Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Good Days (Memo from the Fingers Crossed Dept.)

There's a joke about the seasons here in Chicago:  "What do you call two good days in a row in Chicago?" "Spring."  I've been thinking about that joke all weekend, because I've had two, and now three good days in a row, which feels like some kind of new local record.  Blues dissipated Saturday, late in the morning, and haven't come back since.  Well, maybe a touch right now, but I can feel it as hunger, rather than a mood thing--mind's not plunged into a "negative thought bog," as I've heard it called, and that's a great improvement.

What accounts for the change?  I'm not sure, really, but part of it may be that Saturday morning I went to a truly lovely and fun bat mitzvah celebration: one that gathered some friends from earlier parts of my life, and one that did a wonderful job of assuaging a lot of the unhappy feelings I've had about my synagogue and my relationship with all things Jewish, which used to be a big part of my personal and professional life.  If I were a religious man I'd credit divine intervention; in practical, secular terms I think what happened is that the round of unhappy thoughts about Jewish stuff that is a part of my brooding, blue mood got very effectively interrupted, displaced by older and far happier ideas and associations.  After which I came home and cleaned house, smiling at the symbolism.

The other change that may be helping, although I'm not sure what the causal loop would be, is that I've gone off Facebook and Twitter, at least for the summer.  Said my farewells last Friday, and then deactivated the accounts; perhaps that had something to do with the good feeling I had on Saturday and since?  Who knows.

In either case, though, yay!  :)   It's nice to feel happy again.


After that post, I was away from the computer all day--called away unexpected in order to go buy a new car.  My 1997 Toyota Corolla had long since given up the ghost, and was a rusty, battered remnant of its former self.  It's now been replaced by a new Honda Fit, also red, which I'll get to drive to work tomorrow in all its glory.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Yesterday a very "weedy" day--in the sense that I woke up with the glums and felt like "a weed by the wall," as Emerson says, well into the evening.  A few bright points, though, including some good hard work out back in the garden, digging post holes, and a very pleasant guitar lesson, which I'd originally planned to cancel, since I hadn't had time to practice.  Evidently the focus I need to play "Blue Monk," even quite badly, is enough to take my mind out of its blue grooves.

Today, by contrast, I woke up in a rather chipper mood, and have managed to keep myself fed and watered well enough to be, if not a "God in nature," at least a hardy and flourishing and cheerful sort of weed.  A dandelion, perhaps.


My popular romance class meets from 2:40-4:10 pm.  It's not a particularly lively time slot; in fact, many of my colleagues avoid it, because the students tend to be sleepy, as do their professors.  Monday I had that problem, despite the lovely Thai iced coffee I'd had for lunch, or maybe because of it.  (The timing was off, I suspect--caffeine peaked too early, then faded mid-class, and the sugar rush wore off as well.)  Today I had a lighter lunch and brought a mug of coffee right into class, to sip as I taught, and things went much better, at least at my end.  The one thing I forgot to do was check my little pedometer before and after class--I'm curious how many steps I take, pacing about as I teach!

Even though many students hadn't finished the novel we were wrapping up this afternoon (Beverly Jenkins' Something Like Love), I had a fun day teasing out some ideas about it with the ones who had, and I came to some new insights about the book as well, on the fly, which is my favorite kind of class.  Two of those ideas were quite unplanned and unnoted (in my own notes, I mean), so I think I'll put them here for safekeeping.

The first has to do with the way this novel displaces the "Point of Ritual Death" from its central love story--which never really seems in danger--to the secondary plot revolving around our heroine's parents.  At least, I think that's what happens:  I said so in class, but I was speaking off the cuff; I'd have to reread that portion of the novel to check, but it's worth investigating.

The second is about the way this novel ends up being as much about its father / daughter plot as about its central love story--"about" in the sense of "emotionally centered on," I guess I mean, and I should add that this means "emotionally centered on, for me."  That plot takes up very little of the novel, page for page, but it's quite interesting, psychologically, and of course since this was the first romance novel that my own daughter read, there's some personal resonance as well.


Most sessions in my Teaching Popular Culture class this quarter have had a guest speaker, and tonight's is no exception:  it's a talk on teaching non-fiction prose (journalism, etc.) in popular culture, with an eye to the new Common Core standards that schools are adopting.  I have no idea what our guest will say, but she's an alumna of my poetry teaching seminars, and has visited my classes in the past to talk about teaching poetry through performance.  The tricky part will be what to do with the final 90 minutes of class--I really have no idea what we'll discuss, so I've run off a piece from Slate.com about the literary status of books with "likeable characters" and will fall back on that, if need be.

Time to make a cup of coffee and prepare!


Eileen was wonderful--details to follow.  Very good end to day. :)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Moods, Shoes, Feet

Three or four days a week--sometimes more--I slog through what feels a lot like despair.  I say "feels like," because it's really a physiological thing, caused by a bad night's sleep, or not eating enough, or both.  A nap and / or a meal will fix me up, or at least get me out of the slough of despond.  When I'm in it, though, that simple cure is hard to remember, and when the mood passes, as it eventually does, it's hard to remember why I ever let it grip me so long.

"Our moods do not believe in each other," saith the Preacher (OK, saith Emerson, in "Experience"),
To-day I am full of thoughts, and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to–morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.
Got a good night's sleep last night, and woke up feeling great; now I'm getting "weed by the wall"-y again.

Time for second breakfast, I guess.


I clock about 3.5-5 miles a day on my feet, walking, and even when I'm not walking, I'm often standing (as I am when I write this, for example).  Two weeks ago I went for a lovely run with my wife, a little more than 4 miles, but the shoes I chose weren't nearly supportive enough of my ankles and arches.  As a result, I had to hobble around in pain for about 11 days, and even today my right foot feels a bit wonky.

Like most things, this had a silver lining:  I tossed out a lot of old, worn, ill-fitting shoes that I'd put up for years, mostly out of laziness, and I'm gradually acquiring some spiffy new footwear, all of it suited to my increasingly delicate "pedal extremities," as Fats Waller calls them. A sobering reminder, though, that I'm not the lad I once was, able to leap tall buildings--or, at least, to jog around them--without injury.


Here's a Neruda poem I discovered back in my teens--translation by Donald Walsh, if memory serves.

"Tus Pies," por Pablo Neruda

Cuando no puedo mirar tu cara
miro tus pies.

Tus pies de hueso arqueado,
tus pequeños pies duros.

Yo sé que te sostienen,
y que tu dulce peso
sobre ellos se levanta.

Tu cintura y tus pechos,
la duplicada púrpura de tus pezones,
la caja de tus ojos que recién han volado,
tu ancha boca de fruta,
tu cabellera roja,
pequeña torre mía.

Pero no amo tus pies
sino porque anduvieron
sobre la tierra y sobre
el viento y sobre el agua,
hasta que me encontraron.

Your Feet

When I cannot look at your face
I look at your feet.

Your feet of arched bone,
your hard little feet.

I know that they support you,
and that your gentle weight
rises upon them.

Your waist and your breasts,
the doubled purple of your nipples,
the sockets of your eyes
that have just flown away,
your wide fruit mouth,
your red tresses, my little tower.

But I love your feet only
because they walked
upon the earth and upon
the wind and upon the waters,
until they found me.

(One quibble:  my Spanish isn't great, but doesn't this translation lose the snap and surprise of the linebreak in the final stanza?  "But I don't love your feet / Except in that they walked..."  That's too stilted in the second line, but you need, I think, to preserve the flatly negative "no amo" somehow.)

Friday, May 03, 2013

Here's How it Happens...

Here's how it happens, sometimes.

I'm noodling around on my mandola, and notice (again) that the fret edges are kind of rough.  Not an uncommon problem, especially in climates like this where you have very dry, heated air in the house many months of the year.

Also notice a little rattle on the low C string, though I can't tell where it's coming from, exactly. And, come to think of it, there are some broken brads on the tailpiece, and I'm missing a string.  Poor thing could use a little  TLC, couldn't it?

Now, if I get all those things fixed--a new set of strings, a new tailpiece, a fret job--that's going to cost...well, I'm not entirely sure.  Somewhere between one and two hundred dollars, I'm guessing.  If I don't do them, though, I'm much less likely to play the instrument.

In fact, if I put a little more into the instrument, adding a pickup, I might even play it more, since I could do the rhythm parts for the klezmer band on it.

But wouldn't I rather spend that money on something else, like some vocal lessons?  In fact, I've thought a lot, over the years, about selling this mandola, not least in order to help finance (and justify) buying something else.  And I don't enjoy playing it quite as much as the mandolin.  Never have.

But would it sell if I don't put some work / money into it?  

So I can spend one to two hundred on it, or try to get roughly the same amount out of it.  Which is the better plan?

10, maybe 15, 20 minutes gone!


I'm listening to The XX on my computer, and Rhapsody, the service I'm using, flashes a little description of the band on screen.  It mentions that you can hear echoes of this or that artist in The XX, one of whom is Chris Isaak.

Instantly, I think of Chris Isaak playing a big hollow-body guitar, and the thought comes to me: "what kind of guitar was that?"

A moment later, as I open a web browser to look up Chris Isaak's guitar--I think it's some kind of Gretsch--I'm picturing myself playing that sort of instrument, wondering whether I'd ever use the Bigsby vibrato on it, and recalling a guitarist I saw once, my sophomore year at college, playing a hollow-body guitar.  Was that a Gretsch, too?  What did he play? (It was for a production of some Garcia Llorca play, I remember.)

This triggers another round of associations.  One of my colleagues has a Gretsch, at work, I think.  Billy Zoom played a Gretsch, but not a hollow-body.  Wasn't there a signature model?  Click and check:  yes there was, but it's hideously expensive.  And would I want to play something that flashy?

Picturing myself with it, playing with the Alte Rockers, reminds me that I don't play on all that many songs, because I'm not really all that good on the instrument.  But it would be fun!

That's five, maybe ten minutes I could have spent practicing the lovely instrument behind me.  I have a piece I'm trying to memorize, and every five minutes helps.


Thursday, May 02, 2013

To Be Read?

I quite like the title of this book by Michael Wood:  Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.  I don't know how useful it will be, and not knowing that, I'm not likely to read it, at least under current circumstances, but it's a title worth savoring.


My friend and colleague David wrote up a list for me of "50 good books of poetry published this century, and two that are forthcoming."  I don't know when I'll get to these, if ever, but I'd like to preserve & publish the suggestions.

52 21st Century Books
Paige Ackerson-Kiely, In No Man’s Land
Cynthia Arrieu-King, Manifest
Beth Bachman, Temper
Quan Barry, Controvertibles
John Beer, The Wasteland and Other Poems
Jaswinder Bolina, Phantom Camera
Joel Brouwer, And So
Suzzane Buffam, The Irrationalist
CM Burroughs, The Vital System
Ashley Capps, Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields
Arda Collins, It Is Daylight
Eduardo C. Corral, Slow Lightning
Olena Kalytiak Davis, Shattered Sonnets Love Cards and Other Off and Back     Handed Importunities
Michael Dickman, Flies
Lidija Dimkovska, Do Not Awaken Them with Hammers
Russell Edson, The Tormented Mirror
Graham Foust, Necessary Stranger
John Gallaher, The Little Book of Guesses
Hannah Rebecca Gamble, Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast
Stacy Gnall, Heart First Into the Forest
Gabriel Gudding, A Defense of Poetry
Saskia Hamilton, As for Dream
Matthea Harvey, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form
Terrence Hayes, Lighthead
Bob Hicok, Animal Soul
Jay Hopler, Green Squall
Laura Kasischke, Space, In Chains
Suji Kwock Kim, Notes from the Divided Country
Jennifer Kronovet, Awayward
Katherine Larson, Radial Symmetry 
Ben Lerner, The Lichtenberg Figures
Sandra Lim, The Wilderness (forthcoming)
Cynthia Lowen, The Cloud that Contained the Lightning (forthcoming)
Sarah Manguso, The Captain Lands in Paradise
Anna Maschovakis, You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake
Malena Morling, Astoria
Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife
Cecily Parks, Field Folly Snow
Patrick Phillips, Chattahoochee
Kevin Prufer, National Anthem
Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Srikanth Reddy, Voyager
Kay Ryan, The Niagara River
Brenda Shaughnessy, Human Dark with Sugar
James Shea, Star In the Eye
Zachary Schomburg, Fjords, Vol. 1
Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga
Richard Siken, Crush
Tracy K. Smith, Life On Mars
Peter Streckfus, The Cuckoo
G.C. Waldrep, Disclamor
Jean Valentine, Little Boat

As long as I'm listing books to read, here are some award-winners that the PCA just announced--not the whole list, but a trio that I might want to come back to, on leave: 
Ray and Pat Browne Award Best Reference/Primary Source Work:  
Sianne Ngai
Our Aesthetic Categories: zany, cute, interesting  
Harvard University Press 2012 
Susan Koppelman Award Best Anthology, Multi-Authored, or Edited Work in Feminist Studies:  
Alma Garcia
Contested Images: Women of Color in Popular Culture
AltaMira Press 2012  
John G. Cawelti Award Best Textbook/Primer:
Timothy D. Taylor
The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture 
The University of Chicago Press 2012

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Afresh, Afresh, Afresh

As I walked around the park with my wife this morning, we noticed that the trees were finally leafing out, some quite exuberantly.  This poem came to mind, by Phillip Larkin:
The Trees  
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief. 
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain. 
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
I hadn't noticed until now the pun that links stanzas two and three:  "grain," as in the grain of a piece of wood, setting up "thresh," which is what one does to grain after it's been harvested, as well as a lovely bit of onomatopoeia for the way those leafy branches move in the wind.  The same way that a Nativity painting will often subtly foreshadow the crucifixion, Larkin's spring poem foreshadows the fall.

Not sure what to do with "castles" yet, but it will probably come to me.