Comes tomorrow we’re tomato soup

My favorite so far is the window.

“Stick shifts and safety belts
bucket seats have all got to go”
Too literal?

“If you respect me at all
please don’t call” Too pathetic?

I’m choosing a lyric for my weekly submission in Christina’s photography contest.

“You’ll never be what you’ll never be
But you can always be the one for me baby”

Maybe? On the page it looks cute and romantic, but the first time I heard it I had to stop my car, I was crying so hard. My uncle George had just died, and I could feel the family falling apart. Polite disagreements over who got which rosary and who deserved keys to his apartment and what it meant that this cousin came to town while that one only called.

A cell phone held to Uncle George’s ear as he lay dying, yes William Faulkner I’m sorry I didn’t pay better attention in American Lit, unconscious in the ICU bed. It’s awkward being the one holding the phone to his ear. My brother is saying his goodbye from Colorado. I’m not sure when to pull the phone away. Uncle George doesn’t respond, can’t respond. He lies still with his eyes closed, his normally lean and leathery face looking puffy and unfamiliar. After a few minutes I hold the phone up to my ear. “…softball games, and that time you came to visit with my dad, man Uncle George, every time I go to that ridge we hiked to…” I put the phone back to his ear.

“This is the way that life is supposed to be
And there’s a reason that you just can’t see
You’ll never be what you’ll never be,” but there never was the one for Uncle George. He was single all his life. My mom thought he might have gone on a date once.

“I went off in the cruel world
Like a gun in a crowded room.” Did I send that one last week? It’s hard to keep track.

I’ve been meaning to talk to Christina about that. I want a dumbed down version of the rules posted right on her page. I know you can send one lyric a week, but when does each week start and end? I know she takes pictures inspired by the lyrics. But either she decides, or visitors to the page vote…Somehow a winning photograph is chosen each month. And the submitter of the winning photo’s lyric gets a print. I want everyone to enter, because I love seeing the photos she’s come up with so far.

And I love the nostalgia factor, the callback to days when songs were front and center in my identity, when I posted lyrics on my dorm room door, to make a point. “You may ask yourself well, how did I get here?”

Another thing I like about running is the excuse to listen to music. Old random mixes on an iPod I’ve got hooked up to a speaker next to the treadmill. I haven’t synched it to iTunes since about 2009, so usually I just pick one of the on-the-go playlists I made years ago and just run to that. Yesterday it was a scramble of Cake and David Wilcox and Blossom Dearie that must have made sense at the time. In retrospect it’s too bad there wasn’t something from Etta James. She’d have done a great “Napoleon.”

Most aren’t fast enough to be workout songs, but also I like to sing as I run. I figure if I can sing, then I’ll be able to chat with a running partner when I start running outside. But also, singing makes my heart feel good. It makes me happy.

As I was running and singing along to “Jesus wrote a blank check” I thought about how singers, good singers, seem to give equal treatment to both intricately constructed lyrics and those that seem like just the easiest next rhyme.

“I don’t want to be number four
But I can hear a knock at the door.” Does number four mean something? Is number four the only one who hears the knock?I don’t want to be number four either. Or is it a joke? Great songs travel with the lyric as if it’s the only truth, the only world.

My mom used to worry about Uncle George driving home from the suburbs to his apartment in the city. “Wait ‘til rush hour’s over, George,” she would say when he came to visit.

“No Phyl, I’ll be fine.”

“But they’re crazy this time of day. They drive so fast.”

“That’s okay. I put my tapes in and turn up the sound. They can honk or pass me, I don’t care.”

My mom would fume after he left. “He’s the only one going 30 on the Eisenhower. Someone’s gonna rear-end him and then he’ll care.” But he always made it home okay. I like to think of him cruising down 290, singing along to whatever he listened to, probably Perry Como or Bing Crosby. I’m glad I was never behind him on the road, because I would have been swearing my head off. But in his world, singing along, he was content.

“Napoleon’s a pastry
Get this under your brow
What once used be a rooster
Is just a duster now”

All you have is your joy

treadmill
My new novel.

I was down most of yesterday because I didn’t wake up to write. I set my alarm for six – no, I had Dave set his alarm. At six I said, “six-thirty.” He reset it and we fell back to sleep. At six-thirty I turned on my light, reached for my notebook, and wrote half a page of drivel, about how I don’t want to write and I’m so sleepy and I have nothing to say. I was waiting for the magic moment, the spark into a surprise revelation or train of thought that makes the process worthwhile, but all that happened was I fell back asleep. When I woke again at eight-thirty I was clutching my notebook like a teddy bear.

Why is it so important to me? What am I trying to prove? I have another half-finished story that’s lost steam and I think I can fool my subconscious brain into telling me the rest of it before the editor wakes up.

At nine o’clock I opened the notebook again, this time at the dining room table, and wrote some more drivel. “I dreamed I was packing up the car but had to walk Django first but somehow she had to climb out of a basket of salad greens. She did it!” Then I wrote a scene for the story which I won’t use. There’s no need to use everything you write. That would be like a concert pianist performing a rehearsal for the audience. I know that. But it’s scary when the spark doesn’t come.

I popped into Facebook and watched a Thich Naht Hanh video recommended by Susy. It was about how the left hand doesn’t punish the right when it makes a mistake, like accidentally pounding the left thumb with a hammer. The left and right understand that they are each other. Susy said she watched the video three times and was calmed.

Leave it to the gods, Elizabeth Gilbert said in her TED talk, which I also watched. Maybe it was on the same YouTube page? Leave it to the gods but show up at the page, because Sinclair Lewis wrote 5,000 words A DAY. I read that yesterday in Wikipedia.

At nine-thirty I got on with real work and spent the rest of the day writing video scripts. When Dave came back from his run I said for the millionth time, “I wish I could do that.” Then somehow it was eight p.m. and we were still working, which isn’t surprising when you don’t start til halfway through the morning.

Instead of having dinner, I suited up for the treadmill. I’d been thinking about doing that since Dave brought it home a year ago. But I’m not a runner, and I’ve never used a treadmill. I’ve been busy saying, “If only it was a cross-trainer.” “If only I had an idea of the plot.” “If only I weren’t so sleepy at six a.m.” “My shoes are caked with mud.” “I have nothing to wear.” I put on some yoga clothes and knocked my shoes around over the garbage and Dave showed me how to start with your feet on the sides.

He went back to work and I put my earplugs in and turned on Pandora to Eagles radio. As a runner I’m pretty wobbly. I walked and ran and watched myself wobble in the mirror Dave propped against the wall to check his form (perfect, the lady at Fleet Feet said).

After 32 minutes I realized I need shorts, a sports bra, and some shoes that don’t pinch my toes. I also realized that I was happy. It felt good to sweat and try not to wobble while singing along with American Pie and Beast of Burden and Penny Lane and other songs that share musical qualities with the artist The Eagles. I didn’t write but I did something else I’ve been wanting to do. All I have is what I feel, and right now I feel the joy of wobbling. It’s pretty much what I expected to feel at six a.m. this morning, but instead it’s ten at night, I’m fresh from the shower, and my biggest struggle is between a toasted D’Amatos mini-focacchia and the last of the sweet potatoes.

Translations

It made more sense after Dave translated.

We’ve eaten out a lot this week. Dave’s dad is in town and he is both a great cook and a lover of fine food. The other night we went to one of his favorites, Les Nomades. Serene lighting, sumptuous appointments (that is, chairs and stuff), and waitstaff who anticipate your every need without calling attention to themselves. Your water glass, your napkin, your every dining comfort IS the most important thing on the planet. And the staff’s comfort is the least. Maybe the point of restaurants like this is to let average people feel what it’s like to have servants—like, royalty-grade servants. You pay the price and you receive the experience.

Maybe that’s why a jacket is required. The Queen doesn’t dine in blue jeans. And there’s the food itself. A thimble-full of inspired parsnip soup,  a salmon appetizer prepared three ways, each better and smaller than the last, a presentation of warm apple tart contrasted with a melon-baller scoop of green apple sorbet. Tiny mouthfuls of gold.

But the experience changes with translation. The first or second time at Les Nomades, I didn’t try to understand, I just ate and drank and sank gratefully into my banquette as they invisibly pulled the table back for me after a trip to the ladies room. Which had a couch! But this time, I thought more about how it all works. Somehow, I couldn’t help analyzing the waiter. He was so formal in his language that I kept thinking he was kidding. “Would the Lady and Gentlemen care to order?” It was sort of like being at a renaissance fair, except I think in that time period Queen ate with her hands. At first, I tried to talk normal, but I am a chameleon and soon I transferred info formalese. “Perhaps a glass of the Springbank?” “Very good, Madame.”

At one point, he bowed in to ask, “Are the Lady and Gentlemen finding the meal to their liking?”

“Oh yes, it’s lovely.”

“Very good.” But when he bowed away, I saw him stop at the white serving table and make a small mark on a card. Suddenly I thought, is there a set number of times they have to check in with each table in their station, and the card helps them keep track? Doesn’t he really care? Did he only check with us so he could mark his card? I know, it’s all a business, like any other, and I appreciate that they run this business so well. But for a moment I felt like that king in the play, I think it’s by Ionesco, where he says to his servant, “Don’t you think I know that as soon as I go to bed you blow out the candles and turn on the electric lights?”

And the servant says, “So should I turn on the lights?”

And the king cries, “No. I want my candle. Bring me my candle!”

I started a new playwriting workshop this week. The teacher, Will Dunne, has already made me start thinking about writing plays differently than ever before. He had us do an exercise he called Translations. For the play you’re working on, you identify 12 words or phrases that come up in the play and then translate them into various actions or lines of dialog or images. When we went to see Clybourne Park at the Steppenwolf last night, I thought about what those 12 might be for that play. Racism, civility, institutional ignorance, what’s the point, burying your dead… It made it easier to identify what was so powerful in the play, and also to sense the few ways in which it could have been more powerful – at least to me. What were they? I forget now. Something about what was at stake in Act 2, but something more specific. Ignorance? Yes, I thought if the story of the suicide were more distorted by time, it would have strengthened the idea of ignorance being dangerous, or at least destructive. But maybe that wasn’t one of the playwright’s 12. Or maybe he didn’t have 12. This was only one exercise, in one class.

After the play, Dave translated his Dad’s classic reticence about what he felt like doing into agreement that a bite after the show would be good. At the table, when I was explaining this playwriting exercise, Dave’s dad said, “Music is music. It is what it is. No translation necessary.” That launched a discussion between Dave and his dad over who was the best composer, Bach or Beethoven or Mozart—or more specifically, what made each of them so good.

And that reminded me that at intermission, Dave’s dad stood up and said, “Back then, everyone listened to the same music.” Act One took place in the 50s, and closed with a Bing Crosby song that only Dave’s dad recognized. I was glad to hear him make a voluntary comment, but I almost replied with a disagreement. I remember my dad telling me about how, when he was growing up in the 30s and 40s, he used to have a radio in his room, and late at night, when the signals were stronger, he’d turn it to “the dark side of the dial” either the lower or upper end, I don’t know which. If he tuned it just right, and the night was clear, he could hear Black music, the blues and jazz he couldn’t get in the middle of the dial. But it didn’t seem worth pointing out, because it’s possibly pointless to disagree with a memory. Or maybe that’s why the world is so messed up, I’m not sure.

I don’t know if it’s okay to write “Black music.” We don’t say that anymore. But it’s how my dad described the music he loved. I guess we all pick our battles and our translations. Walking back to the train, I saw a For Sale sign. At first I thought the line at the bottom was the realtor’s name, and I was impressed that someone with such a strikingly foreign name would be selling such a swank property. Turns out it was a swank property, but I was still reading it wrong.

Meeting up with an old song

Tributosaurus concertTo see through eyes that only see what’s real?

Last night I met up with an old song. A bunch of old songs, really, but I’m picking one at random to make my metaphor work out. I first met the song in junior high. It was in the bedroom of my best friend, whom I don’t have the heart to give an alias to — actually, I like Alias. Alias had not only every Elton John album but every Elton John poster in existence. Her parents let her paint her room any color and one weekend we painted it bright yellow. When it dried, all the posters went up. They covered the walls, album cover art and concert close-ups, Elton in costume singing his heart out behind big tinted glasses.

I was a James Taylor fan myself, with pretensions to the Allman Brothers, although (or because) they were forbidden to me by my brother. “They are the greatest band,” he said, “If you listen to them you will ruin them.” Our family was serious about music. In addition to the Allman Brothers brother, there was the folk music brother who took me to see Steve Goodman and John Prine, and the Todd Rundgren brother who rudely turned off “Sweet Baby James” to play “Hello It’s Me.” And there was Dad, who stopped me as I passed through the dining room so he could put his big headphones over my ears and introduce me to Stan Getz and Modern Jazz Quartet.

But at Alias’s house, where she had older sisters instead of older brothers, Elton John was the only thing on the turntable. Alias had one of those plastic arms on her stereo so you could stack multiple records and they’d drop one by one. When I slept over, she’d load it up with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Madman and Honky Chateau and Captain Fantastic. She kept the volume low so we could listen all night, softly singing along, drifting off, waking up to talk about whatever boys we liked or careers we wanted or countries we’d decided to move to, then drifting off again.

Even at low volume, the opening of “Grey Seal” demanded attention. If I was asleep, those piano chords would wake me. I couldn’t totally respect a song that used the same word twice in a key line, but I loved it for Alias’s sake. She was my first best friend whom I’d chosen, not just grown up next door to, and back then that seemed more important than it ended up being. We’d do daring things, like go to the mall and ask people whose pants were too short, “Um, what time is the flood?” We’d mosey into the local Hallmark store and switch the cards around so that when someone bought one and got it home, it wouldn’t fit into the envelope. Yep, we were rebels.

After junior high, the song and I lost touch. He rocked ever larger arenas and I got into theatre. Alias and I remained friends for years, up until I got divorced and she stopped taking my calls. I think I broke some kind of a pact, or maybe I got too self-obsessed, or maybe we just had nothing left in common. We ran into each other at a reunion a few years ago, and all was polite catching up.

My reunion with the song was way better. Tributosaurus, a band I’ve wanted to see for years, became Elton John at Martyrs’, a club I’ve known since it was just an idea in the owner’s head. Every time I walk in there, I affectionately remember seeing the stages of construction, the bar going up, the electric going in, the painted tables being layered with clear-coat. I’ve lost touch with the Martyrs’ people, but a musician friend of Dave’s had posted on Facebook that he was playing with Tributosaurus, and that spurred me to get tickets and pass the word to friends.

After an hour of waiting (this being our first Tributosaurus concert, we didn’t know seven o’clock was only when the doors opened), “Grey Seal” opened the show. It sounded about a million times better than the original. The self-importance of the opening riff had new life as breathed through a bunch of consummate musicians who for some reason decided that should be their opening song. And behind that, ten years ago they for some reason decided to outdo the cover band idea, to play in a way that forces rock critics to find new ways to define cover bands so that they won’t be embarrassed by how much they love these guys. And after it, they played absolutely faithfully enough to acknowledge the most fleeting nuances of songs I thought I’d forgotten, yet also with just enough detachment to allow me to sing along with ironic abandon. By taking the music very seriously and themselves not seriously at all, they have found a sweet spot that is theirs alone. Or heck, maybe this is what all cover bands do. Tributosaurus is my first.

Sometimes I’m scared by how many birthdays I’ve had. They come faster and faster, and there’s so much to observe and so little time to meet all those goals Alias and I set long ago. Maybe she’s met hers. I hope so. But at times like this I just feel grateful to be old enough for memories to connect from there to here, like copper pipes routed and rerouted through walls that have been built and moved and demo’d and rebuilt, so that when water comes out of the spout I want to shake the glass and say, “Do you have any idea what it took to fill you?” I kind of never need to hear “Grey Seal” ever again. That double use of the word “see” still bugs me. But I loved meeting up with it again, and all its friends. Next month Tributosaurus becomes Queen, a band I have no nostalgic connection to. But if they’re not sold out I’d like to go back, to walk into Martyrs’ and remember when they were still figuring out how to wire the stage, and to see if the sweet spot will accommodate someone who didn’t even like the original music.

Breaking up is as hard as you make it

elaborate potty seat
Or maybe they figured it spoke for itself.

I’ve had this Ry Cooder song in my head for days and it’s driving me crazy. “Little sister don’t you kiss me once or twice, say it’s very nice and then run/Oh, little sister don’t you do what your big sister done.” I didn’t know why it was in my head – maybe from my Saturday evening listening to Pandora while I painted the laundry room? It could have come up on my Steve Earle/Mark Knopfler station, or maybe on my Patty Griffin station. I painted late into the night, and now the more accurately named laundry nook is a detergent-friendly blend of Fancy Free (walls) and Surfin’ USA (trim).

But the next day on the dog walk I noticed once again a dirty bib that says “Little Sister,” hanging on a fence post for its owner to notice, and realized I had been seeing it the past few dog walks. I hoped this would make the song go away but no, it’s still there, playing the same two lines again in an overlapping loop, every time my mind is quiet enough to hear it. There have been a lot of signs in the neighborhood lately. The bib, and a sign written in chalk on someone’s front walk, “Small white dog found.” Also a post-it note stuck to a carefully wrapped object in the alley, “Car seat for free, in good shape.” Double underscore on the good.

The car seat note is one I’d write. I’d want to make sure that whoever saw it understood its precise value. I like to have as much control as possible over the things I discard, maybe because I don’t really want to part with anything. I had to write a breakup note to my meditation group – well, actually, I didn’t have to write a note, I could have just not gone back, or not gone as often, but because I need control, I had to write a note explaining in great detail, how much I loved the group and how difficult a decision this was, but how “the social butterfly in me” needed more time on Sunday mornings for brunch dates, and how “my heart” responds better to 15-minute meditations than to 60-minute ones. Dave read the note before I hit Send and said, “You can delete most of this.”

“Too much information?”

“You don’t need to apologize. You don’t need to explain yourself.”

“I thought about saying maybe I’d be back in the Fall, but then I don’t want to be committed. But I don’t know, maybe I’ll want to go back.”

“Just thank them and keep it short. You don’t have to weigh them down with your every thought.”

After more deliberation, I shortened the note to three lines. I realized that I was trying to leave the group and keep it too. Like when my parents sold the house we’d grown up in, and left post-it notes everywhere for the new owners, “Do not overload washing machine” and “This window sticks” and “Original doorknob from linen closet – spindle bad.” We try to hang on with our intentions, our words. Because if we don’t hang on, we’ve lost a set of choices, a possible future, possibly the road we should have taken.

“People can make things harder than they need to,” observed Kismet, to whom I’d confided my weeks of meditation deliberation. You can wrap a car seat in plastic and attach a note, hoping it will go to a good home, where the new owner will take good care of it. You don’t want it to get ruined, or too casually taken, or passed over because the new potential owner assumes it doesn’t work. Or you can just set out a carved wooden potty seat with TP roll and magazine rack in the alley, shut the gate, and move on to the next thing. We see it all on the morning dog walk. And those of us who need to hang on to everything have the pictures to prove it.

They’re Everywhere

20110512-105902.jpg
My brain on new music.

There are a lot of nerds out there. Tech nerds and sports nerds and art nerds. Improv nerds. Horse nerds. Last night Dave and I went to a concert at Mayne Stage, where we were surrounded by new music nerds. I was, as usual, dumbfounded by the seeming formlessness of the phrasing, that suddenly hits you with an exclamation point when you least expect it. It makes me realize how easy it is to spot periods in most music. You know when the end of the line is coming a mile away, which leaves you free to interpret everything before it. Like the cylons understanding love only once they understand death.

Or at least, I thought it was formless, until the first piece ended and Dave said, “Difficult piece, but at least it was in 4/4.” At intermission I heard someone say, “I think I’m writing really accessible music, but that’s just how I feel,” and then a bit later, “The problem with the alumni…” I missed the rest because Dave introduced me to someone who told me a funny story about some concert Dave did in college. Something about Dvorak that I didn’t understand but laughed at anyway.

What I heard most of the night were random notes that made sense only if I imagined them as the score to a film noir scene. Or rare moments when the sheer virtuosity transported me to awe. Mostly I thought if I knew where that phrase was going I’d know how to interpret the piece.

But I guess that’s the point. A friend who doesn’t speak to me anymore once said that he liked new music because it was the only thing that made him feel like someone had taken the top of his head off. I’m not sure what he liked about feeling like someone had taken the top of his head off. Too bad I can’t ask him now. Well, I could ask him. It would be like my own little new music composition. His silent response would perhaps be the perfect ending.