well.

 

 
*Thanks to Mallory McInnis for the great Sendak reference images.

 

On Certitude

 
 
 
Pale young Victorian woman wears a rather modern expression of frankness with her hands demurely crossed in front of her dress.
 
 
 

One of the vivid pictures of my youth, and one I see often, still, is my mother’s back disappearing through a crowd of people in a theater. 

The woman may be little, but she sure is quick.  You cannot turn your head for a second before she’s gone.  Poof! 

The next thing I know, my equally short self is peering through a crowd of folks in their second-best evening clothes trying to find a tiny woman with blonde hair.  Where is she going?

(And the stars are whirling in the skies tonight.  The stars know why my mother thins her way through crowds and disappears.)

My mother has a background in theater, radio, and film.  She spent her adult life working another career, one we can discuss on another day. 

In writing a story, the old maxim for character development is you know a character when you know the one thing they value above all others.

(And the moon sits low in the sky tonight, listening to my story.  The moon knows what my mother values.)
 
 
 
By following this maxim, to know my mother, you must know her first love, which was theater. 

Her specialty was comedic character roles and musical theater.   She was also a radio DJ for a rock station before I was born.  

My mother knew what she loved, and loves.  That’s a gift.  I call it certitude.

(The clouds cut across the sky, low and thin.  They have certitude.  They know this quality well.)

When I was small, my mother made few, but exacting decisions on what I would be allowed to see and watch and know.  TV was carefully controlled, as were movies, but books were, for the most part, entirely available. 

My mother owns thousands of books and plays and musical scores.  All the metaphorical doors of these worlds were left open to me.  That was her choice, her certitude at work.

(I look through the window, where the moon peers back at me.  O, moon.  How many hours have you and I discussed these books and plays and musicals scores my mother owns?)
 
 
 
To live in a household with a mother like that, a woman who has a richly storied classical theater education braided with a silly, understated love of comedy— well, every day, my friends, was an adventure. 

When I started preschool, early, at the age of three, she woke me by throwing open my door and singing.  My mother allowed me to dress myself. 

As long as I wore seasonally appropriate garments, she turned her kindness to the colors and textures my child’s eye and hand, loved.  Loved.

(The clouds know these textures and colors.   Their watery bodies accumulate shape and color by light and pressure and gravity.  Certitude.)

What of my mother?  What did she want?  She wanted… to be able to experience the theater she loved. 

The older I grew, the more she took me to see theater— all kinds of theater.   She was fearless. 

And when the show was terrible, I’d look at the seat next to me, and find that she had slipped out. 

At the exact moment when the audience was distracted by some actor chewing the scenery to bits, I would slip out and join her in the hum of the electric lights of the lobby.

It wasn’t good, she would say.   

Her eyes, true light blue to my natural chameleon ones, would settle on me with gravitas.  Let’s go get a soda.  I’ll tell you why it wasn’t good.

(The night sky remembers when my mother and I would walk out of theaters, her hands in her trouser pockets, lost in thought, my questing face seeking the secret to her inward-looking stare.)
 
 
 

My mother taught me it was okay to have standards of my own. 

Her example shows its shining face every day in what she chooses and does not choose— in what I choose and do not choose.  We try everything.  We do not like everything.  We do like some things. And we agree and disagree in even measure.  

Yet, we know the why of our likes and dislikes and can articulate these aesthetic considerations and greater standards clearly.  

I am, in this way, entirely my mother’s child.

(The dust of the newly-born stars are in my breath tonight.  I breathe out, and I think of my mother, now and always, appreciative, inquisitive, and certain.)
 
 
 
Two weeks ago, my mother got “nosebleed seats” for Billy Elliot. 

My husband and her husband, my stepfather, were there.  My mother and I did not sit together.  Sometimes we do, and when we do, she squeezes my hand. 

As each scene unfolded to the next, I caught my mother’s eye for a moment.  I nodded.  She smiled.  It was good.  Really good.

I am my mother’s child.  I have written and reviewed many facets of theater and dance and performance art over the years because my mother taught me how to examine, how to consider, how to appreciate, how to see, how to have certitude. To be fearless.

We leave the theater in a crowd of brightly dressed theater patrons.  The evening night spills warm and humid air on our air-conditioned clothes.   Her head bends near mine.  I hold in a bag in my left hand a copy of the original cast recording, which my mother purchased for me. 

“It has the immediacy of West Side Story, ” I say.  “The political made personal theme.  And the songs were so distinct in their moods.  The lighting design!  The nested set!”

I am off and running.  My mother nods.  She looks behind her at our husbands.  They know to avoid my wide waving hands when I get going like this. 

I’ll stop in a few minutes.  She will tell me what she thinks, but quietly.  I stare directly into her blue eyes.  She takes the measure of my chameleon ones.

“Here’s what I think,” she replies.
 
 
 

And I listen.  And the night listens.

To know a person, know what they value.

That’s the old maxim of writing a three-dimensional character.  I should know.  This is a thing my mother taught me. 

My mother adores theater, but she values me.

 
 
 

Girl with doll, holding mother's hand

 
 
 

Diving Into The Wreck— Rest In Peace, Adrienne Rich (1929—2012)

 
 
 
 

Adrienne Rich passed away yesterday due to complications from lifelong rheumatoid arthritis.

Many poets and scholars who knew her well will honor her in ways I cannot.

Newspapers have already begun to run long obituaries for a woman who changed the direction of poetry, word by word.

I can only say this about Adrienne Rich:

I read her first when I was in college— specifically the collection Diving into the Wreck (Poems 1971-1972).

Rich changed the way I conceived of what poetry could do with big emotion and strong craft.

Rich was one of very few famous people who turned me down for an interview early in my journalism career.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about her a lot— especially her intense poem “Diving into the Wreck.”

This phrase has been coming into my head as I sit down to write each day. It’s a dark image that makes me smile.

The quote above is from Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck” and the photograph is by The Husband.

Goodnight Adrienne Rich. You are missed so much already.
 
 
 

A postscript the day after Adrienne Rich’s death:

Photographer, writer and friend Karen Jensen wrote a sublime tribute—

Adrienne Rich, teller of the truth.”

I think you’re going to want to read this poem. It is exquisite and strong and heartbreaking and it truly honors Rich’s legacy.

 
 

In Rattlesnake Season

 
 


 
 
 
 

In rattlesnake season, you wear your boots outside the house, even if you only mean to grab something from the truck.

Your eyes read the ground for movement— a twist of the grass, a shadow moving in the light— any shift at all and something inside you jumps a little.

You hold still, though, you don’t want to startle it, if there is an it around to be startled.

You try to keep the style of your body slow and deliberate during rattlesnake season.

You wear jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and boots to keep out the sun and protect your legs in the last high grass of the year.
 
 

Everything good is out right now— it is late spring.

All the cows have baby calves hanging round their legs like pretty jewelry as the wander by the pens.

The fauns are out somewhere, tucked away from your sight, but their mothers watch you when they come to drink from the pond.

Even the javelinas, those huge smelly hairy pigs, have a litter bunched around them as they move quickly through the underbrush by the crick. You know them by their smell.
 
 

And everything that’ll kill you is out there, too.

The heat is punishing in the midday, so everyone starts clamping down on their ranching hours— up at five a.m., breakfast with black coffee, work until dinner at 11 a.m., take a nap, and back up at four p.m. to finish up work before supper, in bed by 8 p.m., lights out by 8:30 p.m. Snooze and repeat.

Generations of heat-born Texans have kept these hours. Generations of ranchers before Texas was Texas kept these hours.

All the warm-blooded animals keep these hours, dozing off in the shade during the hottest parts of the day.

But the cold-blooded ones, they like the heat, the time when the rocks are hot, and the high, dry golden grass breaks gently aside to let a slithering body pass.
 
 

You warm-blooded ones roll with the heat in the morning, sweating, drinking room temperature water so you don’t shock the body.

The heat wasn’t meant for you, not like this, but you adapt, you find a way. Generations before you have figured out how to survive rattlesnake season, and generations after you, will survive it too.

The heat doesn’t love you out here— and you get out of the way of its mean eye during the midday, especially during rattlesnake season.

And you keep one ear cocked and ready— because that ssssszzzzzssss-t-t-t-t-t can tuck between all the other sounds— the dry moving grass, your own boots shifting in the red, rich dirt, the rustle of your shirt. One other noise and you’ll miss it.

If you’re not paying attention, even your own breath can camouflage the clearest warning signal you will ever get.
 
 
 
 

By the way, yes, that is a picture of a 5 1/2 foot rattlesnake!  And yes, that is a picture of The Husband!

The Husband said to tell you, “Hey there!  This [dead] rattlesnake is thin because it just came out of hibernation!  And no, rattlesnake does not taste like chicken.  It tastes like rattlesnake.”

 
 

Meditations Before A Thunderstorm

 
 
 

Plate facing page 72 of Bill the Minder

 
 
 
 

ACT ONE

 
In a drought season, the tough skin of the earth splits and tears.

It is a great temptation to reach down and pat the firmament, to reassure it, that somehow, somewhere, the rain is going to come.

Should you give into this impulse on the wrong day, the ground will blister your hand.

You have to keep moving in a drought season.

The light alone is the texture of a headache.

You spend your days scanning the skies for some sign of gathering crowds of Stratocumulus clouds. 

You pour over the National Weather Service the way some people check their daily horoscopes, seeking the auspicious and the benign.

The heat holds your thoughts in stasis after awhile. 

You start to wonder— was it always this way and we didn’t notice it?
 
 
 

Plate facing page 192, The Water Babies

 
 
 

ACT TWO

 
It was a bad drought season last year, one of the worst.

And the rains came wild and hard, over the hills to the east, up the coast from the south, across the plains out west, and through a sea of green due north.

The rain became a thrum and melody that returned every few weeks. 

Right as you begin to forget the music of the rain, fine and sweet, then hard and strong, it comes back again to remind you of what it means to survive a drought season.

If you’re not thinking straight, you will forget that rain carries its own caution.

In Texas, after a drought, the most dangerous thing is a deluge of rain.

Days of rain on hard-packed drought-land won’t seep into the soil the way rain does in the prettier places in the gentle Northwest. 

This rain is the hard rain.  An angry rain.  Beating at the ground.  Demanding entrance to a surface that no longer recognizes what nourishes it.

The rainwater thrills down narrow streets in eddies and furrows.

You watch for street signs, deep spots.

Some places turn back to the rivers they once were in a former geological life.

It is true what they say— water seeks its own level.

You don’t want to be eye-to-eye with that moving rain-rushed river that sprung from nowhere. 

A 15-foot live oak goes by in a blink, roots first.

You turn back.  You go home.  There will be time to get out tomorrow.
 
 
 

Page facing 244 of Andersen's fairy tales (Robinson)

 
 
 

ACT THREE

 
Tonight, the barometric pressure presses a draped cowl across your forehead.  It will rain soon— a few hours from now, early this morning.

You think of other rainy seasons on nights like tonight.  The rain hit other roofs in other years and you were there, listening, thinking rainy thoughts.

Rain stays the same; it is you that changes.

Water seeks its own level.

The heat rises in the room.  Behind the heat and the pressure you can feel a real thunderstorm brewing.  By the time the storm breaks the sky, you’ll be asleep.

On other nights, other storms, other years, you’ve counted between the thunder and the lightning, out loud, each second representing a mile.
 
One…

 

Two…

 

Three…
 
You’ve seen the room light up in an x-ray outline of sudden light.  In a single beat, you saw yourself as you always were, this simple thing made of light, shade and shadow.

You know thunderstorms will come and go.   

In Texas, these moments are the theater of the sky— a wordless narrative of cloud and water and the skin of the earth.

You were born in a real rainy season— that’s what they told you. 

A gully-washer. 

They called you the water baby because you sought out the comfort of lakes and rivers and oceans and rain.  You dived down deep, kicking to find purchase at the bottom of watery things. 

They watched you go and shook their heads.

You always know where the water is to be found, water baby.

You knew where the water was because—

Water seeks its own level.

Tonight it will rain.  You can feel it.   They called you the water baby, like the old pretty book.

Water brings dangers of its own— don’t forget.

The heat rises.

You know the thunder is coming.  You’re the water baby.
 
One.

 

Two.

 

Three.
 
 
 

Plate facing page 100, The Water Babies

 
 
You’ve never read The Water Babies? Oh my! I can fix that right now if you follow me here. (This children’s book belongs to the public domain because it is quite old. You can read for free!)
 
 

Oh What A Night! (The Year I Covered the Oscars from Half a Mile Away)

 
 
 
TimesSquareGotliebJazz
 
 
 


One year when I was living in L.A., I was asked to cover the Oscars… from the outside of the building in the crowds across the street from the event.

Being a smart girl, I decided to drag along my husband and a friend from graduate school to enjoy my good fortune.

To get there, we took the subway system in L.A., which at the time was tiny but full of beautiful mosaics and decor. Each stop has a different decorative theme. The L.A. subway system was limited to a small area of Los Angeles proper.

If we had to go any farther, we would have had to use the extensive L.A. bus system. The bus system does not have beautiful mosaics and era-inspired decor. It has smoky exhaust and uncovered bus stops.

Instead of braving the bus system, we left the subway and we walked through a funky neighborhood near downtown to the Shrine Auditorium. We passed row after row of unmanned warehouses. It was so quiet I started to get worried that we had gone to the wrong location.

The Husband is from Los Angeles, so there is no way we could have gone to the wrong location. (Note: This was the last year it was held at the Shrine Auditorium.) (Second note: The Shrine Auditorium was really run down, but you couldn’t see it as the entire thing was covered in curtains for the awards ceremony.)
 
 
 

Here’s what it’s like to stand around watching celebrities arrive to the Academy Awards from half a mile away—

First of all, the sidewalk is blocked off from the actual street, so you’re crammed next to all forms of humanity who want to be seen by, oh, I don’t know, the drivers of the cars carrying the celebrities to the red carpet half a mile away?

Second off, you don’t see any actual celebrities, only their limousines, so unless you have a thing for rented limos, it’s a wash.

The third thing is that when you can’t see the red carpet or the celebrities, standing around behind a barricade is terrifically boring. Oh! I did see the tallest transvestite I think I’ve ever seen!

She was wearing five-inch heels and a heavily beaded bright blue gown in addition to her natural height. The sidewalk was full of cracks, so it amazed me that she was so poised!

I met a French documentary crew at the diner down the street where I ate some awful fried food.
 
 
 

The French documentary crew was the second most fascinating thing about going to the Oscars and covering it at a great distance.

(The documentary crew was too tired to be interesting. They had been filming since the crack of the night before the event.)

You could barely see the risers around the red carpet, which was backed by heavy red curtains that hid any view of the carpet walk itself.

On the risers were people who had gotten tickets to see the stars disembark from their pretty vehicles.
 
 
 

From a half-mile away, you could hear the enthusiastic rumble of the crowd as popular movie folk stepped onto the famed red carpet, but you couldn’t actually see the crowds, or the celebrities, or the carpet.

Frankly, that’s about as close as I’d like to get to the Academy Awards. I’m happy I had the opportunity to cover this story because this strange scene was nothing like anything I’d experienced before, but it was the kind of thing that was fun to do once. And never again.

That’s what we talked about during the subway ride home.

We were sweaty and disheveled from only a few hours of wandering amidst the starstruck people who gawk from half a mile away. I had sequins stuck to my shirt from the tall, gorgeous transvestite standing near me for most of the afternoon.
 
 
 

That night as I watched the actual awards from my apartment, I picked royal blue sequins off of my clothes.

I dropped each in the trash as I shook my head at the wonder of it all. And then I turned off the television set, sat down at my desk and started to write my story.

The whole city was quiet the entire evening until the Oscars ended. And, slowly but surely, cars started to fill up the streets and the city resumed its frantic pacing.

It was okay. This was the song of the city that punctuated all of my writing hours, and it made for a pretty counterpoint. Every once in a great while, on days like today, I miss that sound of life writ large.
 
 
 
 
 

 
 


*Oh, neato! This short piece is my 200th POST!

 
 

 
 
 
 
 

The Owl and the Pussycat Study Semiotics

Before St. Mark's and Pub


When you and I were children not all that long ago, we played a game called dress-up, a game that was very, very real.

One day we were pirates, the good kind, on a wooden ship, on a rocky sea.

You swung a trusty cutlass made of papier-mâché and I fought the wheel through a thick gray storm.

On another slow afternoon, we dressed as gentlemen with tall hats.

We marched through the house with umbrellas, tootling a song on a penny whistle, a beat on an old bongo drum.

Every day, we tried new selves on for size.

I was a radio actress from the 1940s for a week.

You refused to take off a pair of overalls that had fringe on the bib until your grandmother wrestled them off of you.

And sometimes we weren’t even human.

I was an owl, and you were a pussycat. Our gondola sank.

Some characters proved too enticing for just one player and we took turns.

Sometimes we fought over who would play which character.

Even when we fought over who would be the hero and who would be the villain, we knew it didn’t matter because we knew there were enough hats to go around, enough stories, and another day to tell the whole thing again, a different way.

We shed one set of made-up characters for other versions as we aged.

You became a cheerleader with too-bright eyes. He decided to be the boy who told bad jokes. She braided rings in her hair and stopped wearing shoes. I dyed everything black from my hair to my trousers.

Somehow, as we always did before, we switched along the way. I curled my hair and didn’t wear shoes. You dyed your trousers black and wore rings that clacked. The boy kept telling bad jokes, but he told them to the cheerleading squad.

And this is where the story gets much more interesting.

We forgot we were pretending.

The clothes began fitting for real.

And then one morning we woke up, and those lives we created in backyards became bits and pieces of the adulthood games we play now.

The only thing that really stopped is we no longer call them games. They’re our “jobs” and our “lives.”

You are the owl and I am the pussycat, or maybe it’s reversed. I can’t remember.

[The Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy] (LOC)

Once I took a seminar from a man that studied the semiotics of clothing.

Semiotics, in brief, is the study of living symbols.

This lecturer said the clothes you choose to wear are not merely clothes, they are ideas.

I did not need a lecturer to tell me this information.  Nor did you.

I was a child that played dress-up every day who became an adult who wrote about fashion for a living for a long time.

Yes, yes, signifier, signified.

I learned two new words that meant basically the viewed and perceived facing the person viewing and perceiving, and vice versa.

Today, I am the owl and you are the pussycat. We sit across from one another in a gondola in the late afternoon heat of Venice.

And here we are.

I will play a late 30-something writer who owns five unmatched black socks. You can play the woman with the scratchy sweater covered in lint who pulls weeds at six a.m., and he can play the man with the caramel leather brogues who whistles one note over and over. My dogs will play themselves.

She can be the owl; he can be the pussycat. Someone please steer this damn gondola.

Fever Interlude

 

CO 1069-135-20

 

I went to bed coughing last night.  It’s a thin metallic bark, not painful, but disruptive, and the novelty of it amazes me.  I never have coughs.

Because of its insistent need to be heard, I kept waking and dreaming through the morning hours.

All night I was in Argentina with The Husband.  I was doing a Pinterest project having to do with mammals or small horses or polo ponies— the dream changed slightly on each waking.

In each dream, Argentina remained the same.  First, I was in Buenos Aires, then a vast estancia, then at a border.

I drank some water and fell back into the Argentina I made with my mind.

What is it about ordinary illness that inspires the most extraordinary dreams?

I have had a talent for this my whole life, the dramatic high fever of 103 degrees or higher, the vivid visual hallucinations that go alongside this unnaturally heated state.


Once at the age of four, I watched a giraffe walk leggily through my mother’s bedroom.  I pointed to it.  She could not see but did not want to worry me.

“I see.” she said.

“So tall!” she said.

I squealed in delight as the giraffe’s legs passed through the room, right legs, then left, then right.

My fevered brain even had the proportions figured— her height was such that the ceiling became clouds and I could not see the rest of her, though I strained up through the mist from my mother’s bed.

Quickly, she was gone.

“Where did she go?” I mumbled.

“Who?”

“The giraffe left.”

“Giraffes never stay put very long, do they?”

“I don’t know?”

In this one thing, I do not know what other people are like, the ones who were once children and are now adults who are parents of children. 

I haven’t harbored a high fever in my body in at least ten years.  Even last night’s estancia flickered in and out, cinematic, but firmly bracketed by the limits of my dream life.

I did not wake to an estancia, in other words, but to a bedroom and the sound of rain, and my strange metallic cough.

What happens to the giraffes that we dreamt so many years ago in a fever?  Who dreamed whom?

That was something that troubled me as a child; who was the dreaming one, and who was the one being dreamed?

My mother did not have answers for questions like these.  She didn’t pretend to know the answers either.

I understand this grace better now as an adult.

My mother knew how to say, “I don’t know” in a way that did not express shame or need.  It was the fact of the moment.  She might know later.  She might never know.  She might remember.  For now, she doesn’t know.

There’s a pleasure in not knowing and saying as much, isn’t there?

 

While traveling the estancias of last night’s dream, I kept looking for something with my camera that was slightly out of sight. 

That’s adulthood, I think, in a snapshot—  The fever dream in search of explanation; the animals that reside in the hidden groves within each of us.

Or am I wrong entirely?

Is adulthood a long night’s vigil over a flushed child, dream-sick, burdened by questions, all addressed to you?  There are no answers on those nights.  No good answers, anyhow.  Instead,  you say, calm and brave and true:  I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

But you quake inside as you say these words.  Be careful—she must not see it.

CO 1069-135-26

Changing Lanes in the Middle of the Night

 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signal with a "fusee" - used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "stop." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 


Two weeks ago, our computer started to die.  I knew the signs.  Old age, tampering by a certain Bluebird, and some hinky hardware were causing our poor Mac laptop to work twice as hard as it needed to work for half the output.

The computer expert knows me.  He revived my even more ancient computer last year so that I might continue writing on it and listening to music. He essentially helped me maintain the equivalent of a typewriter and a stereo when what I really need is a new Mac.

A heart may want what it wants, but the wallet speaks clearly of what I may have, and what I may have is a typewriter that plays the White Stripes at an acceptable volume.

But the other computer, my husband’s laptop, was salvageable for the moment.  It has reached the end of its own software capability due to its advanced age, but with a little surgery, might live to fight another day. This computer is the one we use to connect to the internet.

So, off went the laptop into the capable hands of the Macintosh expert with the mellow smile and the clear voice.
 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signalwith a "fusee"- used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "go ahead." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 
In the interim a family member loaned us a bossy PC, a laptop, and I was able to keep working and writing and posting.

I got things done. Somehow. Privately I cursed, at home, in my office, at the bizarre functions of this computer and its desire to anticipate a wrong need, whose constant wrong anticipation flung me hurtling into cyberspace and the nether reaches of its C Drive at unpredictable moments.

Many words were lost to the impatience of this PC and my own clumsy hands.

I wanted to cry; instead I cursed.  Loudly and lustily but with no real verve.  There are some tricks I’ve never learned to do properly, and inventive profanity has never been my ken.
 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signalwith a "fusee"- used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "go ahead." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 
On those first nights with the borrowed computer, I sat down to transfer my drafts from my old computer to the PC in order to upload, copy-edit, fact-check and lay out my posts. 

Like an aggressive conversationalist, the PC kept interrupting my peaceful commands.

I would type:  I really like…

BANANAS!  (And the computer sent me off looking at bananas in Ecuador.) 

No wait, you like muscle cars! (And the computer found a car low and slow as a pit bull, but orange, with stripes.) 

No, art cars with plastic telephones glued to the hoods.  NO!  YOU LIKE PURPLE, RIGHT?

I shook my head at the computer, and began again:

I really like…

CREEPY PICTURES OF DOLLS?

…no.  No, I don’t.  And now I’m going to have nightmares for a week.

LEEKS?

Ah… (A stream of curses flowed from me like tap water).

I’m sorry.  Could you repeat that?

Of all the things you didn’t understand %&, !#)$, and #%(%*(%($%!!!!  were beyond your reach?

MORE PICTURES OF CREEPY VICTORIAN DOLLS COMING RIGHT UP!
 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signalwith a "fusee"- used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "go ahead." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 
There are unexpected benefits to recalling the limits of your own patience.  I remembered that yes, if pushed to my limit, I could and do yell really, really loudly.

Nevertheless, please remember this thing that I am about to say with emphasis:  I would not have been able to write for my blog whatsoever recently without this angel with a PC who appeared when my husband’s laptop developed a laptoppy pneumonia.

In my world, this gesture was enormous. And I am grateful. So grateful.

Yet, despite this immense gesture, the last two weeks have not been my favorite weeks. 

Other things, equally irritating, transpired.

I did what I could to reshape the irritations into joys, turning that thin paper of pain into an origami bird, then a pinwheel, and finally a little flimsy boat that I could sail in my bathtub.

Then, once I ran out of origami tricks, I set fire to my origami pain while it was still in the shape of a boat, giving that pain a Valhalla funeral.

Again and again, I tried to drape deft corners around my pain over the last two weeks. It is what I know how to do, so I do it.

The bird, the pinwheel, the boat, the Valhalla funeral pyre.  

One does what one can to transform pain into beauty, and ashes into art.
 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signalwith a "fusee"- used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "go ahead." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 
Due to vexation from sorting out these difficulties, I kept becoming distracted while driving.

Suddenly, I’d discover that I was five miles from home going the opposite direction surrounded by evening traffic draped with headlights like a speedy outdoor party.

Catching this mistake was easy; finding my way back home was not.
 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signalwith a "fusee"- used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "go ahead." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 
Focused on fixing my driving mistakes, I turned down little side streets to find they had been blocked for repair without notice.  My hands twitched the wheel this way and that, and I uncovered parts of my newish neighborhood that I still did not know.

Lots of little churches appeared from nowhere in the dark.

Cupped between the shingled hands of two residential homes, I glimpsed a hand-painted sign for The Church of the Beloved Dove

At another cross-section of small lanes, the enigmatic banner for His Brotherly Hand rose above a clapboard structure in an aurora borealis of lovely lettering. 

Another turn into a different district swung my headlights over The Mystery And The Spirit:  A Home For Everyone.

And I sighed.  If only that were true. 

But the lights were out in the little church, and I wanted to get back to our dogs and the borrowed computer and my profanity, which was providing the consistency of ritual, a jaggedy one, with the unpredictable liturgy of woman and dogs and two unsteady hands on the keyboard, type, type, typing away.
 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signalwith a "fusee"- used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "go ahead." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 
There were other bothers, most too boring to relate, or too personal, or not my own to share, so let’s you and I have one more moment in my car in the middle of the evening, down one of those side streets with the pretty and lonely little churches.

The cold swells outside and the rain comes without warning.  I will turn up the White Stripes, and you and I begin to sing, first softly, and then a little louder, and then bawling the words to a song we both know.  I turn on the windshield wipers with a flick.

The headlights of oncoming traffic bob in the distance, thin as will o’the wisps. 

And you will harmonize, and I will bang out the counterpoint on the steering wheel and in this way, slowly and crookedly, we will find our way back, back to the place where we began.  Where we will begin again.  Where, in a funny little way, we already have begun anew.

 
 

Indiana Harbor Belt RR, switchman demonstrating signal with a "fusee" - used at twilight and dawn - when visibility is poor. This signal means "back up." Calumet City, Ill. (LOC)

 
 

The Language of the Interior

 
 
 

 
 


For every spoken language, there are regional dialects, and for every regional dialect, there exists another subset of individual vocabulary that varies from person to person.

Though I can mangle my Spanish and mash my French, what I speak, and write, is English.  But the English I speak and the English you speak may be two different languages entirely.

Linguists have a name for it:  You speak an idiolect.  An individualized subdialect of a language specific only to you.

Combine the circumstances of your and my economic upbringing, your and my educational level, your and my unspoken biases, and a thousand-thousand of your and my personal preferences, not to mention the delicious forms of your and my verbal shorthand developed over a lifetime of interior thought and exterior interaction and it may amaze both you, and me, that we manage to have a comprehensible conversation at all.

That’s after we factor in regionalisms and dialects and subdialects.

And after we realize that I speak an idiolect comprehensible only to me, and you speak an idiolect comprehensible only to you.

And that’s without factoring the everyday, but somehow still taboo, language of profanity.

Ah, yes.  Profanity.

That’s yet another language that may divide you and me.  And that divide can span miles. That divide may cut our conversation short.  Done. Nil.  Finis.
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

With that knowledge in hand, please excuse me for revealing the following shocker.  I speak two Englishes.  One of them is full of profanity.  The other is full of fauxfanity.

You may have noticed that I do not use any stronger curse word than damn on my blog.

Though I don’t think it’s happened yet, I may at some point break out hell, either as an exclamation or a noun, but that’s really not one of my favorite words.

Hellion is great.  Hell is kind of… meh, unless combined with other nouns.  Try it.  Put some weird noun in front of hell and suddenly it’s hilarious.

Occasionally, I will post a link to something that contains a curse word tucked in there somewhere, but you’ve most likely noticed that I place a lot of warnings around it.

In my real everyday life, I am apt to say a long string of nonsensical and coarse-woven expressions.   I say them loudly; I say them softly.  I say them standing on my head.

I say them in the kitchen, and I say them in the car with the windows closed.  (But lately, I’ve been using more fauxfanity because that way, instead of getting stressed by bad drivers, I crack myself up.)
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

I use four of the basic curse words that have gone in and out of favor with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).

To be more specific, these words I use at home are the kind you’ll hear on prime-time television, and in the case of one word, premium cable TV.

For a variation, I use some versions of the standard four that are typical to the British and Irish influences of my upbringing, but there are a couple of British/Irish curses I never heard regularly when young  or don’t really like.

I’ve been known to break out a couple of the more vivid exclamations in Spanish and in French.  (Can’t speak either language worth a bent nickel, but I can memorize all the curse words and profane idioms?  Charming.)

The Texan in me knows how to divide single-syllable curse words into double- and treble-syllable curses. Texans really know how to unpack a curse word better than anyone I’ve met.

Although I was exposed to a panoply of influences from the Middle East in my first restaurant job, I never did manage to pick up any of the good ones in Farsi or Arabic.

I know two or three strong nouns in Russian, but they sound marble-y in my mouth, so they are more fun toys than workaday language.

However, there are more than a handful that I do not say, specifically most of the famed “Seven Dirty Words” used to big effect by Lenny Bruce* and later, George Carlin. I consider this a matter of personal preference.

You may see this as an example of an idiosyncrasy within my idiolect.
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

Now, the question that should be bugging you is where and to whom I use this resplendent language?

Well, that’s the interesting part, isn’t it?  I use these words… when I’m alone.

Sometimes the dogs are present for my brief show of verbal fireworks, but as their English is limited, I’m not worried either of them will pick it up.  (And Monkey doesn’t care what language you use, but she doesn’t like upset people.  So, I try to avoid getting upset, in general, in front of the dogs.)

I will use all four of the profane words in everyday speech to The Husband.  I shout them with joy to two of my friends if we’re talking over the phone, and that’s about it.

My profanity usage, in other words, almost qualifies as its own idiolect within an idiolect.
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

When I was designing the shape and style of Bluebird Blvd., I chose not to use most of my four beloved bad words (excluding damn, which is prominently displayed in the subhead of my blog.)   (Someday I’ll work in hell as part of a longer, funny noun phrase.)

I had my reasons for making this choice up front, sociolinguistic cash on the barrel, and I thought long and hard about this before I even had a chance to meet you.
 

ONE
Though I use simple profanity at home, the kind of subject matter I most love to write about is pretty upbeat.  Profanity and upbeat goodies can mix, but it is a rare pen that can pull off that loop-de-loop of high- and low-comedy.  I didn’t want to cut myself out of meeting some great people just because I know some words that begin with “f” (like flibberjabber!).
 

TWO
My profanity isn’t nearly as imaginative or as comical as Chuck Wendig or Jenny Lawson or, my personal favorite profane writer, Cintra Wilson.

The funny in profanity lies in the juxtaposition of the scatological with the unexpected object.
 
 

Here’s a formula to explain how that works:

X=Scatological term

Y= funny ordinary object

Z= absolutely pitch perfect comic timing

X + Y (Z) = Hilarity
 
 

(Additional Note:  Hyphenated scatological profanity is not nearly as funny as compound noun profanity.)

I don’t have the knack for the timing involved, and I hate scatological references, so that’s that.   (For instance, only one of the “big seven” will show up in my vocabulary.)

That cuts an even thinner slice of an idiolect that I exclude from my language.
 
 
 

THREE
My background is in print journalism, fiction, and poetry.  I’ve written for major publications, both newspapers and magazines, and in that world you don’t use profanity.  (The wider the circulation, the lower the curse word count.)

Out of courtesy to you, my reader and friend, I try to give this blog the same polish as I would if I were writing for print.  In fact, it’s even more important to me to make sure what I give you has the highest polish I can evoke because I am a one-Bluebird operation here.

That’s pretty much it.  I don’t use profanity on Bluebird Blvd. because I want to meet all kinds of folks here on the Blvd.

I’m not particularly good at the surprising juxtapositions required to make profanity funny.

And I don’t want to deal with the baggage that goes along with the scatological humor, a type of funny I don’t do well at all and don’t like all that much. 

Sometimes we choose our idiolect, and sometimes our idiolect chooses us.
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

But, if you were to tell me profanity is bad, I would have to disagree with you wholeheartedly.

Profanity is important because it is a distinct language reserved for an adult population and adult conversation.

It shocks and it pleases.  There’s an immediacy that comes from certain language, and profanity contains all that immediacy in one short burst.

There are writers and comics that I love who use profanity in what I consider a profound way to dissect some element of humanity otherwise unexplored.  To remove profanity from these artists would be removing one of the tools that make their art unique.

Few words have both the power and the weight than the four vulgar base terms and their natural offspring.  I can think of ten songs right now that would leave me cold as a listener if the profanity in the lyrics were not included.

This is one of those cases where English would be impoverished without these words, and the poetry of rock music alone would pale.
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

Or, even more curiously, new profane words would slide in to take their place.

See, that’s the funny thing about language.  Words have power.  And words can shift.  And words that were once used as an expression of power in order to subdue women, entire cultures, and sexual orientations have been reappropriated, shifted by the victims who once were bruised by them.

My friends, this is called code-switching.  Taking back a word, one of the worst ones, and claiming it as your own, is a massive way to assert power.  It shifts the word from weapon to possession, and whether you agree or disagree with the way this reappropriation is used, it works.

Whole movements have been born on the loft of taking back a terrible word. Code-switching is not necessarily a completely agreed-upon practice even by those who would seek to erase any boundary created by an oppressive class.

And that is why I protect and adore my four profane words.  I claim them as a contemporary woman.  It’s the way I place a stake on my own personal moon.  It’s the way I differentiate myself from generations of women who weren’t even allowed to discuss their own body parts with one another without a level of self-censorship.
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

And this is why I’m discussing this touchy subject with you right now.  I spend a lot of time, and thought, trying to bring you the brightest and the most beautiful thoughts and people and songs and ideas I can find.

The most important and brilliant idea I can lay at your feet today is that language is powerful.  It is beautiful.  It is immense.

And it is comprised of many, many Englishes— the ones we speak, the ones we write, the ones that remain the languages of your interior cosmos.  Use your words well.  I know you do.  And if you use profanity— say it around adults.  And say it like you mean it.

If you don’t go profane, or you’re trying to unlearn this potent language, I have one more expression to teach you today.  It’s guaranteed to bring a shock and a laugh, so please, save it for the most public occasion you can find.
 
 
 

The next time someone catches you off guard by telling you something pleasant you are not expecting, please say the following:

Unsuspecting person:  Did you know that Sue-Belle made the pie we’re having for dessert out of peaches from her own tree?  Didja?

You:  (Expression of delighted shock) Shut the… front door!
 
 
 

As I said, many Englishes.  Do you see what I mean?  Expressions like the one above are why I prefer to be bilingual in both profanity and fauxfanity.  For some of you, a door is just a door.  But for me, this particular door is a window into the language of the interior.
 
 
 

Plastic sneeuwstormbeschermer / Face protection from snowstorms

 
 
 

*  Lenny Bruce is one of the most interesting comics of the 20th century.  George Carlin owed Bruce a huge debt for pioneering a style of comedy that mid-century ears had not heard before (but 17th century ears heard plenty of this stuff). Lenny Bruce’s life  and mind were destroyed by ongoing obscenity charges and drug problems.  Bob Fosse made an amazing, if quite dark, biopic on Bruce.  I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of comics who “work blue.”
 
 

** A CORRECTION: If you read this essay early this morning, you may have noticed that I originally said that I use the “Seven Dirty Words.”

Though I thought I did my fact-checking thoroughly, it turns out what I thought the “Seven Dirty Words” were, and what Bruce and Carlin and the FCC consider the “Seven Dirty Words” are different words.

It turns out I’m not that profane. The words I’m talking about here are the basic four: damn, hell, s***, and f***. Does that make more sense? Clarity helps. Please excuse the limitations of my idiolect.

 
 

Only the Pretty Ones, Shining, Shining

 
 
 
Bleecker St.
 
 
 

During an unproductive period in the middle of the last decade, I got into the habit of reading tabloid magazines.

By “tabloid” and “magazine,” I mean print publications that discussed the lives of celebrities ad nauseam.  Those newspapers festooned with photographs of Elvis doing the Highland Fling with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln were beyond belief, even to me.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that all those magazines I read— Us Weekly, People, OK!, and In Touchmight as well have had Elvis drinking cocoa with Susan B. Anthony on a beach at Hôtel du Cap-Eden Roc in Antibes on the cover because that would have been more factual than the feature stories I devoured on celebs on a regular basis.
 
 
 

Waverly Place

 
 
 

I had my excuses as to why I bought and read these things:  I liked the pictures and I didn’t get out much.

The clothes were pretty and I missed the casual style of Los Angeles.  I needed to keep up and be topical so I could have conversations at parties that I was never invited to.  And on and on.

Then, I saw something that stopped me short.

TMZ ran a clip of Britney Spears (this footage is pre-head-shaving Britney) attempting to exit the Ivy Restaurant, with one of her children on her hip.

From the minute she closed the gate to the restaurant courtyard, Spears was surrounded with a dark umbra of paparazzi preventing her from getting to her car.  She was stuck, holding her child tightly to her chest, as this thick clicking force threatened to eclipse her entirely.

Now, you could ask a really obvious question here:  Why was she dining at such a high-profile place as the Ivy if she didn’t want to be bothered by the paparazzi?

Then, you’d remember a really obvious answer:  At this point, paparazzi followed Spears everywhere.  If they could have found a way to ambush her in her nightly dreams, you can bet your bippy they would have been there, snap, snap, snapping away at her subconscious desires.

And anyway, why shouldn’t she be able to have a meal at a nice high-profile restaurant without getting swarmed by the social equivalent of wood ants?  I mean, really.
 
 
 

[WOMAN AND WINDOW DISPLAY]

 
 
 

The day I watched that clip was the day I stopped buying and reading tabloid magazines.

I realized I was contributing to the salaries of the men and women who had engulfed Spears and her son.

An even more horrifying thought bloomed in my brain later that same evening.

Every time I bought one of those glossy, mean things or looked online at one of those equally digitally glossy looky-loo sites, I had condoned the behavior of men and women whose job was to hold a camera and shout provocative things at the dubiously famous to see what humiliating act they could inspire with their verbal abuse and aggressive behavior.  And then take pictures of the disaster they provoked.

I cringed, outwardly and inwardly, at the thought.

For at least five years, I had toddled home with one of these dirt mags, read it cover-to-cover in about 30 minutes, and then passed judgment internally on a wide variety of people whose lives weren’t really that interesting to me to start with, and whose artistry (or lack thereof) in no way inspired me to bigger ideas and brighter thoughts.

I did all this in the privacy of my own home and from the safety of my living room couch.
 
 
 

L. E. side

 
 
 

Here’s an even worse revelation for you— I went through celebrity rumor withdrawal for about a month after my cold quit of tabloid magazines and their digital equivalent.

Daily, I found myself tempted to look up Christina Aguilera’s then recent wedding or Dita Von Teese’s shorter haircut on websites whose sole job is to know this sort of drek.

Standing in a grocery store line gave me the twitches for the entire four weeks of my withdrawal.  The glossy mean magazines were right there, shouting headlines at me:

SO-AND-SO’S GROCERY SHOPPING HABITS REVEALED!  GUESS WHICH STAR WHOSE TV SHOW YOU’VE NEVER SEEN EATS OFF-BRAND YOGURT?

WHICH CRABBY BRITISH STARLET WORE WHAT UBIQUITOUS DRESS AT WHICH EVENT YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT?

THE (PROBABLY FAKE) SKIN-CARE REGIMEN (VERY EXPENSIVE) OF A SEVENTEEN YEAR-OLD STAR OF AN AMERICAN SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER (THE MOVIE THAT GAVE YOU A HEADACHE BECAUSE IT WAS SO BAD).  AND HER ONE BEST TIP FOR GLOWING SKIN!
 
 
 

[WOMAN SITTING IN STORE]

 
 
 

One day I was standing in a Whole Foods with an arm-load of items. 

Those same magazines were there with their photographs of famous folk in sunglasses and the usual photographs of a young rock star going through her first rehab and I did something unexpected.

I closed my eyes.  Behind my eyelids, there was velvety darkness.  I could hear the pleasant acoustics that resound through all grocery stores— the accidental harmony of polite conversation between strangers; the eep-eep of the scanner eye reading the contents of half a dozen grocery carts; the rustle of bags and coats and receipts— the coda to every shopping trip symphony.

I opened my eyes.  My gaze skimmed past the shouting magazines to the faces in line in front of me and the pretty girl with the blue tattoo behind the counter handing back the man in the dark coat his change so carefully.  So carefully.

My eyes continued onward to the elderly woman studying a book in one of the booths near the windows.  Her cardboard cup of soup wreathed her soft face in steam.

And my eye went even further, to the windows themselves, where the clouds hung low as drapery swags and the lights of all the cars brushed past one another like an innocent caress.

I followed my gaze all the way out to the first evening star hovering above the treetops.  So frail in the dark.  So fleeting.  A thin night cloud shifted, and I watched the evening star blur gently into the greater sky arcing above and beyond what I could see with my own eyes.

Maybe, just maybe, you will ask me an obvious question:  What do you read now for pleasure instead of tabloid magazines?

And I will answer you thusly:  I may not understand what I see, but I read the night sky.  Because I want to see real stars.  With my own two eyes.
 
 
 

E. 3 st.

 
 
 

I love to write about the good stuff, the real stuff on Bluebird Blvd.
 

MORE REALLY REAL REALITY:

* The Ball Gown of Righteous Indignation

* First Ecstasy, Then Absurdity, and Finally, Miles Davis

* Bluebird Blvd.’s Mash Note Dept.

 
 
 
 

Our Sunday Best | Lit From Within

 
 
 
Typists
 

Dear Diary... Today I wrote the longest Our Sunday Best ever. I am going to be revising and editing this thing for the next ten years.

 
 

When writers explain the writing process, they categorize writing as both art and craft. The words themselves are the art medium used to create worlds. The shape and structure of those words on a page are the result of craft.

All professional writers learn the same process of putting words to paper, then learning that there are better ways to put words to paper, and finally, realizing that words to paper are the beginning of a long road of crafting and refining draft after draft into a final result.

Whether that result is a poem, a story, an essay, or a novel depends on the temperament of the writer and her/his chosen mode of communication. These disciplines have one thing in common— they seek to communicate the mysteries of experience.
 
 
Here are a grouping of glorious websites to help you consider both the art and the craft of the writing process (Plus one extra for fun!) :
 
 
WORDS
 
 
Harvey Fergusson 1921
 

I know six words and a joke about a kangaroo. Wanna hear 'em?

 
 

Wordnik is a new website on the scene that approaches words, and language, in a revolutionary way. Unlike a dictionary, Wordnik does not merely define a word, it gives you a full experience of the word. The search engine button, to give you an example, says “I always feel lucky.”

I looked up “book” and was given every definition that could be culled from five different dictionaries.

On the right-hand side were examples of “book” used in context grabbed fresh from the internet.

Below that, Wordnik listed a basic etymology (history) of “book” in a single sentence with a pronunciation key.

Beneath all of these pleasures, the page explodes with lists of synonyms, hypernyms, hyponyms, and more. At the bottom of the page there are pictures and sounds and comments and lists, all somehow related to the idea “book.”

Even though it is a primarily English-focused site, Wordnik treats all languages as a potential buffet. I tested out my terrible Spanish and my horrid French, which produced some interesting results. The Husband threw out a Russian noun, and this also provided a listing.

Oh, you are going to have so much fun with Wordnik!
 
 
CHARACTER AND PLOT (THOSE BIG WHATNOTS)
 
 
Fotothek df roe-neg 0006581 028 Bild Portrait eines jungen Mannes beim Schreiben
 

Ohhh, no. Plot's gonna run you extra. That don't come with the standard package, Lady.

 
 
Basically, all stories come down to one sentence:

Somebody or Somebodies

do something/have something done to them/want to do something

… and stuff happens that complicates

what s/he/they do/

how s/he/they react(s) to what is done to them/

or impede(s) s/he/them from doing something.

 
 
Okay, so that’s an oversimplification of a more complicated subject.

Sort of.

It’s really easy to get tangled up in knots over plot and character. Plot and character are craft-driven devices.

So, TV Tropes devised a list of character and plot issues called Books on Trope to help your sort out the major ideas about what, and how, those devices work.

TV Tropes is one of my favorite websites because it takes all the tropes (common themes, clichés, and character archetypes) you find in all forms of narrative, and plays with them.

That’s right! On this same website, you can look up any TV show, comic strip, musical style, and so on, and examine it.

And, if you have something to add, you can join their group, which is similar to a Wiki, and have tons of smart and silly narrative fun!
 
 
For a visual examination of how a standard plot arc works, you may want to check out this gem from Derek Silvers (whom I just discovered— he’s an interesting fella!). The link is called “Kurt Vonnegut explains drama.”

Vonnegut is one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century, and no one played more freely and beautifully with the conventions of plot and character, while still remaining thoughtful and entertaining. (Vonnegut was an expert at slipping in big ideas in sweet packages.)

I think, in fact I’m pretty sure, that I heard the exact same Vonnegut lecture. I did not take notes. I sat there with my mouth open the entire time the great man was speaking.

Thank goodness Derek Silvers managed to take fantastic notes, which he decided to share with us.
 
 
REVISION (DO IT TO IT!)
 
 
Fotothek df roe-neg 0006727 039 Weltausstellung für Buchgewerbe und Graphik 1954
 

For my sixth revision, I'm only going to work on rhythm. You tell that guy I'm gonna be here for a month, maybe two.

 
 
Are you still with me? Our Sunday Best is turning into Our Sunday Longest today.

If allowed, I will hammer on and on about revision. I can’t say enough on this subject. The rule is: All writing is rewriting. Rewriting means “to see again.”

When you rewrite anything, you first go through in large swoops looking at the pattern of your piece of writing. (This is after you’ve set it aside for a few days to a month.)

Then you hone in to examine the plot and character development to see that those things are working (They usually aren’t doing exactly what you want them to do.) You basically throw the first draft aside, pick out the chunks that are functional, and go at it again.

After you rewrite everything (twice or forty-six times), you move on to line editing, when you pick apart your writing word-by-word. (Hemingway was a master artist at line edits.)

Finally, you copy-edit (check for basic mistakes) and copy-edit again (you’ll find more mistakes), and you do a page edit (check your page numbers, margins, et. al.). (You are gonna keep finding mistakes and then someone else will check it over, hopefully a friend or editor or both, and they’re gonna find some weird ones.)

I’m skipping a few steps if you’re writing non-fiction. Between rewriting and copy-editing, you will fact check any item that can be verified. Always cross-reference your sources.

A bad source is a rookie mistake, and everybody makes them early on, but if you keep making them, you’ve tinted yourself as an untrustworthy narrator.

Still, it can happen. Easily.

Once, early in my writing career, I accidentally changed a man’s first name in a feature piece. He called me. He was locally famous. And he wasn’t happy that I had renamed him. I apologized and went to my editor nearly in tears.

I was 22! It was my third story. I thought, okay, that’s it! They’re gonna take me right out of the building.

To her credit, this editor laughed.
 
 
While features writing and all non-fiction require muscular fact checking, with poetry you are going to be doing additional rewrites that look at the shape of the thing. If you’re doing it right, it make take you a year to finish one poem.

That’s why you work on about 50 of those things at the same time. All will be in different stages of revision. Mark each one and staple it to the last one. That’s the best advice I can give you about poetry.

Oh! And never force a rhyme unless you’re going for a cheap laugh.
 
 
Okay. I’ve driven you crazy. I get that. Or you already know all of this stuff. I respect that too. You’re gonna love me for these three links, though.

For listening to me ramble on about revision, I give you the gift of Chuck Wendig: He’s a self-proclaimed freelance penmonkey. (I want to steal that, by the way.)

Wending wrote a piece called “25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing Right F***ing Now” and a follow-up piece entitled “25 Things Writers Should Start Doing.”

My friend K—— introduced me to the pleasures of El Wendig in December.

For four weeks now, I have not been able to stop shouting, “To the Resentmentmobie!” (You’ll see….)

He knows of which he speaks when it comes to writing. I really think you’ll love him, as long as you’re not allergic to profanity. Lots of profanity. Gorgeously written profanity. (He even joked on his twitter feed that he’s “starting to think my trademark should be ‘Beware the profanity.”)

I love his writing about writing. I’m looking forward to reading one of his novels in the next few months. And I adore the way he uses profanity. It’s funny and lyrical and intelligent.
 
 
If that’s really, really not your style, or you’re already reading Wendig, I give you this equally mouth-watering link to the fabulous site This Recording. Among other subjects, This Recording does killer, beautiful-to-look-at, lovely-to-read pieces on writers, both famous and specialized.

(And special props to This Recording for their feature story “100 Greatest Writers.” Yumtastic!)
 
 
DIGESTIF (YES, WE’RE DONE!)
 
 

Amelita galli-curci

 

Dear Ms. Bluebird: Please go suck an egg for your crummy advice. Yours sincerely, Ida Lemon.

 
 
Here we are.

You read this week’s Our Sunday Best and did not skip out on me. Thank you for that.

Everything I gave you today, my friend, I use. Everything I said today, I believe. And if you’re reading this, know that writers are made, not born.

The more you write, the more you develop both the muscle and the flexibility to write anything. The more you revise, the more you become a consistent artist and craftsperson. And the more you learn, the freer you are.

When you finish writing for the day, please, just once, play this game?

It’s called either Yeti Sports or Pingu Throw. The Husband found it back in 2004, and we’ve been competing at this thing ever since. (You may know it, and may have forgotten about it.)

It’s not bloody.

It’s very silly.

It’s free. (Though the creator, Yeti Sports, has gone on to make some cool looking games that cost a little bit!)

And I found the one site that doesn’t seem to be full of (too many) junky ads where you can play it after spending a day monkeying with words.

I love monkeying with words.

I spent all day today monkeying with words. So….

Let’s play Pingu Throw!
 
 
Penguins

Cecil? Basil? Roberto? Put on your helmets. We're gonna win this, uh, us toss, this time. Weeeee!

 
 

The Soft Answer

 

Woman's face

 
 
Sometime in December, I found myself sprawled in bed reading one of the Fantagraphics collections of Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts.

These collections cover every strip from every year Schulz penned his groundbreaking work, but the book I was reading cover-to-cover that vague Saturday afternoon covered either 1974 or 1975.

These details are important to me because of what happened next. I saw a strip I had never seen before of Schulz’s, and being a quietly huge fan of his work, I sat up in bed and re-read the last line out loud.

Here’s the set-up: Lucy is yelling at her brother. She threatens to clobber him.

Linus says something like “Of course you can clobber me. You’re bigger than me, and stronger, and I know that.”

Eternally crabby Lucy fumes off to crab alone in another room, leaving Linus standing there thinking aloud.

“I’ve become an expert at the soft answer,” says Linus to himself.

The soft answer. This idea has been sticking in my head since that day on the bed reading Peanuts, surrounded by my dogs and my library books.

 


 

Slowly but surely as I turn to the middle part of my life, I, too, desire to become an expert at the soft answer.

I had a moment where I gave the soft answer last summer, when, due to a contrivance of circumstances, my family and I found ourselves at dinner with a group of strangers in a nice restaurant.

One man towards the end of the table, thinking he was speaking to an agreeable audience, made a racist comment. There was a noticeable pause at the table.

Quietly, I made a pointed joke. Not a mean joke. Not a snide remark. But, a joke nonetheless that countered the racist comment.

My head was turned to my plate as I said what I said, so I only saw his face in my peripheral vision, and his face was the color of a scarlet scarf.

There was another pause as the table digested my joke, and then everyone moved on to a more elevating conversation.

The reason I am not repeating the remark to you, or my joke, is that I still find the situation strange and deplorable.

Also, I know once I repeat either one, you and I will become derailed and want to discuss that, instead.

In another lifetime, I might have been shocked into a stunned silence that turned into a surly pantomime. In another lifetime, I might have hit this man with the full barrage of a shame-based argument full of facts and figures and hyperbolically wheeling arms as a form of physical punctuation.

In this lifetime, I surprised myself by saying the right thing at the right time in the right, soft tone of voice, thereby shutting this man down once and for all.

It was an accidental case of the soft answer.

 


 

In yet another lifetime, I taught a few college and university classes.

No matter the subject I was covering, one of the ideas I tried to impress on these students is that the bigger choices of their lives are not made by pronouncements, promises or resolutions.

It is the little choices we make each day that make up the warp and weft of the larger fabric that is our life’s work.

The television shows you choose to watch at night, the ideas you decide to think each day, the clothes you buy with whatever expendable income you have, the books you read regularly, the comments you make to yourself and others, the friends who know you by all of your nicknames are all ways of making the small choices that lead to the big ones.

And before you know it, you have become inevitably influenced by these simple, casual choices, whatever they may be.

In those small rooms of these universities and colleges, I watched a light bulb switch on click after click, over each head as they absorbed the simple math of this idea.

I came by this knowledge the hard way, which, unfortunately, is the best way an idea like this one will stick to your ribs for the rest of your life.

 


 

And, if you’re wondering about my ability to choose now, I can say only that I try to make deliberate choices from the minute I wake with the first light of morning.

And I keep trying to make those choices from the minute my bare feet hit the floor. I keep swinging forward, connecting one idea to the next with certainty and with force.

Sometimes I fail. Often, I fail. But I keep going at it, getting stronger with every tick of the clock. Soon, I’ll find new small bad choices to make and correct. That makes me human.

I don’t talk about this idea, or where it is leading me, because I haven’t had a reason to do so, until now. I’m telling you, my friend, because this is one of the layers of the firmament that is me.

These days, I think more and more that my years of quiet choices and my deliberation on these choices are a form of soft answer.

 


 

No is also a form of soft answer.

I believe in voting with my wallet. I do what I can to buy items that support my small everyday choices. I boycott items and products that don’t reflect what I believe to be fair or true. No, I don’t think your business practices are fair. No, I don’t believe that the donations you are making to certain think tanks are good ways to spend the dollar I handed over to you.

And the reverse soft answer is Yes. Yes, I will buy two of these because your money goes to places that help people create new lives for themselves. Yes, I think you make good things and you are transparent about your financial practices. Yes, I believe in you and you’ll know it because I will pay retail without blinking twice.

This is the soft answer, paid in full, up front.

 


 

In the hours of the days of my late 30s, I find I am presented with the brittle snippets of a tune’s worth of small choices that lead to a bigger song I’m trying to sing, quietly, to myself and to you.

These days, more than I ever have before, I consider the words I speak before they slip past the natural guard of my teeth.

And if I cannot speak, I sip the silence and listen to what you have to say beneath the words you have already said, as well as I can, with both of my ears and my singular heart.

My careful listener’s silence is my soft answer. And my silence, on days like today, speaks clearly, and true.
 
 
 
 
 
 



 
 
As you may or may not know, I participated in the WordPress blackout today, as well as a formal blackout of not just all the social media I use, but the internet itself.

I am grateful to WordPress for being at the fore of an issue I’ve been following closely since October. I am also thankful to my fellow bloggers who participated today and the larger forces of the internet, such as Google and Wikipedia , for being gorgeous, living examples of the soft answer in action.

 
 

If you would like to join your voice to the many voices who are speaking against both SOPA and PIPA, you may also click on the black ribbon at the right-hand top of any of my pages to formally protest via contacting representatives of the U.S. Government.

As you will be hearing a lot of editorializing in the coming weeks, I offer you these three items to peruse yourself:

Here is the full text of the current SOPA bill, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress has two versions of the PIPA bill. The last one, according to the LOC, is usually the most recent.

And, finally, here is the least-biased version of the original letter sent in December by tech executives to Washington.

Venture Beat did a great job of framing out the basic information on this then little known piece of legislation.

Where did I hear about SOPA first? I was helping to promote a friend’s Kickstarter project. Kickstarter raised the alarm about this bill back in November. I’ve been protesting it ever since.

The above links are meant to provide you with as many actual facts as I have at my disposal.
 
 

The Library In Winter

City, public library

Earlier in the week, my stepfather took my car in for routine maintenance.  It is dusk on a Wednesday.  I get in my car with my two bags of library books and close the door.  On starting the ignition, I realize that my stepfather has filled my tank with gas.

“HAAAAAALLLLEEELUJAH!  HALLE-LUJAH!  HALLE-LU-u-u-jaaaaah.”

I jumped in my seat and wonked my head on the side window.

My stepfather has also reset my radio to the Christmas music station.

• • •

I arrive at the main library, park and go inside.  All is quiet.  It’s too late in the day for families, the students are finished with finals, and the avid bibliophiles are elsewhere tonight.

Most of the patrons tonight are homeless, and they’re here to read and socialize, to sleep a little and to stay warm.  I return my books.  The clerk and I discuss deviated septum surgery, and exchange pleasantries.  I tell her I’ll keep her in my thoughts.  She does the same.

• • •

Without patrons, the library has a cathedral hush.   The main floor smells of new books, central heating, with the slight undertone of soiled clothing.  It’s a comforting and familiar melange.  The library is home to me and to many, and being home at the library fills me with joy.

Thirty minutes later, I am combing the stacks on the second floor looking for weird Christmas books when I hear the delicious sound of a small radio being turned on and a man singing, clearly, beautifully, three rows away.

I stop to listen and the radio goes off and then on again.  The stranger singing in the stacks has an extraordinary voice.

A few minutes pass.  And then I see the man with the beautiful voice.  His small radio is tied to his belt loop.  I smile.  “You have a beautiful voice,” I say.

He returns the smile.  “Thank you.”

The moment passes and he moves on through the stacks as I stay put.  For the next ten minutes as I browse,  I listen to snatches of  this man’s song, deep and nuanced, full of something rare.

• • •

I drive through the local barbecue joint on my way home as I am too tired to cook tonight.  As I enunciate my order into the speaker, a woman’s voice replies—

“Is that all you’re gonna have tonight, dollin’?  Are you sure I can’t get you some pie or some sweet tea?”

Her voice delights me.  It’s so kind!  “No, ma’am.”

“Okay, sweetness, pull around to the window.”

We talk as she’s waiting for my order to be filled.  This woman has just lost her mother.  She is a part-time pastor for a small church.  I listen and hold her hand through the window.  Loss at Christmas is hard.  Very hard.  She hands me my food and we smile at each other.

• • •

I drive out onto the dark and empty street, thinking of this woman, and her kindness, and her loss.

I turn the corner and head into the sparse traffic, my car full of library books and the curvy smell of barbecue.

Then, I point my car toward the freeway, find my stepfather’s beloved Christmas station, and sing a little, to myself.  I turn up the radio and sing louder, and I know, right then, I will sing all the way back to the house.

*The photograph above is from the archives of The Library of Virginia.

The Ball Gown Of Righteous Indignation

 
 
 

Nine ladies dancing (many ladies dancing)

 

Everybody! All together now! And a-one, and a-two!

 
 
 

I used to get incensed when I would open the door for someone and not receive an acknowledgment.

I think that is an understandable response to feeling like a ghost hand holding the knob for your party of six-to-eight sated fellow restaurant customers.  Not a helpful one, but understandable.

My problem, at the time, was not the opening of the door as a gesture of kindness; my problem was seated in the righteous indignation I felt at the lack of a thank you on the part of the recipients.  Or a head nod.  Something.  Anything.  Yoo-hoo!  I’m right here.

But righteous indignation is kind of like showing up to an outdoor barbecue in a ball gown*—  it’s an emotional response that is overdressed for the occasion, that is gilded with pompousness, that is embroidered with entitlement, and that will make you hot and uncomfortable for no good reason.

To push this simile into big metaphor territory, the ball gown of righteous indignation doesn’t take account for the fact that not only do we live in a flip-flop and jeans world, but historically, we’ve always lived in the world of flip-flops and jeans of one sort or another.

Aside from historicism, my original problem was that I kept opening doors and continued filling myself with righteous indignation when folks didn’t respond in a way that I thought was appropriate,  The more I opened doors and received nothing in return, the more I soaked in my own self-righteous brine, which did not soften my hands or make me smell as fragrant as a smoked ham.
 
 
 

It made me feel awful.

Righteous indignation has a way of perpetuating more righteous indignation, and that, my dear reader, is about as much fun as tramping around in a big ol’ ball gown on a hot day.

This repeated gesture of doors and anger was one of those rare moments that offered two clear choices. (Life often does not frequently give you two clear choices, so I felt lucky.)

I could either stop opening doors for people (unthinkable).  Or I could stop expecting people to act the way I thought they should act (unthink… Well?  Hmm.).
 
 

What I discovered as I deliberated my choices is that I like opening doors in public places and private residences for friends and strangers.

More than that, I liked the fact that I was the kind of person who opened doors, who lets people cut ahead in the grocery store, who says please and thank you.  By looking exclusively for acknowledgment, I was depriving myself of the joy of the act of kindness— and that joy is something I give to me.
 
 
 

Now, before we go any further, let me reveal that I am not always courteous. (Quelle surprise!)

I am quite capable of being rude, especially in public with aggressive drivers, and most certainly by my own tendency for internal distraction both in private and public. And distraction is probably the root reason why people did not (and still do not) acknowledge that it is my hand that is holding open the door. We are all human. All of us. Every single one. Wait. Maybe…? No, it’s all of us.

I really, really try to be kind and aware, but I am really, really human.  Excessively, embarrassingly so— and I am assuming, if you are reading this confession, you also feel all too human in your interactions with folks.  (So, hello there, fellow human!  Let me hold that door open for you!  Watch me yell at you when you tailgate with your car!)
 
 
 

Well, I try.  And so do you.

As this world becomes more populated and as our expectations become even more frantic and convoluted (according to popular magazines, which I’m disinclined to read these days),  I think it’s easy to get caught up in expectation and in self-righteousness, and to forget that kindness is the gift we give ourselves as much as we give the gesture of kindness to our fellow persons.

And I’d like to think I’ve shimmied out of that cheap ball gown of righteous indignation in exchange for wearing the jeans of personal security and the sweater of self-respect.

But, if you see me wearing the beret of false humility, do me a favor?  Just quietly remove it and let me hold the door open for you.  Thanks.
 
 


 
 
*It has been graciously pointed out to me that for some of you? The Ball Gown metaphor isn’t working.

To remedy this oversight, I offer you…:

The Polyester Band Uniform of Righteous Indignation!
 
 

Although my original choice to enjoy my own kindness was prompted by personal awareness, writer Gretchen Rubin has written elegantly about this specific issue in her book The Happiness Project.  I have to tell you when I read the chapter on gold stars I laughed my head off.
 

David Foster Wallace, (rest in peace), wrote this beautiful speech called“This Is Water” on a similar, and broader scope.  I read this essay often, and it keeps me focused on the mystery of the unseen reasons for human foible.  (D.F.W., I miss you so much.)