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“There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste,” states Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine in that favorite of females the world over Pride and Prejudice. “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”

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Time was, you would hire men to run at pace with what was yours, if you had the means.  You would move it over craggy plain and across a hall, and as you did, there they were, marking you.  These men would move at length with your belongings and in the slow meander of language it came to be that these men also belonged.

Last spring, shortly after my novel, Banned for Life, was published, my actor friend Jeremy Lowe sent me this photo via Facebook.

Some people choose to write postcards primarily to their friends or family or significant others. Not me. I did the cursory correspondences to loved ones, but really, the person I was most keen to write to on my recent trip across the country was my general practitioner.

She’s looked after my health for my entire life.

When I was thrown into unfamiliar territory, it dawned on me that she probably knows me better than anyone else. She certainly, at any rate, knows more about my body than anyone else. The only other person that approximates that level of intimacy is my shrink, but, really, she just knows more than anyone else about what I think of myself.

Why not hang out that intimacy to air, I thought. And what better a place than here, with its meandering, awkward intimacies.

I admire insects; theyre always at it.

Dear Maura,

Here I am in L.A. There are oil rigs and palm trees and finally some relief from the rain.

I don’t think it’s probably worth the effort to adjust my sleeping patterns to Pacific Time, do you? I’ll just get up obscenely early and read my book. And remind myself every couple minutes not to eat this grapefruit.

I shouldn’t eat the grapefruit, should I?

Okay. I need to concentrate. More soon.

Meghan

 

Nothing like a road trip to accustom you to views of the road, the sky, and sundry parts of your body reflected in glass.

Dear Maura,

We’re off!

It takes some adjusting to, this total lack of overwhelming, verdant overgrowth to which one becomes accustomed in Connecticut. A friend of mine from the Pacific Northwest once said that it felt as if the Connecticut forests would consume you if you stayed still too long.

I, of course, pointed out that Rip Van Winkel was just fine. Sure, he was in the Catskills and not the Berkshires. And, sure, he spent the end of his days running around like a crazy man on the edge of civilization. But he was fine, right? Never consumed wholly by the woods.

So, the lack of green things has been a good reminder to stay well hydrated. I don’t think I’ve ever drank so much water in my life. You’d be so proud!

Meghan

 

The Brooklyn Bridge, now with Zumanity billboard!

Dear Maura,

It seems to me that when doing travel of this scope (being in the changing landscape for 3,000 miles and days on end), you get stuck in cycles, making comparisons to home.

This behavior was perhaps at its most silly today in Las Vegas.

Look! Here’s an obvious simulation of the Brooklyn Bridge. On a sidewalk.

Well – you’ll be happy to know that we showed Sin City a little of the Land of Steady Habits. We drank our water, we had six-inch Subway sandwiches, and we applied our 70 spf sunscreen. And then we hit the road (at the speed limit, of course).

Take that, LV!

Hope this finds you well,

Meghan

 

Possibly the best store security camera system ever.

Dear Maura,

We’ve been trying to eat healthfully on the road. It’s not always easy, particularly in the middle of Utah, as it turns out. But we’ve found that Subway has done a good job franchising out into the most remote nooks of the country. And they have more vegetables than any of our other options.

We came across this place, where the employees were keen to talk about what a hazard deer are to truckers. I felt a complicated mix of feelings here. First of all, you know how aesthetically stimulating I find taxidermy to be. (Remember that time I tried to get you to speculate about it during my yearly? – always orchestrating situations that I imagine will make good poems…) Then, there was the nervousness I suddenly felt about potentially hitting a deer in Michelle’s car. And also, I felt slightly queasy – I blame all the clashing fonts and fluorescent lights.

It can’t be good to eat under that much agitation, can it?

Digesting,

Meghan

 

Time stretches out in the shade of an arch.

Dear Maura,

Utah is gorgeous. We made good time yesterday and so we stopped today in Arches National Park. It was unrelentingly hot – the kind of hot that makes you lose track of your sense of time.

Lying with my back against the red rock in the shadow of one of the Window Arches, I started thinking about boredom. In German it’s langeweile – long time. I think it has kinder connotations than boredom. I can’t be sure about this, as I don’t speak German and no one knows the etymology of the English word, but it seems to me that the German has a way of accepting those instances when time slips into subjective experience.

As I was walking back to the car, I heard a couple from Florida (RV drivers) say, “It just makes you feel so small.” It could be that just as too much poetry can be dangerous (or at least Austen novels would have us believe), indulging too much in thoughts of scale can be too.

And so we’re off,

Meghan

 

I get itchy just looking at it.

Dear Maura,

We stopped off at the Sod House Museum somewhere in the Nebraska.

I’m concerned about chiggers.

That’s all,

Meghan

 

I want more information about Wedding Breakfast mustard.

Dear Maura,

I’m writing to you from the World Famous Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.

I’ve been thinking a lot of stories Aaron would tell me of his childhood in Kansas as we’ve traveled through the middle of the country. Here, I’m thinking of the mustard rubs he said his nurse grandmother would give him. Now, I can see the potential use of a mustard poultice being similar to Vicks VapoRub or something, but a mustard rub? Into the skin?

Surely that would hurt.

I wonder about the use of pain. Would the mustard burns distract you from your chest cold?

My chest is blushing just thinking about it.

Best,

Meghan

 

What you get for attempting symmetry.

Dear Maura,

I’m writing to you this morning from a hotel in Youngstown, Ohio, on what is, I hope, the last day of our cross country journey.

Could you please explain to me the phenomenon that occurs when the bedbugs you imagine you feel crawling on you outweighs your desire for sleep?

I promise I haven’t been using crack.

It’s just hotels – I can’t believe they’re clean and so my mind runs away with me and suddenly I’m covered in unstoppable bugs, my eyes saucer-wide and staring at the ceiling.

It will be good to be back. If, in fact, there were bedbugs, I will be seeing you soon.

All my best,

Meghan

I have had much more difficult commutes.  The 50-mile trip between Willimantic and Mystic was pretty exhausting (and nerve-wracking during snowstorms). The journey between New Brunswick and Iselin was only about 10 miles, but it took an hour each way. (That’s New Jersey for you.)  I’ve had daily travels that are far more trying than the 8/10 of a mile between my house and Real Art Ways.

That’s right. It’s less than a mile. And I drive it far more frequently than I walk it.

Don’t look at me like that – you would too, if you were faced with walking through that neighborhood alone after 8 p.m.

It’s not the commute itself, I think, that’s getting to me. It’s something about me at this point and how I manage to align myself with and against the unending ennui of modern life.

I should provide a bit of context, perhaps, on my relationship to boredom. My mother told me throughout my childhood, much in the manner of John Berryman’s mother, that to say you’re bored suggests that you aren’t intelligent enough to make your situation stimulating. So, for me, this is a topic filled with landmines and the discussion of it is in itself stimulating. Take that, boredom!

In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm provides us with a description of the “compensated boredom” that occurs on such a large scale in modern life. He writes:

There are several probable reasons that chronic, compensated boredom is generally not considered pathological. Perhaps the main reason is that in contemporary industrial society most people are bored, and a shared pathology – the “pathology of normalcy” – is not experienced as pathology. Furthermore, “normal” boredom is usually not conscious. Most people succeed in compensating for it by participating in a great number of “activities” that prevent them from consciously feeling bored. Eight hours of the day they are busy making a living; when the boredom would threaten to become conscious, after business hours, they avoid this danger by the numerous means that prevent manifest boredom: drinking, watching television, taking a ride, going to parties, engaging in sexual activities, and, the more recent fashion, taking drugs. Eventually their natural need for sleep takes over, and the day is ended successfully if boredom has not been experienced consciously at any point. (273-274).

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially as I consider the way I approach my days. For instance, during my most recent “vacation” (by which I mean the period during which my office was closed – not some kind of trip I might have taken), I filled each hour with an activity. For example, here’s December 30, 2008:

  • 8 – 9 a.m.: Wake up, morning routine, coffee, time to read the paper
  • 9 – 11 a.m.: Read Michelle’s dissertation prospectus, collect thoughts
  • 11 a.m. – noon: Read Heart of Darkness
  • noon – 1 p.m.: Read Superdove
  • 1 – 2 p.m.: Draft response to Michelle
  • 2 – 5 p.m.: Gym (with travel and showering time included)
  • 5 – 6 p.m.: Work on TNB post (Hi!)
  • 6 – 8 p.m.: Work on New Wave Eve mix
  • 8 – 9 p.m.: Dinner
  • 9 – 11 p.m.: Watch La Haine
  • 11 p.m. – midnight: Catch up on emails

I made myself an hourly schedule for my time off.

Fromm proposes why this method might be unsuccessful at staving off the effects of boredom:

in the superficial relief from boredom, the whole person, and particularly his deeper feeling, his imagination, his reason, in short all his essential facilities and psychic potentialities remain untouched; they are not brought to life; the boredom-compensating means are like a bulky food without any nutritional value. The person continues to feel “empty” and unmoved on a deeper level. He “anesthetizes” this uncomfortable feeling by momentary excitation, “thrill,” “fun,” liquor, or sex – but unconsciously he remains bored. (275)

So, while it might seem that filling my day with art history, literature, writing, and film would lead to “deeper feeling” that engages my “essential facilities and psychic potentialities,” the very way I go about filling the day gives rise to a feeling of emptiness. I imagine the reason I so often can’t sleep at night has something to do with a need to provide myself with still time – quiet, unconstrained time – during which I can reflect.

When one is bored, time stretches out; it becomes languid and difficult to grasp onto. Meaning seems to me to work like knots in a rope. Lars Svendsen, who’s written a philosophic overview on boredom, describes it thus: “Where there is a lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute – an ersatz-meaning” (26). Perhaps it isn’t surprising that to ballast myself up against this onslaught of repetitive and unceasing routine, I find ways of exercising my fancy, ways of tying knots. I feel better during those fleeting moments each day in my car, on my 0.8-mile commute, when I see the flock of pigeons, than how I feel when I’m being productive.

From Sylvia Plaths copy of The Great Gatsby

DAILY THOUGHTS ON SERPENTINING SUPERDOVES

Every morning, somewhere above the buildings near the southeast corner of Farmington and Sisson, a flock of pigeons serpentines again and again. I watch them as I’m stopped at Hartford’s second most annoying traffic light.

You can look at the superdoves here. This was all perfectly safe, of course.

My mother isn’t crazy about birds. That’s not entirely true. My mother isn’t crazy about large flocks of birds. I think this probably has something to do with the age she was – thirteen and impressionable – whenThe Birds came out. She particularly dislikes pigeons and generally puts them in the category of dirty pests. I have what I consider to be a healthy streak of contrariness, so I like pigeons. I would probably never do this:

liz plus pig(eons)

but I’ve always liked those little iridescent bits at their necks and the fluttering sound their wings make and their cooing.

And I have particular affection for groups of birds – everything from the family of mallards that live in our stream each spring, to the Vs of geese that I’d crane my neck to see as a girl, to the murder of crows that lives in Hartford in the winters. On a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, I walked right into the ocean to get closer to some plummeting Gannets.

Pigeons weren’t always considered pests – in fact, they’re non-native to the US, so their entire existence on this continent is, it turns out, evidence of their former status. Courtney Humphries’ lovely and excellently-titled book Superdove outlines the social role of Columbia livia in American history. Keeping pigeons was something of a class marker, so naturally the aristocrats and statesmen who eventually made their way to America wanted to bring their pigeons along. These landlords’ birds propagated and propagated, and they served to mark their owner’s class as much as they also filled his gut.

Restaurants – mostly high-end ones – still serve pigeon meat. Apparently, it’s quite good.

But pigeon appreciation – can I make up a word for this? palomaphilia – wasn’t strictly observed by the leisurely classes.  Darwin only felt prepared to publish The Origin of Species after working extensively with pigeons. He actually grew quite fond of his little doves. As he states in a letter to a friend: “I am getting on with my Pigeon Fancy and now have pairs of nine very distinct varieties, and I love them to that extent that I cannot bear to kill and skeletonise them.”

The armed forces of many countries have put pigeons to work saving battalions and winning battles. In more prosperous days, when wire services were less reliable, financiers and market traders depended upon news that traveled by pigeon; they were called Pigeon Men.

They were once so honored! It seems to me to be so arbitrary, the favor in and out of which groups fall with humans.

As I sit at that damned stoplight, I make myself feel better by making up stories about my serpentining superdoves. Here are some theories:

  • sometimes I imagine they’re being trained to deliver crack
  • sometimes that they’re a colony of obsessive-compulsive birds who must perform serpentines en masse, before dispersing for the day to find food
  • sometimes that they live under their own small fascist state and that the flying pattern is part of daily required morning exercises
  • sometimes that they are carefully tracing the paths of some maniacally swooping mice on the ground below
  • or perhaps that the people who live in the nearby retirement community are out for wheelchair grace training (the superdoves are super-empaths)
  • Another flight of fancy is that they are actually passenger pigeons and that I am some kind of brilliant ornithologist savant who has discovered the only surviving flock!

Another possibility: Maybe this fascination, this weaving of unlikely narrative, has more to do with an affinity I feel for pigeons. If we define animals in relation to ourselves, our identities, our own lives, then the essence of the pigeon, the entire reason we fostered them through the centuries, is their love of home and their seemingly boundless will to return home. They are fellow commuters.


It is election day and I am at home baking Hartford Election Cakes for tonight’s reception at Real Art Ways.

The tradition of baking cakes is as old as the country. In the late 18th century, when people from across the state still had to travel to Hartford to cast their ballots, the women of Hartford would cook Election Cakes to share with those weary voters. I am embracing my status as a woman of Hartford and doing my historic and culinary duty. I love voting and baking, so it’s a good way to spend the morning, really.

Presidential campaigns remind me of middle school.  They are – as engaged and noble as they might seem from time to time – about securing popularity. I really had no hope of securing popularity in middle school; instead, I spent my time concentrating on not being noticed, honing my statements, wardrobe, hair, and whatever else to be as standard as possible. Of course, this was a doomed endeavor from the start, not least because I was the girl who was dropped off at the bottom of a long, unpaved driveway that was, more often than not, flooded and impassable. It’s easy, as an adult, to recognize that no one’s really normal at that age, but any reassurances that adults might have offered me seemed hopelessly out-of-touch.

The best description of my primary character trait is earnest determinism. During the crucible of puberty, this characteristic was exaggerated so that, more than anything, I wanted people to adhere to codes. So, when those gazelles, those Popular Girls, flagrantly employed cuteness to obscure some mean thing they had done, I was indignant.

In her essay “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,” Lori Merish expands on Toni Morrison’s conception of “the cute,” describing it as that which is “an aesthetic category saturated with racial, as well as class, meanings.” She identifies it as a phenomenon as much defined by its attributes – big, wide eyes; a somewhat vacant, smiling expression; unintelligible speech acts; unsuccessful imitation; inexperience, youth, and vulnerability – as by the response it engenders: the desire to cuddle or touch, protect, and save from humiliation. This response has been canonized as normative behavior, so that when one chooses not to take part in it, one announces one’s otherness.

I’ll just come out with it – I think Sarah Palin exploits the cute. Think about it – she’s not so great at sentences, she imitates (unsuccessfully) the standard language of politics, she’s constantly in situations of humiliation, and she styles her hair to make her head appear even larger than it already is. She is trying to use the cute on us.

Watch Shirley Temple and Bojangles

This manipulation is particularly significant during this election. Cuteness is a 19th-century American invention and, as such, it is infused with all the racial bigotry and fears that fill our shared history. Think about the way the cute is presented – those diminutive puti are often paired with mature black men (think of Shirley Temple and Bojangles) or frightening monsters (think of the Smurfs and Gargamel). The role of the cute in these pairings is to make the mature black man impotent and to mollify the sinister monster. So, in this election, during which we’ve been asked to examine our country’s history of racial and gender-based prejudices, positioning Sarah Palin (with all her winking folksiness) against and beside Barack Obama and John McCain primes us to be swayed by the cute.

Totally mollified

This guy is totally mollified.

This last month or so, I’ve been feeling indignation of a similar pitch to that which I felt in middle school. I don’t want to relive the disappointment of those years. And I don’t want my voting peers to be manipulated by the cute. If you feel like you really have to engage the cute somehow, I recommend that you follow my example and get a cat. Cake and disappointment don’t go well together – I want to eat my Hartford Election Cake tonight proud and excited.

Cute pet cats are better than cuteness-exploiting vice presidents

Cute pet cats are better than cuteness-exploiting vice presidents.