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Haiku for the sweatbox that is my apartment

June 10, 2011

Ninety-six degrees.
Too hot to type any more.
At least there’s water.

My parents are a vortex for stray wildlife.

June 3, 2011

I went home to visit my parents in Pittsburgh for Memorial Day weekend. That is, I went home to the Bermuda Triangle of stray, misfit, and spastic wildlife, which is located in Ross Township. For example, for years, I’ve been hearing about the suet feeder that couldn’t seem to stay attached to the huge Norway maple tree overnight. My parents would wake up to find it completely emptied and stripped from the branch it had been hanging on, routinely flung down the hillside at night by who knows what (raccoons?) in their backyard like an empty McDonald’s bag. My mother dutifully retrieved and re-hung it until they came up with a better solution away from the tree.

Then there’s the (partially) leucistic female cardinal who has visited their bird feeder for the past two years. I’ve seen her, and she has most of the coloring of a female cardinal, with a few patches of white on her breast and sides. Actually this is not all that unusual. Among my friends who notice birds, I’ve heard of a few instances of leucism. Although it’s not local, perhaps the most dramatic documented instance of weird coloration is a cardinal that scientists suspect of being gynandromorphic (and possibly also leucistic), which means half female and half male (with an absence of pigment to spice things up).

But this past weekend in Pittsburgh, there were no suet feeder raids, no blotchy birds—only a tiny white-tailed deer fawn who decided that the suburban North Hills of Pittsburgh was where she would be for a day, hiding, typically, while her mother was away.

My parents first noticed her several weeks ago, hiding nestled behind a mound of ornamental grass right next to their front door. She returned to her hiding place last Saturday, and my mother and I noticed her as we were pulling into the driveway, coming back from a trip to the nursery to buy flowers. We stood in front of the house, mere feet from her, no fear, just respect and awe. Chosen. That’s what I felt like, at least, spotting that tiny little no doubt milk-hungry and thirsty fawn in the middle of suburbia. Just like the strange and primal bond I felt with the bluebirds Marty and I nurtured in the backyard in Pasadena. It’s hard not to get sentimental about it.

The fawn spent the day moving periodically around the house, from the ornamental grass to the left of the door to the grass to the right of the door to the bed of yarrow on the driveway side of the house to a spot under a holly bush in the back where the exhaust from the clothes dryer exits the house. My mother put a container of water out for her, but I’m not sure she drank any. At the end of the day, when we were cautiously looking for her latest hiding place, we witnessed her trotting over the hill toward a doe standing near the creek that runs in back of my parents’ house. I guess it was all part of the plan; hiding out during the heat and light of the day and meeting her mother at dusk.

I’ve thought about that fawn a lot since I came back to Baltimore, that sense of parental nervous worry. It brought me back to my obsession with the bluebirds in Pasadena, my epic battle against the invasive house sparrows trying to take over the nest box(es), and how the bluebirds waited, looking down from the gutter, for me to fill the mealworm window feeder every morning. How I was afraid to go away for Christmas, fearing that they’d abandon us if we didn’t feed them for a week. There are no words we can say to animals, no warnings or explanations or comfort we can give them. We can only stare at each other in mute fear and surprise, drawing out and living in the moment, trying to keep still.

Haiku for bringing home the Mirror Ball Trophy instead of the Lombardi

May 27, 2011

This is what everybody in Pittsburgh is going to be watching reruns of this fall if the lockout continues.

Hines Ward—dancing fool.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
MVP again.

No greater compliment

May 20, 2011

Vanity is a funny thing. People who have grown up being admired for their physical beauty internalize it as a part of their identity. The surface speaks for itself, doesn’t require words to interpret it, involves no rational thought processes, only unconscious feeling and reaction. For a very beautiful person, it must be hard to let go of that pride when appearances start to decay, as they inevitably do with age. I remember Shawn reading me a quote from a New York Times article about French women that went something like “when a woman is young, she must be beautiful to be loved, and as she ages, she must be loved to be beautiful.” It’s just like the French to say something like that, full of pathos and irony and drama. But there are many types of vanity, many types of pride, and by no means are they all physical.

Earlier this week I helped interview someone for my company, a young, bright guy, confident and relaxed, gently inquisitive. My manager and I were going over his qualifications and the responsibilities of the position, asking him about his studies, his analytical skills, his goals. Then we came to the part of the interview where we ask him if he has any questions for us. He paused for a minute. Then he quoted from memory some phrases from our capability statement about our core strengths, saying that this particular combination of attributes and character led him to be interested in the job.

The hair on my arms stood up as the words were coming out of his mouth. It turns out I’d written the statements he was quoting, and I consider the three paragraphs from which they came some of the most meaningful professional writing I’ve done in the nearly 10 years I’ve worked for my company.

My manager, as wonderful as he is, would not have known that I was the author of those statements, and I’m not even sure he would have recognized them if our candidate hadn’t mentioned that he found them in our company literature. But I remember the day I spent synthesizing them, thinking hard about our corporate character, its defining characteristics. Such things are regularly lampooned by Dilbert, Demotivational Posters, and my friend Eric, but when you work for a small company like I do, character is evident and embodied (literally) in people, not simply made up and trotted out for marketing collateral.

There’s not a lot of room for emotion in the writing I do for my job. Not much call for creativity. Definitely not much reason to inject any personality. Proposal development is a balance of concise functionality and the ability to read between the lines, to know which is your best side, the best angle to present—and you’d better not take forever to put it on display. But the writing our candidate quoted came from a different creative place, one that I don’t get to explore on the job that often. For a few seconds, hearing my words quoted back to me out loud, I felt the rush of pride, completely unanticipated and totally intoxicating. It’s not something I’m used to experiencing at work. I work at my job because I need to make a living and at least pretend to use my degrees. If I won the lottery, my colleagues would never see me again. But at work this week a stranger connected with something I wrote, speaking candidly, with no knowledge that the person behind the words was sitting right across from him. It was a gift that made a lot of the rest of the grind, at least temporarily, bearable.

Hipster auto repair

May 13, 2011

My car’s air conditioner had been blowing only warm air since I tried it for the first time this season last week, so I decided to get it taken care of before the legendarily brutal Maryland summer heat and humidity arrive and stay through October. I am a girl when it comes to anything having to do with cars, so rather than trying to investigate and select from the myriad locally owned car shops of every flavor that dominate my particular suburb, I took the path of least resistance and Googled a couple national chains to find their closest locations. Meineke won out, specifically the Parkville Meineke at 7604 Harford Road. I will go back whenever I need help again, but it won’t be just because the service was good and speedy.

When I arrived and sat down in the typically furnished waiting room, waiting for my laptop to boot, I scanned the reading selections. They were anything but typical:

  1. Complete Tales of Edgar Allen Poe (hardback)
  2. Art and Architecture of Venice (paperback)
  3. The Civil War (hardback)
  4. About 3/4 of 1983’s National Geographic issues, neatly ordered in custom-sized faux-leather magazine files

and the one that really caught my eye: Madame Bovary’s Ovaries (paperback), a scholarly but entertaining treatise on the intersection of literature and evolutionary biology (endorsement on the back cover from E.O. Wilson). Whoa.

I looked over at one of the dreadlocked, uniformed techs who was taking a break, and he was engrossed in a small chapbook of poetry, smiling to himself. Again, whoa. A few minutes later, a scruffy man came in and started talking with the manager behind the desk about (I gathered) some joint venture they had going involving fine art sales. All this in Parkville.

Who says Hampden has all the hipsters? I will need to go back sometime to check out a retro bar down the street called Dead Freddie’s. Or maybe we can pick up a donut and coffee at The Fractured Prune.

I love Baltimore.

Does this really serve the purpose?

May 6, 2011

This week heralded the arrival of the summer session catalog of continuing education courses from the Community College of Baltimore County. I love community college catalogs. They excite me like the Sears Wish Book used to back in my childhood of the 1970s. I page through it, reading all the course descriptions, thinking that if I were independently wealthy I think I’d like nothing better than to spend the rest of my life working my way through the entire gamut of curricula, from the useful (Public Relations Writing – WRI 047) to the arcane (Animal Reiki I and II – FIT 740 and 742).

One page that caught my eye in particular was the list of the myriad courses offered by CCBC with an online-only option. Some of the courses are obvious choices for online-only, like:

  • Introduction to Windows Vista (although why bother?)
  • Intermediate Photoshop
  • Advanced PC Security

Some I can see as feasible in an online-only medium:

  • Speed Spanish
  • Medical Terminology: A Word Association Approach
  • Employment Law Fundamentals

But, um, this online offering kind of made me smirk:

  • Goodbye to Shy

What?

Kids, the very paradigm of “online only” has made it acceptable for legions of introverts like myself to finally compete with Party Animals and Sales Directors for social clout, or at least normalcy. Finally, as of the early 1990s, “Geek” is a club worth joining. So why would members of my species 1) sign up for such a class or 2) hope to change if the class enables us to cower in the refuge of the anonymity of our computers?

Almost makes me want to enroll.

Nah.

Chart a rowboat

April 29, 2011

Misinterpreted song lyrics are legendary; everyone has at least one set of lyrics that he or she never understood, either on the level of parsing the words themselves or interpreting the meaning of words you were confident you did understand. Play with the vowel sound pronunciations or the separations of syllables in a word and musicians can really throw people into confusion.

A swoon for Mr. Douchebag. What is he autographing, anyway?

John Mayer is, for me at least, a contemporary king of convoluted pronunciations. He has a jazz-influenced background, and his convolutions seem to be fairly organic and spontaneous, so I’ll give him credit for not falling into the all too common trap of performing every song exactly the same way every time. I was recently in a cycle of listening to nothing but Room for Squares over and over in the car, and one particular passage in the song “City Love” perplexed me.

I can’t remember life before the day
she called up and came to me,
covered in rain, dinnertime shadowing,
and lies her close butter spoon,
and I knew I was through
when I said “I love you.”

Hmmm. The subject of the song, and the object of John’s affections, is Lydia, who changed his life for the better and made him love New York despite his initial negative feelings about the city. I was working out a theory in my mind that the name “Lydia” actually symbolized music, with the idea that the Latin root lyd had something to do with music. In my mind, John’s attitude toward New York had been changed by the fact that he had discovered his musical inspiration there. The lyrics of the song support this metaphor quite elegantly. Except that part about the butter spoon. Is there such a utensil as a butter “spoon”? I’m only familiar with butter knives. Is there something about the way Lydia set the table that really pushed John over the edge and convinced him that he was in love? If so, I need to brush up on my Emily Post. I had no idea that men paid so much attention to place settings.

Well. Imagine my surprise when I Googled the lyrics to “City Love” and found out that the actual line was:

and as her clothes spun we spooned

That makes sense. Her clothes were wet from the rain, so they put them in the dryer, and spooning has been known to induce feelings of romantic euphoria. Oh, and the latin root lyd has nothing to do with music. That would be lyr. He should have named the woman in the song Lyrica. Or is that the name of a fibromyalgia drug? Moving on…

The initial impetus for this post was a song that played during the closing credits of the final episode of season 3 of Mad Men. The last episode of the third season was about risk, endings, and being pushed against your will into new beginnings. It was about having to think very fast to make major decisions in an atmosphere of uncertainty. About attempting to preserve a facade of elegance and control in the face of desperation. The song, which was characteristically true to the year being chronicled by the show, 1963, was by Roy Orbison (I recognized his very distinctinve voice immediately), but it wasn’t one of his hits. The lyrics seemed to be about sadness and finding a mantra for moving on. I could get this much:

“Chart a rowboat, chart a rowboat”
means the future is much better than the past

Chart a rowboat, chart a rowboat;
in the future you will find a love that lasts

I can get behind that. A rowboat is a craft that you direct and power yourself, and the song seems to encourage the listener to stop wallowing and take control. Although did he really mean “charter” a rowboat?  A rowboat is kind of a small craft to charter. If you’re going to charter a boat, why not make it a yacht? Was Roy Orbison invoking some sort of complex irony?

Solving this mystery was a little bit more of a challenge than “City Love,” but courtesy of The Google and The Wikipedia (and later The iTunes), I sleuthed out that the chorus/title of the song was not “Chart a Rowboat” but “Shahdaroba,” an Arabic word that means something along the lines of “Keep on truckin’.”

Shahdaroba, Mr. Natural.

Sigh. These sorts of personal apocryphal mysteries are a special part of the experience of popular music, but less so now that most anything can be Googled. Wikipedia has flattened the curve of what is and is not worth documenting; any enthusiast can create an entry about some obscure artifact of popular culture, and a coterie of similar enthusiasts from all over the globe can rush in and contribute to the discussion. It’s a phenomenon that thrills me. I was a Blondie fan back in 1980, when Autoamerican—the very first album I ever bought—was released, and I can remember all the jokes about not being able to 1) parse  individual words or 2) understand the meaning behind Debbie Harry’s lyrics. Every month (month!) my friend Heather and I would wait for new issues of magazines like It’s Here or Flexipop that would publish lyrics to the songs we were listening to and featuring on the homegrown tape-recorded radio show we produced in her bedroom. Now anyone with an Internet connection can not only solve nagging lyrical mysteries but instantly contribute to the discussion with an infinite number of bodiless strangers.

One final thing. I came across an interesting post on Etsy.com about a man from Pittsburgh with the largest collection of vinyl records in the world. I graduated high school with Paul Mawhinney’s daughter, and I know that I bought at least one record from Record Rama (probably a 45 by The Police) when it was located at the intersection of McKnight and Siebert Roads in the North Hills, about 15 minutes from the house where I grew up. The video is a little bit melodramatic, but it brings back many memories. Makes me wish I were independently wealthy and had the luxury to spend the rest of my life bathing in auditory history. Imagine the misinterpreted lyrics I’d find…