These Rarified Days

I am tired from a day of doing nothing, though I did do some things, it just seems like these things I did were nothing sorts of things.

It was long ago when I made a pot of soup though it was only this morning.  It was long ago when I paid the rent, though it was only this noon.  It was long ago that I touched my husband, though it was only last night.  It was long ago that I yelled at the kids though it was only a minute ago.  I couldn't wake up this morning.  I set my alarm for six and kept hitting the snooze, and I slept and dreamed for a long time, dreaming about, I don't know exactly, some place, some beach, that was surrounded by hills of empty houses that terrified me, though there was someone there at the beach with me who I liked very much, but I couldn't see exactly who because the sun was too bright even though the day was gray and stormy.  I woke and picked up a book and read something disturbing and laughed and put it down again.

And now my mind is running around like a spassy little dog caught on the end a rusty chain.

I've been irritable lately and not calm.  I've gotten irritated about photographs and memories and food left out on the counter.  I've been irritable about shoes, and I haven't been able to focus the way I think I should.  I start to write and decide I'd rather read.  I read and decide I'd rather play drums.  I play drums and think maybe I should take a walk or sit on the porch and do nothing.  I do nothing and think maybe I should write about doing nothing.

But then I grow so tired I can't keep my eyes open and my mind unscrambles and so I end up writing nothing about nothing.  Which is an alright thing.  Considering.


I.Q. Fright

I am reading a book, was just reading it at the kitchen table as a matter of fact, and now prop my elbow on it as I type, since I intend on taking it with me to bed and don't want it to wander off.  What I relish about this book is the same thing that disquiets me: its hyper intelligence.  Its author expresses a vast amount of opinion in such an engagingly funny and insightful way that I find myself laughing out loud, and then cringing, wondering if that poor writing style he so adroitly mocks, might just be my own.


High-Resolution Detection Effect*

"To write is to fail, more or less, constantly."
                                                                  Tom Bissell in his essay "Grief and the Outsider"

In the realized universe
Of galactic momentum,
Fluctuate haloes of brightness,
The bulk of luminous distortions
Inferring future limits.

These square primordial seasons

This dense deficit of energies' thermal clusters,
Among thousands of inevitable errors,
Shift correlations,
Convolve functions,
Bar stronger noise.

Among the fluctuations of dark luminosity.

Excellent auspices,
Chile, South Africa, Spain,
Distorting the cosmic structure
Of astrophysical scenarios.

Through this bin of ionized signals,
We search for corresponding positions.
With the level display of linear sky
Mapped between darker estimations,
10^13 extracted terms,
218 blind formations,
Zero smooth resolutions,


Reanalyzed, we obtain limits.
Auspicious power

Paper dust
Dark maps
We flow
Comoving over the voluminous
Brevity of celestial significance.

*A juxtaposition of dissimilar yet related minds, this poem is derived from vocabulary used in the "big" paper (4 pages) my cosmologist brother recently published.  


Hotel Stories: "In Bed with Miranda July"

Miranda July stories make me think that any sentence my brain concocts could be the start of a story. Here are the things I make my husband promise and why I can’t sleep.  The pillow is too thick and there is only one.  It is too hot.  My daughter rolls into me, snoring.  I wonder about Miranda July and what kind of relationship she had with Madeleine L'Engle, if any, and why.  Did she really wait on the walk outside L'Engle’s house for her husband to come home because he once told July she had promise?  It sounds true enough, even if she calls it fiction. I know it shouldn’t matter, but I want it to be true.

This is the worst pillow ever manufactured even though this is the most expensive hotel on the lake.  The pillow has no give.  It’s almost as bad as having no pillow at all.  I think that and then wonder if that’s really true.  If I hadn’t already asked to change rooms, I’d go ask for a different pillow.  I already asked for a different room because the room the fat man at the front desk gave us was on the ground floor, and the lock on the screen door was busted, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep if the screen door didn’t lock even though we are in Clear Lake, Iowa where no one locks their doors.  My husband is not here, that is why the screen door must lock, though even if he were, he would probably have asked for a different room as well because he is a flight guy not a fight guy and would rather the screen door lock. 

The fat man gave us a room on the second floor where the screen door doesn’t lock either, though it doesn’t matter because I don’t think a guy in Clear Lake, Iowa would bother climbing all the way to the second floor just to rape and murder me or even just to steal my purse.  None of this really matters though, because I can’t fall asleep because of the bad pillow. 

The moon is sinking into the lake and I am worried because I have to drive all the way to Omaha tomorrow without falling asleep at the wheel so I throw myself out of bed and go downstairs to the lobby and wake up the fat man who is watching late night television even though he is asleep.  I tell him about the pillow and how it is keeping me up and how I have neck issues and how this is only going to put all the physical therapy right back to square one and how I have to sleep because I have to drive to Omaha tomorrow with the kids who haven’t visited their grandparents in two years. 

He says sorry he doesn’t have any more pillows.  I wonder how he can have sex with all that fat.  I wonder how he got so fat to begin with.  There has to be more to it than just eating too much. 

He tells me to try closing the patio door and turning on the air conditioner.  I tell him the orange crescent moon has set into the lake.  He tells me his wife left him.  I tell him my husband will be very upset when I tell him about the pillow situation and that he is a savvy social networker and will alert the world never to stay at this hotel because of the unsatisfactory pillows.  I decide not to mention the screen doors that don’t lock.  The fat man tells me he has sexual fantasies of stabbing women with forks, not stabbing to kill, but just to eat the extra flesh off them.  I have nothing more to tell him.  He wishes me a good night and apologizes for the pillow situation.  I apologize for waking him over such a trivial matter that he has no control over and thank him, many times, and then walk back to the room to lie in bed, with Miranda July, waiting for the sun to rise.



Carnot, Central African Republic.  1994.

The pick-up truck nearly ran me over.  The man in the driver's seat leaned out the window, frowning. "You speak English?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Me.  No."

"Parlez-vous fran├žais?"

"French?  No French," he said.  "You, Arabic?"


"Me, yes!"

We had no common language.  He slapped his hand against the door and zoomed off.

I soon came to learn that Rida ran the boulangerie and lived in a house with several Lebanese men who owned shops in town.  Rida sent baguettes to my house.  I told him I could buy my own.  We chose French for our feeble attempts at communication, though Rida complained that I should teach him English.  We came from opposite sides of the world.  He dropped out of school at 14 to join the Lebanese army.  I had never shot a gun. We came to Carnot at exactly the same time. We were both 23.

At first, he was angry at me for not wanting to date him.  And I was angry at him for not wanting to be my friend.  In the end, I won.  I often ate lunch at his house where his Central African cook had learned to make Middle Eastern food.  I visited him at the boulangerie which I walked by on my way to and from town.  Once, after a particularly stressful day at school, I sat in his office and cried.  Rida flew into a rage, "Who did this to you?" He was always ready for a fight.  Once, when I was attempting to open a stubborn lock, Rida laughed and laughed, comparing how gently I was trying to finesse the lock, and how he would solve the problem, by kicking and banging until he broke the lock and busted the door.

Rida and I spent half our time together laughing, and the other half arguing.  He could never understand what I was doing there, nor why I lived with the Central Africans, with no electricity, no running water.  Only a few times did he drive his truck down the footpaths of my neighborhood to my house.  He never ate any food nor drank any water that I served him.  He sat tense until he couldn't stand it and would demand that we leave, climbing into his truck and bouncing down the footpaths too fast, cursing the kids who chased us.  He thought I was a fool, the way I interacted with the Central Africans, and I thought he was cruel.  But, in time, through many long and disjointed conversations, and much joking, we met somewhere in the middle.

The last time I saw him, two years after we had met, he drove me and my two site mates to the airstrip outside of town where a small plane had landed.  We were being evacuated, the capital having broke out in the chaos of a coup attempt.  Rida swore, Allah!, how much he was going to miss us.  He too was ready to escape from Carnot, and as soon as he did, he promised, he was coming to find us.  As the plane spiraled upwards, I looked down and saw Rida, standing by his truck, waving with the full length of his arms.

Two mornings ago, Rida calls me, from Carnot.

"Do you still look the same?" he asks.  Mostly, I tell him, except the gray hair.  "Me?" he says.  "Fat. From eating too much meat!"  He laughs. It turns out he has two girls and a boy, just like me.  "And your husband?  He is a good man?"  Yes, very good, I assure him.  He is happy for me.

When I ask him if he still runs the bakery, he scoffs.  He is a diamond dealer now.  "Kota Zo," I tease, Sango for big important person.  "How do you remember Sango?" he asks.  It surprises me as well.

I ask him how is life in Lebanon where his wife and kids live most of the time.  "Bad," he says.  "No security. Many problems.  But when I come home, to my town Carnot, everything is peaceful."


Banjo Journal

It takes me a while to discover where I want to play.  By where, I don't mean a place to sit.  The banjo sounds best on the porch.  What I mean is figuring where to put my hands.  It never sounds good right off and sometimes this is discouraging even though I know it shouldn't be.  Everything takes a little time to heat up.  Ovens and muscles and memories and love and fights and mornings and nights and stories and friendships.  Why should the banjo be any different?

So I try not to give up right away and try to remember my preferred definition of play: To amuse oneself.  It's best not to struggle and sweat and worry and strain.  There's enough of that already.  I hope to find one interesting sound and to play around with that for a while.  And perhaps that interesting sound will lead to another and maybe the two sounds will begin to talk to teach other.  And if I really listen to these sounds talking back and forth I just might be able to forget about thinking how I should or shouldn't be playing this banjo.

And when I can forget about that, is when the sounds get really interesting, and the banjo is warm and my ears are warm and my fingers are warm and the playing becomes real, I know, because I start to hear all kinds of sounds between the sounds, sounds that I'm not making, but that the banjo is making, because as much as I'm playing that banjo, that banjo is playing me.


Devil's Advocate

The wife and husband are lying in bed one night with the windows open and the breeze coming in. The wife tells the husband a story from the yoga class she teaches, a story that one of the students had recounted for her that morning.

During class the previous week, the wife had suggested that they all practice letting go of something they had been clinging to.  This student had decided to let go of wanting to control when her ailing mother was going to die.  She instantly felt at peace.  She came home from yoga class, to find the light on her answering machine blinking.  Her mother had died while she was at yoga.

The husband takes a deep breath.  "So what you are saying, is you killed her mother."

The wife has to admit she hadn't thought of it like that.

"Well," says the husband.  "Maybe you should."


Boredom's Balm

It has been many weeks since we've seen the rain.  The sky so clear day after day after day that we forget what the clouds look like, and begin to doubt the truth of their existence, the way we've all forgotten loved ones who have, in one way or another, departed.

We greet the storm with dry eyes.  To witness something catastrophic; anything to relieve the dreaded sameness of our days, we beg that sky.  From TV we know tragedy as boredom's balm.  Oh the upheavals we dream!  The great wealth of damage!  The demented pleasure of despair!  Peel away from the bellies of the clouds, and pummel us with your electric fury!

Not a single drop lets go. The mirages evaporate. And we remain just as we've always been, nothing reformed, nothing revived, nothing retained.

It has been many weeks since we've seen the rain.  The sky so clear day after day after day that we forget what the clouds look like, and begin to doubt the truth of their existence, the way we've all forgotten loved ones who have, in one way or another, departed.  

Matt Turner, cello
Tad Neuhaus, guitar
Joanna Dane, harmonica


In Search of Vitamin P

Years ago a friend in London told me that the playwright Harold Pinter wrote rather poor poems -- my friend called them, in fact, "pukey little poems" -- that he sent out in multiple Xerox copies to friends, then sat back to await their praise.  One such poem was about the cricketer Len Hutton, the English equivalent of Joe DiMaggio; the poem, in its entirely, runs: "I knew Len Hutton in his prime, / Another time, another time." After Pinter had sent out the copies, its recipients, as usual, wrote or telephoned to tell him how fine the poem was, how he had caught the matter with perfect laconic precision, how touched and moved they were by it -- with the single exception of a man who made no response whatsoever.  When Pinter hadn't heard from this man after two weeks, he called to ask if he had in fact received the poem.  "Yes," said the man.  "Well, Simon, what did you think of it?"  Pausing briefly, the man replied, "Actually, I haven't quite finished it."

From Joseph Epstein's Gossip



The pelicans were back for my birthday.  A. didn't believe me.  They're seagulls, he said.  But the next day, I saw them again, giant white dinosaur birds with a black stripe down the wings.  I'd never known pelicans to live in Wisconsin, so last spring when I first spotted them, I didn't believe it either.

But eventually, someone told me, they were exactly what they seem to be.  And now, every time I see them, I shout at whoever is near by, "Pelican!  Pelicans!"


Common Anomalies

Turn nose six times clockwise.

Wait for the Ah-Choo!

Speak your mind.


New Instrument

I unwrapped a banjo.  I didn't want to be ungrateful.  Still, I didn't want to be a fool either.  On my 41st birthday I unwrapped a banjo.  And it scared me.  With its white round belly and stump of a thumb. I didn't want to be ungrateful.  But it scared me, how it held itself so steady.  I didn't want to be a fool either.

I told my son and daughter when we were sitting on the porch in the sun, that I didn't think I wanted that banjo they gave me for my 41st birthday.  Why not? they asked.  I told them I didn't want to be ungrateful, but it scared me.

Just pick it up and play it, Mom.  Don't worry about being wrong.  Just pick it up.  And play it.

And I thought about all that I'd unwrapped and all that I'd unraveled and all that I'd regretted and all that I'd taken and all that I'd forgotten and all that I'd feigned and all that I'd ruined and all that I'd blighted and all that I'd spilled and all that I'd blamed and all that I'd forsaken and all that I'd ashamed.

I'd been a fool before.  I'd be a fool again.  But for the time being, I'd play a banjo I unwrapped for my 41st birthday.  And I'd be grateful.