Ménage à Moi

Digital illo from a photo: Woolly NillyZoo Zooming

I’m off to see the monkeys now,

The ibex, the Tibetan cow,

The tortoise, hippo, kangaroo—

But if you think it’s to the zoo

I’m heading out, you’re incorrect—

I’m off to feed my intellect

Not in the jungle nearby found,

But where the animals are bound

In paper quarters, for you see,

I’m headed for the library.

Get Me Some Book-Larnin’

Drawing: Samuel ClemensJust because I have had the benefit of a decent education doesn’t mean I am smart. We all know that it’s entirely possible to have any number of degrees and diplomas, plaques and endorsements, letters and titles decorating your name and still be a complete fool. Idiocy is a far less rare condition than the number of high school and university graduates would have us believe.

Indeed, I have read a great quantity of writings during the course of my life, but I would never go so far as to say that I am well read. Among other contradictions to that claim would be my incredible slowness as a reader, both in speed and in comprehension: as a multifaceted dyslexic, able to turn words, letters, numbers, directions and relative spatial placements all inside out and upside down without even trying, I can easily spend four times the amount of energy and hours reading that any decent reader would need to get through the same amount of text. And of course that doesn’t guarantee that I will actually understand what I read in precisely the way the authors intended.

A more important reason that I don’t consider myself well read is that I have managed to conquer only a relatively small segment of the library most scholarly and literate persons would consider to be well written, informative, accurately researched and defended, or just plain must-read, important stuff among books. Long before I knew why it took me so long and so many tries to read a mere paragraph, let alone a book, I was required to tackle a handful of the so-called Classics of literature, and a bit of contemporary contenders for the title as well. It’s just as well I didn’t imagine I had such an anomalous reading style or that it was considered a disability by others, because I might have had yet more frustrations and difficulties in trying to fit the mold of how one was expected to overcome such things, instead of finding that by plodding through in my own backward way, I became attached to some of the books and stories to an equally unexpected depth. Whom should I, as a struggling reader, admire most among authors but those champions of the dense and complicated, say, Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies.

On the other hand, it’s probably less surprising that I also favor the purveyors of the most outlandish and appalling and ridiculous, from Ogden Nash, Evelyn Waugh, and Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain, S.J. Perelman and Franz Kafka. This part at least makes some sense, if you tend to believe I’d read writers who reflect something of my own mind’s workings or the weird ways in which I see the world. In any event, this latter crew might explain a little more about my tending to choose the least arduous paths in life, since I find a certain sort of familiarity in the strangest of their inventions and so can perhaps navigate their writings with a surer strength than otherwise.

So while I may not be the sharpest pencil in the drawer or the most edified of readers, I have at least a few pieces of proclamatory paper in my coffers to prove that I did my homework somewhat dutifully if not doggedly. My degrees don’t confer any special wisdom upon me, but they at least excuse my curmudgeonly attitude about how long it takes me to read my own posts, let alone anyone else’s books and articles and poems and proposals, no matter how brilliant and scintillating and clever and beautiful they are. I’m still trying, but give me plenty of time!

The Hooey Decimal System

photoWhen I sort and edit photos, it helps if I can create categories and subcategories that will help me to find and use them after the fact. If an event or occasion is short and simple in the relative sense of such things, the name of the event or occasion itself may suffice as filing ID, but what of things like our summer road trip that encompass 5 weeks, 6000 miles, a dozen states, 2 countries, 3 music conferences, a dozen members of the immediate family, a half-dozen motels and hotels, and ever so much more?

What I tend to do is create an all-encompassing title that all photos will bear, identifying them as part of the larger expedition, and then putting them into files and sub-files that clarify the who-what-when-where-why-&-how of them. This helps me have at least a slight hope of locating any single shot or group of shots from among the multitude that remains even after I’ve culled a multitude more. It also reminds me of what things became, either because of my continuing interest in them or by natural default of recurrence on the way, thematic in the event.

Not surprising, then, that this extended road trip would have obvious and substantial files of many very familiar subjects. To be sure, there are a quantity of such old favorites of mine that any moderately frequent or attentive visitor to this blog could easily guess. Given my blog header, I can start with my fondness for rusty, rustic old things (like me, naturally), mechanical bits and industrial loveliness. There are hints in that image, as well, of my magpie adoration of all things shiny-metal, glass, water, jewels, plastic and any other thing that glints to catch my avid eye.photoMy many obsessions also appear in nature: flora, fauna, sea, sky and stone. If there’s a noticeable cloud formation or special kind of light I am lured to admiration of it. Insects draw me like, well, the proverbial flame-drawn moth. I’m an ignorant admirer of all sorts of vehicles that strike me as different or novel when it comes to my everyday experience, so there are always photos in my stash of cars and trucks, boats and trains, heavy equipment and the slightest, lightest personal transport other than feet. Feet, for that matter, can make perfectly entertaining objects of my camera’s affections, since people in general are also on my list, and character-full feet or quirkily clad ones or ones that by position tell a story ought to make marvelous image sources any time.photoIn the case of human subjects, I do have something of a restrictive love, however. When I know the subjects of my documentation, I’d usually rather be interacting with them, so often, the camera sits idle and forgotten unless I have some sort of mandate to shoot. If I don’t know the people, I am bound by respect for their privacy almost as much as by my shyness not to photograph them at all. So aside from crowd shots and unidentifiably altered distant views, I’m not likely to include too many people in my panoply of for-art photographs.photoWhere people congregate or what people have left behind, that’s all fodder for my imagination, though. I love buildings–the older or odder, the better–and their endless details, and whether they are homes or hospitals, offices or auditoriums, farm sheds or factories, they all have stories to tell. Ultimately, I suppose, that’s the overarching guide to my photographic peregrinations just as much as to my poetry and essays and drawing and every other expressive form of art I attempt: I am trying to discern, guess, or invent the stories behind those things I’ve seen.

There are, you know, endless stories just waiting to be told.photo

My Relationships are an Open Book

photoA recent Wall Street Journal article about couples finding the re-jiggering of their relationships around retirement quite complex amused me a bit. The general theme of the article was that most modern retirees, those from in-home jobs and those from outside employment, come from a world where they have established fairly separate-but-equal lives and find it a challenge to spend so much more time directly with each other, doing things together. I’m so happy that my partner and I are not like most. In my book, there’s no need to be that different in retirement if you’re secure in your pre-retirement life. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that we won’t face nearly the same sorts of questions or find many of them nearly so daunting as this newspaper item intimates they could be. Despite a hectic daily life, we apparently live together like retirees already in some ways. After all, modern retirees are among the busiest, most active class of people I know.

There are a number of reasons I don’t worry about our transition. Working as we both have in art-related fields (and both of us in academia and elsewhere), where schedules and projects and income and venues and so much more have always been in flux, means that we’ve both dealt with fallow times, whether job-induced or voluntary, wherein we were responsible for directing ourselves and choosing what to pursue next and when. That means each of us has taken the lead occasionally in having the more fixed schedule, project, income or venue and left the other either more freedom or more angst about how to fill the void for the moment. We are both artists, yes, but of slightly different sorts (his the musical kind and mine the more visual/verbal); these don’t compete or conflict with each other, so no ego is at stake should either of us be hung up on that kind of thing, but rather our artistic views are complementary; both draw on similar resources of effort, inspiration, creativity and skill, so we can speak the same language even when the details differ widely. As it is, our core life-values are pretty similar, so we don’t have much reason to go far afield for purposeful or enjoyable conversation. We have a whole library of possibilities from which to choose.photoWe have, in fact, worked side by side. Not only did our relationship start when we taught in next-door buildings at university, but I was already good friends with and had even collaborated with some of his colleagues on combined recital/art show projects, a sort of classical-based performance art, perhaps. As members of the same faculty, my future partner and I ended up at plenty of the same meetings and events over time, while both still having our own tracks of need and interest. Since our pairing, I have had the privilege of collaborating with him artistically as well, and his music provides a great deal of the soundtrack, live and recorded, of my life, working or otherwise, while he lives at home and work surrounded by my art and reads my writing. We are lucky in simply relishing time together, whether to Do Things or do nothing at all in companionable silence.

But we are neither conjoined twins in tastes and wants and needs nor dependent on each other for a primary sense of identity. He inhales reads books as quickly and easily as though it were breathing, and I labor through them; his reading ranges from professional interests to serial mysteries and thrillers and more, and mine, when my dyslexia forbids the time and attention required for favorites like SJ Perelman with his dazzling wordplay, or Charles Dickens and Robertson Davies, is devoted more to blog articles and short-form works; I read and write fairly constantly, but it’s a slow-moving river indeed. My Foodie Tuesday posts here will tell you that our preferences in dining also differ widely, if not wildly. Sometimes it’s tricky finding a meal at home that will satisfy both of us equally, given the limitations of our common subset. As for movies, he’d happily be in a theatre watching the latest offerings on the big screen, but he opts to stay home with me where I’m not troubled by the overwhelming noise and the overpowering intensity of on-screen action that were intolerable to me in my anxiety-ridden days and remain somewhat unappealing even now. He still watches a lot of stuff that I have no interest in watching or even hearing, but then I’ve learned that an evening in front of our own big screen makes a great time for me to install a good pair of earplugs, rev up my trusty pencil to draw or my computer to work on blogging, photo editing, magazine proofreading and correspondence. I still get to spend time in his company and swap intermittent witticisms with my favorite companion, and we both get to do what’s more appealing to each of us.

I realized long ago that I have a different attitude about relationships in general than many others, and I know that my attitude differs greatly from my own when I was younger as well. Now that I have a number of years of marriage under my belt (no comments from the cheap seats about ‘love handles’!) I am even more baffled by the people who harp on about what constant hard work relationships and marriages are and how difficult it is to keep them operational. Seems to me that if they’re consistently hard work, they’re not really relationships other than perhaps in the form of a slave/master sort. If it’s really high maintenance, it’s a job, not a relationship. Any that are one-sided because of abuse or complete conformity or any other sort of enforced imbalance cease to be viable or valid in my eyes. Only when both parties have something to contribute that is genuinely respected and appreciated by the other does it seem purposeful and potentially joyful, and if neither of those aspects is in the equation for any length of time at all, it is based on something far different from a relationship in my book.

At the same time, if we thought in perfect synchrony and had no differences of opinion or thought or preferences, it seems to me there would be no point in the relationship either. It would be pretty much the equivalent of marrying oneself, and idea that is both ridiculous and more than a little creepy. Narcissism is inherently the inverse of relationship-ready.

Apropos of this: both my husband and I had spent a fair amount of our adult lives single (he, divorced and I, unmarried) when we first dated, and both of us were fairly certain that we would remain single for the rest of our lives–and most importantly, both of us were okay with that idea. We were whole, functioning, socially active, happy individuals with full lives and immersed in relationships with great companions of all sorts. We think it’s part of what made us ready to slide into a life partner, love relationship with very little adjustment at all. Our cosmic crash into each other was instead a landing beautifully cushioned and protected by the remarkable net of many of those other relationships of ours, almost as much as by our personal contentment, mutual attraction and shared interests. Seems to me entirely noteworthy that a strong and happy relationship was founded on and remains supported by a network of other relationships.

This, too, is significant in protecting us from the dangers of too much intermingling of lives in retirement. We already share a lot of time together that we really love. And we already share so many great friends and loved ones that it’s far from essential that all of the newly acquired ones be mutual. He knows and enjoys the company and support and good humor of plenty of friends and colleagues, many of whom I know only as names or email-senders or office acquaintances or voices on the phone, and I have my own contingent of blog friends, expedition companions, collaborators and mentors as well. If every part of life were spent together, what would we have to talk about at the end of the day?

There are so many aspects of our marriage that make it pretty easy for me to avoid worry about what-ifs when retirement comes, I almost feel guilty. But not! I appreciate that we like to do things together as often as we can, daily, hourly, and that we have a life that allows us to take advantage of it. When we worked in side-by-side buildings in years past, it meant we could meet for lunch or stop by each other’s offices or for any number of other excuses quite conveniently; now, when I’m homemaking and blogging, I have the flexibility of schedule to take the shuttle over to the campus where he now works and grab a quick supper somewhere nearby with him before a tightly scheduled evening recital or concert, or sit in on a rehearsal of one of his choirs, or tidy up his files before sitting down to write and draw while he studies a score for the next choral-orchestral extravaganza. If I’m able to get a job again, I’d like to make sure that it still allows space for our interaction, however different that will be, because we really do value time spent together, however it’s spent.

If that makes ours a little unlike the average relationship approaching retirement age, I’m just sorry for all of those out there making up the bulk of the average, let alone any who remain under the mark for any reason. I’d much rather be novel in this respect.photo

Outlets for Creativity

The bane of poorly placed or unattractive light switches, outlets, thermostats and other mechanicals is one of the great challenges to the average homeowner’s creating truly cohesive and attractive decor. Frankly, I’ve never understood what could be so hard about putting all of the functional and utilitarian elements of any building into very easily accessed and yet unobtrusive locations throughout, but that’s never happened in any building I’ve seen let alone in the houses where I’ve lived. Home design is generally pretty dimwitted in terms of simple practicality. But then, it offers a dandy problem-solving adventure to those of us who like such things.

So I say, if you can’t lose it, use it.photosExposed under-sink plumbing but not a lot of room for real cabinets? How about a half-height set of portable drawers and a counter skirt that fills the gap and hides the plumbing? It’s cheap, especially if you can use a ready-made window valance as I did in this instance, which also means that when your tastes change, changing the treatment won’t take a major investment either. A nasty old tile countertop that’s set in such hard concrete that it can’t be removed without demolishing half the room can be overlaid with a simple piece of laminate and a hardwood facing raised to be level with the edge of the top. Again, a cheaper fix than demo and new tile or stone, and easier to replace when the time comes even if you’ve still not saved up enough for the super-cool high-end stuff.

Another problem that’s pretty common in modest homes is a den (in this case the spare bedroom) where you want to be able to sit among your books and read but can hardly fit in your little old slipcovered sofa and still allow enough room for the adjacent door to clear, and then run out of space for the actual bookshelves. One fairly easy way to deal with this problem is to mount the bookcase on the aforementioned door. When I did this, I did install casters at the bottom of the case so the door hinges wouldn’t have to bear the weight of all the books as well, and ended up not only with handily located books for our cozy little reading nook but just a touch, however modest, of the secret thrill of a hidden doorway, even if this one only went to the attic. Add an old highboy dresser with some drawers removed for extra shelf storage, and for tucking away additional materials, there’s no end table or footrest like a stack of old trunks and suitcases. Voilà! A small and comfortable snug for reading, with a lot more stored in it than would seem probable or meets the eye.

With no space for a sewing room, I got a little creative finding a spot for that work, too. I found an inexpensive storage cabinet, the white laminate particle board kind, in about a 6’H x 2.5’W x 1.5’D configuration, at the local builder’s supply store, installed a hinged pull-down bench I could put my sewing machine on (or when it wasn’t in use, put behind it), added small weight-supporting posts in the middle of the shelves, and had a simple little sewing center that I used easily for quite some time. By setting my serger on the shelf adjacent to the pull-down bench, I had a comfortable corner where I could sit in my cheap swiveling office chair and go from one machine to another while I was working on my projects, reaching up to the stacked fabrics stored on the top shelf or underneath to the other tools and notions and sorting boxes on the bottom shelf. Finish work, push the sewing machine back in the cabinet and fold the bench up in front of it, latch that in place, and close the cabinet doors. No sign of Sewing Central in the guest bedroom until next time.photosThat house was more than big enough for the two of us, but in typical older-house style the space was divided oddly and not quite a perfect design for us as-is. What was not typical of the place’s vintage was that it had quite a high proportion of windows to wall space, a very nice thing but also a little limiting when it comes to placing furnishings and hanging art. That drove the placement of the antique china hutch (whose back side, happily, was finished in the same rustic style as its front) as a room divider to frame the dining room without overlapping either of its flanking windows. Having a wood-stove could have been a delight, but since the area where we lived had frequent burn bans because of the local microclimate, we hardly ever had the chance to play with it. Eventually I traded the stove to a friend and fellow artist in exchange for helping me redo the flooring and counters in the kitchen, but in the time while the stove crouched there using up real estate in the living room, it got a customized cover of lined taffeta (made at my little sewing station, of course) that made it into an extra end table with a hint of insulation. The living room itself was quite spacious for a house of that vintage, so with its location practically next door to the campus where we both worked, it was a handy post-concert gathering place for debriefing the concert over a glass of wine.

That meant we wanted to put as much seating as possible in the place without making it feel like one of those seedy recliner showrooms where salesmen lurk in the shadows and try to sell you chairs that look like poseable hippopotami. We already had a couple of heavy mid-eighties pieces of furniture that needed a little touch of camouflage for their portly nature (the white-draped tub of a chair on the left of the first photo above was later ‘darkened’ with multiple shades of purple into the equally chunky but less omnipresent chair on the right of the second photo, and its variety of textures and shades helped at least marginally to distract from the bulk of the whole. To get a slightly airier feel among the furniture occupants of the room, I took my grandparents’ old Jenny Lind double bed and made it into a little post-Victorian settee that kept us company for a goodly while after. That way the frame was virtually free (the seat slats were pickets salvaged from backyard fence repair) and all I spent was on the fabric and padding for upholstering the piece.

Still, I was irritated that the first wall anyone approached on coming through our front door was ‘decorated’ with an inconveniently placed thermostat. Never mind that the thermostat was located directly downwind of the only exterior door in the area, it was just plain an eyesore and a pest to hide. So I made it part of the art arrangement, ‘gilding’ it with metallic ink to match the background of the small icon and the frames of the larger artworks with which it was prominently grouped. It may still have been a pig, but I liked its looks better with the lipstick on it.

Now, I told you that I think virtually every place has some of these irksome ill-placed or hard to disguise quirks in its construction, and those I’ve dealt with were hardly limited to the one house. Our current place has them, too, and I’m working my way through them bit by bit, like the hideously ugly and out of date but perfectly functional doorbell box in the front hall that now lives behind a small basket that I think was originally meant to be an office Inbox but is mercifully less attention-getting than the egregious original bell cover. And it’s ‘breathable’, so there’s no worry about the sound being muffled or the mechanism overheating in a closed box.photoFurther episodes must wait for another day. The hunt for better, easier, more practical and attractive but less expensive solutions never ends. There will always be another touch of decorative deceit needed, as long as there are builders who don’t think through the way their buildings will actually look and work when, wonder of wonders, people live in them.

Peaceful Shadowland

Fall and Winter have a stealthy benefit that’s often overlooked. They lend themselves, more than the ebullience and exuberance of Spring and Summer, to a sort of calming melancholia, to meditation and contemplative times. In Autumn and wintertime, the chaos of the world can be lessened and untangled without the palisade thrown up by the warmer seasons interfering with the endeavor.photo

In part, it’s simply that we are increasingly encouraged by colder and often less amenable weather to stay indoors. Indoors, where the hearth beckons, where our books lie in wait, where our writing tools stay safe from the tempests outside. Indoors, where it’s easy to keep a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa hot and handy while we spend the hours tending to those tasks of repair and renovation that have lain unnoticed when the longer days of sunlight kept pulling us away. The birds flit south and abandon their choir-lofts around the house and the other creatures begin to line their dens and curl up under porches with greater urgency, leaving the airwaves to the less inviting, darker sounds of passing traffic on wet pavement and wind whistling down the fence lines, sounds that urge us to follow our instincts and the local wildlife to seek shelter and keep quiet while the forbidding cold and darkness of the ‘off seasons’ roar through town.

photo

But there’s another great appeal to Fall and Winter, another aspect that captures the gentler and more introspective angles of the imagination, and that is the way that these seasons strip away their frills and wash out any fripperies that might distract us from the most basic parts of our existence. It’s the way this time of year seems to contract not just the length of its daylight hours so that we see things dimly, palely and in lengthening shade and shadows, but even the spectrum of visible color, which becomes thin and subdued in the leanness of winter light. The water recedes from the fruits and flowers and stems of summer’s abundance and leaves them slightly parched and leads them to bend and fall. The slightest breeze, now colder, finds us clutching at our lapels and jamming our raw hands as far into pockets as they can go.photo

In this beautiful world, with the color rapidly draining out of memory, the stillness of hiding and hibernation weighing us into lassitudinous introversion, and the brisk chill of frost settling around our ears and shoulders like lead, we can at last let go of the impetus to run and shout and do, if only for the joy of rediscovering what waits in the seasons of shadow. We can see the world in a sort of refined simplicity if we let ourselves. We can take these moments of clean-slate clarity to listen to our innermost selves for a bit and sort out what does and doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of our lives. And we can go to sleep knowing that when the glad excesses of Spring and Summer return we will see them through new and more appreciative eyes and perhaps, yes just maybe, even find that in the midst of all that bloom and warmth and celebration we may long for the stringent joys of Fall and Winter once again.

Little Mysteries and Big Adventures

graphite on paperIt’s kind of odd, when you think about it, that we readers and writers and storytellers and listeners have such an affinity for mystery and adventure stories. Life itself is so full of both that it could be argued there’s no need to entertain or challenge, frighten or amuse ourselves by inventing yet more. But besides the obvious pleasant aspect of fiction that it remains under our control in ways that real life cannot, there is much more reason that the appeal remains just as strong as it has for ages.

For starters, it gives us a forum for posing questions and answers that can’t always be simplified enough to solve any real-world conundrum puzzling us. It’s both potentially a problem-solving process and a bit of creative play that can lead to greater flexibility and insight when we do get around to solving the problems with which we’re faced. If I can metaphorically bump off the villain that has been making my life such a trial, perhaps the metaphor can be extended to show how I can cope with him or her in actuality in a more legal and humane manner. If not, at the very least (assuming the real person behind the fictional stiff is fully enough disguised so that s/he cannot sue the socks off of me and make my life miserable in new and legal ways) I got the satisfaction of offing said offender in effigy. On paper I can exert all of the cruelty my heart secretly harbors, without ever lifting a physical finger, even that uniquely expressive one, against anyone at all.graphite on paperMostly, in the fictional world it allows a vicarious thrill for both creator and reader or listener that few of us dare or have the wherewithal to experience in three dimensions. Being a very ordinary person, I have little to no likelihood of the kinds of outsized adventures and brilliant insights that would make for a good, cracking read, but I’ll happily devour such stories and envision myself in their midst when it suits me. In fiction, I can do all sorts of athletic and impressive things that there isn’t the remotest chance of my accomplishing with my feeble skills and lethargic attitude, but there’s something rather bracing in even the imagined high-speed sculling through the black waters of a swift river, the steeplechase saddled up on a magnificent pedigreed mare, or the vaulting over crevasses with rime in my eyelashes and ice axe gripped in my gloved hand, when they’re well written.graphite on paperIn fiction, I can commit the perfect crime–or solve it. I can be the heroine of the story or an innocent bystander. I can follow all of the clues, absorb all of the details of the characters’ lives and loves, interests and actions, and guess what comes next or just roll along for the ride and see where it takes me. Sometimes, admittedly, I don’t have complete mastery of the fictional world because a tale becomes so gripping that I can’t put down the book and go to sleep, turn off the television and leave the room, or avoid re-reading parts just to see if I missed any exciting details. I should note that I am also often driven to this latter end by my dyslexic reading and the way it requires frequent repetitions of phrases and paragraphs to ascertain that I’ve kept true to the thread of meaning, so perhaps it’s not exactly a universal approach to reading! That is, as you would guess, a part of my reading process that makes me very slow to finish a book or article, even if in practice I am a reasonably fast reader. A bonus of dyslexia, conversely, is that things I have read before become new to me again almost immediately because the arrangement of words and elements of the tale might become slightly different each time through.graphite on paperWhich, in turn, is a good reminder of one of the other joys of reading: each of us brings filters, viewpoints, experiences, beliefs and interests that flavor each reading, for good or ill. We are so distinct in this that the best of friends and the most like-minded people can easily love or hate quite opposite stories and versions of them. And that makes the mere act of writing or reading a story that much more of a mystery and adventure in and of itself. All the more reason to keep writing and reading and telling . . .