Echo chamber

On the el today, I watch a yuppie and a homeless man achieve
marginal success connecting with each other on a human level. The
contact is initiated by the yuppie, who asks the homeless man how he is doing. The homeless man then gives a long, didactic but calm description of life as a homeless person, how he feels looked upon as the dregs of society by everyone else and intends to make a film about the homeless person’s perspective. (“Are you going to eat tonight?” the homeless man says, by way of illustration.) Their discussion goes on for at least 8 stops, and the yuppie, by the end, tries to give him advice on signing up for an e-mail account to aid him in his job search. This seems to frustrate the homeless man, who describes much greater barriers to finding employment.

The homeless man asks for 6 dollars for dinner. The yuppie fishes in his wallet. He’s got a 20 and three singles. He hesitates and gives him the three dollars, and the homeless man is grateful. They resume arguing, as they leave the train at the same stop, over whether or not the e-mail account will be helpful. But they argue not as complete strangers who are afraid of each other but as neighbors, one of whom is convinced that their sideyard needs a box hedge.

I am sitting here, absorbing this fascinating exchange of sincere stranger-based communication for future blogability. Then I look over my shoulder and notice a kindly white-haired black man, sketching what looks like my portrait.

Who’s got a place to live? I do! I do!

This just in… A new apartment has been secured: A cute little one-bedroom with big windows, hardwood floors, and a little porch in the back. And it’s only a short walk from both Amanda/Charlie’s place and Eliina’s place. It’s a bit too far from the grocery store, but I love a brisk walk in sub-zero weather whilst carrying many pounds. I do. My building manager is Serbian, has fashionable glasses, and swears he will fix up absolutely everything in the place before I move in on the 12th.


Yesterday was one, big domestic scene. I felt like we were in Little Women. The day started with Amanda making an apple pie to take to our Thanksgiving dinner at Charlie’s parents’ house, so Kirsten and I helped with the peeling and chopping. The only small glitch was when the pie juices overflowed in the oven and started burning on the oven floor. Causing much smoke. We opened windows and turned on fans. Amanda: “Is this going to make the pie taste like smoke?”

Luckily, no, it was fantastic and not at all smoked-tasting.

Being there

If you’re following the current situation in Ukraine, a blog called Neeka’s Backlog gives some sense of what it’s like to be there right now. See also her piece in today’s New York Times: “The past four days have taught me something valuable: when I’m watching the situation unfold on television, I grow tense, fearful that it’s not going to end well. But when I return to the crowd, I feel elated, thanks to people like Tanya, tens of thousands of them, and to everyone else who’s out there, people of all ages, hundreds of thousands of them, fearless.”

Side note: Over lunch today, Amanda, Kirsten and I got really wrapped up in a discussion over whether it’s “Ukraine” or “The Ukraine.” I told them I would look it up. Here’s one answer.


Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a good feast. And then, a good nap. I am staying here in Chicago, having dinner with Charlie’s family (and Amanda, Charlie and Kirsten).


Talking on the phone to my mom this morning…

Mom: That is one ugly bird. Turkeys, when they’re raw? They’re just…. ugly. You would’ve laughed at me. When I was making it, I just kept saying, “This turkey is god-awful ugly.” I was by myself.

Ten minutes later, talking to my grandmother (my mom’s mother) on the phone….

Grandma: Does your mom have the turkey going?
Me: Yeah. She said it was ugly, though.
Grandma: When they’re raw? Oh, they are.


“The best way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to be forgiving. Forgive slights, because they were not wounds. Forgive wounds, because they were not injuries. Forgive injuries, because they were not fatal.” — Gapers Block

Staring out the window at work

It’s snowing. It’s been stopping and starting, just tiny little tentatively snowlike flakes. But it is indeed snow. SNOW. I love Chicago. No beating around the bush here. When it’s cold, it snows; none of this half-assed freezing rain that D.C. gets all winter.

An entire life spent shoe-shopping

On Sunday morning, Amanda and I sat at the kitchen table in our pajamas, eating warm chocolate chip scones and drinking coffee. It was one of those how-will-we-ever-decide-what-to-do-with-our-lives conversations. We talked in circles over all the usual terrain: whether to go to graduate school; whether graduate school would lead to jobs that we’re passionate about, pay enough and contribute to a better world; and wait — how do we know what we’re passionate about when our passions change by the day? How many entry-level jobs in various paths can we take before we just give up and pick whatever?

I came across this today in the New York Times. The writer is ostensibly talking about computers that can generate authorless novels, but he’s also talking about the creation of stories, which is essentially what Amanda and I were trying to do, map out our own stories:

The economist Herbert Simon, who reminded us of the futility of trying to consider every possible alternative in a world without end, might have had in mind the budding novelist in Albert Camus’s “Plague,” determined to create a perfect first sentence and therefore unable to advance beyond it.

It was Simon’s ideas – particularly his notion of “satisficing” – that first got me interested in fiction-writing machines. Though in theory a person shopping for new shoes could consider all the pairs on the planet, in fact, the cost is way too high – an entire life spent shoe-shopping. So in the real world we visit one or two stores, try on a few in our size and buy a pair.

Satisficing in this way – settling, or even sensing, what is good enough – is something novelists must do as well. We think of an idea and go with it because pausing to systematically consider every plot twist, character or phrase that might come next would lead nowhere.

Daniel Akst, NY Times

Dad has an announcement

My dad called last weekend. Immediately I was suspicious.

I haven’t asked him to mail anything, pay anything or fix anything. Why is he calling?

We just chatted for a few minutes about how I was doing.

He sounds so happy. Something is amiss.

So I asked how things were going with him.

“Your mother and I got a tree,” he said, as though announcing that they’d got a puppy.

A Christmas tree? Hmm. Strange! The tree will be dead by Christmas, for sure. Unless they’ve gotten some new-fangled long-lasting preservative-filled tree.

“And it comes in three pieces.”

Ah ha! Artificial! I should have known they would do something so devious when I was far away in Chicago and unable to stop them!

“It was on sale!” he said. “And the lights are already attached!”

I think he was actually calling from the store. I could hear crowd noise.

For years, I have relentlessly blocked all movements towards a Muscato family artificial tree. In fact, I was the original instigator of the live tree movement, back in 1988, when I refused to help put together our scruffy artificial one anymore. But he was right. We’d started just going to Home Depot to pick out a tree, which was actually even more pathetic.

And my dad has been looking forward to this for a long time. So. I am going to be mature and accept this. Hopefully.

Fling, flang, flung

Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet:

But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. . . . : And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road.

Anne Lamott, Bird-By-Bird:

My Al-Anon friend told me about the frazzled, defeated wife of an alcoholic man who kept passing out on the front lawn in the middle of the night. The wife kept dragging him in before dawn so that the neighbors wouldn’t see him, until finally an old black woman from the South came up to her one day after a meeting and said, ‘Honey? Leave him lay where Jesus flang him.’ And I am slowly, slowly in my work—and even more slowly in real life—learning to do this. Flung Comix.

Mental picture of the week: Eliina and I were in the freezer section at Dominick’s, looking for Ben & Jerry’s Primary Berry Graham . No luck. Selection was sparse. We were sad and disillusioned with our trip. Suddenly Eliina plunged both arms into the bottom-shelf area, started rifling through the pints and yelled, “Give it up!”

On miserableness: My first reaction to miserableness is usually some kind of chipper defense mechanism based on the belief that if you learned something from it — hey! It’s all right! You’re learning! But really? Sometimes, you feel so bottom-scrapingly low that it defies rationalization.

Snap, crackle, pop

Last night in improv class, something popped. In a good way. Like an eardrum, once you’re off the plane. In one exercise, everyone in the scene was supposed to be angry. That was the only rule: be mad. We took turns starting these scenes. I was the last person to start one– I’d been delaying. I don’t do agression very well. Someone (anyone) was supposed to step out and join me once I’d started something. So I stepped out and started yelling and pointing, as though I had a classful of children around me: “Listen, you little…” with much swearing. I whipped around, really not sure what was going to happen, and there behind me were two of my classmates writhing on the floor and making hyper-whiny subhuman gremlin sounds, the most obnoxious little brats you could possibly imagine. Suddenly it was quite clear to me that I was a charm school instructor.

After some chasing, I pulled out some handcuffs (from the imaginary handcuff cabinet) and cuffed them together. Then they clotheslined me. This morning on the train, I suddenly got a mental picture of those two writhing on the floor. And I really almost cracked up. I think I was out of my head.

In your head

My Chicago improv class is turning out to be much more difficult than my D.C. class. It’s not the curriculum, it’s the makeup of the class that subconsciously freezes me. While my D.C. class was made up of mothers, doctors, baristas and journalists, my Chicago class is made up of office temps financing their improv habits. Some of them even moved to Chicago specifically to do improv. I feel lucky to be around such instructive and hilarious folks on a regular basis. But an inferiority complex kicks in sometimes.

My classmates and instructor often toss around the phrase “in your head.” They say it like a choral singer might say she had a frog in her throat during that last song. Being in your head during a scene feels like when you’re at a party and instead of just enjoying the moment, you start wondering how your outfit looks, whether you’re smiling too much or not enough, whether your conversation is lame, etc. And of course, when you devote half your brain to an internal play-by-play, you actually do end up bombing. How ironic.

I am in my head more than I should be, in class and, let’s face it, in life. It’s amazing what happens when you allow your thoughts to spin their own webs. At the same time, it’s a huge relief when you figure out how to stop the spinning and reality becomes clear again.