Friday, November 30, 2012
Thursday, November 29, 2012
The topic: structural priming, the unconscious influences on writing, how what we read settles into our brain and sets up shop there and, before we know it, we're penning lines better suited to reports than poems. It's a habit we can break by cleansing our "linguistic palate" — reading widely and "against type."
The author, Michael Erard, has written short stories, essays, reviews and nonfiction books — but his day job is a think tank researcher. In other words, he says, "I'm a dancer who walks for a living." And he dances better, he says, if he shuts off the Web and dips into a page of Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style before beginning his creative work.
Reading this essay was like turning a kaleidoscope and bringing a new palette into place. It's something I've thought about for years, but couldn't have articulated.
And it's worth noting that although I might have stumbled across the article online, it came to me because someone I love thought I would like it. Which makes it an example not of structural priming but of friendship priming, the uncanny and unconscious connections that exist, that flourish, between friends.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
In the Wings
Consider the offstage trumpet. Many composers have used it — Mahler, Respighi, Verdi — but the piece I remember it in most is Beethoven's Leonore Overture Number 3. I was buried in the string bass section, still learning to play the instrument, while Jim Reed, first-chair trumpet of the Central Kentucky Youth Symphony Orchestra, stood in the wings of Memorial Hall blaring the call.
But it could be any orchestra anywhere, the trumpet in the distance, like the call to hunt or the approach of a royal entourage. It's the acoustic equivalent of painterly perspective, a tonal shading, extending the orchestra beyond the stage.
Hearing it played (from minutes 9:17 to 10:12 of this recording) makes me think something important is about to happen. Not here, of course, but somewhere else. It is, therefore, a reminder to pay attention to the faraway and forgotten, to what's offstage as well as on.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Weather is neither kind nor vengeful. I know this. Yet I must harbor some ancient belief or prejudice that makes me permeable to the meteorological mood.
One reason I like the climate of Washington, D.C., is that, despite its muggy summers, it's a surprisingly sunshiney place. If a "mix" is predicted (like today), it's more likely to be rain than snow, sunny than cloudy. That's a mix I can live with.
The Shenandoah Valley, snapped from I-81 on Saturday, when no wintry mix was forecast.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Life was simpler then. An email was an email, a text a text. There was no cloud, or at least none accessible by a hand-held device.
I was proud of my flip phone. I could talk on it, text with it and even take photos with it (an innovation my earlier phone had lacked). I kept it in a case, for which the girls teased me mercilessly. They also teased me about my text messages, which I would laboriously type out letter for letter, including "Love, Mom" at the end.
For the last year and a half people could barely hear me when I called them. I stubbornly refused to replace the phone, though (it still texts! I only charge it once a week!), because I didn't want to become a frantic email-checker (texter, tweeter?) who plays Solitaire on Metro instead of reading books.
So the iPhone has stayed in a box for 10 days, taunting me with its clever packaging, its superior camera (what I'm looking forward to most), its elegance, its functional beauty. Until last night, when I gave in, kissed my flip phone goodbye and entered the 21st century.
But not before snapping a picture of my old phone and making it the wallpaper of my new one. A seamless transition. Kind of like the cloud.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
The stubborn leaves have finally fallen. Trees are gray and bare. All gone, all gone, the wind sighs. It is easy to feel bereft.
I remember the times of fullness. What is left after the last piece of pie. All gone then, too. But isn't that the point?
Friday, November 23, 2012
What I've missed is not just the potential, the blank pages waiting. I pressed my calendar into service on that errand right away, and now the odd week or two when I had no appointments, nothing in particular to remember, are covered with scrawl.
No, what I miss is the weight I carry with me, the journal as repository. It's as if without the words I've written I'm not exactly me.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
When all else is peeled away there is the essential, gratitude. Thanksgiving — what one does too often in between times.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
When Fog Obscures
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
On a walk yesterday, I imagined how I would feel if we were leaving the suburbs I've railed against for years. Would I slip off the yoke of commuting and slide easily into city life? Or would I long for what I no longer had, for morning walks through the meadow, afternoon ambles in the woods; for a pond that reflects the heavens back to us.
We have not worn our lives smooth. Suburban living exhausts because it demands daily compromise; it is not easily knowable. It changes enough to thwart routine.
What wears smooth is the woodland path, the trickling stream, the natural world that the suburbs cannot quite eradicate.
Monday, November 19, 2012
Before the Walk
Sunday, November 18, 2012
As I work my heart stills. There is progress, measured in leaves corraled, bags stuffed, sticks broken and tied.
My eyes look up to a swirl in the sky.
I'm not the only busy one.
A niggling wind has frisked the Kwanzan cherry and now, on the green grass, lies a pile of gold.
Friday, November 16, 2012
Walker Eats Words
It was a long day with a complicated automotive choreography involving three people and two cars. I was driving one vehicle in the morning and another in the afternoon. It was dark when I stepped off the commuter bus, and I had car keys in hand, ready to slide into the seat and drive home. But I couldn't find the car; I walked up and down the lot, looking in vain for the distinctive luggage rack of our sedan.
I would have called and asked for guidance but I had no phone and the pay phone was out of order, probably has been for several years. Never mind, I told myself. There must have been some confusion. I'll just walk home.
Walking home from that distance wouldn't be daunting in the daylight, but it was at night. I found myself tripping on cracked pavement and dodging cars, even when I crossed with the lights. It took me 45 cold unpleasant minutes in my dark coat and too-tight work shoes. The only thing I could think about was how much I wanted to be home.
I hadn't been in the house more than five minutes when Tom and Celia walked in. The car was in the lot (sans luggage rack); I had just missed it.
What I hadn't missed was this: It's easy to rhapsodize about walking when you don't have to walk.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Now, instead, it's the multiple save, the last-minute printer malfunction, the inexplicable garbling of text or omission of "o's" in the preview document.
Now, at the last possible minute of the second-to-last possible day, it's wondering whether the document should have been saved as a PDF after all.
But finally, after the problems are solved, the tempers calmed, the signatures checked and the credit card number encoded, it's time to push "Send."
Miracle of miracles, the Common App is on its way.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Music as Place
The opening band, Kansas, didn't do much to dispel the fears. Yes, they played "Dust in the Wind," but their other songs were more cacophonous than I remember. By the time I was ready to slip in the ear plugs, though, the opening set was over and Chicago was on stage. The volume went down and the energy level went up. Here was the soaring trumpet in "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and the driving keyboards in "Saturday in the Park."
And even though I'm a classical music nerd, I still knew every song. More to the point, every song took me back to a me I hadn't been in years; to sweaty high school slow dances and college parties in the top floor "rack rooms" of gritty fraternity houses.
It was enough to make me believe that the past isn't really over after all, that it lives within us and can be sparked to life by a brass chord, a guitar riff, a voice. That music is a place, after all, and a visit there can make us feel young again.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Long after the leaves of other trees had flamed up, dropped off and blown away, the pin oaks hung onto their poor brown specimens. Pin oak leaves had not mastered the art of the graceful exit. Even with snow on the ground, they clung to their branches. They reminded me of old women with overly made up faces; like them, they did not know when to quit.
Walking past a grove of pin oaks the other day brought these memories to mind, how I had always disliked the tree, found it ugly and lacking in grace.
But this year the pin oak has company. This year many leaves fell during the hurricane, and some trees are nearly bare, but certainly not all. At least a third are half-leaved. It's as if they've forgotten what to do next.
Pin oaks don't provoke me as they used to. Perhaps it's because I'm older (though not overly made up!) and see the wisdom of clinging to what nature has given us until nature, in its wisdom, takes it away.
Monday, November 12, 2012
They have continued to bloom red and pink, their colors out of place with subtle autumn russets and gold, their freshness unexpected and sublime.
To see them still waving in the breeze is to believe that all will be well, that winter will pass and spring will come again.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
A valuable lessons to be reminded of from time to time.
My pace has been intermittent lately, too, as bursts of running punctuate my usual fast-walk cadence. I try for a steady pace but can't help but respond to the music in my ears and the feel of my joints.
Even the weather has been singing this tune — blustery and cold one weekend, calm and warm the next.
Bedrock is necessary, that which is solid and predictable. But what gets us through the day is the lighter, looser loam on top.
Friday, November 9, 2012
Her point is that many of us don't choose our place; our place chooses us. It's not so much a decision as a non-decision. A not-moving rather than a staying put.
What helped Knapp stay put is the Charles River, "one of the longest, best stretches of flat water for rowing anywhere in the U.S." and where Knapp would scull four or five times a week.
If we stay here (and it's always "if"), it will be because of the hollow tree along Little Difficult Run, the one Copper always has to stick his nose in on the days he's lucky enough to get a walk. It will be because of the mossy hill and the view of treetops I can see from there. It will be because of this one ancient knobby tree stump I always look for because more often than not it trips me up.
It will be the little things that keep us here.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
Lost and Found
The first part was easy. Down Lawyers into Vienna. I knew that much for sure.
But when I turned into the neighborhood it was dark and alien. I recognized the median but not the turnoff. I drove slowly down the suburban lanes, turning every time I thought I'd found the road. But nothing looked familiar.
I realized then that I had never arrived at this house in darkness, only in daylight. In the light, the houses were large, solid, knowable. In the darkness they were too close to discern differences. More cars were parked on the street than I recalled. I drove so slowly I could have been walking, peering into windows with one eye while keeping the other on the road.
At one point I found myself retracing last Saturday's local history tour. And then I laughed out loud. I can't find my friend's house but I can locate the site of an 1862 Civil War encampment.
It was then that I turned toward home. This time I knew the way: right on Lawyers, left on Steeplechase, left on Fox Mill.
When I pulled into our driveway, the porch lights were glowing a warm welcome. My heart leaped at the sight. I parked the car and walked inside.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Not just the brevity of it all or even the wonder of it all but the preciousness of each individual person. Each one a world apart, each with aspirations and aggravations that we, on the outside, can never know. As we emerge from the collective that is an election season, when people are numbers, weights on a swing state scale, we return to what really matters — the individual.
This is the morning after, the day we cheer or sigh. But tomorrow is a new day, and like every new day, composed of the individual actions of individual people.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
It does feel momentous, this election. Perhaps because we live in a battleground state and our phone rings half a dozen times or more a day. Perhaps because positions seem to be ossified — the fact that we had our first hard freeze last night, is that a metaphor?
Or perhaps because these polarized times make clear a truth we sometimes forget: that every vote really does make a difference.
Monday, November 5, 2012
I notice the silence. The robins and jays have left us; the juncos have not yet arrived.
The shutters are closed, but I spy through cracks the flicker of branch stir outside, as a brisk breeze sets treed leaves a trembling.
Here in this quiet hour, clocks ticking again on standard time, I think, resignation is much like this — to crave long days and fireflies, yet know even in my longing that this is what must be.
Sunday, November 4, 2012
And with that he passed me a 12-pound cannonball that, yes, was easier to hold with two hands than with one.
Lewis is a member of the Hunter Mill Defense League, which sounds like some sort of retro radical 60s organization but is actually a group of citizens formed to protect and defend the lovely, historic and oft-threatened (by development and widening) Hunter Mill Road.
Lewis and colleagues have bushwacked their way through the rolling hills of western Fairfax County, discovering old road beds, abandoned millraces and confederate earthworks, cannonballs and former camp sites. Now they're sharing their knowledge through lectures, booklets and the occasional tour.
Yesterday's four-hour jaunt delivered more information and ideas than I could possibly capture in a single post. Like the cannonball, it was a lot to handle. It gave me a plethora of ways to see this land I live in. A place of history and of depth.
(Jim Lewis and cannonball near the Confederate earthworks he found in the woods behind his backyard.)
Friday, November 2, 2012
It is a season that calls for poetry (as if all seasons didn't). So I return from the library my arms full of Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Maxine Kumin.
This morning, Kumin makes me smile:
Bucophilia, I call it —
nostalgia over a pastoral vista —
where for all I know the farmer
who owns it or rents it just told his
wife he'd kill her if she left him, and
she did and he did and now here come
the auctioneers, the serious bidders
and an ant-train of gawking onlookers.
Bucophilia — it's a word I'll take into the day.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
After Sandy, the answer is clearer. After Sandy, the mountains are starting to look pretty good. After Sandy, I wonder: What happens when the places I love are under water?
There's Venice. But of course with Venice it has always been part of that city's doomed charm.
And there's Chincoteague. As the wind and rain pounded us Monday I thought of my time there this summer, the stillness of the refuge, the beach that goes on forever. Does it still?
And now there's New York City, too. Sea water coursing through subway tunnels, lapping at the steps of the Stock Exchange. Apocalyptic visions.
People perish; place endures. Or at least it used to. I'm not so sure anymore.
(Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge.)