Can opener

If the war came and you didn’t have one of these in your basement, what would you do?

Opening a can of chicken soup, I was thinking about war preparations, one of my preoccupations.  It’s a leisure-time activity for a bellicose era in which my house is under the flight path for the fighter jets that patrol Camp David.  There will be no underground Pentagon for me, no tank kitted out for a post-nuclear landscape.  Just a wet basement, jugs of water, a hand-cranked radio and the prospect of eating the pets.

Plan A for today was the office, which changed to plan B after my doctor said to take antibiotics and rest, which was going to involve watching “Melancholia” and taking notes while experiencing mortal envy, until the school called to say that middle child had experienced a volleyball injury.  I went to plan C, the emergency room, where we had to wait some time for a thumb x-ray because the radiologists failed to notice us during their extended chat about stomach viruses.  School is brutal.  Middle child also visited the ER last fall after a computer incident gave him an electrical shock, and we had to make sure his heart hadn’t been cauterized.  The wave passed from hand to hand via his spine.  You learn something new every day.  Today I learned, eavesdropping as usual, that the teary teenaged girl in the next bed had to pay her brother to come pick her up.  ‘Ten dollars,’ she offered.  Sobs.  ‘Twenty dollars.’  This he apparently accepted, and she hung up and cried some more.  Terrible.  I would have driven her home myself, except there some logistics vis a vis her car in the hospital parking lot, and I am sick, and middle child was getting a big splint for a contusion the nurse told us will turn black and purple all down his arm.

Talking to myself about the war is apparently a post-twelfth-century phenomenon–not the war but the internal commentary.  Our inner tape-loop only developed after the advent of silent reading, according to David Abram, who is a maddeningly loopy and excessive prose writer, until he says something arrestingly smart.  Ancient texts had to be read aloud to be understood, because there was little to no punctuation, no spaces between words (Latin and Greek), or no vowels (Hebrew).  Only when monks began “aerating the text” (Becoming Animal, ridiculously long footnote, p.179) by adding spaces did it become possible to read silently.  Aerating the text started in the seventh century, and as the practice, and the sprinkling of punctuation marks, spread from monastery to monastery, the literate people of Europe gradually learned to read to themselves.  Now we force schoolchildren to do it, during SSR, or Silent Sustained Reading, sessions.  But what if it is slowly driving them crazy because it leads to incessant internal chatter?

Nicholson Baker’s work is a literary expression of twenty-first-century consciousness, a.k.a. the inner tape-loop. One trembles to imagine what he might say about a can opener.  It might be a trilogy. (Would I rather read a trilogy about a can opener or a vampire? A can opener.)

I was the sort of person who stood in a subway car and thought about buttering toast–buttering raisin toast, even: when the high, crisp scrape of the butter knife is muted by occasional contact with the soft, heat-blimped forms of the raisins, and when, if you cut across a raisin, it will sometimes fall right out, still intact though dented, as you lift the slice.

That’s from page 54 of The Mezzanine, and I put it in italics so that it’s easily skippable if you can’t stand this sort of thing.  But isn’t “heat-blimped” amazing?

I was really hoping for more than 28 minutes of Lars Von Trier’s disturbingly beautiful movie, but middle child in his injured state must watch “Two and a Half Men” while elevating his splinted hand and eating chicken strips, and thus I am thrown back to the books and the cans. Von Trier skips the war idea entirely in favor of apocalyptic (possibly imagined?) planetary collision.  In the opening shot, Kirsten Dunst, her face filling half the frame, slowly opens her eyes against a background of sky, and then pale dead birds begin falling around her.

…I remembered that when I was little I used to be very interested in the fact that anything, no matter how rough, rusted, dirty, or otherwise discredited it was, looked good if you set it down on a stretch of white cloth, or any kind of clean background…curators arranged geodes, early American eyeglasses, and boot scrapers against black or gray velvet backgrounds because anytime you set some detail of the world off that way, it was able to take on its true stature as an object of attention.

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Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine, p.38.

Harmonica

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Youngest child hummed a happy tune.  I realized my headache wasn’t so bad. I wanted to clean everything at once, scrub my face, drink Perrier, and reorganize my closet, but settled for purging the house of holidays.  The tree is on the curb.  Hauling it out through the kitchen door was cathartic.  I scraped menorah candlewax off a table with canola oil and a plastic spatula.  The little happy tune will carry us forward.  Blogs are odd because you read them from present to past, from now to then.  The now is what matters.  In the now, it is no longer odd to have a tupperware container full of sharps on top of the refrigerator.  In the now, I am filled with secret half-formed resolutions. To see oldest child’s well-articulated ones, visit her excellent blog at http://mslifeisbestlife.com/. The tree is out.  Pink tulips are in.

Whisk

Whisking up pancake batter this morning, I thought of Lucien Truscott IV, and how he changed my mind about making pancakes.  Are people capable of true change?  My skepticism may account for my crankiness around New Year’s rituals, the baptismal alcohol bath followed by penitence and promises.  I prefer to go to bed around ten, the town square midnight fireworks exploding only softly into my unconscious.  Lucien Truscott IV, however, changed my mind about pancakes, with a New York Times op-ed in 2002, and it has had lasting consequences.

Pancakes were for special occasions, and they involved work.  I admired the Sunday morning breakfast dads who made pancakes, bacon, and coffee.  My worst pancake-making experience involved cooking stacks and stacks of the things for a beach-house full of people–I ended up chain-smoking over the pan, the martyred chef who never gets to sit down while her guests linger over second coffees. Never impulsively offer pancakes!

Truscott told the story of his eight-year-old daughter Lilly asking for pancakes on a school morning. He felt  flustered, dealing with bookbags and packed lunches and carpool duty, but he acceded.  Within ten minutes he was serving pancakes to Lilly and her little brother, Five (I do love that nickname, Five, almost as much as I love Lucien Truscott’s name itself), and he concluded that it wasn’t so hard. At the time, I had a ten-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son.  Three, a.k.a. youngest child, was on his way, though I didn’t know it yet.  Soon I would be entering a frame of mind that called for a larger house, one child banging away at a piano in the living room as another ran up and down the stairs, and a parent yelled out instructions from the kitchen while waving a wooden spoon.  Truscott’s embrace of weekday morning pancakes ushered in the era of generous-minded domestic chaos. Being a citizen of Los Angeles with a refined library, Truscott went on to experiment with pancake recipes from James Beard et al. that included flaming rum for the grownups.  Being a person who believes in small changes, I stayed with the box mix but have offered pancakes on school mornings ever since. With blueberries, banana slices, or chocolate chips. We didn’t buy a larger house.

The whisk was invented far later than the spoon, which took the form of a shell or stone in the paleolithic era.  Spoons are more basic.  You realize this the moment you are forced to eat Greek yogurt with a straw.  Spoons are necessary. Before it was an object, whisk was a verb (ahem, must get out the reading glasses) back in 1375: “The king…Vatit the sper…And with a wysk the hed of-strak.” It meant a brief, rapid sweeping movement.  To wysk off a head must have required a strong arm and a sharp blade. A whisk had become an instrument by 1666, any bundle of twigs or wires used for sweeping, or for beating children, or eggs: “By beating the White of an Egge well with a Whiske, you may reduce it from a somewhat Tenacious into a Fluid Body.”  Thus speaks the OED.

In the grocery store the checker asked me and oldest child if we had any resolutions.  We had none.  Resolutions should not only be made, but should be made public.  Our lack of resolution did not deter her from revealing hers, which was to save money and pay more attention to coupons.  This seemed admirable.  I should save money, make pancakes from scratch, have my wits about me at all times, and, of course, being American, lose weight.  However, since such ideas make me want to shop online while drinking chardonnay and stuffing cookies in my mouth, I shall refrain. I whisk such ideas away in a whirl-puff (a gust of wind, circa 1382).

Binder clip

Any device that holds things together is a valuable one.  The binder clip not only fastens papers but also keeps bags closed and holds back curtains. Scotch tape has been a crucial binding material over the holidays, and so has bourbon & eggnog.  A little bourbon and eggnog with a sprinkling of nutmeg along about four o’clock in the afternoon keeps things together nicely.  By “things” I mean my personality.  Glue and thread hold book pages together, as in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Marriage Plot, which is also bound together by Jane Austen’s marital narratives.  In grad school, when I had the flu I used to lie in bed reading from the collected Austen, secure in her orderly universe. Now, sick with a hacking cough, I lie in bed reading Eugenides’ novel, whose universe resembles my own, encompassing college in the early 80s in the northeast, France, Greece, Provincetown, and Princeton, New Jersey (called Prettybrook in the novel, Prettybrook being one of two exclusive country clubs in Princeton).  Recently I returned to Princeton for a party, at which women I’d known since 8th grade told me to read Eugenides.  Life feels very bound together at times, the present self inseparable from the 8th grade self. So much time has passed since high school that our connection transcended the angst of those years.  The person who made out with my boyfriend on New Year’s Eve of 1979?  She was a found-again best friend.  It’s fashionable to say that memory is unreliable, full of self-serving fiction, and that memoirs and novels are the same.  But we all lived in the geographical place known as Princeton together in the Christian calendar time of the late 1970s, our subjective and yet collective recollections attached to an actual sweet sixteen party under a white tent, or a real wooden kitchen table on Cherry Valley Road.  Fiction and nonfiction may be interwoven, but they are neither identical nor equivalent. Lying in bed reading this morning, I wanted a happy ending for The Marriage Plot, my hacking cough, and life in general, and somehow Eugenides pulled out a plausible one on page 406.  What a relief!  Still, I must find another of those smuggled codeine pills from Spain…

Just trying to keep it together!, I say.  Getting my act together here!, I say. Thanks for the binder clip! A binder clip is like bandaids, super glue, string.  Icing, staples, and wax. A scrunchy, a barrette, and spandex.  Memory and time, zippers and belts. Proximity, chance, and cornstarch.  Flour and eggs. The Dewey decimal system, a leitmotif, a rope. Twenty-two years of marriage.  Melody, resonance, echo.  Nails, honey, and skin.  Velcro.  Safety pins.

Mattress pad

Oldest child was coming home from college, so I made up her bed.  She sleeps in the downstairs study now, which she tries to make me feel guilty about.  But since her father and I slept in that study for seven years (seven years!), only recently reclaiming the master bedroom, she’s not completely successful.  She’s partly successful–mother-guilt is a deep well. I smoothed on a white puffy mattress pad, hooking the elastic bands around corners, and I thought of what a familiar and comforting household task this was.  All’s right with the world in a house with mattress pads.

All is not right with the world.  Still, housekeeping is comforting.  Having mattress pads for the beds harks back to serious mid-century housekeeping, with linen tablecloths, swathed in plastic,  hung in closets.  Everyday china and good china. Spring cleaning.  Aprons and feather dusters, and children shooed out to the backyard to play. In the posture of bending over to smooth the bedding, I reenact the motions of women from decades and centuries past.  Sometimes it feels like enough to inhabit these postures, to occupy the form. Yesterday in yoga class I had the sensation of being anonymous, of being one of the numberless human beings to occupy eagle pose. I drop pillows into cases, turn on the reading lamp, lay winter sweaters in drawers.  Maybe the room will be cold–I fold an extra quilt at the foot of the bed.

Last weekend, at youngest child’s first wrestling tournament, as the pairs grappled and threw each down, I thought of the eternal forms and posures of wrestling.  (In fact, the Greco-Roman style of wrestling took form circa 1848 in France, but basic wrestling is surely archetypal.) All you want is not to be pressed completely against the ground.  You raise up any part of your body off the mat that you can–head, foot, elbow–to avoid being pinned.  As youngest child realized after the second match he lost, ‘You have to squirm.’ Wrestling is at ground level, everyone down on the mat yelling.  Novice parents are having an out-of-body experience, watching their child get attacked. The ref is on his belly, the coaches are on their hands and knees.  They are screaming at the wrestlers.  Get up, roll over, rise up. It seemed like such a brave human desire, not to be crushed flat.

Chocolate chip waffle

Specifically, my favorite household object right now is a bite of Eggo chocolate chip waffle soaked in maple syrup.  If you want to make it perfectly, toast the waffle, heat the syrup in a French ceramic pitcher, pour the syrup over the waffle, cut it into bite-size pieces for an eight-year-old, serve it for breakfast, clear the half-eaten mess, leave the plate sitting by the sink for twenty minutes, approach the plate with the intention of scraping the waffle into the trash but instead–in flagrant uprising against the divine monarchy of your low-carbohydrate regime–eat a bite.

If this baclava-like morsel were served to me in a European bakery I would be happy.

Have I lost my mind, or my palate? Too little sleep, too many Southwest Airlines candy-coated peanuts?  It was not a Proustian experience of remembered childhood taste, because I grew up on Aunt Jemima’s syrup, albeit with Eggo waffles popping golden out of their toaster slots just like on TV.  My children have always had maple syrup.  Maple syrup is in.  My husband has said, “We spend more on maple syrup than on gasoline!”  The rules of their childhood dictate maple syrup, cloth napkins, books everywhere, untidiness, and dogs that jump on you when you come in. (Plus a damp and disgusting basement, a mom who won’t drive on highways, etc., but why get into that?  Which reminds me of a Spalding Gray journal entry about his domestic life and his little son, Theo: “Theo keeps asking me to tell him a ‘scary story’ and at least I don’t say, ‘Look around you, this is the scary story…'”, August 9, 2001)

A film director said in the December 5th The New Yorker, “You have fifteen minutes to tell the audience, ‘These are the rules.’ ‘Jurassic Park’ teaches us to expect a T. rex, but if a T. rex comes thirty minutes into ‘When Harry Met Sally’ you won’t believe it.” (Michel Hazanavicius, director of the new black-and-white silent French film, “The Artist.”)   This is true!  I would have been taken aback had a T. rex charged into Meg Ryan’s sweet little Manhattan bookstore.  Some years ago, a deer charged through the plate-glass window of our local Hallmark store and rampaged around, an event that was scarcely believable even though it actually happened.

The rules of gastronomy say that a cold bite of syrup-soaked Eggo waffle will not be any good.

Dining table

Dear X,

Thank you for this farmhouse table, bought sixteen years ago from Bradlees department store next to the supermarket in Orleans, Massachusetts.  We were about to host Thanksgiving in our rented house in Provincetown.  So we bought groceries and this solid wood table, which was cheap but has lasted.  Cracked down the middle, it still holds.

On the first Thanksgiving of this table, we ate within view of the Pilgrim’s Monument, a stone tower marking the place where the pilgrims stopped for water before anchoring.  The monument has a red light near the top, a red Cyclops eye at night, and oldest child called it the Monitor.  She was three—this might have been a mispronunciation, or a recognition that the tower, far taller than the scrunched-together assemblage of weathered houses below, seemed to watch over the town.

Oldest child said two memorable things in the first year of this table.  Husband gets very expressive at formal meals, as if he can’t quite stand to be sitting there, and as he winged back his hand to let fly a napkin, oldest child said, “Watch out, Mom, here comes some linen!”  We loved that she used the word linen.  How civilized.  Maybe we could live in France someday after all.

The second thing she said at our Thanksgiving meal.  My mother was visiting from Washington, and my sister from Los Angeles.  My sister’s beloved little dog had just died, after he failed to wake up after having surgery.  Oldest child could not understand how this had happened.  She had met the dog in Los Angeles and they followed each other all around.  “What did the doctor say?” she asked my sister.  Her aunt patiently explained that the doctor had said sometimes this happens, the dog was too sick and too weak to survive the surgery and anesthesia.  My mother and I had given the dog to my sister as a fourteenth birthday present, and we felt mournful.  We all nodded gravely, explaining death to a dear little child with angelic curly hair.  We passed the stuffing, we passed the gravy.  How good it was to be together, sunlight pouring down upon us through the plastic skylight.  Oldest child put down her fork.  “What did the doctor say?”  “Well,” my sister started for the second time.  The dog’s death was not what she preferred to dwell on over Thanksgiving dinner. She and I and my mother exchanged a look, and my sister explained it all again, how the dog had become sick, and the doctor said surgery was necessary, and so on.  Oldest child listened carefully, and then ate more turkey, sitting in her plastic booster chair.  She stared penetratingly at my sister.  “Aunt C,” she said, “what did the doctor say?”  By the fourth or fifth time of this, we grownups were crying openly, hunched over laughing.  We threw our napkins on the table in defeat. Oldest child laughed, too, mystified, shaking her curls.

Why am I writing to X about this?  I’ll let Spalding Gray ask the question, as he did in July 2001 in his journals: “But who do I pray to, to the QUARKS and the atoms, to the idea of VIBRATING strings?”

Sincerely,

Y