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Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

1.
This morning, I sit in the car, listen to the famously homespun man from my home state reciting a poem called “Lonely Lake.”  Reportage of a beautiful, silent experience with an unnamed Other, every moment soaked in that familiar longing for God knows what and humorless attention to the world’s detailed confirmation of nominal meaning, the poem recalls nothing so much as poems like it.  Busy not working, the poet has noticed the world around her, sponged it all up, contemplated, tested experience against its anticipated description.  She has crafted something carefully small, flawless as a photograph of sunlight in water.  Still, I sit in the car, in the air busily soaking up the lukewarm rain now that the air conditioner is off, let the careworn voice chant the poet’s last few lines, my breath chuffing protest of predictability.  Stepping out into the street, I look across the park at the sun holding up the rain clouds beyond the trees, thrusting daylight toward me, at the water birds stalking the grass.  Everyone else spends the moment somewhere dry and out of sight, as if the scene is mine alone.  Is there a more tempting way to look at a landscape?  As if I’ve come so far for good reason?  As if I’m supposed to do something about all this.

2.
Do not, I repeat not read that interview with the writer instead of not reading it.  And don’t go back to Google when you’re done, don’t see there’s another farther down the page that might be better.  Do not read the other one since maybe the first is just him responding to the wrong questions.  Yeah, the second has better questions, more interesting answers, but he’s still keeping the magic all to himself, and the inspiration you thought you’d get from hearing how a book you loved got made will only reveal how shallow that love is.  Don’t think that maybe the book wasn’t so good after all, that it maybe says that same thing over and over, that we’re just who we are and that’s it, since the world doesn’t allow much else, and certainly don’t waste any time worrying that your own book might not even say that much.  Don’t realize away your innocent experience of the story when you experienced it, now that you begin to see the mind that made it, and don’t worry about the politics of your own unwritten story.  Do not, not now or later, wonder what he would think of the people in your world, the ones struggling to live on the page, the others still unimagined.  Do not confuse his book that exists with yours that wants to, don’t make that confusion an excuse to stall progress.  Don’t imagine anything but more things happening in your own world.  Don’t have a conversation with the writer, and do not, if you do, turn it into an argument.  Don’t try to parse his faux humility, actually certainty that some just got it and some just don’t.

3.
The best poem I read all week, new graffiti appears in the bathroom of the coffee shop.  A rectangle of Sharpie ink holds a heading, Petition To Kiss The Jonas Brothers, and three entries in the same hand.  The first is obscured by crayon or lipstick, some waxy stuff the color of a new bruise.  It’s hard to imagine anyone but whoever is under the substance being the one who put it there, satisfied then that the joke is no longer on her or him.   Names two and three, Angie B., Airplane, stay slapped onto the wall in plain view, apparently unnoticed, or undamning, or still eager for those fraternal kisses.  Then, underneath, in some shakier hand’s pencil, two more additions: Excited PedaphileSex.  Like some British comedians’ absurdist sketch, the list has quickly careered out of control, the penciled genius turning the joke inside out, into infantility itself, a destructive commentary that assembles some new form.  It’s hard not to imagine the thoughts of other coffee drinkers who notice me walking out of the bathroom, then right back in to linger on the names one more time, making sure I have them right in my mind.

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So, I figure if California can issue 28,750 IOU’s worth $53.3 million dollars, then I–on a holiday weekend when I’m a million miles away from home and all I’ve got is sky and church lady pie and firecrackers and road and family and a little baby who gives kisses and smells like pears and wants to swim in the pool and a mother-in-law I need to steal secrets from and a husband who just flew in from London and a tupperware dish filled with banana pudding and old friends who are getting divorced and need to tip champagne glasses and other friends who have fallen in love or seen Hawaii or gotten new jobs or degrees or just gotten (happily and a bit to their surprise) through another day; when it’s all crickets and fireflies and sitting on the porch; when the heat’s so thick, your mind swims and your limbs hang limp; when your mother keeps calling from the other room, calling and calling, and you remember all the times she called for you, the lilt of her voice, and you can’t tell if you’re ten again or a hundred, and the door swings open, and Get off the computer, she says. Come on in for some coffee–well, then,  I can issue an IOU too.

Dear Reader, IOU. I can’t promise my word is any better than California’s, but, heck, at least it’s summer, and if I don’t pull through, you can drown your sorrows in lemonade and call it all a midnight dream. Happy, happy Fourth!!! May you make it to Monday with your appendages intact and your debts all paid.

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I often talk to my NYU students about the “I” they create in their essays. Your “writerly I,” I tell them, has to be your very best I. She‘s the one with the clean home, with fresh roses on the counter, with the husband who kisses her “right there” (and here she points to that pale tender spot behind the ear) every morning before he leaves for work. Your “writerly I,” I say, has to be infinitely more interesting than you could ever be. At the very basic level, she shouldn’t go to Weight Watchers, and if she does, she shouldn’t talk about “points” (12 in a King-Sized Snickers!!!).

There are other things she should also keep under wraps–say, letting a baby “cry” while she finishes a sentence; or her habit of sucking on bird feathers and long strands of hair when she was a child; or, uhm, her terrible, crazed love for “The Bachelorette” (Can you BELIEVE Jillian let Jake go?). But sometimes our I’s get the better of us, and we end up writing the whole sentence, or with a mouthful of feathers, or worse, watching the entire episode of “The Bachelorette,” even as the train comes to a halt and lets poor Robby-the-Bartender out in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.

But this isn’t about “The Bachelorette,” it’s about the news, and everywhere this week, there’s news. We’ve got Jon & Kate & their 8, and even though I have no idea who they are, I find myself clicking on the link when it says “Jon ‘hurt’ by Kate’s remarks about ‘activities.'” If that isn’t bad enough, there’s South Carolina governor Mark Sanford who told his staff he was “going to hike the Appalachian trail,” but ended up flying to Argentina to see his mistress. (Perhaps a good move for a “writerly I” but a very bad move for a married governor.)

Everywhere we look: train wrecks. And as badly as we might want to look away, we’re still staring. The week began with the commuter rail crash in Washington D.C., and then it kept crashing and crashing, and suddenly, not only were Jon & Kate calling it quits, but Ed McMahon was dead (and right after that horrible TV commercial about the gold!), and then Farrah–who, as a girl, I dreamed I may someday become–was dead too.

Now this: Michael Jackson, King of Pop, dead. Legend, train wreck, legendary train wreck. This is the man who turned his “I” into just about the freakiest (though oddly sweet) “I” the world has ever seen–he’s PYT; he’s DOA; he’s gone.

So…it’s one of those weeks when I’m not quite sure what to make of the world, not quite sure how to avert my eyes. Perhaps, my husband will come home–with fistfuls of roses–and kiss me, just there, where my rubberneck meets my ear. Until then, it’s all just Human Nature, and I‘m just a Tabloid Junkie.

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I’ll never forget the first time I stayed up late enough to watch Johnny Carson. I must have been eight or so, and it must have been summer so I must have smelled like watermelon and bug spray and stuck-on chlorine. There in the TV-blue of the night, I watched as Johnny rolled out walls on wheels, and on the walls: giant ears; then more walls with noses, eyes, chins. My mom laughed, so I laughed too. The walls have ears, she said, and I laughed again. And noses, I said. But then she explained to me that it was a saying. Oh, I said, the walls have ears!!!

These days the walls don’t just have ears; they have lawyers too. An article in this week’s Time magazine devotes itself entirely to the sticky topic of Facebook and divorce. Apparently, lawyers around the country are monitoring various social networking sites and bringing the information they find to trial. These lawyers have a clear message: if you’re going to claim you’re “broke,” don’t post pictures of yourself on your new Harley, and if you’re leaving your man, try to refrain from telling the world that you’re “free at last (!!!) and gonna get every penny I can from that sorry son of a…” Well, you know what I mean.

And I completely see where they’re coming from. I’m often wowed by how much information people give on Facebook. Just last week, I met up with two friends for lunch, and one–before we even looked at the menu–said to the other, “Okay, spill it! I saw your Facebook status. What’s going on?” And things were going on, big things. And when I got home and pulled up her Profile page, it was there, clear as day, word for word.

But, at the same time, there’s this gulf–this ginormous gulf–between what’s really going on and what we’re writing on our walls. Right now, if I click on my Facebook tab (not that I’m looking at Facebook when I should be writing!), I find that one ‘friend’ is “meow, meow, meowing;” one is “chillin in chilly New Jersey;” one is “getting her drink on after the babies go to bed,” and I guess I’m left feeling the gulf even more; I’m left thinking that just because at any given moment I can find out what my ‘friends’ are “doing,” I still don’t know them any better than I did months ago, before I joined Facebook, before my summer nights were lit by the white of my computer screen.

I guess, though, there aren’t any answers. Unless, of course, we can make the wall have legs and those legs can walk on over here, and then, make it have hands, and in the hands, a good bottle of wine, and then slap a big, pretty mouth smack in the center of the wall, and after that, we can sit out back and talk all night long. Until then, I think I’ll turn off the computer and do whatever it is people do when they’re not sitting around trying to figure out the writing on the walls.

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There’s a poem by the late poet Jane Kenyon that runs through my mind on mornings like these. “I got out of bed/on two strong legs,” Kenyon writes. “It might have been/ otherwise.” She goes on to write of flawless peach and birch wood, of laying down for a noontime nap with her love, of having dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks, and finally acknowledges how one day—in spite of her plans and the dreams she has in her bed in a room with paintings hanging on its walls—it “will be otherwise.”

I first read the poem in the late-90’s when I was a graduate student and teaching poetry at Goldwater Hospital. It was the first time I had been around so many people with physical disabilities, and the presence of all those disabilities unnerved me. My first months working there, I often found myself on subway platforms walking in tight circles and being fully aware of the strength of my legs, of the tightening and lengthening of my hamstrings and quadriceps, of the give of my calf and the arch of my foot. “Two strong legs,” I would mumble to myself, over and over, disappointed that for so many years I had taken those legs for granted.

It was around this same time that I traveled down to Washington D.C. to visit a friend and went for my first and only time to the Holocaust Museum. We had walked around the city for hours and hours, and we made it to the museum just before closing time, allowing ourselves not nearly enough time to take it all in, or maybe it was just enough time; maybe all the time in the world would not have been enough, would have been too much. The museum’s impact was heart-wrenching, so heart-wrenching, in fact, that I still find myself caught off-guard—my breath catching in my throat—when I think about it.

It is the shoes that have stayed with me, thousands of them, shoes from the Nazi’s victims—piles and piles, large and small, ornate and simple, men’s and women’s and children’s, leather, cloth, hardly worn, worn through the soles—and I remember standing in the empty place between the piles and thinking of all the feet that had been in those shoes; feet that had blistered, that had been rubbed by a lover; feet that had kicked balls and had turned back home; feet that had soaked in the tub and walked through strange streets and gotten damp from puddles; feet that had danced; feet that belonged to legs; feet that had bones with marrow, that had veins with blood pumped from a heart.

And that is where it always ends for me: the heart.

On Wednesday, Stephen Tyrone Jones, a security officer at the museum, went to hold the door open for an elderly man. The 88-year-old, James W. von Brunn, who as a self-proclaimed white supremacist had a history of anti-Semitic efforts, then opened fire on the museum, fatally wounding Jones. A photograph outside the museum depicts the inadequacy of mourning: a few lilies stuffed inside a water bottle, their petals already falling. I think of those who will walk by that water bottle today, think of the legs that will carry them, of the breakfasts they ate, of the rooms they sleep in.

My husband kissed me when he left for the office just a bit ago; my daughter is napping; my hands are lemon-y from the sponge I used to wipe the counter; and now, like Jane Kenyon, like Stephen Jones, I do the work I love. These days—especially with the death of a dear friend’s husband a couple of months ago—I am more aware than ever that it will some day be “otherwise,” but it makes my heart sick to think that sometimes that happens because of the sheer disregard for human life displayed by von Brunn and far too many before him.

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Vegetable Garden with Donkey, 1918, Joan Miró

Vegetable Garden with Donkey, 1918, Joan Miró

Slowly unpacking from a weekend trip to Tuscaloosa, I had iTunes play an On The Media interview with the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones and my browser on a Slate article worrying that JD Salinger might have been writing all this time and, worse, might be getting ready to burn it all.   I sat down to a piece of cheese toast and browsed Ron Rosenbaum’s article while SFJ explained his use of jargon and allusion in various publications and formats.  Salinger had a right, like Nabokov, to keep us from reading what he considered to be unworthy of the public, according to RR.  If we didn’t want to encounter phrases we didn’t know, we shouldn’t follow SFJ’s tweets.  The microwaved cheese had over-softened the toast—no toaster oven.  Where is my phone charger?  Maybe still in the wall below the Glade plug-in.  RR went to Salinger’s house once, just stood in the driveway.  Once, a New Yorker editor wasn’t sure if enough people knew about Echo and the Bunnyband. Sic–that’s the kind of joke you get if you’re as worldly as SFJ.  He sat in a Denny’s down the road and wrote the author a confessional letter, then went back to the driveway and slipped it in with the mail.  The green underwear with the gray band: I hadn’t worn them, but they’d acquired a bad smell packed next to my running socks.  I got up to get a sharp knife for the rubbery toast.  What is it that has always hardened my heart against Frere-Jones?  That note of pride in his voice confirms whatever it was.  The dog cowered under the coffee table as I dug in the bag; I was planning to leave him behind this time, wasn’t I?  Too many people misreading Catcher: that’s why he had retreated into Live Free or Die obscurity.  Twitter, and a New Yorker article for that matter, they’re instruments, and he wants to see what they can do.  He wants some cheese too, I see, as he licks his chops sheepishly, ears turned down to a driver’s ed ten and two.  What did Emerson say? That there’s no worse feeling than finding your great idea in print under someone else’s byline?  Is it the same thing, or some sort of opposite, discovering a shared love for the wrong reasons?  Don’t tell me what to like and how to like it if that’s why you wrote that. Have a bite, boy. This cheese isn’t that great anyway.  Nabokov, he was a perfectionist, sure, but at least he published eventually.  Pharoah Monch: you couldn’t expect anyone to remember him decades hence, and isn’t it delicious to know what that means in the mean time.  Maybe it’s his knowingness, his eagerness to avail us of his definitive empiricism.  And about what?  A mash-up of a song that wasn’t punk rock enough to begin with?  Maybe it’s seeing what you hope isn’t your reflection extended into a landscape of cheesiness itself overlayed upon a real place with too many important particulars, some gray leaf-strewn driveway on a gray near-winter afternoon.  Who writes that letter?  Who writes about writing it twice?  Some version of me?  If I don’t write my version, I’ll comfortably never know.  Maybe if you write as much as Emerson you have that feeling seldom enough that you can steel yourself against it, instead of letting it bombard you with the bone-softening recognition that you do not really yet know how to talk to the imagined many because you talk to yourself so much about yourself.  Enough.  That’s enough, boy.  Don’t whine.  This bag is just to go to the coffee shop so I can work on a new chapter.  Where are the keys?  I’ll sort the laundry later.

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Media scholar Jonathan Burston has been doing some fascinating work on Broadway mega-musicals—you know the kind: Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast. His focus is not merely the Disneyfication of Broadway theater (which is its own rich, wicked topic—get it? Wicked?). Burston is also interested in the transformation of the actor’s experience of  work—from the act of, say, making acting choices, to, for example, doing it just like they did in London, or singing a song just like the first Phantom did it. Check out his latest at

http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a910302817~db=all~jumptype=rss

The actor’s craft has been reduced, compressed, turned into a quasi-creative factory labor under the logics of not only late capitalism but of what Burston calls “recombinant Broadway”—shows that started out as (animated) films become Broadway shows then turn back into films, version after version proliferating like a reflection of a mirror caught in another mirror. Think Hairspray. Waters’ film made its way to Broadway then made its way back into a cinematic form—complete with a cross-dressing John Travolta doing a tremendous Baltimore accent. We come to the theater with a sense of what we’ve already seen; we head to the movies already familiar with the songs.

Burston writes about some of the creative frustrations of theatrical performers as a result of these new forms with particular force. I’m hooked on such insights. If you’re like me, then you too dig Inside the Actor’s Studio, have felt a giddy curiosity when, say, Natalie Portman describes her craft in one breath and her favorite foreign-language curse-word in the next. The boundary between audience and actor, fan and celebrity has always seemed porous—and electrified.

But several shows of late have explicitly played with that boundary. Take the revival of Hair. Happily breaking the 4th wall since its original production in 1967, the current revival ramps up the impact of that seemingly radical theatrical gesture. The whole way through the new Broadway production its players (members of The Tribe) gallop up stairs, stand on chairs, dance in the aisles— all of which culminates in an extraordinary Technicolor theatrical freakout where the audience is invited, cajoled, corralled on stage as the entire theater erupts into the plays anthem: let the sun shine. And in an age of Broadway mega-musicals and movie-to-stage transfers, there’s something radical about audiences singing like they’re at church.

Plus, I saw Slava’s Snow Show and watched clowns literally sit on some grumpy audience member’s head (this before they blew snow into the crowd to the tune of Carmina Burana). Or take Spring Awakening with its staggering narrative and imaginative staging: you can get seats on stage if you so desire. And as you sit there watching the drama unfold, watching the audience in the theater proper watching you on stage as you watch the play, you’ll be thrilled and surprised when one of the other audience members on stage turns out to be a member of the chorus, but you won’t know this until the cute little Asian girl in 7-jeans and a t-shirt stands up on her chair and starts to wail.

But actors have always been running through the aisles. And even Ayn Rand knew that an audience seated on stage heightened the tension of a show (recall her play The Night of January 16th). And if you dig this line of inquiry, check out Peter Greenaway’s uber bizarre-o masterpiece The Baby of Macon (1993). If actors are frustrated by the logics of a system demanding the near-exact reproduction of performances because producers believe that that’s what audiences have come to expect—the pleasures of consistency and familiarity, the reproduction of a performance rather than the reinterpretation of a text– then what to make of this secondary pattern? Some audiences relish the pleasures of boundary play. If audiences are on stage, if actors are in the audience, then are we not all somehow implicated in the broader transformations Burston describes?

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