Names: Some secret, some not

The foster dog looks at The Husband


I have been caring for a foster dog for five weeks and I have not given him any name, even a temporary one on which we all can hang our future hopes for him. Instead, I have called him “Bub” and “Junior” and “the baby” and “darling” and “you.” When I croon to him, the foster dog has heard himself named “sweetie” and “good boy” and “good dog” in the dulcet sing-song I use with babies and young dogs. And when the foster dog requires correction, my stentorian tones linger on “mister” and “sir” and “buddy” — as in “Buddy, you had better leave that power strip alone or we’ll all get a shock today.” and “Sir! Compose yourself.”

In these five weeks, I have called the foster dog so many random things that he does not know when he is being called except that I routinely clap my hand twice across my breastbone and whistle to bring him in from the darkness at the edges of the yard. When he races on three legs from out of the shadows of the loquat trees, I drop to my heels to catch him in my arms and call him “good dog” and “sweet baby” and “love.” While he sighs and presses into my shoulder, I massage his cheeks with the palms of my hands in the circle of brightness from the security light by the back door. And there it is: I regret another day in which I have not named him.


I myself have two first names—a public name and a private name. Nearly four decades ago, my mother asked her mother to drive her to municipal libraries in three cities to look for names for the spark she carried between her small hips. It was my grandmother who told me this story first—with an equal amount of amusement and wonder and respect—because she, herself, would not have gone to any wild trouble over a name—names came to you, she believed, not you to them. You did not, as my grandmother put it “hunt them down” or “track a name to the near-ends of the earth.” But this is exactly what my mother did when she was six months pregnant and beginning to show a little, even when she wore her car coat.

Put another way, my mother didn’t require someone else to climb over the fence of the witch’s garden patch next door to settle her craving for green spring peas like the pregnant woman in the fairy tale. She herself launched over that garden wall with a leg up from my grandmother. Only my mother knew what she was craving, and only she could find it. And woe be to any witch who threatened my mother —she was the hero on a quest. Everybody knows you don’t mess with the hero of the story. You drive them to the library to hunt for names, or you get out of the way.

My mother, the hunter. My mother, the hero. My mother, the sorceress. My mother, who gave me two first names, one secret, one not.

To know my true name is to conjure me on the spot.


In fairy tales, one’s name is the source of great power. Think of the hapless promise the terrified miller’s daughter makes to an opportunistic imp when she must spin straw into gold, or die. The imp can fix these matters if the miller’s daughter will promise him her future first child. She agrees, tout suite. True to all fairy tales, there is a twist to the promise: Should she can somehow discover the imp’s true name before he claims the child, he must forfeit her firstborn. Straw becomes gold; she lives to marry the king. When the imp arrives a year later to take her newborn child, it is the wind that finally saves the queen by carrying the imp’s name across the mountains. At the last minute, when the imp is about to lay hands on the infant, the former miller’s daughter calls him by name—Rumpelstiltskin!

Shocked, he blips out of existence. End of story.

Or is it? What has history taught us about names and naming that’s any different than the terror experienced by Rumpelstiltskin when the miller’s daughter speaks his true name? It’s the same old story, rewritten so the broken promise of the queen in the third act will appear gilded and heroic. But still: A broken promise is a broken promise. But still: The queen named names. But still: There is no Rumplestiltskin.


We don’t speak our names to strangers: We give them our names. Our names are also our surest currency: We can put our name behind a venture; we can let someone work under our name to get ahead in business. That’s assuming we have a good name to start with—meaning an acquired set of respected traits that people imagine when one’s name is conjured in conversation. For bad or for good, someone can act in your name because that’s the name of the game, but if your name is mud you may have to clear your name. Even so, your name may remain tarnished beyond recognition.

Regardless, I answer to the name Courtenay. But I am also called ________, which means almost no one is on a first-name basis with me.

Besides, I will probably not catch your name for the first six times I hear it. It’s not that I’m rude—I’m just terrible at names.


Names are the architecture on which we build the self. Names are the conqueror’s last word on an occupied space. Names lift and fall and bury and rise at an equal rate at which we speak those names aloud. Some names are magic. Some names are mysteries. Some names are crystalline structures that blow down at the first breath. Some things are felt to be so terrible are named ‘unnameable.’ Some names can never tbe spoken aloud or one will be seen as using that name in vain—or worse.

A name is a tailor-made burden. A name is the bright electric torch that illumines our way through everyday darkness. A name is a stamp and a trademark and a wish. A name is what we use to recall ourselves to ourselves long after the ones who named us have left the room. Sometimes we are named after someone and must live up to that name. Sometimes our names are our own to make or to destroy.

When we marry and take someone else’s name, we can even disappear.

There is no greater sleight-of-hand than a name.


I am standing in darkness; the foster dog hops along the fence line, bending the branches of the loquat trees as he goes. His paralyzed foot drags across the dead leaves, which then crackle and pop. In a few weeks, the cicadas will wake from their seven-year sleep and rise from the ground to sing in chorus during the watches of the night. It’s time to go inside. I thump my breastbone and whistle out to the dog. I can hear him turning around beneath the trees, considering my call. I thump my breastbone again and whistle twice: I am the only one outside tonight.

He turns to run to me; my hands are open. He runs; I will catch him in my arms.

Every dog deserves a name.

5-Minute Dance Party | That’s Not My Name

Has anyone ever gotten your name wrong? I mean, really, really wrong?


Listen, I once allowed a woman to call me “Whitney” for eight years. It wasn’t a big deal, really—I didn’t see her often, and she was awfully nice, and Whitney was close enough that the only bother was remembering to answer her when she called me by name. I mean, her version of my name.

The longer this farce went on, the more weird it would seem if I turned around to this woman and suddenly said, “You know what? My name is actually Courtenay.”

I needn’t have worried. Eight years later, I was sitting in an airport bus headed for an Irish stepdance and music thing with ten other people from my dance school. While we were bouncing around the back on bad shocks, that lovely woman leaned forward and put her hand on my shoulder—”Whitney, here—”

“WHITney?” Someone roared from the very back. “Her name is COURTenay.”

“Oh. OH! Is this true, Whitney?” She emitted a small embarrassed laugh. “—Courtenay.”

The lights from the street lamps crisscrossed my knees as we drove into the city. “You were just so nice.” I worked my hands in the air, trying to conjure an exact explanation. “I just didn’t know how to tell you.”

I was a month shy of 18 when I had that conversation in an airport van with a woman who accidentally called me Whitney for eight years. My life lay before me in so many strange trips to so many cities with so many people who didn’t know my name, that this moment seemed like a blip. And who can call someone to fault for misnaming you when it was your own correction to make?

And besides,Courtenay is not actually my “real” name.

Courtenay is my nickname. Almost nobody knows this. In essence, my mother gave me two first names to do with as I wished. And my wish has been to keep one of my names somewhat secret.

Why am I bringing this up now? Today’s story is all about names! Names: Some Secret, Some Not!

The Marriage Interpreter (No. 50)

Photo-illustration of The Husband making Bunny Ears.

THE HUSBAND strolls into Bluebird’s office. BLUEBIRD is on the phone with Phillip.

The Husband: What are the din deets?

Bluebird: (On the phone with Phillip Lozano.) Wait, this is for you Phillip. (Turns on speaker phone.)

The Husband: What are the din deets? That means ‘dinner details’— it’s for people who are too busy to say entire words.

Phillip: (Laughs.) How are you?

The Husband: (Grabbing the speaker phone and walking away.) What have I been doing? I’ve been busy, busy. I’m busy growing out a mustache and that takes time. . . .

THE HUSBAND looks glum.

Bluebird: What’s wrong?

The Husband: I was just listening to a Gwen Stefani song and now I’m confused.

Bluebird: Okay?

The Husband: (Frustrated.) What’s a hollowbacked girl?


Wait! Don’t tell me! Your talking about Eggy Strop. (Flustered.) I mean, Streggy Loop! I mean, Piggy Ope! I mean—


THE HUSBAND is driving south. BLUEBIRD is in the passenger seat talking a mile-a-minute.

Bluebird: …and that reminds me of—

The Husband: Wait! Don’t tell me! Your talking about Eggy Strop. (Flustered.) I mean, Streggy Loop! I mean, Piggy Ope! I mean—

Bluebird: (Wide-eyed.) —Iggy Pop?

The Husband: (A beat. Then, casual-like.) Well, naturally it’s…that guy.

THE HUSBAND IS SENDING TEXT MESSAGES to Bluebird from the ranch.

(Ping! A message arrives.)

The Husband: I’m changing my pen name to Verdana Fontt.

Bluebird: (Texting back.) Okay? What’s your middle name, then?

The Husband: Futura. (Ping!) But she’s thinking about changing it to her mother’s maiden name—

Bluebird: (Realizes what’s coming.) (Small voice.) Oh no.

The Husband: (Ping!) —San Serif.

(Bluebird covers her eyes with her hands.)

The Husband: (Ping!) Are you still there? (Ping!) Anyway, Verdana Fontt is also a superhero. (Ping!) She can give you an instant migraine at will if you stare at her too long.

THE HUSBAND is calling Bluebird from the ranch on Easter Sunday.

Bluebird: (Answering phone.) Hello?

The Husband: Happy Halloween!

Bluebird: ??? (Pause.) Are you having a stroke?

The Husband: (Ignoring question.) Did you know you can make an omelette with Cadbury Cream Eggs? (Talking faster.) I’ve had six cups of coffee! (And faster.) I think I may go for a run this morning!

Bluebird: I…(Stumped.) Hunh.

The Husband: (Talking at the speed of sound.) Thenewespressomaker fromthethriftstore worksgreat! (Even faster.) I’mgoingtohavemorecoffeenow! Iwillcallyouafter Ifinishstudying! HappyEaster!

(The Husband hangs up.)

The Bluebird looks at her phone in wonder.

Bluebird: (Out loud.) What just happened?

(Happy Easter, everyone!)

Illustrated Husband making bunny ears.

5-Minute Dance Party | Sunny and Steve — Enjoy the Sweets

Happy Easter!


When was the last time you fought over Easter candy at your house?

The last time we fought over Easter candy was, let me see here—about three weeks ago?


On a related note, I’ve got some happy news!

We’re posting our 50th Marriage Interpreter today! Can you believe it? What’s your favorite Marriage Interpreter moment so far?

(I think mine will always be the Cookie Movie incident.)

5-Minute Dance Party | Libertango

I am always amazed

at what the tango can do

when matched with the right dancer.

Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” may be the most recognizable work of nuevo tango music in the world as well as the most accessible. For how can you not feel excitement when you hear Piazzolla’s sharp, moody masterpiece?

Here’s the problem with masterpieces: People adore masterpieces so much that they feel the need to add their own messy thumbprint to them. Like most composers, Piazzolla played the music he created, and a pretty thorough display of those legitimate recordings can be found on the All Music database. I like Piazzolla’s versions of his own pieces best—they have bite and intellectual fervor without removing a single slice of their original use as music for dance.

Some versions don’t fare so well. Piazzolla’s “Libertango” bloats in the orchestral version with sobbing strings used for “The Tango Lesson,” and nearly lays down and quits in the recording of Piazzolla’s ‘Libertango” duet with Yo-Yo Ma. (What genius would drown out Piazzolla’s accordion playing—in a tango, no less—to make room for cellist Yo-Yo Ma? I did mention this was tango music, didn’t I?)

And those are the legit versions. On Amazon, I found a pirated version of “Libertango” that appeared to be an arrangement of “Libertango” cassette recording and bucket drum. (It could’ve been worse, right? It could have been an arrangement of kitchen sink and kazoo.)

This version was arranged and produced by Michal Dvořák (with Jiří Janouch) for Vivaldianno MMXII featuring cellist Jaroslav Svěcený, accompanied by Michal Dvořák on keyboards and a host of celebrated professional musicians.

The dancer in this music video—who is amazing, yes?—is Johanka Hájková

If you’re still yearning for the original Piazzolla-played “Libertango,” may I suggest The Soul of Tango, which is a legitimate, beautifully produced collection of premier Piazzolla classics played by the master himself. How novel! How gorgeous! How true!

Our Sunday Best | The weight of light

Matthew Brady, first known war photographer, looking stern in self-portrait contact sheet.

Whatever the photographers brought into a place was carried on their backs, and sometimes in their minds. There were the cameras and the film and the light meters and the lens brushes. There were the tripods and the black bags for the exposed film. Their bodies were crisscrossed in straps that held the cameras easily at hand when they traveled on foot, and the straps dug into their flesh, mapping and marking them, so that when they removed their clothes at night, they would look down in wonder at this accidental cartography. Another day, another arrangement of straps, and bruises like the heels of mountains would begin to rise on the photographers’ bodies wherever their cameras swayed and hit. Sometimes the photographers shot pictures.

The photographers found themselves welcomed wherever they arrived, except for those places where they weren’t welcome at all. In those unwelcome places, they hid their cameras and changed their names and took pictures from behind the broken bones of buildings where the bombs had stripped away architectural flesh. In the places where they were welcomed, the local people examined them and asked them questions if they shared a language or two, and if no language bridged the barrier of photographer to man, they relied on other ways of speaking to one another: pantomime being a common favorite, but even that was known to fail. Sometimes the man in charge just looked the photographer in the eye to see if he was a good man or if he could be made use of in some way. It was up to the photographer to understand how this might go.

Some of the photographers were honest in their intentions, as much as a photographer can be honest about what they haven’t seen yet. Really, it is never in the best interest of any subject in the field to have their picture taken because the subject cannot control the variables—the light in the sky and the temperament of the photographer could make some unhappy results. A strong photograph or four or six can topple an empire—everyone came to understand that pretty quickly. And some of the photographers were liars—their job, as they saw it, was to expose historical events, but what those photographers wanted was to be at the center of history, so the pictures they took skewed the story and shifted the outcome of what would have been to what these photographers decided it must be.

But worse still were the earnest photographers in the field that functioned like sensitive eyes. These photographers had the unhappiest luck of all—they often found themselves in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to try to save a single person from tragedy or to take a horrifying picture that might rescue an entire country. Sometimes there was no time. Sometimes there was no real choice. No one could cost out the expense of a single person’s life and yet those photographers would spend the rest of their nights and their days trying to sort out the ghoulish mathematics of what they did and what they saw.

When all was done, the photographers packed up their rucksacks and tore down their tripods and left little behind to remind anyone of who they actually were. And they trekked back through the dark and the light places of this earth to wherever it was that would welcome them home, but they never came home as heroes. The city men and city women called the photographers witnesses and observers to their faces, but these same citizens felt uneasy around the photographers and their cameras. For what do you call an instrument that can topple a king and a mountain and a regime with the simple release of a trigger? And what do you call the person who carries this deadly instrument?

And the photographers were afraid of the city men and the city women. The photographer’s faces said, You asked us to bear witness for you and we have done it. Now you cannot meet our eyes? It was too much to take. The photographers began to pack. They picked up their bags and their cameras with the straps that crisscrossed their bruised torsos. They hoisted the tripods and checked their pockets for extra film and lens cloths. Some of the photographers wanted to weep—they were tired of loud noises and strange meetings with powerful men—but they did not weep. They would go. And some of the citizens felt guilty but said nothing as the photographers walked out of sight of the city.

Soon the distant photographs would come, and with them the stories, and the city men and the city women would sit in cafés at night and argue the merits of these stories and pictures, when all the while the photographers were out there with the journalists, names forgotten, good deeds unknown. At night in these faraway places, the photographers went into tents and into rented rooms, removed their shirts or blouses and lay down on beds and bedrolls to consider solitary thoughts. Sometimes their tired fingers traced lazy streets into the places where the straps of their cameras had worn thin crisscrossed scars over the years. Sometimes, when the photographers slept, they did not dream of home.


The weight of light is part of Courtenay Bluebird’s ongoing history of modern photography, which has been featured on Bluebird Blvd.’s wholly original long-running celebrated weekly feature story series, OUR SUNDAY BEST. (This particular piece is based on a composite of various biographies I’ve read about famous and not-so-famous war correspondents who spent extensive time in the field/in country.)

To read more selections from this chapter, please go to Our Sunday Best {Truth Makes Contact}. Some of those stories are serious doozies, y’all. Wait until you hear about our man, W. Eugene Smith. He’s a wild one!

The image featured today is a contact sheet of some self-portraits shot by Matthew Brady, considered to be one of the first—if not the first—war photographer. What war did he photograph? The Civil War! Brady’s intrepidness changed our understanding of current events. We are deeply in his debt. Speaking of which, much thanks to the women and men who undertake the difficult task of photographing conflict all over the world. You are our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Thank goodness for photojournalists.


The Ouroboros Chain

Painting of partially nude woman in shadow by Franz Von Stuck - "The Sin." Oil on canvas, 1893.

Wise men say, and not without reason, that whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.

Niccolò Machiavelli

In the last month of winter, I bought a clock from a man in Latvia who deals exclusively in time. I say he deals in time and not clocks because he is a master watchmaker who forges the instruments that measure and mark the physical hour, much like a maker of the sea-bound sextant fashions objects that illuminate the actuality of place. Each instrument measures what was once beyond the grasp of exactness; each is an idea and an object; a tool and a weapon. Empires were forged in steel as a result of the sextant and the clock. As a person whose private life is unlatched from both time and place, it seems fitting that I remain in awe of those who can latch and fix east to west and noon to midnight.


In any which case, I bought an alarm clock from a clock-seller in Latvia, a country close to a principality by a sea I’ve never seen where a man I cannot know boarded a ship to avoid a war I barely understand. He came to this country and bore a son who bore a son who bore a daughter whose lips have never tasted the salt air of the sea. And this is why I purchased a timepiece from a Latvian watchmaker, which arrived in a heavy swaddling of bubble wrap and tape, safe inside of a box that was wrapped with crisp brown paper, on which my address and the watchmaker’s address were written in a fine English hand with a charming trace of the native speaker’s Cyrillic, using a fading blue ballpoint pen that was carefully set down next to a vast handful of small stamps the color of old Wedgwood plates.

Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra

The world is circular north to south and east to west; time is supposedly linear, but it depends on what you’re measuring. The numbers remain the same in one cycle or another. It does not matter whether you count each hour up to 24, or count twelves and twelves, you return to where you began in a rather brief amount of time. Seasons also bend back to meet themselves at the beginning; all four manage to remain in their natural order despite our messing about. The body ages from the moment it is born to the moment it dies, but in its ever-dying midst the cycle begins again with another child slipping anew into the hands of this world, so the story is carried on. There are always endings and beginnings. There is, for the moment, always time.


In the last month of winter,
I bought a clock
from a man in Latvia
who deals in time.


Exactness eludes me, but my fading memory brings me to the Ouroboros, my beloved snake-that-eats-its-own tail, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, a creature that seems to have wound itself around every story on every page I’ve ever attempted to write. I am lucky the Ourboros stays around to connect me to myself. Otherwise, what would happen to me? My blood is divided neatly in half, east and west, each side facing a different troubled sea, each side known for its storytellers and its cliffs and lowlands and its natural aversion to the empires that rolled through and decided that this country was a good buffer, an excellent place to set down the guard gate and man it with the threat of beasts and war.

Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra

I am east; I am west; I am nowhere; I am in-between. The gate drops and my story does not get told. The gate opens and I flee, leaving the accumulated wealth that is history behind me. Quetzalcoatl opens one sleepy leonine eye and marks my passage across two brisk edges of the world. He will meet me in the middle—he always does. He meets everyone, but not everyone meets him. In me, the trail of two stories fades off and tapers to a thin knife edge of memory that lingers before it cuts. My story lacks the exactness of time and place. No compass can find me; no clock can mark me; no sextant can pin me to any center of the always-shifting ever-turning fortune of the world.


What I have instead is two of each of these: the sea, the hunger, the war, and the escape. Only the Ouroboros knows my true names. Only Quetzalcoatl knows my story. I am the daughter that slipped through the dark reach of two empires; I am the riddle that eludes each still-grasping fist. I am born from the union of transgressor and trickster—I can hear the war drums beating in the distance, but they do not beat for me.


…no sextant can pin me
to any center
of the always-shifting,
ever-turning fortune
of the world.


I write to the Latvian time-maker: How do I care for this strange Soviet clock? You must wind it every day, he replies in his beautiful, cautious English. Do not overwind, he says. I cannot stress this enough. In five years time, take it to a master watchmaker to have him put oil to the stones. It’s a tiny touch. A master knows how much. There is a pause, and in that pause, lands the tick of this clock winding down to ring and roar. There is silence before action: Everyone can hear it. It’s the ending of a story rolling up to meet its beginning again. It is so quiet, I can hear my blood pulse a beat inside the deep curve of my ear.—The master watchmaker writes back in a hurry: Do not forget to wind the clock today. If you do not hear the tik-tack, you must shake the clock gently. Only this will make it go.

Drawing of Ouroboros eating its own tail from the time of Cleopatra


Artist Franz von Stuck painted The Sin—”Die Sine” in 1883.

The illustration of the Ouroboros (alternately titled Uroboros) is by the 3rd or 4th century figure Cleopatra the Alchemist, whose real name has been lost to war and to time.

Sports Mania SPECIAL broadcast: Post-Saint Patrick’s Day wrap-up

Action shot of Irish Stepdancers in Ireland.

BRIGHT BLUE SET of SPORTS MANIA television sports show. Newscasters CHET and ERNESTO sit behind a bright blue DESK tapping their PAPERS and chatting as the Sports Mania’s THEME MUSIC plays.

(ESTABLISHING SHOT of Ernesto and Chet sitting behind a bright blue desk of bright blue Sports Mania set.)

Chet: (Deep in conversation with Ernesto)…so then I sez to the produce guy, I sez to him—

(CUT TO: MEDIUM SHOT of Ernesto and Chet.)

Ernesto: What’d you say to him? Jeeeezuuuu— (Startled. Realizes show just started.)-ssssszzz. (Clears throat.) Hello! And welcome to Sports Mania’s St. Patrick’s Day post-game wrap-up. It was an exciting St. Patrick’s Day this year wasn’t it, Chet?

Chet: (Professional smile) It sure was, Ernesto! We had wins and losses all over the map! From Omsk, Russia to Lowell, Massachusetts, Irish Stepdancers and local revellers went head to head!

Ernesto: (Professional laugh.) They sure did, Chet! But there was one memorable moment from yesterday, wasn’t there? Let’s go to our interview with Niamh Ni Dálaigh, Irish stepdancer. (Trim dark-haired young woman comes up on a built in screen behind the Sports Mania desk. Ernesto and Chet turn to face screen) Niamh, how are you this morning?

Niamh Ni Dálaigh: (Sounds tired and hoarse.) I’m fine, Ernesto—just fine, all things considered.

(CUT TO: CLOSE-UP. Ernesto and Chet share a SPLIT SCREEN with NIAMH NI DÁLAIGH.)

Ernesto: (Serious face.) Now, Niamh, I’d like to show the footage from your midnight St. Patrick’s Day performance at the Wise Rhino last night. Sports fans, let me set up this clip for you. The Wise Rhino is a pub infamous for packing in the St. Patrick’s Day crowds and skimping on stage space. Niamh, how big was the stage where you danced your final show last night?

Niamh: Two feet by two feet, plus two feet high. (Pause.) And I had to share it with the band and five other dancers.

Chet: Well, that is one small stage, Niamh!

(Niamh laughs uncomfortably.)

Ernesto: (Cutting off Chet.) If you’re tuning into the broadcast just now, Irish Dancer Niamh Ni Dálaigh from Reno, Nevada is talking about last night’s performance.

Chet: Let’s run that tape.

(Footage shows Niamh dancing in place on a two-foot high stage. Amateur drunks are standing in front of the stage bobbing and weaving and shouting. The traditional Irish band sits behind her—they’re nearly sitting in each other’s laps.)

Chet: Now, watch carefully as this guy over here— (Circles a drunk guy in front and to the left of Niamh with a green screen pen.) —starts to reach out to touch Niamh’s dancing costume right here. (Chet draws wobbly green screen arrow to Niamh’s dress.)

(Footage continues. Drunk guy starts to grab the skirt of Niamh’s $1500 performance dress. Niamh executes a quick turn, yanking the dress out of his hand, but the turn sends her sprawling into the band right behind her. )

Chet: (Excitedly.) Right there— (Draws six green screen arrows on the footage.)

Ernesto: (Slaps pen out of Chet’s hand.) Shhhh!

(Niamh, still on the split screen, covers her eyes with one hand.)

(Footage: A random drunk hand goes over the lens of the camera, but viewers can hear a SQUEAK and a YELP and the WHINE-POP-PING of several squashed INSTRUMENTS.)

Chet: (Excitedly.) Wow, I’ve never seen—

Ernesto: Shhhh!

(Niamh, still on the split screen, covers her entire face with her hands.)

(Footage: Normal filming resumes. A stunned Niamh sits sprawl-legged on stage surrounded by pieces of mandolin. Three of the four musicians are wearing the remains of a smashed hammer dulcimer. The fourth, a CONCERTINA PLAYER, has the bellows of his instrument wrapped around his neck, which he’s clawing to remove. The dulcimer player is weeping loudly. His tweed vest is in ribbons. )

Chet: Can I—(Waits to be shushed again, by Ernesto. Ernesto nods.)—talk now? (A beat.) So, Niamh, what was going through your mind when you executed that turn?

Niamh: Well, not much of anything, Chet. That was my 40th performance in three cities in five days—

Ernesto: (Looking at camera.) —the standard lead-up to St. Patrick’s Day, right?

Niamh: Yes. Yes, it is. (A pause.) —but, like I said, like every year, I’d been doing these performances since the first of March, really, and by last night, I didn’t even know my own name. Ernesto, I was so tired that I put on one soft shoe and one hard shoe at the beginning of that performance, and I would have gone on stage like that had another dancer not stopped me.

Chet: Wow, that IS tired, Niamh!

Niamh: (Nods.) Yeah. So, if I was thinking anything, I don’t remember it. But I remember what happened after the drunk guy grabbed the skirt part of my solo costume. I fell into the band, Chet. And all you could hear around me in the blur of the moment was Pop! Twaaaa-aaaang! Blawwp!

Niamh: (Continues.) I was smacked in the shoulder with that concertina—that thing should always be holstered when not in use—and somehow I sat on Jim’s mandolin. (Covers eyes.) All those smashed instruments and crying men. I’m never going to get that sound out of my ears, Chet. Never.

Ernesto: We’ve only got another minute here, Niamh. What I want to know is, what happened to the original drunk guy who grabbed your dress?

Niamh: Well… (Hand covers her mouth.) He started laughing.

Chet: Wow! What did you do?

Niamh: At first I was too stunned from the accident, but then I saw him doubled over, and like I said, he was laughing at us.

Ernesto and Chet: (Spellbound.) Yes?

Niamh: So I, uh, got up from the stage floor. (A final pause.) And then I walked over and punched him in the nose.

Ernesto: Whoa! That’s a serious party foul! How many Feiseanna do you have to sit out for this penalty?

Niamh: (Genuine smile.) Six. My Claddagh ring broke off in the drunk guy’s left nostril, and he smashed his face with his own beer bottle trying to pull it out. So, I’m out for one dance competition per stitch.

Chet: (Mouth open.) How much of your Claddagh ring ended up in his nose?

Niamh: The heart, the hands, and the entire crown broke off inside his nose, Chet. It was bad. It was really bad.

Ernesto: If you had to do last night all over again, would you have done anything differently?

(Niamh hesitates, then—)

Niamh: Yeah. (A beat.) I would have worn a bigger ring.

(Sports Mania theme music plays.)

Chet: Folks at home, we’ll see you after the commercial break. We’d like to thank our guest, Niamh Ni Dálaigh, who had to wake up before noon on the day after St. Patrick’s Day to be with us!

( Niamh waves a bleary hand at the camera. The split screen dissolves.)

(MEDIUM SHOT of Ernesto and Chet behind Sports Mania desk.)

Ernesto: (Continuing on.) After the break, we’re going to talk to a an eight-hand Irish figures team who got into a fight with half of the metropolitan symphony in Poughkeepsee, New York! This is Ernesto—

Chet: —and Chet. Live, with our day after St. Patrick’s Day wrap up on—

Ernesto and Chet: Sports Mania!

(Theme music swells.)



Niamh Ni Dálaigh   NEEV   NEH DOHL-lee 

(Irish name. “Ni” replaces “O’” in feminine names.)

Feiseanna  Fesh-eAN-na  

(Irish Stepdancing competitions.)


Carl Spitzweg's butterfly hunter in dappled sunlight with blue butterflies.

SOMETIMES I forget to breathe when I’m trying to sort out an idea in my head. It’s as though my brain cannot handle an autonomic task and an intentional one at the same time. Breathing is something your body is supposed to do without asking your consent, but mine doesn’t do that. Mine thinks it’s either one thing or the other— you can either breathe deeply or think deeply, Courtenay, but not both— and I keep trying to tell my autonomic brain that I cannot think at all if I’m not breathing. But no one is listening to me.

When I’m feeling whimsical about it, I think the head foreman of my autonomic brain is always out to lunch when I come to make my case. The secretary too. I’m knocking at doors within myself, asking the central nervous system and the pulmonary folks if they’ve seen the foreman, and no one will say a word. Isn’t that just like a body to not speak to you with words.

THE CITY of my birth has grown an exurb, a city on its tip-toes, a Lego town against rough-cut cliffs, ready-grown trees, and wide, congested streets. I find myself driving on the freeway that circles the exurb the way I drove when I lived in L.A., which is to say smoothly and a little viciously. My sight extends three cars ahead in every direction, my posture bolts upright. I am attuned to my anticipation of unexpected movement. I thought I’d dropped this habit when I left California. I thought I would put my tense shoulders and my indignant face in a box out in the garage and move it around with the other unused things from time-to-time.

Despite myself, I did forget my tense shoulders and my indignant face for several years. But then, the city of my birth released its borders to the doctors and the lawyers and the businesspeople and their collective spouses and children, who rushed out to claim a little space away from the circular medieval streets of the 300-year-old city that raised them. Now they have good jobs and they drive terribly, sort of like Los Angeles drivers, if those drivers had just gotten smacked in the head right before taking the wheel.

Cars out here go 40 miles per hour on the 70 mph freeway while the drivers jabber on their phones. Drivers around here turn around and talk to their children during rush hour while their cars scrape up the curb. The local drivers break at yield signs and roll stop signs and do everything in their power to find new ways to flout the laws and confound common sense. These exurban drivers would know all of this if they could hear me shouting at them— because I talk in my car as if we are standing right in front of one another; I feel like a vicious fool: “What are you DOING?” I shout. And: “You aren’t—no, you aren’t! You’re really going to do that? What the %*# is WRONG with you?”

LOCAL DRIVERS shrug and eat hamburgers and laugh and toddle into oncoming traffic as I give them the ol’ bug-eyed stare. I’m not breathing. I am so focused on this dance we’re doing together down this tricky little exit on a dangerous street that I’ve forgotten to inhale. Every other time I take this route I see a three-ambulance accident. My reflexes are tuned like harp strings—an insignificant wind will set my nerves neatly on point. I am moving in the right direction away from danger before I even know I am moving, and yet I do not know well enough to breathe.

There are traditions where the breath mates naturally with action. Barre work in ballet requires body, mind, and breath. Certain forms of mediation owe their shape to body, breath, and mind. Even firing an arrow at a target begins with mind, body and then, finally, a breath: an inhale for form and focus, an exhale to release the arrow shaped like a lean idea from one’s taut grip. There are songs and there are stories that we use to describe the body that deprives itself of its own breath. And none of these songs, these stories, end well.

I AM driving through the exurb in the afternoon after an errand; at a stoplight I see a man with a sign. I roll down my window and call to him, “Hey! How are you?” The man, slim, small, careful, threads his body like a needle through the tense knot of traffic. I have money folded in my palm. We shake hands; I release the folded dollars from my hand to his like a magic trick. “How are you?” I say again—and I mean it. “How are you, sir?” He smiles at me so sweetly it is a shock. The man has the mild eyes of an Italian Renaissance Madonna, and he starts to thank me, but I pat his hand and I do not break my gaze.

“I’ll be okay,” says the man. “When the VA takes this out of me in a month.”

He points to a lymph node between his neck on his shoulder that is so enlarged it is the size of two fists held together. I gasp. I am not accustomed to missing essential details on the street. This man is an essential detail to me. “I’m so sorry,” I say, and I mean it. I regret the meagreness of the dollars I handed him. I regret the meanness of my driving that day. I tell him that I will keep him in my thoughts, and I will do it, but now I have put him in yours too because he needs all the good thoughts to land on him like a cache of butterflies. Because he needs a breath and another breath and you can help give him that. And I mean it.

GREEN BURNS the stoplight. I leave the curb and the man, but in a way, I do not leave at all. I’ve left my breath there, and it takes a moment for me to reorient myself. Here I am: I am a 39-year-old woman in a mid-range car in a well-to-do neighborhood thirty minutes from home. I am a driver moving through a stoplight, turned red, now green. I am my hands, steering my vehicle into traffic. I am my eyes, watching three cars ahead and three cars back and side-to-side— I am my breath, which burns in my throat. I am my nerves: I change lanes, I accelerate. I am my ears: an SUV behind me hurtles into a van. I am my foot, depressing the gas pedal, which moves my car out of the way of an accident.

The streets are still for a moment— hesitance is the natural child of shock. I check behind me to see whether the man whose hand I just shook a moment ago is all right. He is standing far away from that disaster, unshaken. Cars in two of three lanes move again, swarming around the accident, passing without hesitancy. The exurbanites drive these streets like white blood cells encircling foreign matter when they pass the wreckage of one of their own, but no one stops to see. I inhale; I exhale— but I do not look back again. I, too, arrange my thoughts, and move on.

ABOUT THE PAINTING: “Der Schmetterlingsjäger” (The Butterfly Hunter.) German painter and poet Carl Spitzweig. He’s the master of illuminating a particular kind of alert aloneness. It’s not sad at all—it’s poignant. I’d never heard of him before today, but I love his point-of-view and his composition style, and I think you’re gonna love him too. Whoa.

Better and More

Little girl in Australia curtseying in a dirty black dress.

It was my grandmother’s wish that I not be taught to cook when I was a girl. It was more than a wish—it was her dictum. Because my mother was a good daughter and a strong woman, she bowed to her mother’s desire even if she didn’t fully understand the vitriol behind it. There was no drama to it; I was never actually banned from the kitchen or anything so strange as that. In fact, I was taught how to use the stove quite young out of necessity to warm up soup and boil eggs. (I was the child of a single parent, after all.) And in the by and by, I learned how to make a few fundamental dishes—roasted chicken and steamed vegetables; eggs, of course; a pretty little stir fry that would do for any day of the week. But no more.


For all the while, my grandmother actively discouraged me from cooking or any sort of fancy housekeeping: It was ever my grandmother’s feeling that once a girl learned how to cook and how to keep a nice house, everyone would expect her to cook and to keep a nice house. What followed after that, she observed, were husbands and children and the dull burden of domesticity. The life my grandmother wanted for me— what the women and the men in my family wanted for me— was an education and a career, a chance to step out in the world. Choices, she felt, were denied to her and her mother’s generation. So I was routinely shooed out of the kitchen and sent back to my books and to my lopsided secondhand piano; shouted back upstairs to my dance shoes and to my grandmother’s father’s kneehole desk, where I sat and wrote every single day, and where, if I sat quietly, I could hear the clink of glass and stainless steel and the small splash of warm water being heated downstairs on the stove.


I didn’t think much about the ways of my family, or that in our house, my grandfather, a robust and blond former football player in his youth, preferred to do the cooking in his elder years, canning preserved figs while he watched the ball game; rising before dawn to roast a turkey or start cornbread in the oven, humming tunelessly and happily to himself. At our house, we cleaned, but the room didn’t exhale the hot scent of bleach when you walked in the door the way some people’s houses did— our house smelled of books and dust and a little rust and soap. And when we were alone, my mother cooked sometimes and sometimes not—more often not, because there were plenty of foods that could be bought pre-prepared and warmed up without trouble, leaving one free to work or to read or listen to music or drive one’s child to dance classes four days a week at the edge of town. Or even take dance classes of one’s own.


There were things my grandmother said regularly that I didn’t put together until I was an adult. Her mother, she told me again and again, rose at dawn to make biscuits for her spouse and three children because her husband believed homemade biscuits were healthier than store-bought bread. Her mother, she routinely whispered as we sat side-by-side in the backseat of the car, had a college education but never complained a day in her life about the hard work she had to do when she married and moved out to the country. Her mother— my grandmother tapped my hand to get my attention—wouldn’t let her learn how to milk the cows because her mother believed that if her daughter learned how to milk the cows, she’d get stuck sitting out on a stool with those old cows every morning for the rest of her life. Her mother, she said, all the time, like a song, a verse, a magic word, wanted better and more for her daughter, my grandmother, and thus, that woman, my grandmother, wanted better and more for me.


Even as a child, I knew I had better and more because I could see strange developments for myself amongst the girls at school. Starting in kindergarten, some of my friends were treated at home like “little mothers”— expected to run after their younger siblings, called in to help in the kitchen, trained to clean and clean and clean after their brothers and fathers until their knuckles were red and raw like their mothers’ knuckles. These girls came to school with their jumpers pressed every day, and hair braided tight and straight as a picket fence, or curled in ringlets, if you can believe it. These girls smelled of starch and lavender laundry water and hard work. They looked tired. I stood behind girls like that in every schoolyard line— me, with my half-grown out pixie cut mashed wildly to one side of my face and my school jumper dotted with early morning schoolyard dirt; me, wearing my frayed hair-ribbon (I’d been using it as a lasso) around my neck like loosened-up necktie. I couldn’t help but gawk at those well-kept girls because they looked like the stalwart daughters in storybooks, the kind that were sent out into the forest to pick berries or take their sick grandmothers vegetable pottage in a basket, and these girls couldn’t help but gawk at me—there was no explaining me, I guess. Maybe I looked like the monsters in their storybooks, or like those other girls, the ones that didn’t listen, the ones that wander down the road away from the village and never come back.


It was my grandmother’s wish that I not be taught to cook when I was a girl. And I bowed to my grandmother’s wish, as my mother bowed to her mother, and on and on. But when I grew into a young woman and a working writer, I chose a man with a similar demeanor as her husband and her brothers— a man who liked to cook and to clean, a man who had an easy masculinity and an unworried brow, and then, I learned to cook from that man. It was all to a greater purpose: When my grandmother became very old and very small and nothing tasted good to her anymore, she would come stay at our house, where my husband would entertain her as I put out little dish after little dish of the foods she loved: the gumbo she used to make when she was young or a smoky eggplant caviar with a side of thin baked garlic crôutes; Hoppin’ John with apple-smoked bacon or chocolate pecan tartlets topped with crème fraîche. She’d say, “I can’t possibly eat that much!” But she did eat that much and more.


Tonight, it’s my turn to cook, and is my wont, I am making dinner while dishing up this story. My ink-wreathed hands are bathed in the steam of a turkey-and-roasted-shallot soup; my eye is on the pears and Mission figs poaching in a little pot; and my mind has wandered far off to the kitchen of my childhood, where my grandmother, my grandfather, and my mother are stepping around one another in a pas de trois of rattling pots and shouts and dinner plates. As always, I am standing just outside the door, and my grandfather has begun to sing, “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah. Someone’s in the kitchen with Di-i-inah. Join me, Courtenay!”


5-Minute Dance Party | Your Feet’s Too Big

Who’s that walkin’ ’round here?


Bluebird cracks up. Man, I— (Wipes tears away. Shakes head.) Wait a second, I— (Cracks up again.) Oh, man, I LOVE Fats Waller and I thought you— (Bluebird laughs so hard she snorts.) —you needed this one today.

(Bluebird mutters—) We have got to listen to more Fats Waller* around here. (She hits play, and starts cracking up all over again.)


Animation by Nancy Belman. 1983.

AL CAPONE DID WHAAAAT??? You’re going to want to read Fats Wallers’ Wikipedia entry, especially the anecdote about Waller’s being kidnapped by cronies of Al Capone. It’s not to be believed (but you’d better believe it!)

Our Sunday Best | A Quick One While She’s Away

BB - OSB - A Quick One While She's Away

SCENE: A television studio. The set is dressed to look like a personal library. Everything is a little bit flimsy.

BLUEBIRD: (Sitting in wing back chair with a fine leather-bound coloring book on her lap.) On Bluebird Blvd. this week, we’ve talked about everything from the universe to The Beach Boys to jump ropes to tabloid magazines to profanity.

BLUEBIRD: (Looks directly into the camera.) To celebrate a week filled with words, I want to give you a somewhat different treat. Here are five clips from movies I adore that help me fill the well of my own creativity,  soften my sense of this world,  and finally,  bring me great joy.

BLUEBIRD: Some of these you may have seen; some you may want to see; some may not be your cup of tea.  All of these clips are SFW. Unless, of course, you want to go back to talking about profanity again…. No? Another time, then. I hope these clips bring you a little joy today. (Goes back to coloring with stubby crayons in leather-bound book.)

BLUEBIRD: (Shouting over shoulder.) Okay, start the projector! What do you mean the film is smoking? OOOOH NOOOOO! Where’s the fire extinguisher? Never mind. It’s fine now. Sharpen that focus, Skip! Where’s the volume knob? Let’s play it loud! Turn off the lights! ROLL ‘EM!

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

Young Frankenstein

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy