Chapter 1. Coffee
There's a little European-style cafe about a block away from my office, and I sometimes eat there when I don't bring my lunch to work. It's very charming, with racks of homemade bread and cookies and marzipan, plus all kinds of imported butter and cheese and candy.
I went in to pick up some lunch today, and while scanning the menu, I noticed that they serve cafe au lait. Well, I'm not a coffee drinker by any means, but I do like cafe au lait bowls, and it all seemed very in the spirit of the moment, so I asked the woman behind the counter for one. The following exchange ensued:
Her: Okay, what kind of coffee do you want in it?
Me: See, I actually don't drink coffee, so I'm not sure.
Her: Oh. Do you know that cafe au lait is coffee with steamed milk?
Me: Yeah. Well, it sounded good and I'm a little tired today, so I thought I'd try it.
Her: Okay. So you want something with lots of caffeine?
Me: Um, actually, that sounds kind of dangerous. I can't really handle caffeine. Maybe I just want the taste of coffee?
Me: Maybe I'd better just go with decaf.
Her: Okay, decaf. Now, what kind of milk do you want in it?
Her: We have whole, soy, and skim. And half-and-half.
Me: Um...s-skim, I guess. Thanks.
And then, mercifully, she went and made it up and I didn't have to answer any more questions. She was remarkably nice and helpful, all in all, which just makes me like the place all the more. Good business, that.
Anyway, I liked the cafe au lait pretty well, after I'd dumped about a tablespoon of sugar in. Which maybe isn't the traditional way to drink it, but neither is sipping it from a cardboard cup, I'll wager. (Sadly, no cafe au lait bowls here.)
Chapter 2. Bus
I rode the bus home from work this evening, and when we were just feet from my stop, another bus passing ours screeched to a halt and the two drivers starting talking. It didn't seem to be an emergency; I couldn't ascertain the exact nature of their conversation, but it sounded very jovial, like they were a couple of old friends surprised and delighted to run into each other on the street. The funny part was looking over at the passengers on the other bus, and seeing them look back at me, all of us unwitting participants in this little traffic drama. It made me think of kids, sitting in the back of a minivan while their parents chat amiably with the neighbors, oblivious to the traffic piling up behind. We just sat there, mutely, calmly, watching, waiting, until the conversation was over and the bus moved on.
It made me feel good about the bus drivers, actually, to see them being human and enjoying themselves. Sometimes I wonder if they like the job, or if it's just really repetitive. If I had my choice and could pilot any kind of public transportation I wanted, I think I'd pick the commuter rail. That way I could be outside (more or less), see the countryside, observe the changing seasons. And you probably wouldn't be alone--I imagine there are a couple of people sitting up front together. Bus drivers, by contrast, spend a lot of time in the city proper, and have to deal with cars and traffic lights and not knowing where they'll need to stop. And subway conductors spend most of the day underground, which sounds dark and claustrophobic.
Maybe that's not what it's really like; maybe I just have an overly romantic view of trains. But then, who doesn't?
I used to think that working from home would be a really cool thing. I could get up late, hang out in my pajamas, make lunch in my own kitchen, or go to a coffee shop with my computer. But lately I've realized that it would be a terrible idea for me. First of all, there are the many, many distractions of home. No doubt I would sit down to get some work done, then remember the load of laundry that needed washing, then decide to check the mail, then put water on for tea, etc. It would be so hard to tune out the detritus of my non-work life.
Secondly, I just don't think I could focus enough without other people around. I've noticed that my productivity at the office is highest when lots of my co-workers are there. Their presence creates a buzz of focused energy that boosts my powers of concentration and efficiency. Without it, I'd become mopey and sluggish.
I wonder how work-at-homers do it? Here's what I would try to do if I were in that position:
1. Get a home office/studio--having a place to pick my work up and put it down would be essential. Unfortunately, my current apartment is less than 500 square feet, so carving out that kind of space would be difficult. (It would be nice to have my own studio someday, though.)
2. Amass a group of "co-workers"--I'd seek out other people who also worked at home to talk/hang out with when I was feeling isolated.
3. Set work hours. Otherwise I'd either work all of the time, or not at all, and feel guilty about it either way. Kind of like in college--unless it's spring/summer/winter break, your work is never done.
So, basically, I'd recreate the office environment in my own house. Hmmm. And I don't even really like wearing my pajamas all day. So this working from home thing--I don't think it's going to happen.
On another note, but in the same vein of work/home, Stephen--after working hard all year as a teacher--is on summer break, so he might be writing a guest entry someday soon. A little something to look forward to.
I don't know how I feel about air conditioning. It's really nice to come from a hot, humid sidewalk into a cool, dry building in the summer, but I feel the pleasure is short-lived. Pretty soon, it's too cold, and then you've got to put your sweater on. Doesn't it seem weird to be carrying around a sweater on a 90 degree day? And yet I've often done just that when going to a restaurant or movie on a sweltering day. I think I even brought a blanket to the theater once.
When it's summer, I want to wear summer clothes. I know people have to adhere to office dress codes, but it seems so wrong to see a room full of people wearing suits and cardigans in July. I think the professional world needs to adopt shorts as acceptable summer-wear. Especially for men. Women, at least, can wear dresses and skirts, but there really aren't many hot-weather alternatives for professional men. Then we could shut off the A/C, open the windows, and enjoy the fresh air while the world is in bloom.
I was thinking about another aspect of this divorced-from-nature thing over the weekend, when we visited the farmers' market and got some strawberries, lettuce, and mozzarella. The lettuce, in particular, was overwhelmingly flavorful, and I realized that my typical experience of lettuce is one of texture rather than flavor. It's crunchy, sure, but what else can you say about grocery store lettuce, even the non-iceberg kind? By contrast, this local lettuce was robust and in-your-face. I wonder if the flavor was the result of the growing method (small farm, organic), or the freshness of the food (locally grown, therefore less time from field to fork), or the type of lettuce (not widely available), or some combination thereof?
I wish I'd gotten a CSA share this year. The Garden of Oddities is doing what it can, but there won't be any edible results for months. We went out to weed and mulch it yesterday, and it was fun to see things coming along. (That's probably my favorite aspect of gardening--the element of surprise. "Let's see what's happened since last I was here.") The broccoli has shriveled, but most other things are showing significant progress. The melons and gourds are peeking out of the ground, the brussels sprouts are getting bigger, and the tomatoes and mint are, if not actually growing, at least in stable condition. Hopefully they'll survive the 90-plus-degree weather predicted for tomorrow.
I wish I was a morning person. I love the morning--the light, the quiet, the still. But I'm an early bird trapped in a night owl's body; when the time comes, all I want to do is sleep sleep sleep. That's why I like camping so much. It gets me into synch with the sun.
I wish I could wake up, undrowsy, between 6 and 7 every morning. I'd have time to hang out, read, eat breakfast, and eventually get ready for work. Instead, I've honed my morning schedule to accomodate the precise number of minutes necessary for me to brush my teeth, get dressed, grab lunch, and run out the door for the bus. It's not my favorite.
There are certain elements of my morning routine, however, about which I am very disciplined. One is making the bed. It's usually the first thing I do. Somehow, in the fuzzy, hazy first half-hour of my waking life, it gives me a sense of order and civility. If I don't have time in the morning, I'll make the bed when I get home from work, or after dinner, or even right before going to sleep. But it happens every day.
I'm also strict about sleeping every night. I've never stayed up for 24 continuous hours. If I had to pull an all-nighter in college, I'd make sure to leave myself at least 30 minutes to sleep before class. It would be light outside, my roommates would be leaving for school, and I'd put on my pajamas and go to bed. It wasn't really the sleep that mattered so much as having moments of unconsciousness to separate one day from the next. Otherwise, it just felt like the night never happened, like I was lost in the middle of an unending day.
For me, figuring out transportation in a small town was a science. Walking to work from my apartment took 20 minutes, biking took 7, and driving took 3. Traffic lights and parking availability might add or subtract a bit, but when I was running late, the temperature was well below freezing, and I had a big hill between home and the office, the choice was easy.
But in the city, getting around is much more of an art. Thanks to traffic jams, one-way streets, and a dearth of available parking, driving in the city is no guarantee of a swift arrival. (Worst-Case Scenario #1: Once, when we were supposed to meet friends for dinner, the parking situation was so bad that Stephen--whose feet are pictured above--finally gave up, dropped me off, and drove all the way home again. At that point, we'd been looking for a spot for more than twenty minutes.)
Then there's public transportation, which I greatly prefer to driving in the city. Even here, though, results are far from guaranteed. Buses get held up in traffic, or they blow past your stop. Trains break down. Service is slow on the weekend, and sometimes the train is too crowded, and you have to wait for another. (Worst-Case Scenario #2: the day we spent three hours trying to get to a beach on the other side of the city. First there was a construction detour that required us to take a shuttle from one train stop to another, then we missed a bus, then we found out the train we'd been planning to take wasn't running that day, then the alternate train broke down and we had to wait for the track to be cleared. Seriously, I could have crossed the state in less time.)
Some people say that biking is the perfect solution, but I'm not a confident biker, so there's no way I'm going to try to weave my way in and out of crazy, honking, road-raging traffic. Instead, I rely on some combination of walking and public transportation most of the time.
For all of that complaining, though, I still like city transportation. It forces me to plan ahead, and encourages the use of environmentally-friendly methods of getting around--walking, biking, mass transportation. Ooh, and you can ride a Vespa in the city.
Wow, do I love food. Meals are some of my favorite times of the day. Funny how much of appetite is mental. I'll have it so firmly in my head that I don't like some particular food, then I try it and decide that I love it and can't get enough. Since college, this has happened to me in relation to any number of (veggie) foods: beans, kale, collard greens, brussels sprouts, and, most recently, eggplant. I discovered a few weeks ago that I can make a really good Eggplant Parmesan at home, and now I can't stop trying to perfect the recipe. I've been buying expensive, specialized ingredients for it, which is something I rarely do: coarse sea salt, fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce from the North End. As good as it is, though, eggplant will never replace my first food love: french fries. I could eat buckets of them. I'd feel really sick afterward, but it would be fun at the time.
Let's see, what else. Oh yeah. I went to the library this afternoon and got a copy of Catch-22. The scene I referred to yesterday is really, really long, and I messed up certain details, but I've transcribed part of it below in the interest of setting the record straight.
In this scene, at the end of chapter 8, Cadet Clevinger is on trial for "breaking ranks while in formation, felonious assualt, indiscriminate behavior, mopery, high treason, provoking, being a smart guy, listening to classical music, and so on." Also in the room: the colonel (the one running things), Major Metcalf, Lieutenant Scheisskopf, and a corporal.
‘What did you mean,’ [the corporal] inquired slowly, ‘when you said we couldn’t punish you?’
‘I’m asking the questions. You’re answering them.’
‘Yes, sir. I--’
‘Did you think we brought you here to ask questions and for me to answer them?’
‘No, sir. I--’
‘What did we bring you here for?’
‘To answer questions.’
‘You’re goddam right,’ roared the colonel. ‘Now suppose you start answering some before I break your goddam head. Just what the hell did you mean, you bastard, when you said we couldn’t punish you?’
‘I don’t think I ever made that statement, sir.’
‘Will you speak up, please. I couldn’t hear you.’
‘Yes, sir. I--’
‘Will you speak up, please? He couldn’t hear you.’
‘Yes, sir. I--’
‘Didn’t I tell you to keep you stupid mouth shut?’
‘Then keep your stupid mouth shut when I tell you to keep your stupid mouth shut. Do you understand? Will you speak up, please? I couldn’t hear you.’
‘Yes, sir. I--’
‘Metcalf, is that your foot I’m stepping on?’
‘No, sir. It must be Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s foot.’
‘It isn’t my foot,’ said Lieutenant Scheisskopf.
‘Then maybe it is my foot after all,’ said Major Metcalf.
‘Yes, sir. You’ll have to move your foot first, Colonel. It’s on top of mine.’
‘Are you telling me to move my foot?’
‘No, sir. Oh, no, sir.’
‘Then move your foot and keep your stupid mouth shut. Will you speak up, please? I still couldn’t hear you.’
‘Yes, sir. I said that I didn’t say that you couldn’t punish me.’
‘Just what the hell are you talking about?’
‘I’m answering the question, sir.’
‘“Just what the hell did you mean, you bastard, when you said we couldn’t punish you?”’ said the corporal who could take shorthand, reading from his steno pad.
‘All right,’ said the colonel. ‘Just what the hell did you mean?’
‘I didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.’
‘When?’ asked the colonel.
‘When what, sir?’
‘Now you’re asking me questions again.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid I don’t understand your question.’
‘When didn’t you say we couldn’t punish you? Don’t you understand my question?’
‘No, sir. I don’t understand.’
‘You’ve just told us that. Now suppose you answer my question.’
‘But how can I answer it?’
‘That’s another question you’re asking me.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. But I don’t know how to answer it. I never said you couldn’t punish me.’
‘Now you’re telling us when you did say it. I’m asking you to tell us when you didn’t say it.’
Clevinger took a deep breath. ‘I always didn’t say you couldn’t punish me, sir.’
‘That’s much better, Mr. Clevinger, even though it is a barefaced lie.’
I've been thinking about memory today, about the things I've memorized (particularly literary works) over time. I still remember the Robert Louis Stevenson poem we learned for my preschool graduation ceremony. In high school, I committed a couple of Shakespeare's sonnets to memory, thinking they might be a good thing to have on hand. And I do pull them out from time to time, although the opportunity rarely presents itself. I have a Rumi poem rattling around in there, too, although it's a translation, so who knows how close it is to the original.
And I remember things that I used to have memorized, like the songs to various musicals I was in during high school, but I've lost most of them over time. Due to disuse, I guess, the way I've forgotten most of the knots I've learned.
The thing that started all this thinking in the first place was remembering a particular scene from the book Catch-22 that I used to know, at least partially, by heart. In this scene, and I hope I have this right, Yossarian is on trial, and things keep going around and around and around.
Judge: "When didn't you do _[whatever, I can't recall what it was]_?"
Yossarian: "I never did, sir."
J: "I don't want to know when you did do it, I'm asking when you didn't do it."
Y: "I always didn't do it, sir."
Something like that. Maybe I can dig up a copy and find it again. Anyway, a friend and I were reading the book around the same time (although, somehow, I never got around to finishing it), and we would read it aloud together, one of us taking the part of the judge and the other being the defendant. I'm pretty sure we had a lot of it memorized.
You know how they say that you can use singing as a memory aid when studying for tests? That is, you're supposed to put the words to a song, because lyrics are easier to remember than straight-up facts. Well, I think that it would do us all a huge favor if artists would just start adding scientific theories or mathematical principles or historical facts to their songs. Or, you know, even a difficult word, in context. Then when people were studying for the GRE (as I recently was), they could say, "Hmmm...'calumny'. Wasn't that the title of a big 2007 hit about false and malicious statements, designed to injure the reputation of someone or something?" (credit: dictionary.com)
Or will you?
Conventional wisdom holds that once you try certain products, you can never be satisfied with the ones you previously used. Example: Tom's of Maine toothpaste. I've heard several people say that once you try Tom's, you'll never be able to use those ultraflavored, flourescent Crests or Colgates ever again. But I've tried Tom's, and that just hasn't been my experience. I can move effortlessly from Crest to Tom's to Pepsodent to Sensodyne and back again. No problemo.
And I'm beginning to think I might be the same way about computers. My first computer was a Dell, and our relationship soured quickly. (Specifically, the day it became unresponsive less than a week after the warranty expired.) After that, I got a Mac, and I've really liked it. But I never came around to adopting it as part of my identity the way I thought all Mac users did. (You know how someone will call him/herself a "Mac Person"?) Honestly, I've never fully understood the thing. After 5 years, I still try to use the right-click.
It's kind of like when you hear all of this hype about a movie, and then you go to see it expecting to be absolutely blown away, and you're inevitably disappointed because no movie can be that good, especially not when you're expecting it to be. So this is me lowering your expectations. Macs, Tom's of Maine--they're good. But they didn't change my life.
Oh, speaking of Macs, here's something I really do like (I don't want to raise your expectations, though): You know those ads where there are two guys, a Mac and a PC, and the PC guy is always in some ridiculous situation? The actor, John Hodgman, was on a recent episode of this American Life talking about his acting career. I really liked the whole episode. It's about the downsides of dream jobs, and is kind of eye-opening, particularly the part about lottery winners. But my favorite part is when John H says, "Which one of them thinks I am...'cutie'?" (Makes more sense in context.) It's here if you want to listen to it.
It's been interesting living in a city this past year, since I spent the previous five years (save for a three-month stint in Santa Fe, NM) in a town of less than 4,000 residents, way out in upstate New York. The two wage an ongoing battle for my affections. Who will ultimately emerge victorious?
Round 1: Wildlife.
I was talking with some friends today about wildlife in the city. City animals tend to be smaller (obviously) than those in the country, but much more menacing, in my mind. I guess I have this idea that it takes a tough squirrel / rat / pigeon to make it in the city. Cars, bikes, buses, pedestrians, all sorts of things trying to run you down. Few trees. Lots of dogs.
This opinion was recently confirmed when I had an unpleasant run-in with a city-hardened bird. As I was walking past the theater one evening, a pigeon--outwardly like any other, but inwardly carrying some sort of grudge that I must have unwittingly triggered--ran toward me, then suddenly took flight and hovered threateningly over my head for several seconds as I, alarmed, cowered and tried to get away. It was so close that I could feel the air from its wings blowing my hair around. Eeeeeeeeegh. It then chased me for several yards down the sidewalk. And disappeared back into the night.
That's not to say that wildlife encounters don't get intense in the country, too. But, I mean, just look at the lamb in that picture. Do you see that kind of thing at the city bus stop in the morning? Or in front of Starbucks? No. Killer pigeons, that's what you see.
I vacuumed the apartment today, and as I did so, I thought about how I like vacuuming so much better than sweeping, because there aren't any piles to clean up afterward. Not long ago, though, I felt just the opposite. In fact, I remember saying something to my sister about favoring sweeping because it's easier and faster to get a broom out of the closet, and you don't have to worry about dragging the cord around everywhere.
Which brings me to one of my favorite and most long-standing mental exercises: if you had to choose one--and only one--for the rest of your life, which would it be? Not necessarily vacuums v. brooms; my favorite challenges are choosing one color to see for the rest of my life, and one food to eat.
I've been thinking about these questions for years. Seriously. I'm pretty satisfied with my color answer(s) by now: If I could only see one color, but infinite shades of that color, it would be green. But if I had to pick a tinted lens through which to see all of the colors in the world, it would be yellow. I made this decision after wearing a pair of yellow-tinted goggles in a pool once. That was probably over a decade ago.
As for food, it's a toss-up between my three favorites: french fries, spaghetti, and broccoli. (Nutrition isn't an issue in my particular version of this game.) Still can't decide, and I think it might actually be impossible, because any one food would be ruined after a very short while of nothing but.
Which is why it's nice to have both brooms and vacuums in the world.
On another note, have you seen Creature Comforts? I happened upon it today by happy accident. They interviewed a bunch of regular people about various topics (the part I saw asked interviewees how they felt about flying, and what art is), then animated the interviews with claymation animals. The animators are the same people who do/did Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. It's hilarious. You can see a clip here, and there are a bunch of others on Youtube. (Search "Creature Comforts" and "CBS" to see the American version. It was a British show first.)
Went to IKEA yesterday. Dangerous place, that. You have to walk past so many things on the way to the check-out that you're bound to see something you never before knew existed, but now cannot live without. (I think I stole that line from Calvin & Hobbes.)
I think of IKEA as some designer's utopian vision: thoughtful design for the masses. So many cheap furnishings are poorly designed. But why? Everything that's produced has to be designed anyway--why not put a little more thought into it and exceed people's expectations? I don't like everything about IKEA, but I appreciate that they respect their customers' taste, even if we aren't bajillionaires.
On the way back, listening to the Mountain Goats, I was thinking about vocalists who have that good-bad sound. Like Bob Dylan: a voice well out of the mainstream, but that sounds all the better for being unusual. I think They Might Be Giants fall into this category, too. I really like listening to these guys. Sort of like adding vinegar to a recipe--the slight tang wakes up your senses. But I can't think of a single female artist who falls into that category. I don't know if that means women with non-commercial voices don't get signed, or if I'm just listening to the wrong music.
That's not my garden in the picture. But we managed to find a plot in a community garden last week, and my boyfriend Stephen and I went out to plant yesterday. It's really late in the season, so we had to get everything started as quickly as possible. I've never been one to garden by the book, anyway. Not enough ambition, I guess. I just feel like working too hard at it takes all the fun out. And if nothing much comes of it? Well, it's not like we need the harvest to sustain us through the New England winter.
I call it the Garden of Oddities because the original plan was to plant only offbeat things, like romanesco broccoli, asparagus peas, yellow baby watermelon, and dinosaur gourds. But we stopped at the garden center on the way there and got some more mainstream things: strawberries, basil, tomatoes, mint, brussels sprouts. It was almost sunset when we started, so we threw things in the ground at top speed, sort of helter-skelter. Don't even remember where some of the seeds are. We may end up with sunflowers among the nasturtiums, but I'll be happy with whatever comes up.
Where was I. Juggling. My mom gave me this book, Juggling for the Complete Klutz, for Easter (my request), and I've been working on it ever since. But I've never been good with sports (if one can call juggling a sport) in which things fly through the air. Baseball, volleyball, basketball--something about the three-dimensional movement in these games just didn't click for me. I've always liked hockey, though, and soccer, and even pool. I'm not going to the Olympics or anything, but they seem physically manageable to me. I've always wished I was better at things like catching and throwing.
So I thought that juggling might build my confidence, and it just seems like a cool skill to have handy, should you need to entertain children at a birthday party or something. But the thing is, even though this book claims to be written for the Complete Klutz, it still seems to assume a given level of coordination greater than my own. The second exercise--achieving a consistent hand-to-hand toss--is supposed to take a few minutes, but I've worked on it for hours, and still mess up.
But I'm not giving up. I have a vision of myself at the end of August, juggling bowling pins with my right hand while blogging with my left. And gardening with my feet. Did I mention that I started a garden?
But that's another story for another day.
It's June, and school is out. Or about to be out. For the first time ever, I have a job that goes straight through the summer, and I'm worried that I'm subconsciously looking forward to a big break that's never going to come. So I need a project to signal that summer has begun, I have (more) free time, and I'm devoting it to something completely unrelated to work. Hence, this blog.
An art history professor I once had told us that she regretted living through the time of happenings without ever going to one. I think that's part of my motivation here, too. Blogs are here, there, and everywhere. I'm hopping on the bandwagon.
Second goal for the summer: learn to juggle. So far, it's slow-going. But I guess I'll tell you more about that later.