31 July 2006

Afternoon Break

D2: I end up watching Grey's Anatomy.

S1: There's the one where X think's Y's going out with someone, and she's all jealous, and . . .

D2: Yeah, she really goes off . . .

S1: But then when Y has a boyfriend, X does the same to her . . .

D2: And then there's the one with the dreamy doctor . . . and Desperate Housewives. It's a terrible show! But . . . entertaining. There's the one where Z can't adopt legally, because the gardener she had sex with was under 18 . . .

S1: Yeah, the underage gardener's mother is the head of the adoption agency.

D2: So they have to try to find a child under the . . . the radar . . .

Me: [harrgrrrhumph]

S1: I guess you don't get to watch these shows much, do you.

Me: Well, I don't have a TV anyway.


K: I always watch [initialism]. I saw one where there's a town in Italy where no new construction is allowed, all the houses are a hundred years old . . .

28 July 2006

A Princess of Roumania. Paul Park.

This is one of those irritating volumes that appears to be a novel but turns out really to be only the first installment of a long, long story. I think the second volume may be out now, but I'm not going to track down a new hardback just to be again left wondering, at least until next year, how it all turns out in the end. I am a person of very few principles, but here is one: things that appear to be novels should not end on cliff-hangers. So there!

That said, I do keep wondering what happens next, even though it's been some days since I read it. It is a rather unsettling story, in that it sets up a familiar situation of a seemingly unimportant young person who finds herself marked out for a grand destiny and must find out where her power lies and how to use it, with opposing forces that must harness her power if they are to achieve their own ends, but then when all the expected roles are filled the people in them start to act in less than entirely predictable ways.

The evil sorceress (yes, she is explicitly named as evil, and she is a sorceress, and she kills people, and so on) frequently fails to accomplish her ends not because she is foiled, but just because she fails--she gets confused, she speaks before she thinks, she leaves things unattended to, she's too tired to put in quite enough effort, she sees signs and egotistically misinterprets them.

The benevolent elderly guide, opponent of evil, turns out perhaps not in fact particularly benevolent. Nationalistic, yes, and full of family feeling, but maybe just motivated by self-interest.

And the questing young person, while appropriately confused, resourceful, loyal, brave, etc., appears just not to be all that interesting to her author--he checks in on her every chapter or so, but after a few pages leaves her to go investigate his evil formerly-vegetarian sorceress's cravings for ham.

All of which strongly tempts me to say that if you don't know more or less what's going to happen next, you don't much need to stick around and see that it happens. And indeed I had many moments while I was reading this book when I said to myself something like, "Well, here they are in the woods, and so-and-so's been shooting at them, but now maybe he's going to help them, and who are those yellow-haired wild men? but who really cares anyway?" But at the end there were a couple of characters who had been transformed and seemed confused, and I couldn't tell if they were going to remember who they had originally been or not. And the evil sorceress was reduced to poverty in a garret, hiding from the police--how was she going to get herself out of there? And was the resplendent empire of Roumania really going to be done in by a little upstart like Germany? Someday I will find out, I hope.

22 July 2006

To Arms! To Arms! Equality for All!

The other day, I pulled into a gas station with a big orange sticker on my windshield. There is a city regulation that you can't leave your car parked for more than 72 hours in the same spot. At some point before the 65 hour mark (for that is when I returned to my car, en route to work) the person (I presume) outside whose expensive-looking house I was parked--a person, I later noticed, who appears to own two Cadillacs and a BMW (the BMW can be seen in my picture--the house is the one with the black railings), and whose recycling bin contains only wine bottles--posted a sign on my car that said "ATTN: PARKING ENFORCER" and claimed my car had been there for four days.

It was mere moments after discovering this that I arrived at the gas station. I needed some water and a squeegee to get that sticker off, and besides, I needed gas.

I am a bad driver. Someone else was pulling into the other pump on my side of the bank of pumps I'd decided to use at the same time as me, from the opposite direction. He kept waving me forward, but I still ended up stopping with about five feet between the nose of my car and his, because I really don't know where the front of my car is.

So I got out of the car, and some other guy addressed me: "Sweetie, can you see with that sticker on your windshield?"

At this point I started ranting and raving about the evil Cadillac-owner and the evil parking police and whatnot, whereupon the guy who thought I was his "Sweetie" got a squeegee and set to work removing the sticker.

Obnoxious and offensive, but my reaction was less anger than envy. I was too pissed at the Cadillac owner to be much concerned with what this squeegee guy did or did not do, but--he saw someone flustered and incompetent, and condescended to help. I can't now reconstruct on what occasions I've been in a similar position, but I must have been, or is it just imagination that gives me a sense of the singular satisfaction to be had in seeing someone who obviously doesn't know what they're doing, and, furthermore, doesn't really want to know what they're doing, as they hope not to have to ever do it again, and just intervening and relieving them of the trouble of figuring it out?

Well. Clearly this man would not have behaved in this fashion were I not female. (A side issue: I would not be incompetent in this particular fashion were I not female. I have no doubt that my bad driving and lack of interest in cars originate in qualities of my character that have nothing to do with my sex, but had I happened to be male, social pressure would have induced me to work harder to overcome my car-related handicaps. As it is, I just don't care enough to bother. But even where gender differences are real, treating them as such creates the expectation that they continue to be so, where in most cases they ought rightly to fade away.)

Such sexism is insupportable: I must of course advocate change. Most people, I suspect, would call for the squeegee guy leaving me alone and letting me put the water on the orange sticker myself. But I say, let us all indulge in condescension! Let toddlers come to the aid of their grandfathers! Let grandmothers stop in the street to help strong young men out of their confusion! Let slight young curly-haired guys in cable-knit sweaters stop to change tires for burly men with ties and graying brush-cuts who have got themselves stranded by the roadside!

And when next I see a man dithering in a department store, the week before Christmas, "Honeybunch," I will say--well, actually, I'm lousy at shopping. But maybe he can offer me some advice.

20 July 2006

Black Bean Tomato

1 pound meat, sliced
2 T cooking wine
1 t salt
2 T garlic, minced
2 T ginger, minced
2 T black fermented soybeans
2 T cooking oil
2 T soy sauce
1 medium-sized sweet onion, roughly chopped
3 small tomatoes, chopped
2 large bell peppers, in chunks

(measurements are all approximate)

Mix salt and cooking wine into sliced meat. Put wok over high heat. Heat oil until smoky, throw in garlic and ginger, stir. Add meat, stirring until slices are thoroughly browned. Stir in the black beans. Add soy sauce and tomatoes and stir until the tomatoes are mostly cooked down into sauce. Add onions and peppers, stir until done. Eat (probably with rice).

Many variations on this are possible, of course--the main thing is to make a sauce of tomato, soy sauce, and fermented soybeans. It's a good way to make chow fun, too--reminds me of Uighur ban mian. (Wonder how you say that in Uighur?)

15 July 2006

Grocery Cart


A few weeks ago I went to an orchestra concert. I sat up by the ceiling, peering over a railing at the heads down in the orchestra level and trying to do algebra. Hair that compresses to a ponytail an inch in diameter is to a $30 seat as baldness is to x?

Before I'd settled this question the music started. I squinted at the stage. Had the strings and winds really wandered off on their own separate paths, or did notes in the basses' register just take longer than those in the oboe's to wend their way to the ceiling? Hmm.

There was an intermission. I cast my thoughts back to high school, Mr. Bruce and his chalkboard illuminated in the only sunlight I ever saw in midwinter. (How did the school's architect create a building all windowless interior? From the outside, there seemed to be an outside, but somehow only the science classroom encroached upon it.) Mr. Bruce drew mountains on his chalkboard, a cloud advancing up the mountains. The air grew thin; the cloud grew cold; it shivered water upon the slope, and the water ran down, down into the sea.

But that was 9th grade Earth Science. No use.

Mr. Bruce drew a forest upon his chalkboard, dagger-like trees threatening the sky, but consumed in the next picture by fire. Then a little plant venturing up through the ash, and another plant, a shrub, a small tree, small trees, on their way to fill up the hole in the forest.

But that was 10th grade Biology.

Mr. Bruce, sunlight sinking into his green chalkboard but glancing bright off the crumbs of his chalk, drew an atom bomb--now this was more like it; surely this bomb must be 12th grade Physics? But then intermission was over and I had to leave off my attempt to draw upon authority and come instead, empirically, to my own conclusion: the wavelength of sound affects its speed in Schubert, but not in Mahler.

Before the sound waves started up in my direction from the stage, there had been some light waves projected in the opposite direction, casting a message up above where the curtains would have hung from, had there been curtains. "Kindly Turn Off Cell Phones & Pagers," it said, quaintly archaic, what with the courtly "Kindly," the ampersand, the mix of capital and lower-case letters in a typewriter-like serif font. The message was projected in uneven brown-yellow light, blurring to green around the edges in the dimmer spots, magenta in the brighter.

The form of the message tried hard to render the contents out of existence. Light, it said, came from things burning; the impress of standardized inked characters upon a page was brought about through mechanical action of the fingers upon an arrangement of metal. This evening, we had brought ourself within range of sounds made by air forced through pipes, and the agitation of strings, because farther away we could not have heard them. Just so could we not now hear the repetitive noises of those distant people who would call or would page.

A car pulled up to an intersection in San Francisco, windows open, hip hop taking over the street where Karl and I were walking. "Why do people like that music?" he asked, all anime-eyed perplexity. "No rhythmic variation, no melody, no harmony--"

It was a question, I am sure, meant to call out a sympathetic grimace, some expression of sorrow over the state of a world with a music like this in it, not an attempt at explanation. But I like hip hop--not enough to cause it to sound in times and places where it would otherwise not, but enough to be cheered when it crosses my path. Besides, I resented the imputation of a baroque sensibility. I'm all for the white box of an apartment, crossed by a single square-edged bar of light, all wide white floor but for a black rectangle of coffee table and one red cushion. You'd have to keep the books somewhere, of course, but maybe you could have a trap door to a cellar and keep them there, in all their mess of color, out of sight. Bring them out to read one at a time and then store them carefully away again, so as not to spoil the overall scheme. And when you had to get up and go out, you could always hide the book you were reading underneath the red cushion.

Hip hop may not have everything, but surely that is what it is good for. Envelopment by a loud and simple music is, I suppose, something like a religious experience, making self and world both drop away. You may walk, but you will not walk with your own gait. You may stop at a stoplight, looking out on the girl in impractical sandals, cell phone in hand, and you may see her bare legs and arms and black dress and the way she looks wistfully at the mannequins in the window, but you will not hear the clip clop of her shoes or the way she says, "Wait--you mean when I went up the wrong way on the freeway that time, or the time I was with you and went the wrong way? Well that was," and you will not have to wonder that was because what. The sound you hear is louder, with a pattern of such power and regularity you don't doubt its significance, and lost in it you can rest.

This is what the symphony orchestra was invented for, I am convinced.

The Mahler worked its way to a slam-bangy conclusion, and the audience rose to its feet, roaring for joy. Had there been someone, then, mumbling to his phone how "my only thing is, as long as one or more persons are amenable to the system's" such-and-such, then so on, you certainly could not have heard him.

The small and quiet Schubert called forth no such jubilant approval, nor even adequate rehearsal. This is not, of course, unusual. It is most eminently normal for the audience to be happiest when the music's just plain loud.

Which a symphony orchestra isn't, not by contemporary standards. Even in the frenzy toward the end of the Mahler, with the orchestra going at it with brass and gongs, timpani and cymbals, you would not have been able to ignore it had someone's phone rung and he got talking about how his mom had married a Japanese guy who was beyond rich.

With a car stereo, you could have him inaudible in no time.

13 July 2006

Quarter to Five

Wives and Daughters. Elizabeth Gaskell.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room--a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o'clock struck, when she wakened of herself 'as sure as clockwork,' and left the household very little peace afterwards.
It was a good way to begin, I thought. A beginning like that was unlikely to issue in a melodrama of poverty. Yet a book of this bulk could not be as plotless as Cranford--it honed right in on that little girl in that bed; surely it was going to stick with her and tell me her story. I was alight with hope.

The Cranford Gaskell was dull, but she told me that people took milk in their green China tea. The Mary Barton Gaskell was overwrought, but wrote with an invigorating consciousness of the broad lineaments of social change. In Wives and Daughters, perhaps, I'd find Gaskell in ethnographic mood--and who, attending closely to the way life goes, would give you such a picture of virtue transcendent over near despair as Mary Barton?; but harboring sociological intent--and who, with an eye to the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, would mire you in the concerns of the ladies of Cranford?

The girl lies in the bed. Her bonnet is nearby. She has lined it with quilling. The church bells ring, she goes to the window, and--five paragraphs in, looks out upon class and its politics. Whigs--Tories--Reform Bill (still, we are told, in the future)--who owned the land--who made the clothing--the memory of the French Revolution. And on to the charity school run by the countess, and her annual gala in support of it, and the strain of the village ladies attending it "talking on stilts" for half the morning and all the afternoon, and now, after three pages, we're back to the little girl, early in the morning, looking out her bedroom window.

All my hopes were fulfilled. I even learned more about tea--the doctor's friends the Miss Brownings got theirs from Johnson's at three shillings four pence a pound, but the countess's daughter offered to get some for them from "Russia or Prussia, or some out-of-the way place" at three shillings a pound. (Though it was not at all clear to me whether she really paid just three shillings a pound for her imported tea, or if this was meant as a surreptitious act of charity.)

11 July 2006

Larry's Market is closing.

First, Voldemort told me they were bankrupt. He had read it in the paper, evidently. I tried to suppose he might be mistaken and inquired no further, not wanting to hear. I couldn't help recall they had stopped selling their own brand of RBST-free milk and switched to a brand called Wilcox or something, which seemed a sad sign, but I put it from my mind. The store was still there, four blocks down the hill from me, with sales on Numi teas and organic chocolates, selling my coffee and my rice and my seedy bread, and if it went away the quality of my life would plunge, so I chose to believe it would be there forever.

For some weeks my faith held up, but then I noticed that the vegetable bags, which used to be clear and flexible and say "Larry's" on them, were now translucent and crinkly, and bore no message. The big carrier bags didn't say "Larry's" either, but "Thank You" or some such bland thing.

Then the deli stuff started sinking down to bare metal trays long, long before midnight.

My coffee dripper cracked and I went looking for another, and found that Larry's had, now, none but a few isolated housewares, standing about dejectedly on wide expanses of bare shelf. By the main door, there were no more flowers.

Saturday night on my way home from a movie I stopped by for a chicken to roast. It was only nine or so and the sign still said the store was open till midnight, but all the displays were cleared away, and the stuff in the deli and butcher sections, and only two cash registers were open.

By now I could hardly avoid the conclusion Larry's really was going away, and when I got to the cash register the conversation going on there confirmed it. "They're going to try to keep it open until they find a buyer," the man working there told the couple buying things. "It was a real moneymaker, all of them were. It wasn't the stores that was the problem, but--sixty corporate people for six stores--if good management was hereditary--Larry was a great guy, but--"

Everyone looked sad, as well they might.

07 July 2006

There are all these series of whodunits with "death" in the title. M. M. Kaye's colonial mysteries, for instance: Death in Zanzibar, Death in Kenya, Death in Kashmir. Now that it seems to have become socially acceptable to put "sex" into titles, why not another crime series: Sex on a Submarine, Sex and the Salad Maker, Sex at Forty Below? But I guess gimmicky series titles only work with nice clean murders motivated by things like national secrets and accounting fraud. What a pity. Sex under the Influence of Six Liters of Cantonese Lager has such a nice ring to it.

04 July 2006

Diana Lively Is Falling Down. Sheila Curran.

The virtues of this novel are many:
  • Complete insubstantiality
  • Careful plotting
  • A thoroughly despicable villain
  • A kleptomanic preschooler
  • Fluency in all sorts of language, from marketing sleaze to academic pretension, from teenage chatroom to small-town town council, from this side to that of the Atlantic
  • Imaginary scorpions
  • Multiple sets of Laura Ashley sheets
  • Strippers
  • Death
  • A happy ending
Best of all, once I'd enjoyed it, I got to take it back to the library, and I may well never see it again.

03 July 2006

Rule Britannia. Daphne du Maurier.

In this curious tale, American forces invade with a mission to establish Britain as a sort of theme park for the entertainment of the citizens of that part of the new USUK located to the west of the Atlantic. A twelve-year-old boy kills a marine with a poison arrow, his family broods over whether he is a psychopath or a brave warrior, great contempt is shown for Californian wine, and in the end the stubbornness of the Cornish farming population causes the Americans to give up and go home.

02 July 2006

A History of Reading. Alberto Manguel.

In Chicago, I took the El to work every morning, walking down to the south end of the platform at Addison to board the train's first car, where sometimes there was a seat still empty. If there was a seat I was stable and could devote both hands to reading, looking up occasionally from my book to see morning light on the weathered wood railings at the backs of brick apartment houses.

Often the grumpy-looking lady with the knobby nose was sitting opposite me, and if when I looked up she was not looking, I tried to spy what her book was.

I noticed her first in winter, wearing a white fur coat and a long, narrow, machine-knit acrylic scarf with wide stripes of blue and orange. Her book was blue and orange too. I knew it, I found--Hamish MacBeth, hardbound in a plastic library cover, just like the copy I'd read, though mine had been checked out not from the Chicago Public Library but the DC one, the Georgetown branch, a year or two before.

The Hamish MacBeth stories are curiously unthrilling, considering the numbers of dead bodies that show up in them--cozies, I think that variety of mystery is called, a class of books designed to soothe the soul and brace the spirit by showing the reader a jarring series of horrid events through the eyes of someone who, rather than being jarred and horrified, would just really like a cup of tea. Going to the office might be awful, but at least the bodies there were alive and talking (well--bickering, sniping, ranting), and there was tea there.

Whether there was tea where the old lady was going I didn't know, and she still looked mighty grumpy. But maybe without Hamish MacBeth she'd have been yet grimmer.

I felt no kinship with this squinty-nosed creature--what a coat! what a scarf! what fearsome curl to the yellow-gray hair!--but we'd read the same book, and there must be something. I saw her often after that, and kept an eye out for further signs I'd turn into her with age.

Once when I worked in College Park I was reading, on the way home, Alice's copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the woman in the seat in front of me smiled in a comradely fashion and raised her Chamber of Secrets aloft like a banner. More often, though, a reader holds a book spine downward. To discern what someone's reading takes a voyeuristic attentiveness, and the embarrassment I feel when caught peeping reminds me how complex the social nature of the act of reading is, involving as it usually does (when not undertaken collectively and aloud) the reader's withdrawal from interaction with the people in her immediate surroundings in order to join an imagined community whose members may be scattered across thousands of miles and dozens of decades (depending on the durability and range of distribution of the text--heck, maybe Benedict Anderson was right and there was a time when a nation was the natural outgrowth of a newspaper).

To a person who reads and likes to see what others are reading, Alberto Manguel's book is a splendid thing. It may be profitably read in small chunks over the course of several months, being neither an extended narrative, comprehension of the later parts of which depends on recall of facts introduced in the earlier, nor a single continously developed argument. It is more like an anthology of anecdotes, sorted by theme, linked one to another by Manguel's ruminations on what reading is and what readers do. He catches people reading, up and down the centuries, and reports back on their activities, with all the titillating details (Sei Shonagon was often disappointed by the second volume of a story that had started off well; Edward III kept romances in his bedchamber), and even pictures (Rilke hunched over his desk in a quilted jacket, small book in hand; Qin Shihuang stroking his beard as his stooped officials rush to add books to the flaming piles before him).

My mother claims she tried to stop me learning to read. "Go out and live!" Manguel's mother always told him. Since my mother failed, I'm glad his did too.

01 July 2006

My hands are clasped for a chinrest, and I'm staring at the section of my monitor that mimics a monitor of an older kind, aqua on black. One column of 15, I think, plus a column short two, that's 28, and then one, two, three, years under 500 hours--food processing? no--which brings us down to 25, and he was born in February of 1953, and it's now June of 2006, so--

"Wake up!"

Dammit. Voldemort hissing (Slytherian!) as he passes by my desk again, and I forget the conclusion I've just come to about whether the life condensed into these columns of figures is due, yet, a blank space to breathe in, to restore antiquated tractors or whatever it is that lives wander off into when they stop adding up on our screens every month and go into PAY status, the state of the record unchanged year after year as the monthly check goes out to feed someone who is, I hope, finally doing something after all those years eaten up by work.

I have to start all over. Twenty-five years of contributory service, and 53 years old now, so, no, not eligible to retire until at least next year.

I do get sleepy at my desk sometimes--who wouldn't, working till quarter past midnight?--but does concentration really look like somnolence? My own perception is that a sleepy me will look up at whoever passes, and smile, seeking distraction. Or turn my head to inspect the scraps of tape stuck to the wing of my desk, scrape idly at them with my thumb, regret the gumminess. If I'm staring at my screen it's because I am seeing something there.

To laud the veracity of my own perception would be foolhardy indeed, but--Voldemort is a great deal more devious than dense. I leap to conclude his words have some significance, link them to his grumbles about the "company woman," figure he sees my faint eccentric promise drifting off into complacent doziness, discontent melting to dullness.

The man on the screen fell asleep thus, perhaps. One more year of finishing out by August the 2080 hours a year for which his contract allows pension contributions (52 weeks' work in eight months, that makes 60 hours a week, and he's got to be still working September through December, even if no more contributions show up) and he could retire if he wanted. But maybe he'll sleepwalk through ten more years, or twenty, or drag himself doggedly through to pay alimony to those three ex-wives, and then when he's hardly started drawing his check we'll be paying death benefits, with the coroner certifying death due to cirrhosis of the liver, or a gunshot wound to the head.

But maybe he was looking out from the cab of a truck through all those decades, alert, noting the spiraled side of a hay bale in summer in a parched field near Spokane, and next year with his retirement application he'll mail in a yellow form describing the embroidery shop he opened, something with Love in the name, and from our office out will go a letter saying that his new work poses no danger to the competitiveness of the freight industry and he can embroider to his heart's content, sell his fancy work for whatever sum he can attract, and get his pension check too.

I am not asleep, not yet. Let Voldemort hiss.