I remember first reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, with its many top five lists, and all the girls who’d broken the main character’s heart, and all the albums he’d bring with him to a desert island — and, I don’t know, play them with a sharpened palm frond.
I love this idea, not the palm frond — the five things. What if there were just five things to focus on. That’d be so much easier.
Wait. That for sure is true. Okay. One down.
1) I am usually not certain of anything.
Let’s keep cheating.
2) Pie. This is an easy one. No one is uncertain about pie. Pi, on the other hand, is a different story.
3) Mostly, we are doomed. Collectively and individually. By a lot of things. By our ineptitude, by the global economy, by inequality and randomness and the ever-present specter of fear and regret. By our youth, by our age, by our geography and our class, by our genus and phylum and species. There is no getting around this.
4) You can miss someone forever. You there, who listened to NPR jazz in the back of your parent’s SUV with me. You there, who is the last one to truly remember how slow I used to walk. You there, who buried me in red fleece blankets. Unshakeable, this past. I can’t eat a grain of rice without thinking of my students. I can’t see a motorcycle without thinking of Kompheak. My heart lives in pieces and places. With Oriana in Costa Rica, with my grandmother in Tonawanda.
5) Memory is a luxury. Without it, without remembering, without missing, there’s just now, and you can only be certain of things — really certain — looking back. And nothing can stop doom, not really, not forever, but while it lasts, memory bends time. And when you link your story to mine, we form a chain of memory, unbreakable, unrepeatable, pi in story form.
In my dream, on my desert island, under the stars, we whisper it. We tell it. This whole big story chain.
You are all here, as we fall asleep, as we think about what we know for certain. Just five things. Just two things. Just one.
There’s nothing very glamorous about sidewalks, but I’m obsessed with them, and with the way kids covered everything in hopscotch patterns because three days were nice days, and how the pathways of my neighborhood are overhung with canopies of bright, sticky green leaves. Things bloom again, every year. This is my recurring topic, the one that always edges too close to sentiment but which I can’t overcome.
There are worrisome things, too. I worry about the garment factory fire in Bangladesh and how I can’t buy anything made there, so let’s keep shopping from my sister’s closet. I worry about the way my first finger curves in the way my Italian grandmother’s does — which she said was from killing chickens, and I’ve never even slain one, and already it’s a little crooked.
Tiny seedlings bloom on the shelf above the television — ready to be planted in our garden plot soon. Their tenacity amazes me.
I’m thinking of Borges’s garden of forking paths, and all the ones I didn’t take, and how there is luxury in resting.
Almost exactly a year ago, I sat in a hospital bed on the ninth floor under a clean white sheet, in pale blue pajamas, dreading the floods. Calculating. The rise of the waters, the strength of my limbs. The ways that I could and could not leave Bangkok. Everyone, even the doctor himself, was thinking of the floods all the time, and one day he told me there was a conspiracy. See, the government had failed to properly drain a dam, the rice fields should have gone first but to spare them they flooded the industrial areas.
Bangkok was right outside my door but it looked on television like all disasters do in foreign countries. Remote and chaotic, someone’s mistakes compounded by nature.
Who built this place?
Who built this this silly sodden city of broken wet things?
The superiority of the outsider shot through with the panic of the imperiled.
Onscreen the waters bobbed and sparkled darkly, swallowed cars, looked innocuous and then terrifying in their languid but endless seeping. Humans in rag doll clothes loaded onto rafts — someone doing the heave-ho.
I watched the news from my bed between spoonfuls of pad Thai which always arrived on a nice ceramic plate sealed under plastic wrap from the hospital kitchen downstairs. Watched. Ate. Calculating. Outside was dry, but for how long? I asked the skyscrapers that twinkled benevolently.
My part of Bangkok, where the hospital was, remained dry. But everything was sandbagged in preparation. Weird little low sandbag walls, maybe two feet high. The hospital said it would evacuate us if we had to go.
Soon I made the decision to leave town, and before long, thanks to my travel insurance and the fortitude of my friends and family, was safely home. But even at home, even then, I couldn’t pass a body of water — a river, a drainage pond — without eyeing the liquid’s distance from the lip. Everything was always almost spilling.
I lived in New York for just a semester. A brief home, but still. To see my former city under similar threats and more…. I’m watching now from Chicago. Watching on a screen, everything filtered through pixels. It could be somewhere far away, but it’s here. A strange and hard reminder that no matter how far you are from disaster, you are very, very close.
At the coffee shop I’m overhearing a language lesson – Portuguese, according to their thick green paperbacks. The young blonde guy in a black t-shirt listens, stoic, and sips his coffee as the older woman halts and bumps along, stopped by phrases such as, “residential” and “pledge”.
Last year I taught at least a hundred private English classes. For my sweet and daring Japanese ladies, who wanted to know how to write letters to their children’s principal. For my gentle, brilliant Korean girls, who pined to trade any knowledge of English for a normal amount of friends. For Kompheak, who taught me how to ride a dirt bike and how to handle French liquor, not in that order.
There is something so vulnerable about learning a language. Blind tongue, foreign terrain. You are stupid, on purpose.
I felt this way when learning Khmer, learning to say I wanted to go to the market. To say, “beautiful” and “ice”.
It makes me think of my friend Dean who teaches the art of clowning. Clown is the ultimate crash-course in vulnerability. You cultivate a mental state of openness. You enter a room and become reborn, every time. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but I know when I’m in it. It comes on when I take a long walk and everything seems fascinating. Fiery rust etching the glossy black of an iron fence. Leaves made of smaller cells made of smaller cells. You’re awake. I’ve spent long stretches of days like this, but not lately.
It’s been busy; the usual excuses.
At the next table, the woman holds up one hand… she’s saying to her tutor, “Pare pare pare pare….”
Stop stop stop stop.
Once upon a time, I could not make a pie to save my life. That experience is detailed here. But then, in early July, my dear friend Becky invited me to her house for a pie lesson. I’d been in Boston with my mother for a wedding, and for a mere two hour’s drive, we were rewarded with a dip in the clear blue lake, a porch to sleep on that overlooked the water (ACTUALLY CALLED A “SLEEPING PORCH”. TWO FAVORITE THINGS COMBINED.) And, of course, Becky.
Becky who drives a white convertible through the hills. Becky who tells us stories about her dashing son Solar, who is a pilot, and her rock-and-roll boyfriend, who makes her mix CDs. Becky who plays us these grit-bluesy mixes while we drive with her son in the white convertible, the cool New England wind battering us — hard as the beats but tasting of free-free-free.
Becky pulled me aside in her kitchen as we unpacked the groceries and bottles of Vinho Verde. “This is my pie nook,” she said. It was beautiful. A sunny corner with a low counter, canisters of ingredients and spoons and measuring cups all lined up. (You watch cooking shows and wonder how chefs make things so fast. It’s because the ingredients aren’t in twenty-five different places.)
She showed me how to make a pie an easier way, with just a few measurements. Soon it was ON: my hair tied back with a rubber band, floured up past my wrists. She rolled some dough. I tried rolling. Repeat. I learned to feel it; to feel the mixture’s textures and act confidently, the way the convertible took its curves.
I woke on Becky’s sleeping porch to a blood-orange sunrise — blueberry pie and fresh coffee for breakfast. It seemed simple, the way pie should be. Closer to how the first pie pilgrims must have operated. Maybe even cave people made pies, for all I know. Everyone needs to eat.
The house down the street is being picked apart, bone by bone, object by object. It belonged to someone elderly and insane — she kept her old Victrola and about a thousand jelly jars, rugs and sketches and a kitchen stove that could only be used by a time-traveling pioneer. I followed the signs and walked in there with Kerpowski one Saturday. We’d just started dating; it seemed a quirky excursion — and the Victrola was spinning, some hipster hunched over it like a DJ. We stepped over piles of objects, encased in dust. Weeks later, there is a perpetual estate sale. The daughter of this woman is there almost every day, hauling new things to the curb. When I walk by it smells of musty paper — strong as opening an old encyclopedia even twenty feet away. A row of hand-carved chairs sits on the lawn for a ghost audience to watch the proceedings.
The house itself is crumbling like old newsprint; paint peels, shingles shed onto the lawn.
I can’t imagine owning that much stuff. I used to have stuff. And then everything scattered. I boxed it, moved it, unpacked some things but not most. There’s a skeleton in every box now. They’ve been gestating. I know it — growing bone by bone and waiting to pop out of each box first so that they can be first to see the performance, seated in lyre-backed chairs. The Grand Unpacking.
Yesterday my roommates and Eliina helped me fetch the last of my belongings from storage — my books. At last, something for the shelves.
In the bar one night, the Turkish girl — Kerpowski’s ex, counter-intuitively my insta-pal– yelled into my ear. She was visiting from Istanbul. I wanted to hear all of her stories. It was one a.m. and we’d finished off the sweet potato fries. “In Turkey there’s two things we never throw out,” she shouted and handed me another rum and Coke.
I wonder how many books are hidden in the old paper house, and how many were read and loved, and how many will pass into new hands, for fifty cents, and how many will go back to dust. I wonder about the elderly woman’s daughter, and how many particles of her family’s past she inhales every day. It’s becoming part of her. I wonder whether she’s taking anything back to her own home. Maybe she can’t stand to look at anything. Maybe it’s all skeletons, sleeping and waking under the tinder.
The Turkish girl’s question seemed like a riddle, a koan. Tortoises or teakettles or tin whistles or trout.
Out of everything I left when I moved last year, books were the hardest. Other than people. People, then books. I felt naked in my new city. No one could look at my shelves and know who I was. The book stores in Phnom Penh are full of great paperbacks, photocopied and bound like new books. They are the clones of books left by intellectual backpackers and NGO workers. I immediately started shopping.
But my own books, now, feel right. Comfy. They are the same, too. Awake and fine, totally undramatic in their homecoming.
I’m shouting back at the Turkish girl. This bar is so loud.
“Two things you never throw out? Ok, what are they?”
She raised her glass. I leaned in more. “Books,” she said, “and friends.”
By the time I got to the house, I was so hungry that it seemed completely normal to make scrambled eggs.
Last month I visited D.C. for a weekend and through a stroke of luck learned that my old roommate in Phnom Penh, Rachel, was in the area, too.
Rachel lived with me in the apartment with the rusty staircase and the wormy cats that lived on the porch; above the family that sold heaps of pungent fruit downstairs; the friend who dolled me up in the clothes from her boutique so we could make posters proclaiming: SALE! The one I accidentally padlocked in our apartment one morning. The one who accidentally padlocked me in, too. The one who rolled fresh sushi in the back of a van WHILE WE WERE DRIVING DOWN A BUMPY MOUNTAIN PATH because we needed a snack.
American, blonde pixie haircut, been living in Phnom Penh since college. Anyway, Rachel.
She was visiting an aunt in Maryland, and I happened to be in DC. I borrowed an old minivan and drove all the way across town — rattling the whole way, straining to hear the weak prim GPS voice above the din. Not so unlike the van we drove down that mountain.
Finally I arrived — Rachel (RACHEL!) was in her aunt’s kitchen making breakfast (and would I like some?) So I set about making eggs right away. Pulled a few from the carton; grabbed a pan from a hook, dropped in shredded cheddar. Makin’ eggs in a stranger’s kitchen.
Seeing Rachel felt like home, too, because she knows what it’s like to go from Here to There and back again.
Next, a long sunny walk to the park, where we passed a carnival just beginning to set up. A washed-out, rusty carnival — the colors reminded me of Phnom Penh’s pastel amusement parks, where you think — if I get on that ride I’ll plummet to my demise, no matter how cute the smile on that bug-faced rollercoaster. I wondered where that carnival had been; and what it’s like to piece everything together, over and over. Do you get sick of tightening the same bolts?
Then we laid in the cool grass under a cherry tree and blew petals off our palms, catching up on all the stupid stuff. Our favorite Hungarian fashion photographer and his dirty mouth. The new cool restaurants; who’s leaving, who’s staying; The Cambodian girls and our wishes for their precarious or bright futures.
We bought bottles of water from a food stand and started to walk home. That’s when we saw the house. Covered in intricate metal scrollwork, a gingerbread house out of metal and more; everything metallic recycled and affixed in ways that suggested grandeur but up close looked like old eggbeaters and fan blades and muffin tins. In a row of normal-looking suburban homes, suddenly this.
Back at Rachel’s, her aunt unearthed framed drawings by Rachel’s great-grandfather for Vogue magazine, then unrolled an intricate beige silk shawl woven and embroidered in the Phillipines. And, oh, Rachel said, yawning, sipping tea — later she had to make a friend’s wedding dress. Because that’s a weekend project. Her entire family and its lineage burst at the seams with creativity and art.
Days later I Googled the crazy metallic house, and found this video of the owner talking about why he does what he does — tricking out his suburban house in elaborate metal sculpture. The point, he says, is just to make things.
It is the point. It is the point.
One of my favorite days in Phnom Penh: the afternoon I learned how to screenprint. It’d been a hot, horrible weekend. One of those days when you’d rather stay in bed, but it’s too hot in bed, so you walk around like a total zombie and hope your knees don’t melt into your shoes.
But then Rachel called and said she needed a hand screenprinting some fabric in her workshop. I parked my clunky aluminum pedal bike downstairs, walked through a tiny concrete tunnel and then up a dark staircase, certain this had to be the wrong place. But then, the workshop: Light-filled, top floor, a balcony overlooking the outskirts of a bustling market. A smiling Khmer woman was already at work, pushing bright ink through a wood-framed screen onto hand-cut fabric pieces that would become skirts.
That day I helped hose off the silk mesh screens; develop new ones over a light box and, eventually, ink them myself. The work was methodical, and just what I needed.
At sunset on the balcony I saw cross-legged amongst screens propped everywhere and drying in the warm breeze. The orange-sherbert light washed through them and over us. The fabric hung over clothes lines, pink and green flags covered in new inked patterns and scrolls.
Every now and then, like once a year, I have a thought that causes me to stop what I’m doing and sit on the floor. Most recently it was this: My parents have always encouraged me to be a writer, which I think — looking back — seems strange, because no one in our family had ever been a writer. We’ve worked in steel plants and hospitals and car factories and on trains and boxing rings and bars. But there are no writers. I used to think they saw my constant scribbling and thought, well kid, get yourself a bestseller so you don’t have to work. Maybe they just didn’t know the economics of the industry and had miscalculated.
But now I wonder if it was something more; consciously or unconsciously. I wonder if they didn’t see that their little oddball would need some help. Some shielding for the journey, armor against the world’s harshness, and that writing would serve that purpose. Art does this for us. When things are very hard or heartbreaking or weird. When you finally realize that you just do not fit and never will. Again and again, I remember the same lesson. Whatever your art is, hold tight to it. The point is just to make things. Especially when you’re hungry. To reach for an egg in a strange kitchen, and without hesitation, crack it.
My friend Sam sent this story to me today, about how experiences are worthwhile investments because they can be considered “durable consumer goods”. Like refrigerators and stoves. Things that last more than three years.
It got me thinking about the nature of memory.
Earlier this month I visited D.C., stayed with my old friends Doran and Tina and their adorable kids, and helped out at my old nonprofit job. These were such lovely things, and if I were better at being a blogger of everyday fun, I’d list out the whole itinerary and post photos from Instagram or something. Onward.
Point being. I left my job and life there in something of a rush; packed it all into a borrowed sedan and headed west. I was reeling from a college-boyfriend-heartbreak (everybody now: “awwww….”) and just had to get the hell out of dodge. I’d never take that decision back. Chicago has been everything.
But searching through old writings today (a couple of weeks after my visit) I found this passage. It’s so strange. I recall that entire city laced with woe-is-me and the alienation of being too young for one’s own high heels, but I must’ve been having something of a good time:
…a beautiful dinner with doran, him hobbling around on his broken leg, where we conspiratorially made fun of the restaurant’s pretensions and drank the best wine, then stopped afterward for ice cream. it seemed like he really understood. or wandering around the sun-soaked botanic gardens with josh, like children fascinated by mysterious misters and textured foliage. or making spaghetti with sarah, meatballs falling as casualties to the kitchen floor. or the feeling of having a going-away dinner that felt crowded, hot, burbling like the spaghetti sauce with love, love, love. or crying at the supply cabinet in my office as i put back the paperclips i never used, and the staples, and feeling a co-worker put his hand in the small of my back as an it-will-be-ok. or lunch with a friend from a museum we often worked with, where she gave me mementos from her colleagues of the museum’s art. or the presents i got from the teachers — pencil holder, sweatshirt, good-luck card, wild flowers that stuck out in all directions and reminded me of the teacher herself, the one from south africa who told the most articulate narratives of growing up. cramming things in — dinner parties, improv shows, nights out out out and hard-working days, each one feeling like a marathon, only to see another marathon right around the corner. and then it was done.
– Sept. 2004
I love pie. Wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth — more like, a wooden spoonful of pie filling. When I lived with my family for a couple of months this fall, I’d drive to the grocery store, pick up six Granny Smith apples, and then drive to my grandmother’s house. She’d make me a pie.
So, I’ve never learned to make one myself. And when my sister Christina came to visit last weekend, we realized that none of us Muscato girls had baked a successful pie from scratch.
There are many ways to make a pie. Butter crust vs. shortening. Lattice top? Brush with milk? Sure. But we hear less about how NOT to make a pie. And that is what we did.
How Not to Make a Pie and then Make a Pie, in 27 Easy Steps
1) Decide to open a pie shop. (No one can accuse you of thinking small!!)
2) Realize that first you should probably make a pie. Any pie. Choose apple.
3) Determine in quick succession that you are missing a) a rolling pin; b) wax paper for rolling the dough and c) the knob to the oven. Disregard obstacles.
4) Use a recipe transcribed from your grandmother’s memory.
5) Wonder what’s going on when the dough is way too sticky.
6) Make the recipe a second time. The dough is way too sticky.
7) Forge ahead; roll the dough using a bottle of “Menage a Trois” red wine, on a piece of aluminum foil.
8) Pause and stare quizzically when the dough is stuck to the bottle in a bajillion places.
9) Forge ahead. Flour it up. Finally get the dough flat. Transfer to pie pan.
10) Pause and stare quizzically when the dough splits like a map of the world going through a very terrible earthquake.
11) Start eating the dough.
12) Drink the red wine. …Drink more.
13) Pay no attention when one of your team members, perhaps the eldest sister, dashes to the store for a rolling pin and wax paper. In fact, don’t notice that she’s left.
14) While she’s gone, start jamming the dough into cupcake tins. These will be “tarts” you tell yourselves. Dream of your tart shop.
15) When your eldest sibling returns, try to explain the DisasterTarts. Then, just stop talking as your arguments peter out. As a trio, briefly consider deep-frying the dough. Realize you have no deep-fryer.
16) Make a new batch of dough using a recipe from the internet and an off-brand of butter named “Challenge Butter”. Feel that this is appropriate.
17) Snack on sugary sliced apples. Drink more wine.
18) Roll the new Challenge Butter dough using a rolling pin and wax paper. It’s so easy! Transfer to pie plate without incident. Marvel and congratulate selves.
19) Try to set the oven to the appropriate temperature using a pliers. See also: missing oven knob. Set your timer for forty minutes.
20) Note that the pie is not cooking fast enough. And not cooking. Now it is midnight. It is not cooking.
21) Call your grandmother, even though it is midnight and two of your team members are fast asleep in the living room, one curled up in an armchair. Your grandmother answers, because she is always awake at all hours. Her main comment is: No, a pie should not take an hour and a half to cook.
22) The top is not browning. Glaze it in honey. Glaze it in leftover cinnamon butter from yesterday’s biscuits!! STAY AWAKE! STAY AWAKE!
23) Finally remove pie from oven. Go to sleep at 2am.
24) Wake up after four hours of sleep.
25) Bleary-eyed, watch your sisters wake up, parade into the kitchen and peek under the foil approvingly. It looks delicious, they say.
26) Pie for breakfast. Send celebratory text messages all day remarking on the fabulousness of your pie.
27) Decide to never, ever open a pie shop.
I have a special wariness of people who write opening sentences with nothing in mind, and then try to create a story around them. These sentences, usually easy to detect, go like this: “Mrs. Ponsonby had never put the dog in the oven before,” “‘I have a wine tree, if you would care to see it,’ said Mr. Dillingworth,” and “Jackson decided suddenly, for no reason, really, to buy his wife a tricycle.” I have never traced the fortunes of such characters in the stories I receive beyond the opening sentence, but, like you, I have a fair notion of what happens, or doesn’t happen, in “The Barking Oven,” “The Burgundy Tree,” and “A Tricycle for Mama.”
Right now I live in a big, old house behind one of my favorite cafes on a quiet block in Chicago. My roommates and I cook for each other most nights of the week. Sam makes me mojitos and plays Chopin on the piano. Julia is unafraid to do an open-mouthed, point-and-laugh at me when my Sunday pancakes turn into a hash of semi-raw batter. Last night we played shuffleboard for about a million hours and noshed on truffle fries at the bar. Usually light-hearted days and nights.
On Friday, though, a few of us saw a play that obliterated us. We left the theater in silence; a reverent, stunned and full-headed hush. High school kids from Albany Park Theatre Project had interviewed dozens of community members about their stories and assembled them into a performance called Home/Land. True stories, told in words but also motion and rhythmn, color and light. About inustice and intolerance and irrational hate and unspeakable resilience. Transforming a tiny black box space in a utilitarian park district building with some of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen on a stage, let alone from a group of kids.
I’ve been thinking a lot about telling stories; how we transmit our personal experience and knowledge to others. I’ve always revered English. Though I break its rules for kicks and for joy, I can easily default to its formalities, the way my fingers still know what to do with a rosary. But last year I learned of English’s slippery places. How other languages tick and translate, from speakers with other native tongues. In candlelit cafes we’d compare idioms for hours, passing a notebook back and forth. Swapping words and turns of phrase like kids sharing sticky sections of peeled orange — valencia, clementine, blood.
In French there’s l’esprit d’escalier — “the spirit of the staircase” — to describe that feeling of leaving the room only to suddenly realize all you wished you’d said. There’s also coup de coeur — one of my very favorites. It means something like “I heart that”. Your passion of the moment.
The play brought immigration issues to life; discrimination, neon orange jumpsuits for fathers who tried to get work, elderly nuns who fought to legalize prayer in deportation centers, traffic stops that turned to panic and kids who couldn’t say their parents’ real names in public.
Even on the bus ride home, we still didn’t really talk.
Non-fiction theater about social justice has been in the news. You know, the Mike Daisey/This American Life thing. His play, and that original radio episode, hit people hard, too. What’s the word for how we felt as audience members, listening for the first time to stories of hardship and injustice? It’s not guilt or sympathy or even empathy.
When we got home from the play, I paced the house. Grilled my roommates. Googled. Tip of my tongue. Like schadenfreude, but in reverse? Maybe that hippie word, “grok”, one of them said. The difference between knowing something in your heart instead of just your head.
Today I came across the word somehow, not even looking for it, clicked on through
and there it was. Oh, the Germans. I should have guessed it’d be you guys. A squiggly, innocent-looking word that sums up entire sentences of English thought.
Weltschmerz. World pain. Wikipedia tells us, the modern meaning of Weltschmerz in the German language is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances.
In a physical sense, the only thing I can compare it to is the pain of breaking a bone. It’s not that the pain itself is worse than a sprain, it’s the slight grinding of bone on bone that’s sickening, because that’s how you know something’s really fucked up and will take forever to mend.
Our best shot is through stories. We need human bridges to these big issues, of
course. This is not a revelation to any journalist. But my new vocab word might help explain the tenor of the backlash against Daisey. People felt so betrayed over a selection of facts in a play and a radio program. Things that usually merit little attention at all. Why did this sting so badly?
I propose it’s because he’d made us feel that particular, rare flavor of world-pain — and for what? For nothing? There is plenty of truth to his words. But it is so much easier to push it far away, fast and hard and angry. We can forget it. It wasn’t real. Thank god. It was just a sprain. We got hurt for nothing and now it’s over.
Theater is particularly effective at spreading this feeling because of its inherent intimacy and immediacy.
On the bus after the play we didn’t talk but then on the walk from the bus stop to the
house we did. The night opened up with rattling el trains and light spilling from dive
bar doors and on all the trees, new green leaves shuddered under a near-frost but
I still don’t have words for everything.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “Each one (of us) has the incomparable taste in his
mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect
within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s.”
I just know that in Phnom Penh, a little French girl taught me a new
way to eat an orange. We were at the rum bar late at night and she came over to our table. Maybe four years old. Long brown curls, a white pinafore and a bow-tie mouth. She reached up to me and offered the fruit, so of course I took it. And she showed me how you can make a little hatch in the top — take off just a circlet of peel. Then squeeze it a bit until the golden juice starts flowing free, and put it to your lips and drink. I think it’s an analogy for something, and someday I’ll find out which one.
If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us,
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble,
how loss activates
a latent double, how
we can feed as upon nectar
– Kay Ryan, “Why We Must Struggle” in The Best of It
Lately I’ve been learning the shapes of things, of gains and losses. By feel. By chance. Stumbling through an unlit room, pressing a palm to the walls and bumping into the stairs. Then waking in a vineyard. A lucky one, when I’m lucky.
I didn’t tell many people how sick I was in October. I didn’t want to worry anyone, and I didn’t know what to say. But Oriana was with me in the airport on the way to the hospital in Bangkok. She wanted me to get in a wheelchair so that we could pass more quickly through customs. But I refused. I told her, straight-faced, that I didn’t want to get in the wheelchair because “these might be the last steps I ever take.”
Wrong again, Muscato. I am now totally fine. And I’m thankful that Oriana talked me into sitting in the wheelchair. We breezed through customs and got to the hospital that much faster. But I’ve appreciated my legs a lot more ever since. Now I lace up my sneakers and run sometimes.
I just got these fancy running shorts with a tiny zipper pocket in the waistband, perfect for a house key and an ID. I began to slip the house key from the ring and slide it into that itty bitty pocket. But then I stared at the salad of metallic shapes in my palm.
Silver keys and gold keys, with curved tops and square tops, and one of those fancy ones that can’t be copied — suddenly I realized: I didn’t need any of them. In fact, I didn’t even know what any of them were for. So I slid off each bright key until just one remained. Simple. Weird. Easy. Good. Then I locked the door behind me and started to run.
I’m both a journalist and a performer in theater. Very few people work inside the overlap of this particular Venn diagram of minimum-wage professions. So I have to comment on the news.
In the event that this post is found in a digital time capsule in 2097, an explanation: A writer and performer named Mike Daisey traveled to China, visited a factory where some very popular computer products were being made, returned home and wrote about it. The resulting play was performed live for many people, excerpted for an extraordinarily popular journalistic radio program, and then found to be factually untrue. There was an uproar.
Denizens of the future: Hopefully someone has recorded the meanings of China, factory, journalistic, computer and radio so that you can decipher the above.
I became an early fan of Daisey after seeing him give a thrilling and mostly improvised talk at a conference of arts administrators. He pegged us from the start. He knew we were artists too and wanted, more than anything, to be valued for our work. Our art, yes, but also for our labor to connect art with its viewer. He said it was our mission “to make art visible in our time”. He nailed our fears and insecurities so deftly that I found myself scribbling into a notebook dotted with tear stains.
Muffins had been served in the lobby but we were not allowed to bring them into the lecture room. He wove this tiny injustice into his speech on the spot, our desire for the muffins that were separated from us by red tape, a detail mirroring all the administrivia that so often sunk our spirits. I scribbled down quotes. “Sometimes you just think, ‘Fuck art.’ And it may not always make you happy. But the point is not to be happy, the point is to do the shit you’re called to do.” He said art is often a hard sell because this country was founded by Puritans — but we must keep at it; deep down, everyone still wants to make art. He said in his signature, dramatic throatiness, “It calls to them in the night.”
The man can reach an audience. And his story about Apple was perhaps his best work. But people don’t like their bitter pills mislabeled.
Writer Tim O’Brien posits in his famous and much-beloved essay, How to Tell a True War Story [pdf], that there are different kinds of truth. Factual truth — and story truth.
True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside. It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
Daisey made our stomachs believe. Bitter pills, mislabeled — for reasons I can only guess. But something strange happened during Daisey’s talk to us arts administrators. He’d been speaking about the muffins being denied us; saying the words with such passion you could taste them. And then, suddenly, we could taste them. One of the experimental theatre performers in the room had stood up, walked out the door and returned with these illicit muffins on a silver platter.
The artist passed them throughout the audience in a jolly manner. I was happy for the second chance at breakfast — but something in the air turned, a slight scratching of the needle on the record. Daisey didn’t chuckle with us or celebrate this turn of events. In fact he looked annoyed; so fond of the poetics metaphor surrounding our lack of muffins that he didn’t actually want us to have them at all. And I was so entranced by his performance that I almost didn’t want to eat.
… or so says UNESCO, so I’m chipping in. You should, too.
In Our Time of Great Speed
in our time of great speed
the sticky green leaves
opened in march
as the sun ticked us
closer to 90 degrees
though we dug out cars
in marches past
and under the ground
murmur in half-sleep;