28 April 2006

Fup. Jim Dodge.

I read this book between 2:30 and 3:30 Monday afternoon, lying on my back on the floor with my head propped on my pile of folded bedding. I'd got up excessively early, at 8:00, to finish up a manuscript I ought to have been done with two weeks before, and then gone downtown to drop it off; when I returned I could have taken a nap, but read Fup instead. I don't think I'd read it before. I think I may have tried, twenty or more years ago when my dad read and praised it, but I was too young for it then. I saw it prominently displayed at Elliott Bay when I was there Sunday afternoon, and once I was reminded of its existence it seemed high time to find out what it said.

It's a story about a whiskey-cultivated immortal called Jake, who finds his purpose in grandaddyhood; his grandson Tiny, who puts great art and deliberation into the building of useless fences; a hen mallard called Fup, who converts all kinds of edible matter into extraneous duck bulk; and an apparently malevolent wild pig called Lockjaw.

After I read it I lent it to Voldemort. He liked this part, about Granddaddy Jake's efforts to teach Fup to fly:

At the most marginal of opportunities, Jake was fond of telling anyone within earshot the three great secrets of how to proceed when you don't have the vaguest idea what you're doing. The secrets, in the order he invariably listed them, were intuition, reason, and desperation. His intuition as a flight instructor persuaded him that it would be best to simply seize Fup, take her out in a nice open spot, and fling her up in the air . . . . Fup, without the slightest flap of her wings, hit the earth like a sack of cement . . . . Obviously, the intuitive approach wasn't working too well, if at all, so Jake effortlessly shifted to reason and the mechanical beauties of logic. He wasn't the least bit disturbed that his intuition had been wrong: intuition often missed, sometimes spectacularly, but when it connected it saved so much time that the spirit leaped forward . . . and, of course, there was no use denying the basic human delight in being right the first time [ellipses in original]. Reason was more reliable, but slow.

This story contains a series of peculiar events that one must be meant to invest with all manner of symbolic significance, but I'm no good at that sort of thing. I remember in college getting pissed off at Chris because he thought the importance of T. S. Eliot and his coffee spoons was their appearance in some pop song or other. And then I was surprised when, after I forced him to read "Prufrock," he started talking about what it meant. So far as I could tell (which was not far) he was right about its meaning, but it had never occurred to me to think about whether it meant something. It more or less appeared not to, on the surface, and I just kind of thought it sounded nice.

So I told Voldemort I didn't know what Fup meant, and he looked startled. "It's about grief," he said. Which I suppose is true. Or one could say it is about loyalty, or obsession, or how someone might need help in dying, but none of that really quite explains the rebirth of a duck from the innards of a dead pig. The phoenix myth, said Voldemort, but I don't see how likening one peculiar occurrence to another helps much if neither of them makes any sense.

Like most people, I suppose, when they run up against something they're too dense to comprehend, I am angry. I was having a rollicking good time with this story, and seeing acceptable significances here and there, until Dodge threw in this supernatural event to puzzle me with.

I vaguely remember writing a short story when I was in high school that involved a jeweled pineapple and a girl disappearing into a forest and emerging a couple of years later with a mysterious smile--or were those two different stories? Or was it something other than a jeweled pineapple? I don't know what a jeweled pineapple would be, anyway. In any case, I was reasonably conscious of strewing about ostentatious symbols that actually meant nothing, but I didn't care. I had to fill up a certain number of pages with words and give them to the teacher by a certain time on a certain day, and if a jeweled pineapple was what it took, why there was a jeweled pineapple.

I resent Jim Dodge, whom I suspect of saying to himself, "Aw, the hell with it. I'll just have Fup sacrifice herself to save the pig, and then fly whole out of his guts when he's split open, and that'll give them something to try to interpret. Hah!"

But nothing else in the book bespeaks either laziness or a grudge against his readers, so I guess I'll just have to trust that it means something, even if I'm too dumb to work out what. Maybe if I get enough other people to read it one of them will tell me.

27 April 2006

I bear, today, news of hope.

A couple of Saturdays ago my Auntie Quonnie invited me over for what she called Easter dinner. Once I got there I couldn't see much Easterish about it; the only reference to Christ was of the goddamn-Christians-are-dragging-the-country-to-hell-in-a-handbasket variety. It was in this context that my cousin's husband brought up a parable of organizational hopelessness having to do with a bunch of monkeys and a fire hose.

There were five monkeys, trapped in a room with a ladder. There were some bananas at the top of the ladder. Every time one of the monkeys started going up to get the food, someone hit it with the stream from a fire hose, and back down it tumbled. Soon none of them tried anymore.

After a while, someone took one of the monkeys out and replaced it with a new monkey. The new monkey tried to climb up to get the bananas, and before it even had a chance to get knocked back by the fire hose the other monkeys pulled it back down.

More turnover. After a while, all new monkeys, none with any experience or memory of a fire hose, but all conscious that trying to go up that ladder is just a bad idea.

This was, I think, one of those things that goes round and round by email. I rather wish these things did not go round and round, but it does indicate a certain glum satisfaction people get when they see something they recognize. With the exception of people like my mother (or just my mother, if there are no more like her, which has always seemed quite possible) who believe that email is a natural resource to be conserved by reuse, I think people are unlikely to forward something they see no value in. I get mispelled ads for cheap drugs all the time (or did, at least, until I changed the level of the spam blocker on my email account last week), but so far no one I know has forwarded me any.

I recognized the monkeys, of course, though I did not till now think it necessary to broadcast the fact, but now I say: be of good cheer! For sometimes a monkey climbs up and gets a banana, and it's not even one of those awful chalky Dole-manufactured outcrops of a single genetic individual, picked too early and shipped too far, but a proper little ripe finger banana such as one might find in Hawaii or in one of those countries where if you buy food and let it sit around for a couple of days it decays, as real food should.

Four months ago the department I work in was reshuffled. Two new jobs added to the salaried staff, and jobs redistributed all through, new computers put at new desks, and people moved about to be near the people they needed to be near. My new cubicle was one that had been, before, combined with the one next to it, since their former occupants needed to share some computer equipment. Now P was in the next cubicle, and he had a divider put in, for he didn't want to have to sit looking at me all evening, or perhaps wished considerately to allow me a space to remove ear wax or rearrange my bra straps in.

The cubicle dividers are hollow panels linked by metal-surfaced X-shaped joints. Where they stick out into the air instead of articulating with anything, there is a metal cap. Except there wasn't, on P's new divider. Someone had instead tried to fit it with one of the flat strips used as facing on the X-shaped connectors. It wasn't long enough. You could throw junk in over it to lodge inside the panel, and a couple of times a night when someone would come to ask P a question and lean or put their hand on the divider, the metal strip would fall off, and they would try to attend to his solution to their problem while struggling to force the thing back into a position it could stick in for a little while.

Or P would come round the divider to explain something to me, and then it was he who knocked the thing down and had to try to fix it. Until, a couple of weeks ago, while discoursing on tax forms or some such, he switched his sad little excuse for a divider cap with my nice, smooth, whole, functional one. He left it improperly lodged for a while, sticking up into the air, until I, leaning over the divider to ask him a question, banged my elbow on it.

"Why did you do this?" I bellowed, gesticulating.

"I got it," he reassured, and so I thought he would give me it back, but instead he just drove it down into place, so that no one might tell that it ought to have been his cubicle divider that was maimed, not mine.

I could have taken it back, but instead took the opportunity to complain to all and sundry of P's effrontery, adding to my complaints when he took one of my files (he was supposed, as the person in charge of my training, to check it over for me, not sign his name on it himself, but apparently he got so excited over a letter he had puppeteered me into making someone extract from the company the claimant had been working for that his pen just started going and he couldn't stop), and my blue pen, and my spiffy 15-inch steel ruler with the cork backing.

My shredding box went missing, too, but it turned out not to be P who stole it. "Get one from the research area," he advised. "That's what I do when I need something, take someone else's."

I am one of the newest of the monkeys, and P not such an old one either, but we learned, I guess, that there's no point in asking the building supervisor for anything; nothing will be done.

Except that last night when I was waving my arms about, telling L2 about how annoying Voldemort (who is paranoid about being identified to the extent of having all his mail sent to a post office box downtown) is, wanting perfectly explicit written instructions on everything, I brushed my hand against one of the sharp edges of the exposed cubicle panel, and started to bleed. What's a little blast with a high-pressure hose, thought I, and went to talk to the night shift supervisor, who emailed the building supervisor, and this afternoon when I got to the office P and I both had proper nice caps on the ends of our cubicle dividers.

When I pointed this out to P, he at least had the grace to look embarrassed. "Did you bleed?" he asked.

"Just a little bit."

"The lesson to be drawn from this," he proclaimed, "is that I can't leave you unsupervised."

Because, perhaps, I might blunder my uninstructed way into some bananas.

Of course, there may be somebody over in the medical department missing a cubicle divider cap.

22 April 2006

There is something peculiarly satisfying in browning cubes of beef.

My first attempt to make Hawaiian stew went awry. (I could relate what was wrong with it, but I prefer to keep some things private.) At my second summoning, a perfect stew made itself manifest in my stew pot. I gobbled it up, and then turned for a while to other things.

I bought a glass baking dish and baked in it kale and potatoes with tarragon (odd) and zucchini with onions and tomatoes (good). I roasted a chicken, and then a duck, in the roasting pan that went with me to watch the Star Wars movie last summer. I stir-fried spinach and mustard cabbage with piles and piles of garlic.

I also made the same old comforting dish I've been making since before I learned to cook, shoyu chicken with Chinese cabbage in. It has ginger and garlic, of course, and five spice, because Tommy decided to put five spice, one evening in Seoul in the season when the sidewalks break out in mountains of cabbages.

One chops the chicken into chunks and browns them in oil, before drowning them in shoyu and then throwing in the cabbage and simmering it to death.

Chicken chunks are pinkish, and then the surface sears to white, but not evenly, for parts are round and parts indented, and bones stick out, and here there's skin and there there isn't, and eventually one just gives up and pours the shoyu in.

Today I got a letter from my grandma with three stew recipes enclosed. So I started thinking about stew again, and what I imagined was not the flavor of the stew when I sat down to eat it, but standing before the stove with a sizzling in my ears, and seeing in the round pot with the oil gleaming in its depths the dull red cubes of beef going quickly and entirely brown.

I went to the store, and then to a book reading, and cut out before the end of the time allotted for stupid questions in order to come home and brown my meat. What the stew will taste like I won't know for some hours (in the meantime I have mashed potatoes; that's none so bad either, a boiled potato going all to smash), but making it was prime.

14 April 2006

Oddities

Righty-o. Alice wants me to list six odd things about myself. I have no very great confidence in my ability to distinguish the odd from the unremarkable, but here I am, girding my loins to bite the bullet and take the plunge, or what-have-you.

FIRSTLY, I don't have a bed. My apartment is quite small, and a bed strikes me as being a waste of valuable space. I've now been bedless for long enough that when I do happen to stay in a bed at someone else's house or a hotel, it gives me a backache.

SECONDLY, despite growing up in Alaska, where everyone's from somewhere else and so the usual accent is perfect drab American, I speak in a way that leads some not-too-cosmopolitan people to believe I'm from a foreign country. Which country, no one knows, and no such accent in fact exists. If I concentrate I can sound sort of normal, but I can't be concentrating all the time on my pronunciation, so generally my speech is what I believe Scooter described the other day as "insanely over-articulated." There seem to be some other weird talkers in my family--perhaps it's a genetic defect.

THIRDLY, every time I finish a book I write it down in my desk calendar, and at the end of the year I tot them up to see if I'm making any progress towards wasting less of my life reading. In 2005 I only read 66 books, a significant improvement over the 84 in 2004, and ever so much better than 2001, when I read 127.

FOURTHLY, I can't throw out a pair of shoes until I go for a walk on a rainy day and water comes in the bottom.

FIFTHLY--well, that's it, actually. I can't think of anything else. But I guess we can list as the fifth one that there are only four odd things about me, which I suppose might be somewhat unusual.

13 April 2006

Wonder

It is a gray day with a strong wind. On my way back from the library with more magazines from the old magazine bin (two New Yorkers, a Military Officer, and a National Fisherman), I passed a small woman draped in hat and anorak. She lifted her arms to flap her long sleeves at the world, saying, "Isn't it wonderful?" I nodded sharply, twice, and went on.

12 April 2006

This afternoon when I got to a parking spot on a street near my office, after I shut off my car I somehow didn't want to get out of it. I slumped in my seat and looked at the VOID VOID VOID VOID VOID marks on the windshield where I peeled my parents' DC parking sticker off, and I thought I might just sit there and stare a while longer, since I wasn't exactly expected to be in the office for another fifteen minutes.

I should have been able to see what a nice spring day it was, but since I was having trouble seeing past the windshield to anything on the other side of it, I had to resort to memory. Two hours before, I'd been sitting on one of the staircases the streets and sidewalks of my hill are forever turning into. I'd been on my way to the park a block from there, the one where the tourists come to look out at the nice view of the city and the harbor, and TV crews show up from time to time to film what I presume to be commentaries on the state of the city. I saw TV folks there when the Seahawks went to the Superbowl and from the park you could see the big 12 flag on the top of the Space Needle.

The hill's so steep I'm always fighting off an impulse to just sit down on one or another sidewalk, pull up my knees, and look at the view. I don't suppose anyone would object to me sitting down on the sidewalk outside their house, but it seems silly and I'm usually in a hurry. Today, though, I was carrying my Routledge Chinese grammar for the purpose of sitting and looking at it in the park, so when the staircase seemed appealing I sat there instead, and held my book up against the sun so the page wouldn't hurt my eyes. On the other side of the book the ferries and barges went by, and a wind blew on my head.

The memory hinted at a glorious day to be outside. I got out and cast my eyes about me. Sure enough, over here on this side of the lake it was nice, too. Much too nice to be sitting in a car.

But I wanted a chair to sit on. I put my keys in my coat pocket and slouched toward the office.

I couldn't go in, though, on my first pass by the building's entrance. First I saw R sitting in her little low sports car, a newspaper held up before her face. Parked just behind her was V, just sitting there looking straight ahead. A couple of cars behind that, A sat, and then a little on down the block M, head turned slightly down and sideways, eyes fixed on the pavement.

It was like the opening credits to a movie about the futility of modern existence, everyone in her own glass box, willing the world away.

I went on past the building entrance and walked around two blocks, briskly, to ward off evil.

But then I went inside, and then came out and got in my car. Tomorrow afternoon I will get back in my car and go back over there. One day soon it will catch me, and I'll never unseal myself again except at McDonald's drive-throughs, to bring the burgers in.

I thought my camera had gone out of its mind entirely, but today it had a spell of lucidity and allowed me to take this picture of my neighbor's shoes. I didn't sniff at the window to see whether they badly needed the airing they were getting.

08 April 2006

The Social Construction of Freezer Content

I was complaining to someone recently that I keep having to change my outgoing voicemail message because whatever I put there, and however hard I may have tried to make it sound unremarkable, my friends still laugh at it.

"Well, that's okay until a potential employer calls wanting to offer you a job and then they change their mind because of your message," he said.

Someone did call about a job interview back in the fall and have to leave a message after hearing me say something rather odd, I remembered, though I couldn't remember what particular oddity I had recorded at that time. "But in any case," I remarked, "even if they didn't encounter an unconventional voicemail message, if they had me in for an interview they'd discover what I was like, so if they were unwilling to tolerate a bit of unconventionality they might as well have found out about it sooner."

He agreed with me. I found out a little bit later it's a regular policy of his to agree with people if he doesn't know them well. This policy combines very well with his original comment about the dangers of loony voicemail messages--you might not know the callers at all, better provide them with what they expect. But in agreeing with me he led himself into contradiction, and that disagreed with me, though I didn't inform him of that.

Be that as it may, I have now discovered my claim to unconventionality to have been completely unfounded.

You see, my ice has all sublimated.

Thinking of going to the grocery store, I looked into the freezer to see if there was any meat left in there. I found nothing but butter, coffee, green peas, and empty ice trays.

I wondered at first who had been surreptitiously using up my ice. But it was immediately obvious that no one could have been, and in my mind I saw an image of lined school paper with a pencil drawing of mountain peaks--my copy of the picture of the water cycle the science teacher put up on the blackboard back in 9th grade. And then I knew where those ice cubes went.

I don't use ice. Drinks are not good when they are too cold. But I have these ice trays. I can't remember when or where I got them, but I must presume that I moved in somewhere, and I bought the things one is supposed to have in one's home--broom, dustpan, dishtub, toilet brush, ice trays. And when I moved here I unpacked the ice trays I was supposed to have, and dribbled the water they were supposed to contain into them, and put them in the freezer, where they were supposed to be.

And today when I found them empty, I refilled them and put them back in there again. Convention is satisfied.

06 April 2006

Playground

Salem, who is two, came with her mother and sister to have lunch with me the other day. We got some salads and bread from the supermarket and took them to a little park on the top of the hill, where there are a sandbox and a merry-go-round and one of those things they invented in the 80s to replace jungle gyms--slides and ladders and swings and monkey bars, all connected together with bridges and passageways.

We bumped into another mom and kid Tammy (Salem's mom) knew, and most of us sat down on a blanket to eat, with the baby sort of watching us from her carrier. Salem asked me to hold her hand, but I said no I was hungry, and eventually she wandered off on her own toward the kids and the fun stuff. She did this and that, and we kept an eye on her. Once Tammy had to intervene when she was proposing to rake another kid in the sandbox, but mostly she seemed to be fine.

But the other mom kept jumping up to go look after her, especially when she'd climbed up high on the jungle gym and was nearing a place where she could hypothetically have fallen off and landed four or six feet below.

"She's not going to jump down from up there. She's not stupid," Tammy said, watching the other mom fussing after Salem. But then she commented that maybe she was a bad mom.

She is not of course a bad mom; she was perfectly right that Salem wouldn't jump off a ledge. A few minutes later I saw Salem in another part of the park contemplating a one-foot drop, thinking about stepping down, and looking toward us, and thinking some more. It was some minutes later that I finally went over to her, and she said, "Hold my hand," and took it and stepped down to the lower level that she'd been wanting to get to for so long.

There were a lot of other things Salem was thinking about doing, so far as I could tell from looking at her, that she ended up deciding not to do. And a few things that she did, or that someone came along to help her with. It seems to me good that she should be wandering around thinking about what she might do and whether or not she was willing to risk trying it, and then either doing it or not, either on her own or with chance-met aid. She knew we were nearby. We knew where she was. She was in as near as one ever gets to no danger.

I don't think Tammy really thought she was a bad mom for letting Salem go off on her own, which seemed to me, and I think seemed also to her, only right and natural. But there were perhaps 20 other kids and moms (or other associated adults) around, and in almost all cases the kid and the child were within five feet of each other at all times.

A couple of years ago I wrote a novel about a kid, five years old, doing what I thought were normal kid things, things like I used to do when I was small. I gave it to my aunt, who is an enthusiastic grandmother, to read. I was startled at her reaction. She worried about the child, whose bed was by a ground-floor window, who decided where she was going to go and what she was going to do and sometimes informed her parents and sometimes didn't, who went out the window, sometimes, on her way somewhere, and was sometimes surprised by people coming unexpectedly in. If I wrote it like this no one would believe it, my aunt said. No parent would allow this sort of thing. Kids are being taken all the time.

Whether kids are being taken all the time I don't know, nor whether they are forever falling off jungle gyms. I have no kids myself--I suppose when you have kids you find yourself constantly acting against your own better judgment. But it seems to me that some of these parents' judgment must just not be very good to start with. Surely the terrible danger of raising a kid who is afraid of everything and has no ideas of her own is great enough to be worth taking some small risks to avoid.

Preoccupation

There was an old girl we'll call Huar
Whose thoughts did not stretch very far.
She talked about work
Till her friends went berserk
And encased her in feathers and tar.