Saturday, February 25, 2012

21 Questions Minus 11

1. Is it possible that you might be wrong about something you believe in more deeply than anything in the world?

2. Will we see cloned humans in the next generation's lifespans? (And if so, dammit, why can't I have mine now?)
A very smart twelve-year-old offers why he thinks it will be a very bad day when this occurs: "Because then we will have infinite armies."

3. What is the loveliest flower?

4. Can one write beautifully, but not truthfully or logically?

5. What is the real purpose of pro sports?

6. Does school teach what we think it does (or would like to think)?

7. Are some art forms of the past--painting, film, poetry--now superannuated, and if so, what has replaced them?

8. What is the most joyful aspect of being human?

9. Will entirely new religions be created if we manage to last another few thousand years--ones with new gods, worldviews, and moral codes?

10. What is the more fruitful in life: Questioning? Or answering?

Jes' asking.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Second Chances: A Play in Not Quite Two Acts

ACT I, scene 1

The lights go up, but not all the way; we see the stage is empty. A spotlight searches, finds nothing, goes out again. A figure enters stage left, walks across, exits stage right. Another enters stage right.

Actor A. At any given moment, we do not know what is in the next one. This is why we should not believe either the darkness or the light will stay; the sun goes up, the sun goes down.

A third figure walks down the center aisle of the theater. At the proscenium, she looks for stairs to the stage front left, finds none. She implores Actor A wordlessly; he finally walks downstage to offer his hand, hoists her up from the orchestra pit.

Actor B. [to Actor A] Thanks--I couldn't have gotten up here without that. [Pauses, looks around] In fact, I couldn't have gotten much of anyplace without a hand reaching toward me out of the half-light, I realize now. It keeps happening, when I least expect it. I've known darkness--you all have. [gesturing to the audience] Didn't you have the experience, too? I mean, when something terrible happened, and you thought this was the way it was going to be for all time? Terrible, unrelieved terribleness? And then you found there were others out there, waiting to give you back what you thought you had lost forever? I mean, you didn't know they were even there, watching, knowing! And you didn't know you had missed those parts of yourself they gave you back? I guess when the sun goes down, the sun comes back up.

Upstage, the spot lights suddenly on a rosebush that wasn't there before. It goes black, then lights on a man holding an open book. Goes black again, then
lights on a beautifully decorated birthday cake on a pedestal. Offstage, the sound of a motorcycle starting.

ACT 1, scene 2

The curtain rises on a gym exercise room. It is filled with machines--rowers, bicycles, treadmills, elliptical trainers. Actor 2 is on one of the latter, in a row of otherwise empty machines. There is only one other machine being used in the whole room. We can see she has been there for some time: sweat rolls down her face and wets the collar of her shirt. She is watching the small screen in front of her. Then a man comes through the door to the room, towel around his neck. The stage lights grow dimmer and dimmer as he strides past three rows of machines and directly to the one she is in. He goes by three empty machines, then throws his towel on the bar of the machine next to hers. We see that something has come over her: although she still stares at the television screen, her movements slow, and the look on her face is one of confusion, disbelief, and a sort of terror mixed together. She knows who he is. The source of this darkness. He plugs in his iPod and begins to peddle. Their arms are so close that if they wanted, they could reach over and touch each other. She knows him well, better than any other man save her father, and maybe better than that. She had thought he knew her too. But now, one foot away, he has not even noticed she was there. Her movements slow to a stop. She silently gets off her machine. He peddles faster, absorbed in his music. She walks deliberately toward the exit, and as she does so smoke rolls across the floor, rising up until it obscures the man, and she is gone.


Actor A. The road presents two forks. [gestures] But one cannot in fact be taken: see, a tree has fallen. One must take the left fork, then. The obstacle changes everything that comes after. The shadow of the tree remains. The traveler knows it is there, preventing a return, preventing the discovery of all that may be by the wayside along the other road. It may be beauty. It may be success, happily ever after. Or maybe not. The left fork, unfortunately, is a narrower way. It turns to dirt, and is muddy in places. [Actor B enters upstage right, walking hesitantly, then more quickly, then nearly stops, bewildered; a spotlight comes up right on the place before her, and her look brightens as she picks her way around a boulder, then continues] It is fortunate, a blessing, that the traveler never knows what is on the other road, the one she was prevented from taking. It is ever thus, for all who walk. And you--you all walk on. [The actor who crossed the stage in Act I now appears from opposite Actor B, walking toward her. The lights go down as they continue to pick their way forward. We will never see what happens at the place they meet]

Music up: a string quartet plays something plaintive yet light.


Saturday, February 11, 2012


Mice are on my mind, because they have been on my counters.

I am not alone in feeling that I am in a battle to the death with these small gray denizens of the night, but I prefer if the death go on outside my view. Therefore, I employ traps that allow me to "humanely" catch and release them. I am under no illusions as to what happens to them after I do: mice reproduce at an astonishing rate (in seven months, a happily wed couple may be responsible for bringing over two thousand little beings into this world) because they have to, living at the bottom of the food chain as they do, and being relatively fragile in relation to the giant species that surround them. Still, I'd like to give them a chance. A chance to live elsewhere. Not here.

They have a fine nose for the ideal meal. The unripe bananas go untouched. When they reach the perfect state of yellow, however, gently flecked with brown, then they are ready, and I am likely to find a repulsive mess of scored and gouged fruit, surrounded by the post-digestion effects of that meal.

So I lose some bananas. And bait more traps. But it is what is in the garage that is a more threatening meal, or rather, chewable nesting material: the wires of my vehicles. Every winter the motorcycle forums are filled with long threads about how to repel mice from the airbox, which seems to be a favorite spot to nest (and who can blame them? A dark and quiet hotel room, just perfect for Valentine's Day trysts!). That nest is likely to be softly lined with the shreds of former electrical components. Nothing you want to discover on the first warm day of spring.

After festooning moth balls, tied stylishly in plus-size stockings procured from the dollar store, throughout the engines for the past couple of years, this year I tried something new, just for the sake of it: dryer sheets. Not the Free & Clear kind, either: the toxically perfumed ones. I don't know how anyone can use these on their clothes, in the house, without asphyxiating. Surely, then, these would do the repellent trick!

Stuffed in every crevice and opening, they make motorcycles look like they're fresh from the French cleaners, hung on paper-covered wire hangers and enlivened with tissue paper wads to prevent wrinkling. I even added them to the new Honda generator, because I would have to take the bus all the way to New York City to find a tall building from which to throw myself if this absurdly expensive addition to the garage were ruined after only two runnings. However, the protective stuffing takes some getting used to, as I discovered the first night I was called upon to fire it up. It was four a.m. in the middle of a windy, icy rain storm. After putting my boots on, grabbing a flashlight, and donning the ski jacket to run outside, drag the generator to the front of the garage (not easy, as it is a hefty devil), then race back down to the basement and six inches of water to punch out the window, run the extension cord from the garage, and plug in the pump, I was running with adrenaline myself. At five, back in bed once more, I wondered how I was ever going to get to sleep again. A half hour later, I had willed myself into a state of calm, doing some slow breathing exercises and starting to count sheep--or mice. Oh, jeez! The dryer sheets! Back I went, out into the whirling black cold.

The next time, though, the dryer sheets were the first thing I remembered. You can be sure.

When I was a girl, my friend Laura and I kept mice as pets. One was called Trubloff, as in "The Mouse Who Wanted to Play the Balalaika." (Her family also had a calico cat named Mnlop, as in the contiguous letters of the alphabet, and pronounced Menelope, which to me always sounded like one of the missing Muses.) The thing was, these mice kept eating their babies. This was rather disturbing to two little kids. What we didn't know then, but I do now, is that this was the result of living in captivity. It was a very nice glass cage, mind you, but it was still a cage. Later I came to realize that access to the social and physical systems in which a species evolved is a birthright. Rights can never be conferred. They can only be taken away. And that is what has been done to every gerbil, hamster, rabbit, songbird, or human who is put in a cage, whether it is made of iron bars, tyranny, or wire from a pet shop.

I wake up sometimes at night, wondering what defenses I, a claustrophobe, could muster against solitary confinement in a small cell. The panic uprising. None, I decide. I would eat my young.

An animal rights group has recently brought suit against Sea World, on the grounds that their orcas are subject to slavery. The verdict may be arrived at quite simply: open the pools to the wide sea. If the killer whales swim out into the dancing waters of freedom, we have the answer.

The other morning, there was a mouse in the trap, trying to hide itself in the corner. I knew I would not be able to leave the house and drive it away to release--at least three miles away and preferably on the other side of a body of wate-- until later in the afternoon. I pulled from the cabinet a tiny cup I had bought at Ikea some time ago for its lovely mustard color and amusing bowl shape. I had never found a use for it, but now I saw that it was a water bowl for mice. I gingerly opened the lid to put it in, knowing that I might risk a gray flash and the loss of the mouse, forever, to the land under the stove. Mice, like all of us, are powerful learners. Give them liberty, or give them death. Every time I open the door of their cell, I sincerely hope it is, for them, not both.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

We Were Devo

Times have changed. Everything has changed.

Well, maybe not the fact that it is the nature of all things to change; but everything else. Take Devo, for example.

It was probably 1975 when a few of us convicts, er, boarding students escaped campus one night. This was verboten. Boarding students were to stay on campus, in dorms or the library, and we had a curfew. But we also had day students, who had access to cars, and those cars had floors, which were convenient for hiding boarding students until the edge of town. Furthermore, we had Kent to lure us away . . . a university town, which like Oz rose majestic in our imaginations with glittering promises. Those were called bars. With beer, and music, and everything.

Sometimes the school deployed professors to go hang out in Kent's bars to catch us--probably not a bad Friday-night assignment--but this one seemed devoid of official presence. What it did have was a band, announced with a silk-screened poster taped to the door, that none of us had ever heard of. No matter. We were going to hear, plenty.

They began the show with screenings of some grainy 16mm movies of the type once called "experimental." The experiment in this case succeeded, brilliantly. I was stunned by what I saw, like nothing I'd seen before. I knew I had just walked to the brink of a great canyon, with a breathtaking view of the future.

The band followed the promise of its short movies. Together they were sarcastic, nutty, mordant, and finally really, really smart--exactly what I liked, even if I didn't know it quite yet. (Perhaps because both bands were started by art students, and this touched their music, their gestalt, in similar ways, I would have similar feelings when I heard, on my college radio station, a song called "Psycho Killer." Instantly I knew I would never be the same again. I wrote my senior thesis to endless spinnings of Talking Heads 77, which might have had something to do with the way it turned out.) After the show I went up to the one or two Devotees to babble incoherently, though I was trying to say how I had seen something new that shook me from top to bottom, and thanks for that. I did mention my belief that they should get out of Kent--they were obviously too big for Ohio--and go to New York City. "We're thinking of doing just that," one of them said. (A couple of months later I saw Devo perform
in the basement of the Akron Art Institute, where they confused the audience into near silence; these were not college-town bar patrons for sure.)

As I left the bar, I ripped the poster off the door.

There is a recent interview, here,
with band member Jerry Casale in which he sounds depressed and bitter, as well he might. He describes a situation that is little remarked on: it is not just "the" middle class that has vanished in the United States; it is also the creative middle class that has been squeezed into nonexistence, between a vast population of working artists who can no longer hope to make a cent and the 1 percent that will make killing in the corporate marketplace and get covered by Entertainment Weekly. Musicians have nothing to sell anymore; when Barnes & Noble closes, following the final disappearance of most independent bookstores, authors will
join the ranks of the newly unpaid "content providers," which has become the fate of most other writers who used to be able to cobble together a living writing for print.

I found the Devo poster in my closet when I was cleaning out my childhood home a few years ago. Unearthing it from where it had lain under the bed for decades was like finding a priceless artifact from an ancient civilization. I put it away somewhere, and am counting on finding it again sometime. Hopefully soon.