Thursday, April 21, 2016

Morning in Kenmore Square

It is the day after the marathon, the city’s pagan holiday.  The city is united and everyone is Greek.  I don’t live here anymore, haven’t for years.  It’s not the city I knew.  Too many rich people, the moving breathing proof that money can’t buy taste.  But I work here, so here I am the morning after, and the city is saintly in its endorphinic hangover. 

I ride the train to Kenmore Square.  A man is distributing flyers.  People pass him on their way to work or school or love.  I am in no rush.  I slow down.  It’s his job, after all, and it can’t be much fun for people to run past you all day.  He sees me, but he does not offer me a flyer.  Whatever he’s selling, it’s not for me.  Very well, then.  In the basement coffee shop I greet the ladies behind the counter.  How many mornings have we met?  No idea.  The coffee is strong and hot and the music is funky.  A long blond willow takes her time to fix her iced coffee.  No rush, dearie, but please don’t flip your hair into my cup.  She moves on and I have space to pour the cream and pick gold floss from my sleeve. 

Back on terra firma.  Three doors down, two young men come out of Dunkin’ Donuts.  A bum asks for change.  They have none, but they give him a donut.  As they walk in quiet and friendly conversation, one of the young men, the one with dark curly hair, breaks a chocolate donut into pieces to eat it.  A breeze transmits the cocoa scent. For a moment I think I want a chocolate donut, too.  But I don’t.  Donuts are not what they used to be.  When I was a child, we went to Worcester on Saturday morning and the smell of fresh donuts, bright happiness of a treat soon to come, met us at the traffic light.  Now the donuts are made in a commissary kitchen godknowswhere.  Could look it up online, but don’t care to know.  I don’t want the chocolate donut the boy is eating, for he is a boy to my eyes.  I want to be the boy with the chocolate donut.  The boy of light limbs, crystalline skin, carefree gait.  No.  This morning, this is his city and his donut and his sidewalk and his loving companion.  I am the shade passing through.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Accents

I was at my regular coffee house in need of a cup of the wakeful.  Two blonde skinny women in expensive yoga clothes were ahead of me in the line.  (Don’t jump ahead.  Stay together, People!) Their children sat on the stumpy chairs that are too small for adults and give one the sense of balancing on a defective Lego.™  The women debated whether to have a short or small decaf, a poppy seed mini muffin or a cranberry mini scone.  The children sagged, burdened with the knowledge that this decision merits a ten-minute caucus.  I watched in wonder.  Had they no sense, the adults, that there were other people in line this workday morning, and that perhaps they might move the proceedings along?  In short, did they have as much sense as their children?  No.  Was their slowness due to smugness or stupidity?  Or, perhaps it is normal for people to stare at pastry, as Galileo no doubt gazed upon the phases of Venus.  The eye wants to linger upon the beautiful and the sublime. 

The young man behind the counter (Clerk? Barista?  Clarista?) was sweetly patient and asked them what they would like to order.

Blonde #1 said: Oh! I love your accent.  Where are you from?

(Ah.  Stupidity.  Mystery solved.)

The young man said quietly and wearily: London.  East.

London!  East!  She squeaked and I sighed because I knew what came next.

Clarista knew the script, too: Have you been to London?

And now it was Blonde #1’s time to shine:  Yes.  I lived in London.

You did?

Yes, I lived there when I was in college.

My Friends, I object.  I object to this entire exchange. 

First, no, you did not live in London when you were in college.  You did not live in the place if you did not have to order the electricity and the gas service, identify new vermin, or learn how to operate strange and flammable appliances.  You were put up in London.  Or, London put up with you.  You crashed on London’s couch.  And London was cool with that for a while, until the day London got tired of you because you are a lightweight and a weepy drunk.  London kicked you in the ribs at six a.m., gave you a mug of orange juice and two aspirins and said that if you are going to vomit in the kitchen sink, then you are going to wash the dishes.  And turn off that Smith’s disc.

Second, it is impossible to say, “I love your accent” without sounding like a fool.  I grew up in earshot of an English accent.  I must have heard an American say, “I love your accent” every week of my life. No one has ever replied, “Oh, thank you” and meant it.  I can tell you, from an insider’s perspective, that the possessor of that nightingale song never respects the person who tells her that they love her accent.  Never. Why?  Because while your observation of and compliment of the accent is your attempt to signal to its Golden Source that you recognize that she comes from parts elsewhere and that you approve of this elsewhere, that you think that elsewhere is a bit better than here, that people from that elsewhere, the same elsewhere where the Dulcet Mouthpiece is from, are more polite and intelligent, while you beam in pride of your own worldliness, this person who acquired her speech by the regular accidents of birth, geography and education, thinks you are a sucker and a rube who doesn’t know a Cockney from a Geordie from a toff.  You would say, “I love your accent” to Amy Winehouse, Trevor Howard, or Dame Edna and not know the difference. 

Blonde #1 and Blonde #2 smiled glassily at London! East! and adopted the skinny girl, scissor stance.  You have seen it.  The boot clad legs, crossed tightly, feet planted parallel.  The intended goal of this posture is to emphasize one’s thinness, and therefore dominance, over nearby females, but it smacks of anxiety and incontinence.  The last time I stood with my legs crossed so tightly, I was four years old and I was trying not to wet my underpants.  Also, it is not a stable stance.

Come on, you say.  Admit it: You are jealous of their blondness and their thinness.  You are harping on these qualities an awful lot, aren’t you?  You envy the hand life has dealt them.  You want the proper leisure to give pastry the consideration that it deserves.  You can’t imagine what it must be like to be so confident that your opinion on all topics would be received with anything other than gratitude.  You envy people who can survive on decaf.  If these two are so vacuous, so worthy of mockery, why do they bother you so much?  Move on with your day and forget about them.

Friend, you raise a good point. I can’t let every silly person interrupt my thoughts and consume precious real estate in my brain.  I should take deep breaths, chant mantras, draw zentangles and move on. 

I will tell you why I was bothered.  Because as I considered what it meant to “live in,” a place, as I remembered my mother’s disgust every time she received a compliment about her accent because, to her, she wasn’t English, she was American and wanted to be recognized as an American citizen, not as a British subject, as I tried to recall the planets Galileo observed and the proper spelling of “Geordie,” I was still in the goddamn line waiting for my coffee. 

Blonde #1 and Blonde #2 continued to occupy the front.  Their blockade was impressive, but I was not the only casualty of their privileged bitchery.  On the other side of the café, there was a man and his dog.  The man stood patiently and waited to get past them.  The dog, tired of his master’s solicitousness and possessed with more sense than all of the humans in the room, pushed past Blonde #2 with a good whap with his back flank that almost knocked her over, to the delight of the children.  How fierce are you really when a Scottie can take you out?  East London leaned around the counter to ask me what I would like. 

I ordered a medium latte, whole milk, please, and adopted a military “at ease” stance, that emphasized my width and mass.  I like to think it a solid, authoritative stance, a stance that says, “In the event of famine, I will last for years.” 

The Blondes were dazed at the abrupt interruption of Life.  They blinked at each other, then at me, then at the line that had formed behind me and out the door.  They were surprised by our presence, as if we had risen from the floorboards like ghosts.  They sat down and the children stared into their hot chocolate and gave us the nod: “Yes, it’s over now.  We will make note of your patience in therapy this week.”

And then I moved on with my day.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Despair Goes to the Library

By D.D. Jolly, the Dostoevsky of Champagne Dilemmas

D.D. Jolly, here.  Despair to my friends.  I went to the library the other day.  It was a pleasant outing.  There is nothing unusual about that.  I have been known to pack a half day of rations (whiskey flask, sandwich, sweets, medications, mittens, lip balm, lipstick, hand cream, cell phone, head phones, flashlight, measuring tape, first aid kit, stainless steel lock pick set, machete, etc.) and wander the stacks for an hour or two.

There is one library I have haunted for years.  I learned the organization of the books well enough to find what I wanted without the call number.  It is an ugly building.  It is, I am told, a good example of the cozily-named style Brutalist architecture.  I am merely the conduit of this observation because I don’t know the difference between a good example and a bad example of Brutalist architecture.  The style features a concrete exterior with many windows and yet the interior is dark. The light is absorbed by the muddy color palate and creates a perpetual rainstorm of the soul.  The interior showcases an exquisite waste of space and lack of function. 

The library people re-shelved the books and erased my pheromone trail, surely with malice aforethought.  I am back to the slips of paper and call numbers, but Despair’s eyes are not as fresh as before and much peering occurs.  Peering at the paper – is that a 4 or a 9?  Peering at the spines – why didn’t they redo these labels?  Nobody can read these. 

Reading life, that tricky circle, has led me back to Henry Miller.  I used to know where to find his books.  He was on the bottom two shelves in the second to last row in the far corner where the scholars are caged, not the corner that is a favored place for… that is a ditty for another day.  Miller is in the center row, which you would think is prime real estate, but you would be wrong.  Remember, this is a Brutal Library.  A floor to ceiling concrete cube is plopped in the center of the étage for load-bearing purposes, or some such foolishness.  The width of the central aisle is slightly less than the length of my thigh.  Miller is still on the bottom two shelves.  He is in a tight place.

What to do? 

If you are hale and hearty, stand perpendicular to the stacks, do a handstand, walk yourself parallel to the shelf and read the titles upside down.  This is not the best position because you need one hand to take a book off the shelf and you need both hands to inspect the pages.  Miller brings out the mad beast in his readers with their doodlings, whoops and denunciations.  I cannot abide readers who mark up library books.  That is why God invented index cards.  Stop it now.

Or, you can assume Marjari Asana, Cat Stretch.  As before, stand perpendicular to the stack. Get down on your hands and knees, arch your back, lift your hips, and breathe deeply.  Try to make this a flowing movement.  This is not an optimal position, particularly for those of you with neck problems, because you have to turn your head to look at the books' spines.  And, you need both hands free to weed out the maculated copies of Black Spring.  Also, this position lacks dignity.  While you are probably wearing yoga pants as you read this, we are in a library, folks.

The third option, which is the best option, is this option.  Stand parallel to the stack, press your back against the wall, slide down the wall, open your legs to a forty-five degree angle, before your knees hit the shelf, and balance on your toes.  This position leaves you free to read, scratch, apply lipstick, or record your important thoughts on an index card.  If you suffer from lack of balance, hum an obscene shanty and lean against the wall, you will do the wall no harm.  Make your selections and move on; don’t stay in this position for too long or you will get a wicked head rush when you stand up, not a “metaphysical floating next to the Seine” head rush. 

Who was on this shelf before?  I don’t remember.  Miller would be tickled to know that a) there is a library where a reader must flash her junk to find his books and b) skirts are back.  It’s a cosmic coincidence that Miller ended up in this exact spot.  This is where he belongs. 

Happy to oblige, Henry.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thoughts thought during the walk to and from the train

I try not to think about the books I will never read.  I don’t worry about the afterlife because I don't think there is one, or that any afterlife that there is exists beyond the reaches of my imagination.  It requires me to set aside my vanity to say that, mind you, because I can imagine many impossible things.  I can draw thoughts, impressions and sensations so precisely and intimately that I can taste the salt of an unknown lover’s skin and grasp his hair in my fingers.  But any afterlife that I can imagine leaves me a little sad.  The life of the mind, the only religion worth practicing, lets you down in the end, as all religions do.  A palace of ten thousand virgins?  You are welcome to it, sweetie.  If you have ever broken in a virgin, you don’t need to do it again.  Just please, let there be  paté, crusty bread, salty butter, red wine, mussels, goat cheese, tomatoes, eggs, apples, olives, strawberries, chocolate and whiskey.

My best hope is that heaven is a better version of earth.  Please let me read.

Let me have my blue wool scarf, to wrap around my neck on the infinite cool, sunny days.

Let me take infinite walks on infinite, pretty, city streets,
Let me watch infinite birds,
Let me ride infinite trains,
Let me walk to the infinite library and read infinite books,
Let me drink infinite coffee, with milk,
Let me be an infinite reader,
Let me be an infinite lover.

The last one is tricky, I admit.  Is it me, or us, or the act that is infinite?  How do infinite things make love?  Carefully.  Or, the infinite things are always copulating or always chaste, one or the other, I can’t decide which, but experience tells me that the afterlife will be unfair, too.  Let me be an infinite female.  I have no interest in knowing what it is to be male. I have watched the species for 40 years.  It looks terribly boring.

But the books I will never read.  That is a difficult fact to face.  Bibliophilia is a weak swat at mortality.  The books I will never read are the minds I will never meet and engage, the ideas and the language that will never challenge, frustrate, amuse, puzzle, arouse or delight me.

When I die, bury me in my filthiest lingerie with my library cards and my blue wool scarf.  They will know where to send me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

President's Dilemma: A Suggestion

Actors are so fortunate.  They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears.  But in real life it is different.  Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications.  Our Guildensterns play Hamlet for us, and our Hamlets have to jest like Prince Hal.  The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.

                                    Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Oscar Wilde

Election 2016.  We are off to the races.  Which person who has yet to serve a single day in office as dogcatcher is contemplating a Presidential bid?  Which Democrat will maim her opponent during a friendly game of jai alai?  Which Republican loves Jesus and guns and hates sex and immigrants more?  Who lost weight?  Who had a facelift?  Who landed a billionaire sugar daddy?  Who is cloaking his book tour as a presidential campaign?

Debate season soon will be upon us.  Time to dust off the brain cells and recall that freshman year seminar about Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Two prisoners have committed a crime and they are in custody, sitting in separate rooms.  If they say nothing, they will serve no more than 1 month in prison.  If one rats and the other stays mum, the rat goes free and the quiet man serves 1 year.  If both rat, each serves 3 months.  The mutually advantageous strategy is to say nothing, but that requires the prisoners to trust each other.  What will they do?  Zany antics ensue.  The rules of Prisoner’s Dilemma differ from the rules of Presidential Debates on a crucial point: the prisoners and the jailers know the rules.  In our case, the candidates make their own rules, but they do not share those rules with us.  I leave it to you to decide who is the jailer and who is the prisoner.

When I watch presidential debates, I begin with good intentions.  I settle down with a whiskey and prepare to do my bit as a good citizen and inform myself of the quality and caliber of the candidates.  No more than ten minutes into the fracas, I am pacing around the room, shouting at Himself that I would not invite these people into our house, so why for the love of Pete, are we asked to choose one of these quasi-religious, sex-obsessed sociopaths to run the country?  The candidate who is the lesser rhetorician complains that other is breaking the rules.  In the post-game, the media pundits wail that the moderator failed to enforce the rules.  I shout some more.  What are these rules?  I ask.  What are they talking about?  Have you ever received the official rule book for debates?  They’re not shy about banging me for a campaign donation, you would think they would slip a rules pamphlet in one of their mailings, so the folks at home can play along.  Do the rules require that they speak to us like five year olds, or is it just a mad coincidence?  Himself shrugs.  I mutter something about certain doom and wander off to sulk.  This happens every four years.  

The format and rules for presidential debates are negotiated by the candidates’s advisors with the Commission on Presidential Debates.  In 2012, I looked for the debate rules on the website for Commission on Presidential Debates.  It is a nonpartisan nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation.  It disclosed its corporate sponsors, but they made it difficult to find the rules of the debates.  I found the rules only by asking a friend who is a media expert and follows this stuff as his job.   

You don’t need to consult the Official Rules to know that the debates are structured to permit the candidates speak in platitudes and banalities and to prevent us from evaluating them honestly.  They labor under no dilemma because they trust each other to say nothing.  This compact is never broken.   There is no point asking the candidates questions about the economy, foreign countries, or global warming.  We know how they will answer.  Economy: good.  Foreign countries: foreign.  Global warming: gosh, is that the time?   And, opinions change, whether for the good or the ill, but the candidates fear looking weak for allowing facts and logic and retrospection to affect them.  

During a prolonged sulk, I recalled past campaigns.  The memorable events of a presidential campaign are the moments when the candidate is off balance, when the mask slips -- the moment of candor.  

“Stop lying about my record.”  Bob Dole, 1988.      

“Binders full of women.”  Mitt Romney, 2012.

“And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?”  Herman Cain, 2012.

“BLLLEEEAAAAHHH!  Howard Dean, 2004.

If we are to learn what these people are made of, we must throw their constructed personae off balance and make them revert to their unscripted selves.

Here are my suggestions for Presidential Debates 2016 and to the end of recorded time.  

1. Scrap the Debate Stage

You can see it now.  The matching blond wood podia, or the dark wood desk, the red carpet, the medium blue background, the dark blue suit with the red tie, the dark blue suit with the blue tie, yawn.     

2. Scrap the Commission on Presidential Elections

We will form a new body: the Commission to Coordinate Moments of Candor in Candidates (“COCMOCC”).  Like ancient Athens, COCMOCC will be a democratic assembly and its membership will be drawn by lottery from all registered voters.  The COCMOCCers shall serve a term of one year, the year in which the election is held, and they will receive the same salary and benefits as the members of the United States Congress.  They will also receive a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax.™

3. Create games designed to trigger moments of candor

We have all been children, yes?  And as children, we all devised games.  The COCMOCCers will devise social experiments -- I mean games -- that will require the players to move naturally, speak extemporaneously and react spontaneously.  They will be encouraged to be creative, within the confines of the Geneva Conventions.

When a game gets played and the players ignore the rules, what results is usually more fun than the game would have been had the players obeyed the rules.  Games devolve into chaos, name-calling and physical violence.  Sometimes, this is mildly insightful; oftentimes, it is entertaining.

Here are some ideas.

Darts (Cricket)

Cricket is the preferred darts game for this experiment, as it can be played by 2, 3, 4 or more players. This would permit third party candidates from the fun, wacky parties to join the experiment to enrich the viewer’s experience.  

I don’t know about you, but in my house, darts is serious business.  By serious, we get seriously drunk and then decide that is the optimal time to play darts, a game requiring an attention span and hand-eye coordination.  Our reasoning is absolutely sound: When the senses are dulled and inhibitions loosened, that is the time to repair to the basement and throw sharp, pointy things at my freshly painted wall.  

If you met my friends, you would think them to be a civilized lot.  You would not think twice about lending them your car.  It would not occur to you to hide the prescriptions drugs from them.  They are Nice People, the sort who yield to drivers making a left turn, give to Heifer International, rescue animals, and floss daily.  Three gins in, put them in front of a dart board, and they revert to the state of nature.  Evenings start off Noel Coward and end Sun Tzu.  The congenial talk of the dinner table is abandoned to speculations about the gamer’s patrilineal ancestry and prognostications about his reproductive prowess.

We attempt to keep score on the cricket chalk board, and someone pockets the chalk.  The piece of tape on the floor to mark the International Darts Federation Standard Distance from the Dartboard is an invitation for a toe to creep over the line.  Accusations follow.  Cricket devolves to pushing, shoving, drinking bouts, trash-talking and thumb wars.  Players are struck with a sudden urge to waltz.  When the two fiercest competitors are facing off in the rubber game, someone finds Apocalypse Now or Blade Runner on television, and we sink into a meditative stupor.

The morning after is a solemn time.  Texts are exchanged which are part thanks for a great evening, part cry for help, and part furtive inquiry as to last known whereabouts of one’s socks.  

         Great drink. Send recipe.
         WTF? Two shots per?
         I had #?
         How # shots is that?

(A gin hangover will suspend your ability to do basic arithmetic.  Not to worry. Your math skills will return when you regain your sense of taste and smell.)  

         YOU BASTARDS!
         Frozen waffles? Good idea? Bad idea?
         Socks, basement?

I have learned all sorts of things about people I thought I knew well from watching and on occasion, yes, hearkening back to my homo erectus roots and joining the scrum.  

Under the rules devised by COCMOCC, the candidates will enjoy a social drink or six and repair to the darts room for best of 27 cricket.  They can even play in teams with their vice presidential running mates.  

What purpose would this serve?  It will be interesting to see if the candidate can remember his running mate’s name when he is in his cups.  My guess is: No.  Moreover, if we are going to entrust the launch codes for nuclear weapons to you, you should demonstrate an above average ability to hit your desired target.  If you buckshot every dart you throw, you have no business ordering drone strikes.

Home renovation, painting compulsory

For the second challenge, the candidates should plan and execute a home renovation project.  There should be at least three or four different jobs to do: Remove thirty year old wallpaper, prime and paint walls, do a bit of unpermitted demolition, carry large things up and down narrow flights of stairs and cram them through doorways, etc.  There should be fewer tools than people, it should be 90 degrees with no air conditioning, and there should be a misunderstanding as to who was responsible for bringing the beer.  This game is partly inspired by the Stanford Prison Experiment.  

This is the stuff of serious negotiation, patience, strategy, resolution and design sense.  This game tests the candidate’s ability to conceive of and to complete a project on time and within budget in a satisfactory manner.  I do not think our crop of hopefuls will do well with this test.  Also, we should know something about their aesthetic tastes before we let them loose in the White House.  The People have the right to know if Dwell is your design bible, or if you plan to turn the Lincoln Bedroom into the Jungle Room.    

IKEA: the final challenge

Walk through IKEA without descending into madness. It can’t be done.  IKEA is a live action Rorshach test, operating under the guise of a cheap Swedish furniture store.  

I went to IKEA in Stoughton, Massachusetts when I was jet-lagged from a trip to someplace far from Stoughton.  There were four in our party when we set off: Himself, myself, the Commodore, and a lesbian.  (This will be important later.)  At this moment in our lives, you would have been hard pressed to find four people who got along as famously as we.  I forget who wanted what, but don’t blame the jet lag for my memory loss.  IKEA’s floor plan is inspired by the River Lethe.  After we passed through the fourth circle of IKEA, we were prepared to abandon our god, our creed, and our sexuality.  We would have sold each other into sex slavery, or ordinary slavery, for that matter, if someone would lead us to the exit.  The lesbian announced her readiness to service a male employee in the manner of his choosing in exchange for a map marking all of the exits and gave a description of the joys concealed within her clothes.  The Commodore hinted darkly and loudly at the fascist subtext of IKEA’s aesthetic and the likely eugenical sympathies of its customers.  Himself threatened all who hindered his path, reserving the worst invectives for the smallest of the children.  I recall powerful feelings of nausea, hostility and panic.  I wanted to crawl into the Tarva bed and weep for a mercy that I knew I would be denied.  Miraculously, we all survived, but we were never the same people again.  When you pass the Sjrofruck bol thingey the third time, your party’s jovial references to Winnie-the-Pooh will be silenced, and your mind will open to you like a flower, exposing the deep primordial memory of that simpler age before you had a brain stem, when you were an oozy slime in the ocean and had yet to contemplate the long struggle to shore.  Good times.  (I do not propose that the candidates assemble the furniture.  I am not a monster.  That test we will reserve for Supreme Court nominees.  There is another test for those folks.  Boulders and hills are involved.)

This challenge will show us how the candidate responds to sanity corroding stress and if he can keep his head when all about him are losing theirs and blaming it on him, etc.  Candidly, I would not perform well in these scenarios, but I don’t want to command the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  

No doubt you question my sincerity.  The Office of President of the United States deserves more respect, you say. Measuring the candidate’s qualifications with bar sports and trips to hardware stores is glib, you say. The debates are glib, sez I.  What do you learn about a candidate during a town hall meeting of select participants and screened questions?  What do you learn from watching two waxen figures on a split screen?  They don’t take the debates seriously, so why should we?

Maybe we need to rename this whole enterprise.  Instead of the Presidential Debate, let’s call it the Presidential Audition.  You don’t get to choose your script; we give you the script and then you dance for us.  Do you want this part?  You are going to have to jump through a hoop or two to get it.  Before we give it to you, we need to know: Are you Guildenstern, Hamlet or Prince Hal?  

Life is a cabaret, Old Chum.