Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Very, very cold

Yesterday it was about 50 degrees F when I left home in the morning, about 35 degrees when I left work in the afternoon, about 12 degrees when I went to bed, and about -1 degree when I woke up this morning.

There's nothing like a tangible weather front, one that can be seen on more than just a weather map, one that can be seen coming, one that can be felt by all the senses.

There was the day I was at the lake, watching lightning of a storm further south. I noticed the black clouds moving toward me and stayed to watch the front advance. I felt the temperature drop and swear I could sense a change in pressure. Fascinated, I watched the line of the downpour as it advanced past 57th Street beach (where everyone ran screaming) until suddenly I was behind it, soaked.

Last night when I got off the bus I didn't feel especially cold, but flakes of snow were starting to appear in the lights. In front of The Park Shore, I noticed that my hands felt cold and achy, and the wind picked up in moment. The storm predicted had begun.

I might have had the wrong key out for the back gate because at first it wouldn't open. I couldn't see with my hair blowing in my face and my eyes watering, and my fingers were now between achy and numb. Under my coat, sweater, and heavy shirt, I started to shiver with cold and wind. If necessary, I could always go around to the front door, but it would take longer, and I wanted to get inside as quickly as possible.

Then, while struggling with the lock, I experienced a very brief panic—a sensation that I had to get out of the elements now, or else. At that moment, the gate opened. For the rest of the evening, wind gusts occasionally shook the building and snow obscured the night, but I was warm.

When Sir Edmund Hillary died, I read the obituaries, then I skimmed some articles about an English climber who, depending on the version of the story you believe, was left to die or was left for dead by other Everest climbers. The writers described the conditions on Everest, but how can anyone convey what has to be experienced to be understood?

Reading about what extreme cold, high winds, and lack of oxygen can do to the human body reminded me that there are those who thrive on danger because with it comes excitement, glory, or notoriety, or all three. I am not one of them; I will never climb Everest. While I may not be the adventurous type, however, I am an imaginative one, and underlying these moments of panic are flashes of imagination and empathy, some sense of what it is like to experience uncertainty about pain and suffering, about life and death. It's not rational; I had no real fear of freezing to death by The Flamingo's back gate. For a second or two, though, I was pure animal, unsure and afraid of the future.

And very, very cold.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A blizzard, a birthday, and awareness

There are few dates I remember specifically unless I write them down, which I seldom do. January 28, 1977, is one of them. I was 15 years old, it was my mother's 58th birthday, and my father didn't come home.

I realized today that 31 years have passed since that night. I think I finally convinced my mother to blow out the candles and to cut the cake. It was an anxious, sad occasion, minus any joy, and then we didn't know that she would celebrate only six more birthdays.

At 15, I think I really believed that parents lasted forever. A couple of my uncles by marriage had died by then, but I never thought of my cousins as being without fathers. I didn't think of such things at all.

At 58, my mother knew that nothing lasts forever, or even very long. She'd lost her parents, she'd lost siblings in both childhood and adulthood, and she'd lost a husband and child. Life had programmed her to be anxious, and had not as yet programmed me at all. While her determined anxiety and fears troubled and even annoyed me, my uninformed optimism undoubtedly disturbed her. How could I be so sure that everything would be all right and that my dad would be safe in the storm?

I couldn't, and probably I wasn't. But I wanted to be, and therefore I was.

Two years later, a boy in my high school band was hit and killed by a drunk driver. We had been only nodding acquaintances, but he was intelligent, talented, and friendly. I was shocked. I went to the wake and met his parents, but it was months before I accepted that he would never play the trumpet with us again. It felt wrong. How could someone alive suddenly not be alive, not show up for practice? And when would this absence end?

My dad turned up the next morning, not entirely understanding the consternation and stress that his enforced absence had caused. All's well that ends well, but there was nothing happy about my mother's birthday in 1977. We were trapped by the weather and by fear.

My mother had me when she was 42 and died when she was 64. Of all our birthday celebrations, my dad's, hers, Virgil's, and mine, her 58th birthday is the only one I remember, the one during which an awareness of loss and what it could mean must have crept into my consciousness. At 46, I now know all too well the effects of loss and fear of loss and find myself fighting not to become my mother, sure of the worst. Children and adolescents can afford to be optimists; I can't afford not to be one. I want to believe.

Dream: Dangerous feelings

I was in a workplace that I didn't recognize and was called into a room with co-workers I didn't know for a preview of training we had signed up for.

We were told to assess our personalities by writing down words that describe ourselves. I found this to be very difficult, but eventually came up with four or five words; I think one of them was "feeling," which I thought was cheating because of Myers-Briggs and INFP.

I kept looking for J. C. from work because I thought she would know about and could explain this exercise, which made no sense to me—picking a few descriptors subjectively isn't a personality assessment, and I was under the impression that it wouldn't go much beyond that.

When we had come in, we had been assigned to seats, and now it was announced that there would be assigned seating for lunch for perpetuity. J. C. may have arrived by then, but even her calming influence couldn't keep me from becoming hysterical. I couldn't believe what was happening and that I was to be forced to spend every lunch hour with the same person or people every day. It seemed unbearably cruel, and I was torn between anger and despair.

A group of us was taken somewhere to tour the grounds. I noticed that what appeared to be a spotlight in the ground was tracking our movements and opening up as if preparing to fire. I pointed this out to the group, and a young man told me to take most of the group to higher ground. Something happened, although it wasn't quite an explosion, and when I looked back and down, it appeared that the earth had fallen in, but the fate of the young man and those who had stayed to help him was unclear under the settling dust.

Then we were inside, and I was on upper floor looking down into a laboratory. A girl stood on the other side of a window, laughing and apparently waiting for the group to move on. I noticed something in the lab turning toward her, and before I could do or say anything, it had attacked. She was gone, leaving behind a white harness. Someone explained that she had gotten too close to the window and that a security system in the lab had detected the harness, which was a tracking device. Everyone found that they were wearing one.

This story seemed too pat for me—why endanger people without warning?—and I saw the enforced lunch seating in an even more sinister light. No one else seemed perturbed by these incidents, but I could feel danger everywhere like a tangible presence. Perhaps that is what I had meant by "feeling."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: The Literary Lover

The Literary Lover: Great Contemporary Stories of Passion and Romance. Edited and with an introduction by Larry Dark. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1994. 368 pages. ISBN 0140171649.

From the young to the old, the sanctioned to the illicit, the mundane to the erotic, and the bored to the ecstatic, editor Larry Dark traverses the sometimes perilous territory of love, lust, and marriage in this collection of twentieth-century stories.

Dark deliberately progresses from the young to the middle-aged to the elderly. He begins with "Faces of Madness" by Rachel Ingalls, a tragic story of teenage love and adult lives destroyed by parents who are more concerned for their money and reputations than for their own children. Left to themselves and in their simplicity, William and Jean discover more about love than the adults around them have ever understood. When they are betrayed by those who claim to love them, they separately retreat into madness, wounded irrevocably.

While not as disturbing as "Faces of Madness," Steven Millhauser's "The Sledding Party" is haunting in its own way. Most of us will recognize Catherine's adolescent perturbation and discontent as she struggles with her friend's half-understood declaration of love. Millhauser captures the mixed, confused emotions of the girl on the cusp of womanhood—fear, longing, alienation, desire to belong, and the pull between the things of childhood and those of adulthood. During the course of one crisp winter's night, a subtle transformation takes place that leaves Catherine's future to the reader's imagination.

At the other end of the spectrum is the calculating woman whose "Instruments of Seduction" (Norman Rush) include not only objects but a keen sense of how to manipulate her men earned through decades of practice. In "The Habit of Loving," Doris Lessing shows how even an older man with a lifetime of experience can mistake basic sympathies for love in his quest for something wonderful and greater than himself. "Letter to the Lady of the House" by Richard Bausch outlines what can seem to be the natural course of a long marriage. "People start out with such high hopes," the letter writer's aunt tells him after revealing that "whatever she had once loved in [her husband] she had stopped loving, and for many, many years before he died, she'd felt only suffocation . . . only irritation and anxiety when he spoke." The letter writer begins his epistle after "another one of those long, silent evenings after an argument . . . We had been bickering all day . . ." but asserts that, ". . . whatever our complications, we <i>have</i> managed to be in love over time." He concludes, "And if I could, I would do it all again, Marie. All of it, even the sorrow. My sweet, my dear adversary. For everything that I remember."

Some stories, such as "Morning" by Joyce Carol Oates, seem strangely uninteresting given the topic. Caught between her safe, predictable husband and her married lover, Lydia makes the obvious choice, which somehow works out—at least for the near term, with a hint of what is to come.

As a contemporary tale from 1988, "Graduation" by Andre Dubus is dated. Even with its deep South setting, the story's focus on virginity, the effects of its loss on a 17-year-old girl, and the lie she tells her future husband seem overstated. "Safe Houses" by Nadine Gordimer is dated by its historical context, but is nonetheless a compelling story of a political enemy whose "safe house" is that of a woman too rich, insulated, and bored to realize or guess at his identity or his nature. Theirs is the relationship of people who do not want to change their lives, but who seek opportunity and the passion of the moment. "Yet of course he had feeling for her—hadn't he just made love to her, and she to him, as she did so generously—he should not let himself dismiss the relative sufferings of people like her as entirely trivial because it was on behalf of nothing larger than themselves."

"Innocence" by Harold Brodkey, 34 tedious pages of the student-narrator's detailed analysis of his attempts to bring his girlfriend to climax, does not improve with a second reading (I had read it before in another anthology). By contrast, the gem of this collection is William Kotzwinkle's beautiful, moving, sizzling "Jewel of the Moon." The older bridegroom of the arranged marriage begins as his wife's slave and, through months of delaying and building up to the consummation, completely masters her and her desires to their mutual ecstasy. "Jewel of the Moon" is both loving and highly erotic, a combination that is rare in this anthology.

The Literary Lover has its moments, but there are surprisingly few insights into relationships. Even John Updike's "Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer," while more original and interesting than the Oates story with a similar theme, falls short, as does "Houses" by David Leavitt, in which a man is torn between life with his wife and the emotional home and future he has imagined for himself and his male lover. By the time I came to the end of The Literary Lover, I was afraid that perhaps all that can be said about love in its many forms has been and that there is nothing left. I hope I am wrong.

Sunday, 27 January 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Witches and diver scallops

Yesterday I knew it was going to be a glorious weekend when the first thing I did Saturday morning, after a night of restless, troubled, broken sleep, was to break an irreplaceable tea dish.

Last night, while I was cutting open packages of goat cheese for a cheese-and-crackers orgy, I also cut a good-sized divot in my left ring fingertip--using children's safety scissors. Who knew they would be so effective? On the plus side, I'd just bought antibiotic bandages. Perhaps I knew . . .

In between incidents, J. was kind enough to come over and drive me to Whole Foods. He was excited about getting the "softball-sized" diver scallops he'd reluctantly passed on last week.

I said, jokingly, "Wouldn't it be funny if Whole Foods didn't have any left?" He laughed.

Guess what? They were sold out of diver scallops.

I joked about it in the car. J., who'd also been disappointed that a café he had wanted to go to had been closed due to earlier winter hours, said, "Maybe you're a witch."

Not likely, because if I were I could find far more productive use for power than to deprive J. of a few diver scallops.

Dream: Labyrinthine locker room and reunion

This time I was at a college reunion.

I think this began in an underground locker room, where I was looking for a swimming pool and a bathroom. It was deserted, probably closed, and some of the passageways were very tight. Part of me wanted help, but part of me did not want to be caught.

The place was eerie in an apocalyptic way, quiet with small noises, dark, cavernous but close. I was alone as one can be, even though at one point I think a former gym teacher offered to point me in the right direction.

I found myself in a large, dark wood room, probably a banquet hall. It seemed to be a reunion of my college class from the University of Chicago, yet I recognized nearly everyone around me as a member of my Frontier Central High School graduating class. There was one girl in particular, Paula, who I have not thought of in 29 years. I looked around and saw more and more people I'd known from high school, even though I have proven bad at remembering and recognizing them in real life. They were neither friendly nor hostile toward me, including Paula. I said to her, "How strange. I went to a university that I thought no one else would go to. I didn't see any of you during the entire four years, yet here you all are."

I asked one boy, name unknown now, what he had majored in at the University of Chicago, and he said, "Aerospace." The answer threw me off, so I asked, "The engineering side?" He gave me a distant look and a vague answer. Aerospace didn't sound right. I became confused by all of these improbabilities and think I may have wormed my way through narrow passageways back to the underground locker room. It was less disconcerting.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Puppet Bike and people watching

I sent a friend links to Puppet Bike videos on YouTube, and he commented that the audience reaction is entertaining in itself. I noticed this, too. Because it was warmer last night, I had the opportunity to watch Puppet Bike and its audience interact for more than an hour.

First, it strikes me how many people pass by as though they don't see the bike or puppets or hear the music. Some of them may see it all the time, but it seems odd to me that it doesn't bring them even a momentary smile. Others just look sour, and I wonder how it feels to be behind that mask most of the time. Often, I look and feel unhappy, even depressed of late, but sour seems like an even worse expression to turn toward life.

Many people who appear not to have seen Puppet Bike before do stop and get into the spirit. Four girls between 8 and 12 years old, accompanied by adult women, stopped for a while and soon were dancing and laughing together to an old song they couldn't have known or recognized. Several men whipped out digital cameras and mobile phones, and one man took photos with a professional-level camera. A few men walked by, looked for a moment or two, and left tips in the box office, as though they are familiar with the puppets (perhaps they saw them one day with the children during a trip to the city). One woman with a European accent shyly asked me if I had a $1 bill for four quarters. I did, and the $1 bill ended up with the puppets (later, so did the four quarters, after I ran out of singles). There were also groups of teenage boys and young men who weren't embarrassed to be seen watching and laughing with the puppets for a few moments.

Then there are those who are clearly Puppet Bike fans. One, an attractive, affluent, beautifully dressed middle-aged woman, stood squarely in front of the puppets, giggling, clapping her hands, and keeping up a running commentary on how much she appreciates them. (J. overheard her on my mobile phone and said she must be his kind of person.) Another middle-aged woman came along and said to the owl that he's missing an eye. (He acknowledged this by covering his face and nodding.) "Awww, are you okay anyway?" she asked. The owl nodded and began dancing to prove it. This may have been the same woman who asked if the two kitties could come out to dance. The tiger gave her a long, hard look until she said, "Oh, I guess you're a kitty, too." This seemed to placate the offended feline.

A police officer on a bicycle appeared toward the end of the performance. He wore a tight-lipped grin as though he didn't exactly approve, and for a few moments I thought he might say something or cause a problem. Then he broke into a wider, more sincere smile, waved a few times to the puppets until they noticed him and waved back, then rode off. I realized the grin was a cover for genuine emotion; how often do we get to see police officers allow themselves to enjoy themselves? Even police officers need a little Puppet Bike in their lives.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Not quite toothless yet

I have a high threshold for pain, I'm told by those who should know—health care providers whose job involves causing pain, e.g., sliding long, cold, pointy metal implements up a nostril.

So when a tooth started to object to hot and cold liquids and foods shortly after my dental examination and cleaning last week, I was inclined to ignore it. After all, tooth pain often comes and goes for no discernible reason. Only once did the pain not subside, forcing me to break down, see the dentist, and find out that I needed a root canal (said the endodontist's assistant after the procedure, "Weren't you in agony? There was blood and infection everywhere under there.").

This time, however, I waited only a few days instead of a few months, even though the pain was intermittent and not that bad. Why? Because my overactive imagination started to feel millions if not billions of bacteria pouring into the vulnerable spot, setting up housekeeping, and eroding the structure away until the nerve was exposed. When I ate or drank anything, I could feel the resident bacteria inviting in more friends, saying, "Welcome! Bienvenue! There's plenty to go around!"

To quell the greedy, destructive masses, and my imagination, I made an appointment with the dentist.

The dental assistant poked, prodded, and even pounded around my upper left molars, where I thought the problem was, then took x-rays. The moment I bit down in preparation, I realized the unhappy spot was not in the back, but in the middle. The dentist, who sees all from her office via computer, directed the second set of x-rays at #14 and #15; a shadow turned up. After she took her turn poking around, she came to the conclusion that it would be prudent to replace both old silver fillings. Prudent—and painful. And costly.

An hour later, she was almost done, telling me that now I have more filling than natural tooth in that area. She wanted to test my bite with the new fillings, but apparently I was too quick to snap. "Not yet; that's my finger," she admonished, although when I apologized she said that there was no harm done; she's gotten "pretty quick" herself.

A few minutes later, her hand got tangled up in my hair. "Hmmm, you bit my finger; I pulled your hair," she said. "So now we're even," I noted. She laughed nervously.

Of course, the last laugh was hers (in her office) when the office manager presented me with my portion of the bill.

Ouch. Perhaps I'm more sensitive to pain than I thought.

Note: Don't get the wrong idea. I have a great dentist, worth every painful dollar.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dream: The surreal move

The house I was in, made of brick and as large as The Flamingo, was about to be moved to a spot a mile or two away, although I was under the impression it would be very different.

I never left the room I was in, but as time passed I puzzled and wondered how such a large house could fit onto a truck and be moved in one piece. Every now and then I would sense that it was about to topple over or crumble from the stress of the movement, or be knocked down by a bridge or in an accident.

The journey seemed to take hours, which bothered me quite a bit because of the distance. I fretted about the stability of the structure, the time it was taking, and an appointment I was committed to keeping and was close to missing. I felt that I wanted to miss it.

I remained oddly passive, awaiting the building's fate and my own, which never seemed to come but which hung out there like a poisoned carrot on a stick.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

One more thing to worry about

This is from a recent BBC news article online.


A giant cloud of hydrogen gas is racing towards a collision with the Milky Way, astronomers have announced.

At this point I was thinking, "All my troubles . . . all our troubles may be solved!" No more anxiety about the Iraq war, the economy, climate change, personal upsets . . . and no more Britney Spears headlines. Blessed relief on all counts.


Then I read the next paragraph:


Smith's Cloud, as it is known, may set off spectacular fireworks when it smacks into our galaxy in 20-40 million years.

That doesn't really help me today, and even if I were on a low-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, which I am not, 20-40 million years may be pushing it for my life expectancy.


It contains enough hydrogen to make a million stars like the Sun, say experts, and its leading edge is already hitting gas from our galaxy.

Already! This could be closer than we think and bigger than all of us. And we were worried about the hydrogen bomb.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

22 January 2008: Miscellany

Despite the cold this evening, I went in search of Puppet Bike—and the owl and tiger were performing, with disco ball, hanging light, and everything. I gave the little guys most of my lunch money. I shouldn't be eating anyway. My fingers froze painfully, but it was worth it.

When I walked in tonight, the living room was bright with full moonlight. I love that. It's been a while.

Tonight, I downloaded and installed phpBB3 and converted the phpBB2 database. This doesn't sound like much, but databases and MySQL are not my strength. (What is remains debatable.)

I've loaded more than 200 photos onto the electronic photo frame that was my Christmas gift from J. I'm really coming to appreciate it more, even though many of the photos carry unhappy and painful memories and associations.

My second Steiff tiger puppet arrived today If I'm not careful, I may end up talking to them . . .

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Updike quotation

He understood that shivering better now. He was the conduit, the open window, by which, on rare occasions, she felt the ventus Dei. In the center of her sensuality, she was God's plaything.
—"Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer" by John Updike

Not a choice, but a certainty

My dad lived from March 13, 1913 until July 28, 2001, a time of amazing changes. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and never graduated from grade school. He drove a pair of farm mules as a boy and quit driving a Ford van in the late 1980s. He was born before Hitler came to power and died after the end of Soviet communism. He was bombed by German aircraft during his World War II service in the United Kingdom, and he watched the first moon walk by man. He observed the decline of American robins and other birds that followed the widespread use of DDT even as Rachel Carson was writing Silent Spring. He and his sisters noticed that the climate had changed between their childhood and middle age, that winters were no longer a solid freeze between December and March. He and his generation witnessed the awful power of the atomic bomb and lived with the Cold War that followed. During his lifetime, there were two world wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, plus countless regional conflicts, terrorist attacks, and peace demonstrations led by a generation with whom he felt little in common.

The death of chess champion Bobby Fischer made me think of change and how nothing in my childhood prepared me for it,

When I was a child, the people in the headlines were Muammar Qaddafi (various spellings), Idi Amin, Jean Paul Getty III, Patty Hearst, Richard Nixon, Golda Meir, Yasser Arafat, Helmut Schmidt, Ted Bundy, Evel Knievel, and, of course, Bobby Fischer. The odd thing is, even as a teenager whose body, mind, and emotions were evolving every day, I never thought of the world as changing, as being different by the time I grew up. Subconsciously, I thought that Muammar Qaddafi and Idi Amin would always lurk as unpredictable threats, that Patty Hearst would always be prominent as victim-turned-fugitive, that Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs would spar in perpetuity, that Evel Knievel would continue to hurt himself spectacularly for TV cameras. And that Bobby Fischer would continue to symbolize America's pride and dominance.

The announcement of Fischer's death reminded me that I have not heard or thought of him in decades. That Evel Knievel is dead. That Ted Bundy, whose murders filled me with terror when I read that the then-unknown killer's victims were primarily girls with long hair and pierced ears, was executed. That little from the headlines of my youth remains. There is still conflict in the Middle East, but the characters, plot, and staging continue to change. Terrorism haunts us more than ever, as the threat of planes hijacked to Cuba became planes flown into urban towers. Fear of the Soviet finger on the button of the bomb has become fear of a terrorist hand on a dirty bomb. Muammar Qaddafi and Fidel Castro are with us still, but happily no longer have the same potential bite. The mighty Soviet bloc is now a checkerboard of ethnic conflict and capitalist corruption. The American robin and bald eagle have made impressive comebacks, but more species than ever are endangered by everything from climate change to habitat loss.

I have a vague, unsupported notion that the state of the world and its inhabitants is worse than it was 40 years ago, yet logically I know the underlying problems remain the same: The environment. Resources. Poverty and distribution of wealth. Conflict. The list goes on.

In the U.S., we have sacrificed freedoms in a futile bid for security and safety, but it is likely that that pendulum will swing back again. When it comes to celebrities, we have traded the Bobby Fischers and Evel Knievels for the Britney Spears, but perhaps we will tire of our fascination with the dysfunctional, and some other celebrity-worship paradigm will take its place.

To me, Andy Warhol did not deserve his 15 minutes of fame, but he was right in ways beyond which he meant. The current generation doesn't grasp the emotional power of seeing an American defeat a Soviet on even just a chessboard because its context is not theirs today. My generation doesn't feel the same twinge as my father's when we see photos and footage of the flag being raised on Iwo Jima. Future generations may see video of the events of September 11, 2001, but will not experience the immediacy of our shock and horror. This is how history is written; it's in the past; it happened to someone else. We understand best what is in front of us now.

Today's politicians speak glibly of "change" and the need for it;. What they do not mention is the one truth beyond their control: Change is not a choice, but a certainty.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dream: Nowhere to go

At a high school reunion event, I was shocked to see TB and TW talking together at a table in the pub. I had been thinking about going to the bathroom and leaving, so I put on my green nightshirt without thinking, stopped nonchalantly at their table, and made some pleasantry about it being good to see them and where were they these days? I spoke in a careless tone as though I didn't want to know, really. To my horror, the second man was no longer TW, but a stranger in red. TB told me that he was living in North Carolina. I tried to think why but didn't ask.

I needed to go to the bathroom desperately, but couldn't fit through the small squared crawl space to it. I didn't remember it being like that; I would not have gone to a place where I could not get into the bathroom.

I crawled through another space to my room, where I found one end of it was shared with a man I knew but whose name I could not recall. I was embarrassed to be seen in my nightshirt, which I noticed I had put on, but brazened it out and went to his end to speak to him. He seemed surprisingly receptive to conversation, which I found disturbing. I retreated to my part of the room, and he soon followed and sat next to me.

[Unrelated personal bit snipped—dream changed direction abruptly.]

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Woe is me, or is 2008 over yet?

So far, January does not bode well for the rest of year.

- I, along with millions, have lost a large proportion of money through the vagaries of the markets. Think long term . . . although I wonder if it gets any better long term, considering all the long-term trouble looming out there. I've got to stop being such an optimist.

- While looking up Web sites talking about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) for a little project, I felt more and more depressed. I am tired of being empathic.

- Due to a fluke incident, the anti-reflective coating on my backup pair of glasses started to break down, which makes everything seen through them have a halo (except most politicians). They are not much use any more.

- I bought a defective coffee pot that I can't seem to get returned.

- My two-month-old shoes that, strangely for me, both look okay and are comfortable, are falling apart.

- I accidentally gave myself a nice gash along the side of my left foot. It smarted a bit, but I didn't realize it meant business until I noticed the blood on the floor and my hands a few minutes later.

- I vacuumed up a lanyard, which caused an interesting burning odor. Fortunately, it stopped when I retrieved the lanyard's remnants from the vacuum, which seems to have survived.

- I woke up one morning chewing plastic, which turned out to be the corner of the night guard I'd bitten off. Better than tooth enamel (the reason I got the night guard).

- I floss every day, yet the dental hygienist seemed skeptical and still spent more than 45 minutes digging around and causing bursts of exquisite agony. "Oh, that was a bit of tartar near the root. It came right off, though."

- I've been sick. It's better now, but it's turned into something lingering and depressing.

- Sometimes I think that if I fell asleep and didn't wake up, I could live with that.

Here is to better times ahead. I hope.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From the would-be whimsical to the grating: A few comments on architecture

A few years ago, when architectural feats like the Chicago Spire (Santiago Calatrava) and Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP) were announced, a local citizen was quoted to the effect that brick was ugly and that real beauty lay in these new structures of steel and glass.

To me, steel and glass are cold flat, uniform, and lifeless—unappealing in their sameness for life, work, or play.

They are also reflective. We can see ourselves in them, and perhaps some of us, like our quoted citizen, have been reduced to finding beauty only in man and in man-made things.

Usually, I don't focus much on architecture other than to glance at it and form a quick "I like" or "I don't like" opinion. I do like the Beaux-Arts building in which I live, The Flamingo, and the quirky neo-Gothic main quadrangle at the University of Chicago. I do not like Mies von der Rohe's flat international style, which drains the building, neighborhood, and skyline of personality and character. Often, I'm too absorbed to notice many wonderful details, unless someone like J. with me and points them out.

That is how I have managed to pass the Max Palevsky Residential Commons numerous ties on my way to the Brutalist Regenstein Library with only a vague sense that "I don't like it."

Palevsky, designed by Ricardo Legoretta, is brick, which I prefer to the reflective office park mishmash kitsch of Rafael Viñoly's Graduate School of Business building on 57th and Woodlawn, a couple of blocks away on the University of Chicago campus. This painfully out-of-place blight "pays homage to/complements the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House," at least according to article writers who are adept at parroting the university's official press releases.

Palevsky is brick, so you might think that, for me, that is a point in its favor. Yet it is an odd-colored brick, not dark red but an earth tone rust orange that seems more institutional than residential. The brick is very even and flat in tone and texture, which gives the building a vague air of prefabricated cheapness.

To break up Palevsky's orange-red bulk, upright rectangular sections are painted in colors that are neither primary nor pastel, but muted yet bright earth tones, also very flat. I recall reading that Legoretta wanted to add some playful whimsy to the design through these colors.

Playful colors are not a bad idea, in moderation, but the brick and the colors are belong more to the southwestern desert than to the University of Chicago campus, making the complex discordant and out of place between Brutalist Regenstein and neo-Gothic Bartlett. In addition, the swaths of color are too large and broad, making them garish strokes rather than attractive accents. The effect is not of a unified campus, but of a neighborhood where the residents have lost control of zoning and where buildings of any style, material, or color can be plopped down, adding to an already cluttered look.

Even so, the bulk, the brick, and the colors do not achieve the apex of awfulness of so much contemporary architecture, and until recently I have not paid any more attention to Palevsky than I do to Regenstein. It is my friend J. who pays attention to architectural details, not me.

One day, though, it was somewhat warmer than usual, and I found myself in front of a wall that is part of the Palevsky design. There is nothing on either side of this wall, which is full of glass-less square windows individually bordered by the same Palevsky color. My turn of mind that day was such that I began to see the little windows as square versions of arrow slits. Suddenly, the wall loomed in a foreboding way against the dull January sky.

I looked back at Palevsky, where the same square windows are mirrored at the the ends of the hallways with the elevators and stairwells. Despite the large room windows and the playful colors, the building's brick bulk, the small square windows, and the sentry wall combined to make me think first of a fortress, then of a prison. I didn't like the effect, heightened by the gloom of Chicago's leaden gray winter skies and the sense of hopelessness that can seize even the most optimistic spirit here in winter, let alone an inward-turned soul like mine.

I doubt the students who live at Palevsky see it in the same way that I do; their tastes are those of a different generation that has been shaped by different ideas, cultures, and events, and they may appreciate the building's intended whimsy and playfulness. They may care mainly that the inside is comfortable and has the amenities that they want.

As for me, for a moment, I felt surrounded, trapped, watched by the eyes that I could imagine behind all those windows in that two-dimensional wall.

If Palevsky inspires me with weird feelings and sensations, you can guess how I feel about the renderings of Cheese Grater, er, Solstice on the Park. Like Palevsky, Solstice on the Park fits in with nothing around it , especially the section of Jackson Park it will dominate.

There is neighborhood opposition to Solstice on the Park, primarily due to its size, location, and proximity to a school, combined with concerns about parking. None of these bothers me because it seems inevitable that a high-rise will be built on such a prime piece of real estate.

But must it be such a repulsive one? When I first saw the renderings, I thought they were a joke and that someone would pull them and post the real drawings. No one with people, life, and aesthetics in mind could have conceived anything so dreadful and so out of place. It's cold. It's sterile. It's monstrous. And it resembles a giant cheese grater.

Solstice on the Park is one of those buildings that makes me wonder how contemporary architects think. What about the adjacent Windemere House, the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, and the park across the street made Studio Gang Architects think of a large, shiny, glass-and-steel cheese grater? Is it meant to be art for art's sake? I thought it was supposed to be a residence. Is it supposed to be so ugly and horrible that you can never forget the architects? Or forgive them?

"Form follows function," attributed to Louis Sullivan, seems to me an architectural approach that is rarely attempted, much less achieved. Solstice on the Park will be a residence overlooking a park. It should look like a residence overlooking a park, scaled to humans, full of life and the potential for dreams and love, stately to reflect its tree-lined setting.

Instead, it resembles a cheesy kitchen gadget.

Suddenly I feel a craving for something covered with shredded cheddar.

Just for fun: Which Simon and Garfunkel album am I?


Bridge Over Troubled Water

I'm Bridge Over Troubled Water!

Which Simon and Garfunkel album are you?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dream: Locked out

There was an unsolvable water problem with my apartment, so the manager and I agreed that I should move out.

I woke up one morning in a strange place, with trees and shrubs hiding buildings across the street. My new apartment seemed odd in some indefinable way. I ran outside in my nightshirt in my excitement because I was at street level. As I reached the end of the drive, I remembered that I did not have the keys with me. I thought I would be outside in my nightshirt for a long time, but a group of elderly people appeared and tried clumsily to open the outer door. I yelled for them to wait for me and to let me into the building, but I don't know how I got into the apartment.

Suddenly, it hit me that I had left behind my view of the lake, and I began to agonize over whether it really had been necessary. I kept looking around at this interesting and somehow magical place, and at the street view, and wondering if I had made the right choice. In my heart, I felt I had made a mistake of a lifetime.

Out of the blue, a friend called to explain a situation. I was wary, but he wanted to come over. Somehow he managed to, and we found ourselves in what looked like a dark school hallway. Nothing made sense to me—the place, his presence, what he was saying, why he was saying it. I was more confused and frustrated than happy.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Two tigers: More Puppet Bike

Puppet Bike and the two tigers are the cure for SAD, the winter doldrums, and whatever else ails you and the world.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dream: The magic bus (and lawn ornaments)

Lately I've been remembering only snippets or ideas from dreams rather than details. In one last week, I was shocked to learn that my brother is James Bond, but I couldn't ask him because it didn't seem natural to ask a spy if he's a spay and because in the back of my mind I thought I was James Bond. He also seemed more like a stranger to me than my brother, although I would experience moments of familiarity.

In another dream, I was a passenger on a bus where odd things were happening and which seemed to go nowhere even as it traveled. Although it was a tour bus, it would stop regularly at bus stop signs like any municipal bus. I wondered why I was in it.

Sunday I was the leader or part of a team delivering lawn furniture and ornaments to a family. Their house was familiar to me; I had been in it before, I recalled, and it was not what it appeared to be, but was a place of space and time shifts. Our lawn furniture and ornaments were not what they appeared to be, either, and one of us, perhaps me, apologized to the man of the house for the lateness of their delivery and tried to convince him of their normalcy by selling him on their superiority. "Look," we told him, "You wouldn't expect something like this to reflect and shine [this seemed to be an important property], but it's made of a special material that has the reflective qualities of metal."

They looked to me for proof, and I searched frantically for a flat reflective surface among the pieces in my load. There was a crescent of one on some kind of tray or ornament with a Christmas theme. I became fascinated and never learned if any of this fooled the man, or what the stuff really was or why we needed him to accept it.

It seems I dreamed a week of intrigue and subterfuge.

Laughter is the best medicine

If laughter is the best medicine, then donating to Puppet Bike is good for your health, as you can see in this video.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Doctor Atomic—my first opera

For someone who jokingly calls herself a pretentious dilettante, I'm not very good at being one. Despite my appreciation of music, I have never liked ballet or opera. If pressed to articulate why not, I might say that both seem to me to be very artificial forms of expression. I like music, I like dance, and I like song, but when music is combined with song or dance and a story, it loses its connection to life as I know it and becomes a pretense, like much of the modern art that holds no appeal for me, either.

That can't be the full explanation, however, as I do love a good stage or movie musical, and seven mountain men dancing at a barn raising or a silent film star singing and dancing with his umbrella partner aren't realism, either. I'm also fond of symbolism, allegory, myth, and things that go bump in the night, that is, I'm not limited to the realism category.

There's also the troublesome fact that I've seen one ballet (The Nutcracker, many years ago, when my employer provided us with free tickets) and no opera except for brief bits on TV, so my dislike has been based more on theory than on experience.

Now, however, I've seen an opera—Doctor Atomic at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

A friend who is an opera fan and Lyric season ticket holder had bought these tickets in addition to her subscription series. She thought that her husband might like a break from the opera, especially since Doctor Atomic is a modern opera, which generally is not to his taste.

Who am I to turn down a $176 ticket that I couldn't afford to see something I've never seen?

I liked it. I would have liked an hour or so less of it better, I admit. Nearly three and one-half hours of sitting, with one break, tests my powers of physical endurance. Still, I liked it.

Doctor Atomic is the story of the race to build and test the "Gadget," a discordantly innocuous name for the A-bomb. With a few exceptions, Peter Sellars adapted his libretto from the quotations and writings of the participants, as well as excerpts from poetry.

The scientists are headed by Renaissance man J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley, baritone), who loves and quotes the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, while General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens, bass-baritone) leads the military. They were an odd pair in more than the obvious ways; during the project Oppenheimer's weight dropped to less than 100 pounds, while General Groves' photos reveal a distinct portliness that stretches his uniform to its limits. In Doctor Atomic, the testy general, concerned that Oppenheimer is going to have a breakdown, sings ruefully about his lifelong weight issues and his diet journal, in which he records transgressions such as two brownies and three pieces of chocolate cake.

Oppenheimer's foil is Hungarian scientist Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink, baritone), a cynic whose humor is black (before the test, he offers the team suntan lotion) and whose position is ambivalent. Pacifist Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn, tenor) anticipates the 1960s activist, with his petition demanding that at the least Japan be warned of what is being planned.

On the principle that behind every good man is a woman, and behind every good opera is a soprano, Kitty Oppenheimer (Jessica Rivera) brings a human counterpoint to her husband's outwardly stoic determination to complete the Gadget and the test. Meredith Arwady (contralto) plays Pasqualita, the Oppenheimer's Indian nurse whose deepest tones seem wrenched from the heart of the earth mother herself. Military meteorologist Jack Hubbard (James Maddalena, baritone) offers most of the little comic relief as General Groves demands better weather conditions and threatens the junior officer with insubordination for refusing to promise to provide it.

Absurd as the general's orders are, they are no more so than the very concept of an opera based on the development of the A-bomb seems to be. On the other hand, what better or bigger subject for an American opera? Like Frankenstein and other stories of man's exploration of god-like powers, Doctor Atomic hovers between the genius of creation and the ethics of destruction. Oppenheimer understands the awesome power of the idea that he must make concrete, but disingenuously leaves it to the "men in Washington" and their wisdom to decide whether to unleash the bomb's powers. These are enormous themes, carried over from the nineteenth century's fascination with science; defining much of twentieth century life with its Cold War fears and anxieties; and seeping into the twenty-first century, when it is no longer just "men in Washington" and their communist counterparts but mad tyrants and terrorists whose fingers may hover over the nuclear button.

Oppenheimer, who dubs the test "Trinity," calls upon the three-personed God of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV:

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
*****
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

It takes poetry from throughout the ages, from the Bhagavad Gita to John Donne to Muriel Rukeyser, to address the timelessness and power of creation and destruction and man's responsibility for both. Even as Oppenheimer, Teller, and Wilson grapple with ethics and expediency, targets are being identified for the "psychological impact" their destruction will have on the Japanese people—and on the watching world. Even as the team waits for the weather to clear, they cannot be certain that Trinity won't burn off the Earth's entire atmosphere. Somehow it is a risk that must be taken.

In the opera's only romantic scene, Kitty Oppenheimer seems to represent the creative (and neglected) power of sex, while in Act II she seems driven to near-madness by visions of destruction (Rukeyser: "In the flame-brilliant midnight, promises arrive, singing to each of use with tongues of flame . . ."), even as Pasqualita, an Indian Gaia, nurtures her and her children—the future. Kitty quotes Rukeyser:

Those who most long for peace now pour their lives on war
Our conflics carry creation and its guilt . . .

Pasqualita, quoting Rukeyser, is prophetic:

The winter dawned, but the dead did not come back.
News came on the frost, "The dead are on the march!"

Doctor Atomic ends on what appears to be an anticlimax. The ensemble stretches out in self-defensive positions, much as children of the 1960s were taught do during air raid drills, save for two technicians who monitor the instruments. The test goes off quietly, leaving in its wake an intact atmosphere and a woman's voice speaking in Japanese. We know what happened. Or do we? The history of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy is not yet over, and their legacy is not yet known.

As might be expected, the staging is stark, and so is the music. There are no lush orchestral moments, and little soprano and tenor brightness. The music is arrhythmic, somewhat discordant in places, and thoroughly modern. Various instruments are used as voices, and the singers are used as instruments, occasionally struggling a bit with what John Adams' composition calls upon their voices to do. Conductor Robert Spano, whose intense face I could see clearly from my fourth-row seat, holds the orchestra together nicely throughout the nearly three and one-half hours.

I am not sure that Doctor Atomic has made me love opera, especially as it suffers from two faults that I associate with the art form—it is overly long and it is overwrought. I liked it, however, and to be fair in my judgment I will need to experience a more traditional production—one whose music and arias may stir my emotions as Doctor Atomic stimulated my intellect and interest in the fate of humanity.

Doctor Atomic
Music: John Adams
Libretto and direction: Peter Sellars

Puppet Bike photo, 11 January 2008


See the third shadow from the right? J. pointed to it and told me that it resembles Hodge, and his pointing seemed to confuse the puppets—they kept bending down to see what we were looking at! Here, they ham it up for his cell phone camera.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Puppet Bike video

Everyone loves Puppet Bike. (If you don't, regain your humanity!)

More later.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wacky winter weather

I feel like I have lived in three or four climates in the past few days.

On Sunday, I left Regenstein Library at about 4:30 p.m. It was warm enough to walk the 1.3 mile comfortably, which would give me an opportunity to stop at Parker's Pets. Hodge needs more toys like I need more cat bite scars, but I wanted to see the store, and every moment he spends biting toys is a moment not spent biting me.

As I looked around the sky seemed odd. It wasn't right. Something about the feeling that it gave me reminded me of my dreams in which I'm at home, in my bedroom, looking out over the sunlit woods and field, and yet I am disturbed to find that this post-dawn light is shining at 10:00 p.m. A sensation that an apocalypse is night come over me, yet I convince myself that this is normal, that this is the way things are meant to be.

It was about the time of sunset, and the western sky was completely obscured by a very black, low-hanging cloud that seemed disingenuously ominous. To the east, the sky was as weirdly white and bright. At a time when the western sky should be filled with light and the eastern sky should be darkening, the reverse was true, and I felt odd and disoriented in time and space as I walked away from western darkness to eastern brightness, away from the sun and toward the light.

After the 0 degree F temperatures of last week, thermometers here hit 60 degrees F Monday. There was lightning when I left work, which has happened before in January but is disconcerting at this time of year. It seemed to be a distant storm, with very little thunder. For hours, sheets of lightning sporadically lit the sky over Indiana and Lake Michigan. On the bus and later, after midnight, I saw the lightning mainly from the corner of my eye, which sometimes made me wonder if I had seen it at all.

Tuesday morning was cooler, but still warm, with wind and rain. When I first looked out the window, I could see little through the rain and fog. It was clear when I poured coffee. It was foggy when I took the empty cup to the kitchen. It was clear when I got dressed. When I finally stepped outside, it was foggy again despite the wind.

By the time I arrived at Hyatt Center, there was a brief, faint hint of sunlight in the southern sky. After months of unbroken clouds and oppressive skies, even diffuse sunshine seemed as alien to me as the dream of 10:00 p.m. light. It also reminded me that spring must return someday, with its own varieties of disturbing weather--snow, rain, cold, heat, wind, storms, floods, and the soft sunshine of happiness, the light that puts life into perspective.

I'll be waiting.

Note added 10 January 2008: The sun was spotted briefly at sunrise today, although the clouds quickly consumed it. It is reassuring to know that it is still there in its many-splendored glory.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Precious Bane (the movie)

After dinner at Pizzeria Due on a snowy New Year's Eve, J. and I came home to my place at The Flamingo, where I subjected him to one of my favorite movies—Precious Bane, originally shown on PBS in 1989 and gone missing since. Based on the novel by Mary Webb, Precious Bane is not an ideal holiday movie, but somehow I was in the mood to see it and to share it.

For J., who has not read the book or heard of the movie, it was difficult to follow, partly because of the dialect. He did not understand why the characters believed in witchcraft and curses at such a late date. When Gideon tells Prue, "You'll never wed," he seemed to think it might be because the harelip marred her looks, but Gideon meant that no one would marry a woman with so evident a curse upon her.

I remember that I too had difficulty at first following the story when it was new to me; so much of it is alien to contemporary experience. Because it is so well told, however, it soon sweeps you into its world of isolation, ignorance, and superstition.

Underneath the ugliest elements—the superstition and narrowness of the villagers, the brutality of the Sarn men, Gideon's greed and ironic self-righteousness, Beguildy's abuse of his perceived powers—Precious Bane is a magnificent love-wish fulfillment story. After surviving all the suffering that life and human frailty create, two odd, deserving people ride off to what we are sure will be a life of love and contentment in each other, for they are kindred spirits. There's no more satisfying—or unlikely—ending. Even the change of heart among the villagers seems surreal as they egg on the ringleaders, then turn against them. Whether we feel cursed or not (I sometimes do), it's the denouement to a satisfying drama that anyone could wish for.

What most struck me, then and now, and when I read the book, was Prue's passion for learning how to read and write. It's an ability we take for granted because we don't know what it's like not to have it. We don't always understand that the ability to read and write contributes to independence and helps us to stay connected socially and emotionally. For Prue, trapped on her farm by her obligation to her brother, poverty, and superstition, reading and writing are her lifeline to something greater than herself, to a life beyond the narrow one she knows. It is also the only way she has to open her heart, however obliquely, to the one person she knows to be a kindred spirit—the one person who sees past the curse into her blessed heart.

Today, when most of us can read and write, how do we use this powerful ability? Parents and teachers are thrilled that children read the Harry Potter books, because otherwise they might not read at all on their own. We send e-mails and messages that fulfill certain obligations but that do not communicate much beyond facts—certainly not feelings. "Thanks for your e-mail. School starts on the 10th. We're not ready for it yet. Suzy outgrew another pair of shoes." Expressing genuine emotion, which provide so much relief to Prue and took away the power of the curse forever ("No more sad talk! I've chosen my bit of Paradise. 'Tis on your breast, my dear acquaintance!") seems to be unacceptable, even vaguely subversive, now that we have the means to do it easily, even beautifully. To do so is to take a risk, that of revealing too much and of embarrassing ourselves in an irrevocable way. Even expressing gratitude to a persona who helped to shape our live and our perspective, is a terrible risk. What if they don't remember us or don't care?

I'm willing to take that risk.

I will write it.

But I don't have to send it . . .

Too late. I did.

Edits: I didn't receive a response, but for some reason I didn't quite expect one. As a child, I would have been hurt. Now it doesn't really matter.

Here's a wonderful entry, with photos, about the Shropshire of Precious Bane.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

"A face only a mother could love"

As my mother used to say, "A face only a mother could love." Mine. Heh. :)

Steiff tiger

My latest acquisition via ebay. I do not know what I was thinking.

Hodge says, "Let me at 'em!"

Please don't tell Hodge about this; he'll want one, and all I can do is the green fleece caterpillar.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Review: The Collected Stories by Paul Theroux

The Collected Stories by Paul Theroux. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998. 660 pages. ISBN 0-14-027494-4. Recommended.

From troubled marriages ("World's End," "You Make Me Mad") and families ("After the War"), from Africa to Malaysia to London, The Collected Stories by Paul Theroux covers a lot of physical, political, social, and emotional territory. Whether he is writing about the past, present, or future ("Warm Dogs") or as the first-person or omniscient narrator, Theroux describes places, people, and events colorfully yet coolly, as though as a writer he is not part of the world or life portrayed.

Parts I, II, and III are mostly discrete, unrelated stories covering a wide range of places, people, and themes. Unhappy marriages and relationships, also found in Parts IV and V, are the topic of many Theroux stories. "World's End" begins with, "Robarge was a happy man . . ." and ends with, ". . . he knew now they were all lost," with a subtle revelation of disloyalty and the realization of distrust in between. In "A Political Romance," love and life come full circle; bloom, discontent and stagnation (". . . in thirty years he would be—this hurt him—the same man, if not a paler version"), and renewal ("Lepska, I love you"). "What Have You Done to Our Leo?" uncovers a woman's perfidy and a man's naivete, assumptions, and developing understanding ("Her laughter was coarse, that stranger's laugh that fitted the new image that Leo had of her."). A rarity in fiction, the older couple of "You Make Me Mad" knows each other too well, yet clearly not well enough. "Sinning with Annie" takes a quirky look at an arranged marriage between two children from the perspective of the adult, prudishly westernized husband. "Words Are Deeds" starts with what appears to be a potentially exciting and risky erotic adventure that resolves quickly into bitter reality ("I hate that tie").

Set in the recent past, "The Imperial Icehouse" is an agonizing story about time that evokes its slow movement along with its decisive moments. "The sounds of the horses chewing, the dripping of the wagon in the heat; it was regular, like time leaking away" ties the preceding procession of the melting ice to the denouement, when "Mr. Hand raised his whip and rushed at John Paul . . . The ice was not larger than a man, and bleeding in the same way." In "After the War," the teenaged stranger masters the master of the house, opening the door for the man's unhappy family; " . . . the child . . . without warning arched his back in instinctive struggle and tried to get free of the hard arms which held him"—perhaps an allegory for what happened to colonial nations after the war. In the future of "Warm Dogs," a couple finds that is the children who possess them.

The stories in Parts IV and V are narrated by a fictional career Foreign Service officer who serves in Ayer Hitam, a backwater Malaysian village, and then London. A memorable exception is "Fury," the story of an expatriate American woman in which the narrator does not appear until after the shocking if not surprising climax.

These stories reveal Theroux's skill as a storyteller. They are recounted so vividly and objectively that they seem to be memoir, not fiction. The reader feels both the narrator's fascination and boredom with his surroundings and acquaintances and senses his emotional detachment and occasional rebelliousness. In particular, small and remote as it is, Ayer Hitam becomes a bottomless well of characters and stories, from the somewhat senile Sultan, the proud Japanese businessman who turns hatred to his advantage, the shaman who commands the tiger, and the anthropologist who gets too close to her subject to the feverish American who sees the ghosts of a local man's relatives. The narrator indulges in a few stories about his own lovers, but these are among the weakest tales. In these stories, Theroux is at his best when the voice he uses is most detached from the characters and their stories and at his weakest when his narrator loses his detachment by associating himself too closely with the group. For example, when he writes, "We rather disliked children; we had none of our own," his narrator loses the outsider status that gives these stories their believability, interest, and even poignancy. At times, however, this objective perspective is too observational and cold, for example, "She saw me and sat forward to let me kiss her, and she lingered a fraction as if posing a question with that pressure." The narrator's point of view is that of a raconteur rather than that of the person experiencing people and events; he writes about what he observed, not about what he felt or feels. Even during his erotic encounters, the narrator is ever the Foreign Service official, ready to observe and report.

As with any short story anthology, some of The Collected Stories are haunting and memorable, while others are almost instantly forgettable. Generally, I prefer the earlier stories to Diplomatic Relations (i): The Consul's File and Diplomatic Relations (ii): The London Embassy because they are less constrained, more inventive, and yet more real. While not a great short story writer like John Cheever, Paul Theroux is certainly a master storyteller who conceives stories worth telling.

Saturday, 5 January 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Cat behavior, or Hodge and the fleecy green caterpillar

(After I wrote this, a friend took the following video on New Year's Day, showing Hodge with his fleecy green friend.)



Sunday morning I was walking around while brushing my teeth with my 10-year-old Sonicare, which sometimes aggravates Hodge (the sound? the walking around?). I wasn't thinking about Hodge at all when suddenly his furry body slammed into my legs. All I felt were fur and muscle—not a hint of anything hard or sharp, like teeth. I take this as a sign of the progress we have made since 2002.

In addition to fear aggression, two of Hodge's behaviors mystify me. One involves standing on a soft object (cat bed, blanket, or pillow, for example) and lifting his right front foot, then his left front foot, then his right front foot, over and over, for as long as 15 minutes. As he does this, the expression on his feline face varies from deep concentration to inner pain. It doesn't seem to be enjoyable, yet I'm not certain it's right for me to distract him and get him to stop when he doesn't seem to want to. Or is he not able to?

I had never witnessed Pudge engaged in this activity, so I mentioned it to K., who has more experience with more cats than I have. She nodded and said that she'd seen Morpheus doing the very thing I had described. One evening during my stay, she directed my attention to the other sofa, where Morpheus was standing on a blanket, lifting one front foot after the other, looking thoughtful and even pained. Unlike Hodge, Morpheus has claws, and it's hard to guess whether this behavior is related to the feet alone.

In addition, Hodge has a toy to which he is either mother or master—I can't tell which. It's a foot-long, faux fleece green caterpillar that he drags around and even brings to my feet repeatedly when the mood strikes him. Sometimes, he grasps one end of it with his mouth and steps on it with his feet deliberately even as he tries to walk off with it. From my perspective, he looks mentally impaired as he tries to drag his fleecy friend along while pinning it down firmly. This, too, can go on for quite a while. It's funny, yet frustrating, to observe.

When Hodge does manage to walk around with the green guy in his mouth, he sometimes vocalizes in a way that I've not heard from him in any other circumstance. It's a loud cry that sounds more like a mother's than a predator's. His facial expression seems to be more of concentration and concern than triumph, although I suppose he could be thinking about where to hide his "victim" from others. I can't imagine maternal feelings in a neutered dominant male. Given the idea that cats see people inconveniently sized, socially inept cats, I wonder if the caterpillar is prey—and if its arrival at my feet is intended as some kind of love-offering. In that case, I must be a disappointment to Hodge, as I do not accept in graciously in the same spirit in which it is offered.

Perhaps I am the one whose behavior is mysterious and disturbing.