Archive for February 2010

Magical Thinking, Cake, Tea Parties

February 28, 2010

Magical Cake

I’m all for certain types of magical thinking.

I’m completely sold, for instance, on the idea that food eaten standing in front of an open refrigerator has no calories.   Just like the slivers of cake that are eaten as part of straightening the cuts made by other people’s pieces;  these are purely aesthetic slivers, consumed in the name of maintaining order;  they cannot possibly go to your waistline.

But some kinds of magical thinking are too much even for me to swallow, such as the ideas that (i) the United States would thrive with a government that had no taxing authority or system for monetary regulation (sorry to change gears so abruptly);  (ii) the United States could support its army without a taxing authority;  (iii) a government with no central taxing authority could provide services to, among others, senior citizens and the disabled;, (iv) that, if government stopped providing such services, private charities would fill the gap;  (v) that, in the absence of governmental regulatory agencies, business would protect the environment,  the consumer, and ensure food and product safety.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice? (This notion doesn’t even work out in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a magically-thought-up world that exists on the back of a turtle supported by four elephants.)

Government is very far from perfect; it can be arbitrary, unreasonable, officious, corrupt.  (Just like a lot of big companies.)  But, as poorly as some rules and agencies function, it’s important to keep in mind that they came into being to fill specific needs;  virtually all of these needs were historical, many ongoing.

However, some of the Tea Party persuasion seem believe in a kind of creationism.   (I’m not talking Genesis here.)  They see rules and agencies as products of spontaneous generation, like Athena sprouting from Zeus’s head ( in this case it’s the governmental many-headed hydra.)    In this world view (which fails to take either history or reality into account),  the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency were formed not because of unclean food, water, air, but because some bureaucrat woke up one morning determined to ruin some decent person’s day.  (Does anyone remember The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair?)

(It’s interesting to note that both the EPA and the Pure Food and Drug Act, were established under Republican administrations, Richard Nixon, in 1970, and Teddy Roosevelt , in 1906.)

The Tea Party belief system is further skewed by conspiracy theories (weird magical thing);  the claim, for example, that global warming is a hoax, the product of a worldwide cabal of scientists desperate to take away Americans’  SUVs, air conditioning,  automatic lawn watering systems.  What is never explained however is (i) how disputatious scientistscould form such a secret cabal, and (ii) why they would want to.  Are they all just sourpusses?  Have they invested heavily in wind?  Is it a push for more government grants?

I, for one, can’t understand all these connections.

All I know is that there’s a cake in my kitchen which was cut in a way that could really use some calorie-free straightening.

Big Brother In a Bowler? A Twit Who Tweets? A Poor Guy Who Just Got Carried Away? Translates Into No Respite For Robsten!

February 27, 2010

Bowler Hat With Periscope and Smart Phone

The entertainment blogosphere is literally atwitter with news that Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson are apparently a true life couple  after all.   While it seems a bit odd that Rob and Kristen have made such an effort to hide their liason (although it has been a PR bonanza), the weirdest recent incident revolves around one of the many who’s spied them out.

And who is that?  A Conservative British politician, Nicholas Clark, British Council member, who, spotting the couple at a cozy meeting in a London pub, tweeted about them repeatedly, down to the  “on the lips” part.  (As if Rob and Kristen didn’t have enough trouble with paparazzi, now they have to worry about British council members.)

Doesn’t the guy have something better to do?  (Okay, okay don’t I have something better to do?  Yes, but my excuse is that I’m not British and I’m trying to keep up a daily blog.)

Seriously, what happened to the famous British reserve?  The minding of one’s own business.

Clark later apologized “2” the couple, an apology which, it seems, was also made by Twitter (unless he habitually substitutes numbers and letters for words.)

To satisfy the insatiable demands of the followers of this blog for news of Robsten, I tried to do a little independent research re Clark.  I had a very hard time finding a Nick or Nicholas or Nicolas Clark (there are several spellings of the name in the Robsten articles)  who is a councilmember.  But I have found a Nick Clarke, a conservative Councilmember for the county of Fulborne in Cambridgeshire, who (believe it or not!) has a blog of his very own.   Aha!

(P.S. if Nick Clarke, Cambridgeshire, is the wrong Nick Clark, many apologies.)

Snow Today – Villanelle to Aging Brain

February 26, 2010

Aging Brain in Snow Drift

Snow today.  A ton of it.  Many tons.

Snow is pretty great in Manhattan–there’s most of the magic, little of the mess.  No, that’s not right.  How about ‘there’s most of the incandescence, little of the inconvenience’?

What I’m really trying to say here is that most of us here don’t have to shovel our driveways, or clean off our cars.  (We just don’t have ’em.)

And the City is clean!  At least, looks clean.  For a few hours anyway.  (Before the dogs have had their day.)

In a really big snow storm, like today, all the things that you thought were so important, the deadlines, the bustle, go on hold for a little while.   Nature takes over, unusual in itself in the City.

Of course, Nature took over in kind of shocking way this snowstorm when a man from Brooklyn man was killed by a falling tree limb in Central Park.

Although I truly think New Yorkers were shocked and saddened by the incident, many still ventured into Central Park today to enjoy its heavy blanket of snow.   With the typical New Yorker’s can-do attitude, one woman commented that, after yesterday’s accident,  she’d decided not to stay long under any tall trees.  (Good thinking.)   (It reminded me of my far less careful planning,  when I bought a used inflatable rubber dinghy on the street sometime after 9/11 with the thought that if terrorism hit again, I could float my children and myself across the Hudson.  Unfortunately, because I bought the very heavy raft in a little shopping cart (the area had no taxi cabs), I abraded several holes in the rubber by the time I dragged it home.)

Today, I tried to use the quiet aftermath of the snow storm to write a Petrarchan sonnet.  I managed the form, but not a very good poem, which immediately sent me into a tailspin about brain deterioration.  (Although thinking about the incident with the rubber dinghy, I’m not sure that my brain really has deteriorated in the last several years.)  At any rate, as a result, I’m posting instead an older villanelle (already posted some months ago, but without illustration):

Villanelle to Wandering Brain

Sometimes my mind feels like it’s lost its way
and must make do with words that are in reach
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day,

when what it craves is crimson, noon in May,
the unscathed verb or complex forms of speech.
But sometimes my mind feels like it’s lost its way

and calls the egg a lightbulb, plan a tray,
and no matter how it search or how beseech
is pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

I try to make a joke of my decay
or say that busy-ness acts as the leech
that makes my mind feel like it’s lost its way,

but whole years seem as spent as last month’s pay,
lost in unmet dares to eat a peach
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

There is so much I think I still should say,
so press poor words like linens to heart’s breach,
but find my mind has somehow lost its way
as pink as dusk (not dawn), the half-light of the day.

All rights reserved.

Morning Snow In Lower Manhattan

February 25, 2010

Thick Morning Snow on Lower Broadway

This morning approaching Lower Broadway, the snowflakes were thick and feathery, almost warm.

The last ticker tape parade I went to, people just threw reams of paper out of the upper windows.   That was after they’d emptied their shredders.

The shredded paper worked pretty well; though it was not exactly confetti-like.  Still, it at least fell in fine (if long) jigsaw-edged strips, like big strings of miniature paper dolls, the occasional paper arms clinging to a cornice or window ledge.

The reams of  loose paper that were thrown once the shredded paper ran out was thick, heavy, and fell in gushing slants, the pages looking as if they might decapitate one of us jammed down upon the crowded sidewalk, the papers descending like a kind of divine (or at least bureaucratic) vengeance.   A snow of writs.

But today’s snow, thick, clean, feathery, makes for a sky of redemption.

The people on the sidewalk, where the snow disappears even as it lands, don’t seem to notice it much.  We trudge ahead, faces grim with Thursday.

But what I imagine inside every single snow-frosted head is that there is some part of the brain whose tongue, (brain-tongue, even pinker than the pink lobes of the cortex), or, among the squeamish, whose hands (brain-hands) is/are sticking out towards the thick flakes, anxious to taste, capture, hold, some of this soft white light, this proof of something other–something to fête, something to cheer, something as big as sky.

Plié While You Read This (Exercise At The Office)

February 24, 2010

Elephant Plié at Desk

Stand Up While You Read This! is the title of an alarming (if not completely surprising) article by Olivia Judson in this week’s New York Times. Judson discusses new studies that show that sitting for long periods every day contributes to obesity (and a bunch of attendant illnesses) not only because sitting, such a passive activity, doesn’t burn many calories but because it actively changes the body’s metabolism.

What’s worse is that many of the negative aspects of sitting are not countered by regular exercise;  one hour of exercise just can’t do battle against hours of lumpishness.

The trick apparently is to break up those lumpy hours, to stand up more–while on the phone, while on the computer.  Standing up at the computer seems at bit hard to me, but some people advocate standing desks with slow moving treadmills beneath them;  others exchange office chairs for those big bright blue therapy balls.   (Oh yes!  I can see sitting on a therapy ball going over very well at my office!)

I don’t think my employer would pay for a slow treadmill either.  (Generally, employers, outside of factories, only go for metaphorical treadmills.)

So what is a worker with a sedentary job (let’s say, in an office) to do?    Some suggestions:

1.  Plié.  You know, deep knee bends, like a ballet dancer.   During those phone calls that you remember to stand up for.  But also, while washing your hands at the lavatory sink, while waiting for the copy machine or coffee machine or elevator.  While in the elevator. It’s low-tech, stationary, and, if you don’t add in arm gestures and are not wearing a short skirt, may not even be very noticeable.  (You may want to stick to demi-pliés and not the full bore ones.)

2.  Continuing in the dance mode, sashay!  Sashaying is a slightly twisting, slightly waltzy, sidestep, with arms extended. Sashaying will get your blood flowing, make you feel terrific (an aura of Fred Astaire almost instantly descends), and also get you to your destination faster.  While it is, theoretically, a graceful maneuver, you may want to save it for those moments when alone in office corridors, or for the stretches of space between open doors.   If you don’t have enough rhythm for a good sashay, pretend you work for the Ministry of Silly Walks.

3.  Take advantage of whatever privacy finds your way.  You have a moment in the Ladies’ Room—try to squeeze in twenty jumping jacks.  (Your heart will not only race from the exercise but from the fear of discovery.)

4.  Make your chair your friend rather than enemy.  Squat.  (Be careful if your chair has wheels.)  I haven’t seen any studies on this, but squatting’s got to be better than sitting.  (Non-obese people squat all over the world.)  Admittedly, squatting is a bit hard on knees that have been doing a lot of pliés.

If you can’t squat, try sitting cross-legged.  (How many obese meditators have you seen?)

Use your armrests for dips.   Try to keep the weight balanced so your chair doesn’t fall over.   (Work on curls while picking up the chair.)

5.  Use your arms too, extend, wiggle. Yes, it’s a little distracting to do arm exercises while talking on the phone or while looking at a computer screen, but it’s a lot less distracting than talking on the phone WHILE looking at a computer screen.  (You know those long distracted silences.  Sometimes they are even your long distracted silences.)

The great thing about all these techniques is that they will burn calories, reduce your chances of sitter’s metabolism, and also, by raising your silliness level, give a lift to both energy and spirits.  Your co-workers, at least, should have a good laugh.

Buddhist Talks, Vampire Books, The IRT

February 23, 2010

Possibly Vampire Elephant Meditating on IRT

Litstening in the mornings lately to Buddhist meditation talks instead of vampire books on tape.  Although the vampire books are a great diversion when you feel down, I keep thinking that the Buddhist talks must provide a better path to long-term contentment.  (Vampires are typically not big on enlightenment.)

Today, my tape focused on Buddha’s list of ten “unwholesome” actions, which, in a peanutshell, are (i) killing, (ii) stealing, (iii) sexual misconduct, (iv) lying, (v) slander (gossip), (vi) harsh speech, (vii) useless speech, (viii) covetousness or greed, (ix) anger, (x) delusion.

These seem to me both remarkably like, and unlike, the Bible’s Ten Commandments; like, in that they proscribe killing, stealing, lying and coveting; unlike, in that they do not emphasize particular deference to authority.   There are no specific rules about God, no prohibition against idolatry, no special honors reserved for parents.  (Though, presumably, if one avoids harsh, useless, or angry speech, one will also be nice to one’s parents.)   The “not killing” is not even limited to human beings.

This lack of emphasis on a personal authority also shows up in their characterization as  ten “unwholesome actions”  rather than “commandments.”

I realize, as I sit on the IRT, that this is one reason that I kind of like Buddhism, at least my Western dabbler’s form of Buddhism.

It’s not that I resent authority.  (And, btw, Karma is certainly its own kind of authoritative force.)

But there’s something appealing to the (self-centered) babyboomer mind about having no-no’s called “unwholesome” rather than “sins.”

The list of “unwholesome actions” warns against certain conduct not so much because it is offensive to a higher power (remember, there is Karma), but because it is harmful; unwholesome conduct keeps you from being your whole self, and from connecting to the larger self, which, in Buddhism, is the greater world, all beings, loving kindness.  Unwholesome actions will, in other words, inevitably make both you and the world unhappy.

It’s such an interesting juxtaposition to me, sitting here on one of those small bottle blue seats of the subway:  being whole vs. being holy.  Maybe a better way to put it is being whole in order to be holy.    Being whole so as not to be “hole-y” (as in having great big cigarette burns all over the soul/self/spirit).

But even as I write that (we are whizzing through the tunnel), I worry that everything I am thinking smacks of semantics, philosophy too (which I’ve never much liked)  It also sounds pretty PC.   Shallowly exotic.  (After years of doing yoga around many Westerners who eagerly adopted bindis, Indian dress, and Sanskrit chanting, I know that there is a great attraction in the exotic.)

And then I look up from my notebook, returning suddenly to the here and now.  (This is another thing Buddhism urges.)  There is a sign across from me which reads “This Poster Can Make You Happier Than Any Other On The Subway”.   Below that statement is a lot of small print in two columns; a woman stands between them, facing away, her ponytail down the center of her back.  It advertises “The School of Practical Philosophy.”

The next sign over reads “Single Incision Weight Loss Surgery,” and the next “Bed Bugs Are Back.”

So, the Practical Philosophy sign may be right, I think (despite my personal dislike for philosophy.)

Except that then I notice two signs just below the philosophical one.  They are mounted on the top half and lower half of the subway door.  “Do Not Hold Door.”  “Do Not Lean On Door.”   A whole bunch of metaphors jump to mind—doors, gateways, doctrine (as in over-dependence upon), personal experience (as in examining, learning from),  non-clinging, openness….

Like a typical New Yorker, I think: whatever works for you.  (Even, sometimes, maybe,vampire books.)

Yearning For Chopin (Baptismal Birthday)

February 22, 2010


Frederic Chopin Thinking About Sand

Frederic Chopin’s 200th birthday, as measured by the date recorded on his baptismal records, is today (February 22, 2010).   Chopin himself always gave his birthday as March 1.  Poland, playing it on the safe side, is celebrating the birthday from today through the beginning of March.  That sounds good to me.

Actually, what sounds good to me is Chopin’s music.

Actually, what Chopin’s music really sounds like to me is yearning.  (Yes, that’s a cliché, but only because it’s true.)

The music sounds like that prickling that you get at the back of your eyes when sad, or nostalgic, or…yearning.

That prickling at the corners of your lips when thrilled, or happy,  or ….yearning.

Like cattails by the side of a Northern lake.  (There’s a jump.)  Not cattails, perhaps so much as autumn, brown and deep and gold clinging to blue and light and green.

Speaking of green, some of the music sounds like thick, slightly damp,  grass against young bare running dancing feet.  Then like your mother’s hands on your forehead, when, flushed and tired after running dancing in thick, slightly damp, grass,  you lay your head on her lap.   Only the music is fragile and yearning and sweet enough to sound more like the memory of those things (perfect/gone) than the things themselves.

The lighter chords, especially at the end of a piece, sometime remind me of the light slap of a boat in water, a sound reflecting reflections (the water is glassy, the bright color of the boat shows in its rippled surface.)

The stronger chords sound like justice (never without its somber side, even when triumphant).

And the really really soft chords (as in the Nocturnes) sound like the feel of the nape of your neck, rather, like what the nape of your neck feels.

Sometimes, when I get very specific in my memories, the music reminds of Arthur Rubenstein on a TV talk show (he used to actually be on those ) telling, with a curved rueful smile, of the time he tried to commit suicide as a young man, feeling a complete failure, and failing even in that (his bathrobe belt noose broke), he decided to just live.  Playing music, loving life.  For a very long time.

Only, the music makes one think of life and love cut short.

I’m being sentimental.  (The music can be too.   But in the best sense of the word—it makes you feel.)

I’m sounding confused.  (There are sometimes an awfully lot of notes.)

I’m all over the map.  (How could he write so much, so widely, wildly, creatively, in such a short time?)

It’s hard to think ‘happy birthday, Frederic.’  Too much sickness, too few years.

It’s enough to just sit and listen, awed (and yearning.)

PS–for another watercolor portrait of another great guy who was maybe born on February 22,  check out post on George Washington, Cherry Pie.

Sunday Poem (Mother, Daughter, in Father-Son Realm)

February 21, 2010

Script (Poem for Sundays)

A poem for Sundays–perhaps more of a story than poem.  Thanks as always for reading.


Pictures hung in the Sunday School downstairs:
men mostly, whose long-haired, but not hippified, heads
were highlit with gold, clouds, doves,
and, hovering above, goatee-shaped
wisps of flame.

In the actual nave hung
only a spare metal cross,
lit by shafts of dust-mote-
dropping day.

Whenever the minister made an important point, he cupped
his hands together,
the fingers separate but clenched, the pinkies nearly throbbing
with tautness.  He used the gesture
to symbolize a knot.  But also growth.
Tense knotty growth.  How hard
it all was, how simple.

I watched the terse bend of knuckle closely, the extended
half-wound fists.  But, as the sermon droned, I turned to
other hands:  my own inside short white gloves, the
worn seam
tracing their perimeter,
like a railroad track en route to itself;
my mother’s, bare, cool, soft.
I picked up her fingers,
one by one, as if to find beneath them,
a way of passing time.

Then, just as my father’s shaved crust of chin
nodded over the crisp edge of Sunday shirt collar,
she quietly rotated
the bulletin on top of a hymnal and
modeled my name in script.
She used one of the short pencils stored in the pews
for new parishioners.  I, taking off one glove
to firmly grip the wood,
copied her letters slowly,
feeling each curve
as a blessing, a secret blessing,
for we were interlopers in that
realm of fathers/sons/ghosts,
the ones who snuck beneath the shafts of light,
then basked in them,
we women.

(All rights reserved.  Karin Gustafson)

Purple Teeth – From Generation to Generation

February 20, 2010

Purple Teeth

I’m feeling very tired these days.

Some, as in, my husband, blame this fatigue on lack of sleep.  I say, no way José.  (That’s not quite what I say, but actually pretty close.) 

No, I blame a lot of it on my genetic heritage, those Norwegian women on my father’s side, to be specific.

There is something about Norwegian women and anemia.  So a doctor once told me.  In my possibly anemic brain fatigue, I can’t quite remember what he explained.  Perhaps the problem is that we evolved to gnaw on reindeer bones, and now don’t: I’m vegetarian and my female Norwegian forebears lived mainly on work combined with baked goods, black coffee, and the occasional round of pickled herring.  (Omegas!)

  “Work” (house work, farm work, community work) is perhaps not the best word for what energized them.  How about “will”? 

They each had rounded foreheads, and soft, but high-cheekboned, cheeks.  (Their faces seemed, a la Henry Louis Gates, to hold hints of migrations through central Asia, the Aleutian Islands, the Himalayas, maybe even Hungary.)  They had soft voices too.   (They believed in quiet, remember?)  But beneath all this softness, there were these extremely intense wills–a need to get their way.

That’s not really fair.  They weren’t selfish women;  they worked hard, and mainly for others.  As women of that generation, they were denied much that they didn’t even consider craving–power in the greater world was not just unaccessible, it was unthinkable. 

But in their home world, they maintained a very definite power.  This took the form of standards:  things you were supposed to do, and not do;  things like maintaining, at all times, order, cleanliness, a peaceful facade.   Things like baking hot dishes for the church, and the bereaved, and every day too, for the family, then washing those dishes immediately, drying them instantly with dishtowels (air took too long), and scurrying them back up in neat stacks on shelf-paper-lined shelves.   Washing, ironing and folding clothes, was done only on certain days and at certain times of day.  (To do laundry, for example, at 11 pm, even 9 pm on a Thursday night would be a sign of a breakdown of all that society held dear.  Wash was for Mondays, or at least a.m. hours.)  

But this will was not so good at the creation of red blood cells.   As my Norwegian grandmother, great aunt, greatgrandmother aged, they always seemed to turn to iron-rich vitamin liquids that turned their teeth a dull violet purple.  No matter how wilfully they tossed the little capfuls back—they would do it as if it were a shot of alcohol—the purple taint crept into their smiles.

 I find myself increasingly suffering from this rage for order.  Mine is not like theirs.  Their drawers, closets, were like large jigsaw puzzles, with everything fitted perfectly in its spot.   Mine are… well, let’s just put it this way.  I’m okay with chaos behind closed doors. 

 And did I mention that need for quiet?  Ahem.

But now (and this really is kind of scary), I found myself tired enough to toss back a tiny little capful of some dark brown, herby, iron-rich fluid, and no matter how I brush my teeth….

Further To….

February 20, 2010

One of the good and bad features of a daily blog (especially for a blogger with a daily job) is that it requires the blogger to get posts out quickly, sometimes before an issue is very well understood.  (Sorry!)  In such cases. the post is really a reaction (perhaps premature) to an issue, rather than any kind of cogent analysis.  Sometimes the post doesn’t even reflect the blogger’s longer-term, or considered, reaction to an issue,  but, at best, is simply a snapshot of the moments in which it was written.

Here is further information about the topics of two recent posting:   the first relates to The Line Between Satire and Sneer (illustrated by the teapot surrounded by UFOs), which expressed my wish that the TV show Family Guy hadn’t joked about  the mother of a character with Down’s Syndrome being the former governor of Alaska.    Palin and her daughter Bristol interpreted the program as a cruel jab at Palin’s son Trig (with Down’s Syndrome).  An article in today’s New York Times describes the reaction to Palin’s outrage of the actress,  Andrea Fay Friedman, who did the voice-over for the Down’s Syndrome character and who herself has Down’s Syndrome.  Ms. Friedman accuses Sarah Palin of not having a sense of humor, and of misunderstanding the episode, which presents the Down’s Syndrome character as an obnoxious but strong figure:   “I’m like ‘I’m not Trig. This is my life, ” Ms. Friedman said in a telephone interview with the Times, “I was making fun of Sarah Palin, but not her son.”

I still don’t like Family Guy.  (It’s the crassness.)  And I still wish that the show had not given Palin further “mileage”.  But the article, which gives more information about both the episode and Ms. Friedman,  certainly clarifies another perspective.

The second story which is subject to increasing illumination as the days go by is about Joe Stack, the man who ran a plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building (and whose disgruntlement with the IRS apparently began when the IRS refused to give him a tax exemption as a church.)   Gail Collins has a great article today, The Wages of Rages, about Stack, but also various lame-brained attempts of Republican politicians to expropriate Tea Party rage for political capital.   Yes, she manages to include a reference to Mitt Romney tying his dog to the roof of his car.