Monday, December 10, 2012

The Pulpit

“Halting for an instant at the foot of the ladder, and with both hands grasping the ornamental knobs of the man-ropes, Father Mapple cast a look upwards, and then with a truly sailor-like but still reverential dexterity, hand over hand, mounted the steps as if ascending the main-top of his vessel.”

My parents’ basement is vast and unordered, but when, home for Thanksgiving, I asked my mother where I could find my piano sheet music she led me downstairs, moved a chair aside, lifted one box off of another box and said, I think it’s in here.  Throwing things out is not one of my mother’s strengths, but she has other talents that compensate for this, including a strong sense of geography.  Underneath a series of violin exercises my father used when he was young and a couple of manuals circa 1985 explaining computer languages I am certain none of us ever used, or contemplated using, but which I replaced in the box, I found a book of Bach Inventions that I had played from, with the penciled fingering, reminders, corrections, and exhortations of my piano teacher, Mrs. Minkoff, intact.

When I took the music upstairs, I could play it.

So: This was going to be a story about my limitations, which include being a poor pianist.  And about Mrs. Minkoff, who had bariatric surgery while I was her student, and who became thin for a while, and then slowly or not so slowly, depending on whether or not you were Mrs. Minkoff, became fat again.  I, of course, had been fine with Mrs. Minkoff being fat—I had expected her to be fat, in fact, and didn’t realize, until I saw her thin and happy, that she was, like me, a person who wanted to be wonderful, and maybe even perfect.  I’ve been sad, lately, and one thing about being sad is that you never know how sad you are.  You think you have a sense of where the bottom is, you think you’re floating in maybe seven feet of water, but it turns out you’ve been pushed out farther than you thought, and are dangling above more serious depths.

Then you look down and you see you’re writing a story about not being able to play the piano, even though you have a piano and play it, for example, while the children put their shoes on in the morning.  Also, my premise was wrong.  My premise, when I went downstairs at my parents’ house, and when I sat down to write about it, was that I could only play the songs I played when I was fourteen, and was stuck, for better or worse, following along with my younger self, and Mrs. Minkoff, in the music she selected for me.  But for Hanukkah this weekend David bought me two new books of music.  It turns out that I can play Haydn's Sonatas, if I choose the ones without too many sharps or flats.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Chapel

“Methinks my body is but the less of my better being.  In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.  And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and a stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.”

One morning towards the end of our time in Nantucket, David and I left the children at the house and went for a walk towards the beach.  Most of the streets near my parents’ house are unmarked, I don’t know their names, and I find them difficult to describe to other people, since they are all sandy and veer off gently one way or another.  So now, instead of saying something concise, I have to say that we had reached the part of the route where the road turns towards the right and another road, which you might think is the main road, but is not, continues out straight towards the ocean—this is a landmark on the walk—when David noticed a dog running through the grasses on its own.  We waited to see what would happen, which was that the dog came towards us and lay down in an enormous muddy puddle, and two women walked by who weren’t its owners.

The dog, a golden retriever, seemed to be in high spirits—he loved the mud—and also good-natured.  We called him to us, and caught him around his collar.  His name was Tobe, and his address was a street I knew, not strictly in my parents’ neighborhood, but probably about a mile, I thought, away.  I called the number on the tag, but there was no answer.  We decided to walk him back home.  “Come on, Tobe,” I said, and Tobe started off with us.

Initially Tobe confined his activities to carrying dead animals in his mouth—he dropped the animals when I asked him to—and sitting in mud puddles, which he couldn’t resist.  As we approached the short bridge over Long Pond, though, Tobe ran ahead through a gap in the grasses and bounded into the stinking water, which is filled with snapping turtles and the rotting remains of chicken legs and salami and all the other stuff people use to fish for snapping turtles.  “No, Tobe!”  I said, and Tobe listened to me, if listening means doing what you want until you’re done with that, and then doing what the other person asked you to do.  He came out of the pond and through the grasses unashamed.

Crossing the bridge brought us into a more densely populated area where the houses were close to the road.  Tobe started running away from us to check out the houses, and, in one case, to eat the cat food they had left out for their cat.  At first we were hopeful, when Tobe ran towards people and those people greeted him warmly, that everyone knew each other.  But it was just Tobe being himself, friendly and hungry.  At the house where Tobe ate the cat food, the people gave us dog cookies to help us lure him back to the road.

I think this is related to everything I have told you so far about Tobe: he was not neutered.  You know, I liked Tobe.  He was courageous, and lucky, and dirty, and he knew what he wanted.  David said to me that Tobe was “the kind of dog you read about in books.”  Yes.  Tobe was also like any character who desires things, and whose desire lead the other other characters, in this case me and David, into new territories.  Still, it was taking a really long time to accomplish Tobe’s return.  We had left the children at home by themselves, which was fine for the length of time it took to walk to the beach and back, and less fine for the length of time it takes to have a picaresque adventure, which can be years.

I called my parents to come get us, and they came, but I didn’t feel we could load Tobe, stinking of carrion, into the back of their, or anyone’s car.  Since we still had to get Tobe home, the last part of the trip became a parade, in which David and I walked ahead and called to Tobe, rousing him from a series of mud puddles, as my parents drove a Volvo station wagon behind us at a walking pace.  When we got to the address on Tobe’s collar, there was a little parking lot in front of a line of condos.  A red lead hung from a front door knob, the empty neck begging Tobe to just put his head back in it again.  A neighbor who didn’t know the dog’s name came out and said, “I was wondering where he’d gotten to!”  She opened the door of the condo with the lead on it and shoved the muddy, stinking dog inside.  She told us that Tobe was often tied up outside the condo, and had escaped before. 

I couldn’t blame the neighbor, who just seemed to be helping out, but I did blame whoever tied Tobe to the door and left him there.  I thought that was wrong.  Maybe the fact that a disgusting, mud-covered Tobe was now walking around inside the condo was some kind of retribution for this.  In any case, I was relieved that it wasn’t my problem, anymore.

Or was it?  I worried about Tobe.  Was someone coming back for him?  When?  I left another message for Tobe’s owner, and that afternoon she returned my calls with a series of messages that made it sound as if she had left Tobe with someone who had left him with someone else who had not treated him right, and that she was going to straighten the situation out.  I think the lesson to draw from this—if you’re interested by lessons—is that we all do the best we can.  His owner wanted to go off-island.  The friend who was supposed to take care of the dog thought someone else was helping out.  That person was called away.  The neighbor didn’t know what was going on.  David and I had to get back to our children and the rest of our lives.  And Tobe, who was really a great dog, was going to get out of his lead again and go back to doing what he wanted, just as soon as he could.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Street

And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses.  But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens.  Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem, where they tell me the young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.

Brussels is famous for its destruction of the human scale, for poor city planning, for preferring the car to the pedestrian and for ruining itself.  But that’s not where we lived.  We lived outside the city center on an old street lined with trees and mostly well-kept buildings occupied by embassies, diplomats, and the well-to-do.  We lived in the rattiest building on the street, above a baron who had run out of money and was working for the European Commission, his wife, who wore a fur coat and rarely washed her hair, and their son, the baron-to-be.  They lived above a male couple we never saw; they lived above a very handsome Belgian couple with a young girl who once threw her mother’s keys into the bottom of the elevator well; and they lived above an Anglo-Swedish couple whose newborn and ours were born four weeks apart, and with whom we became friends.

But we were at the top, and had windows on three sides: northwest, towards the city center and the terrace of a couple who stopped us on the street to tell us, unnecessarily, that they practiced naturisme; south, with a view over the surrounding apartments and houses; and southeast, over the avenue.  On a typical day in Brussels the wind blew through town, pushing clouds and rain over and past us until about a half an hour before sunset.  Then the sky cleared, the remaining clouds were lit pink, orange, blue and purple, and for a half an hour the view from our windows was sublime, first because it held that last light, and then because it turned a deep soft blue.

We had a whole floor of the building: three bedrooms (the smallest was my office), a living room and dining room that ran, prettily, into each other; a kitchen; a utility room we filled quickly with a washer and a dryer, and crap; a full bathroom; and a narrow, dark, and cold half-bath.  This was essentially the same for all the apartments in the building on avenue Molière: each occupied three sides of the building, the fourth taken up by the stairwell, which wrapped around the space through which rose the tiny, ancient elevator, a metal cage in a metal cage.  When David came home from work I would sometimes open our door and wait for him, and I could hear the elevator start up and then see the top of the elevator and the top of his head and then his face and so on as he came rising towards me in the cage.  Often the hall lights timed off as he rode, and  the rising elevator was the only source of light.

Heat came through a set of radiators that I touched lightly, constantly, to see if they were working.

The kitchen had a balcony off of it where we stored garbage, and sent people to smoke, and that was structurally unsound.

The floorboards between our bedroom and what became Henry’s room creaked loudly, every single one of them.  The floorboards between our bedroom and the baronial bedroom below us allowed sound to pass freely between the floors.

David wanted to live there forever, and I wanted, eventually, to move back to New York.  So we did move back to New York, and lived there for about seven years, gaining another son, a house, and even a dog, before moving again, this time to San Francisco.
For almost the first year of our move here I felt that I wasn’t entirely where I physically, actually, was.  I could walk through the front door of our house in San Francisco, through the hall to the kitchen, and when I sat down and looked out the window what I saw was my backyard in New York.  This was the opposite of how it had been when we decided to move to Brussels and, even though I didn’t know where I was going, what it would look like, or how it would be—we flew out there for the first time after all of our belongings had been packed into a container and put on a ship—I spent the months before our move under the impression that I was already there, and not, despite appearances, running around New York.  Even now, when our lives, mine and David’s, I mean, are braided together in these thick ropes of sex, debt, books, phone calls, groceries, and stomach flu to the point where there is nothing, as far as I can tell, that is not about us, there are still times when I want to, or have to, follow the line back to the apartment on the avenue Molière, the place where, two years after our wedding, we began in earnest our married life.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


“But as for Queequeg—why, Queequeg sat there among them—at the head of the table, too, it so chanced; as cool as an icicle.  To be sure I cannot say much for his breeding.  His greatest admirer could not have cordially justified his bringing his harpoon into breakfast with him, and using it there without ceremony; reaching over the table with it, to the imminent jeopardy of many heads, and grappling the beefsteaks towards him.” 

I am the cook. 
I make chicken soup. 
I don’t know how other people make chicken soup. 
I assume they make it badly. 
To make it the right way, you need hen fowl and beef long ribs. 
You can’t get that in San Francisco, because of the lack of Jews. 
Maybe if I were Chinese I would know where to go.
Long story short, I spent $100 on two chickens and some beef short ribs from Bi-Rite.
The chickens came with their heads and feet.
The butcher at Bi-Rite said, The heads will give it lots of flavor.
They threw in some extra heads.
The heads had eyes in them.
To make soup you have to boil the meat, skim off the scum, then add the vegetables and simmer for two to three hours.
Then you have to pick out all the bigger pieces of meat and vegetables, and pass the
broth through a sieve lined with paper towels.
The broth was gelid, because of the feet.
I had to really push down with a spoon to get it through the sieve.
I thought about pushing down on one of the chicken eyes, which were no longer on the heads.
I thought about it exploding.
I held onto the sink and retched a little.
I never saw an eye.
I wasted a lot of soup.
I froze the soup I didn’t waste.
The soup tasted good.
I am the cook.
I kill things, I cook things.
The world is a love poem to me and my family.
Everything we need is supplied to us, at great cost.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Spouter-Inn

“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast.  A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.  Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.  Ever and anon a bright, but alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time.  But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst.  That once found out, and all the rest were plain.”

“‘Landlord,’ said I, ‘tell him to stash his tomahawk there, or pipe, or whatever you call it; tell him to stop smoking, in short, and I will turn in with him.  But I don’t fancy having a man smoking in bed with me.  It’s dangerous.  Besides, I ain’t insured.’”

Sunday morning my family went on a hike above Aspen, Colorado, with Howie, a local guide who told us that the hanging valley we were standing in had been formed by a glacier that slid off the side of another glacier, that a human skull found in a local cave had been dated back 8,000 years, that aspen stands are one organism, connected through their root system and genetically identical, and that the bird we saw was a goshawk, which hunts its prey among the trees—something that is, I imagine, difficult to do.  Then we tried to get on a plane and fly home to San Francisco, but the flights out of Aspen were canceled and the flights out of Denver were full, and so we decided, by looking briefly at a map, that we would rent a car and drive to Las Vegas, where we could catch a morning flight.  Six hundred and thirty-six miles, plus an additional mile-and-a-half loop I drove when I started out in the right direction, thought it was the wrong direction, turned around, then turned around again.  No one complained.  We were all thrilled by our audacity, and eating the candy bars I’d taken from the free section of the hotel minibar right before we checked out.

At some point the sun set, and everyone grew tired, and we turned off the music so that people could sleep, and people cried from how tired they were, and other people shook the ice in their cups repeatedly in order to eat the ice, because we were out of other water sources, and I became enraged by this, and we turned the music back on, and people fell asleep briefly, before they were woken because the adults had turned to a satellite station that played political speeches, and we stopped at a rest stop and for some reason David didn’t want to use the rest stop right where you got off the highway, he wanted to use another one farther away, and we had a little fight about that, and we got more water and switched drivers so that I was driving again, and everyone including my husband fell asleep—but before that, and after that, the ride was everything I wanted it to be.  I drove us through the Roaring Fork Valley in the Rocky Mountains to I-70 and then down out of the mountains along the Colorado River as the sun set and great alien mesas rose up on either side of us, the road curving to follow the river, which, low from the year’s drought, revealed gravel spills and high grasses along gentle banks.  Speed limit 75, but it was so easy to go faster than that.  In Parachute I was clocked at 88 in a 75 zone and, for no good reason, let off without a citation.  Just look out, said the officer, because this is the time of day when elk try to cross the highway.  He gave us his card.  For the next 45 miles the boys watched for elk.

We got dinner at Burger King just as the sun set.  David drove 350 miles through Utah in the dark.

Now I was driving again, this time through the northwest corner of Arizona.  It was after midnight, although I didn’t know the exact time.  I was the only person awake, and I knew I had to concentrate very hard on what I was doing to do it at all.  I had been singing along with the radio but even that was too much, too extraneous, I had to marshal every scrap of consciousness to remain focused on keeping the car on the road; I couldn’t let my mind wander, or imagine that any of this was a dream.  The radio played on.  The speed limit dropped to 55 and signs warned me of high winds, strong curves, and falling rocks.  The only other vehicles running were big trucks, and if I wanted to pass one I had to get inside it and press the gas down more than I wanted to and then wait longer than I wanted to to get back into the right lane again.  At one point I fought the urge to pull over to the side and let it—by “it” I meant the curving descent—pass me by.

Then this was over, too.  The road into Nevada was flat and straight, and we passed into a section of the highway where the state was “trying out” a new speed limit: 80.  David woke up and we watched, together, as Las Vegas went from being a glow on the horizon to being a sea of lights below us.  I’d never been to Las Vegas before.  We took the highway down through the middle of it all.  When we pulled up to the hotel we were relieved to find out that Las Vegas was on Pacific time, and it was only 1:51 am.  We had  four and a half hours before we had to get ourselves to the airport.

There were people around, of course.  They were all drunk.  For the children, forced to march the huge marble hallways and the carpeted casino, each carrying a backpack, to our room, this last part of the trip was frightening.   At the elevator bank we let four guys in cargo shorts carrying orange beer bongs take the first elevator.  The next elevator disgorged a woman in a bathrobe with her hair teased and mussed, her eye makeup smudged, and her entire face, really, undone.  She couldn’t look at us.  When we all lay down in the beds, the boys fell asleep, quickly, and I must have done the same, but I was woken several times in the short, short night by the sound of one of them crying in his sleep.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Carpet-Bag

“For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.”

While bike-riding last week, my father hit his head and for a few hours could not remember the month of August.  He didn’t know that my niece had been born, and he couldn’t remember that David and the boys and I had been in Nantucket with him for almost that whole month.  I felt as if we both had been partially erased. 

My parents keep a boat on Nantucket that they named after their dead dog, although they did that before, rather than after he died.  The Great Ollie.  It’s a little motor boat, and we use it primarily to go to Tuckernuck Island, first weaving through grassy Hither Creek, then following the buoys marking the route through the Tuckernuck Flats, which are too shallow in parts even for a boat, like theirs, that draws only 3 feet of water.  Tuckernuck itself has a relatively deep harbor ringed on one side by a nice half-moon of sand, where we pull up and drop anchor among the other pleasure boats.  At the other end of the harbor there’s a dock used by the people who have houses on the island.

Every time we go to Tuckernuck, Dad wants to swim across the harbor to the dock, and he wants me to swim it with him.  And every time, I start out with him before betraying him by turning around and swimming back in.  I don’t intend to do this, but I always do this, because I’m afraid.  We swim on our backs, usually, or do that breast stroke where you keep you head up above the water, and the knowledge that beneath my body lies a living world filled with things I don’t know about unnerves me.

This past August when we performed this ritual, a ritual, on my side, of refusal, I decided that I wouldn’t let fear hold me back anymore.  I love my father, I love to swim, and while I was not going to swim the harbor with him that day, the next time I would come with my goggles and swim normally, as I swim in a swimming pool.  I would put my head under the water, and would see that there was nothing to be afraid of.  And so the next time we came, I brought my goggles, and we started swimming across the harbor, he on his back, blowing plumes of water out his mouth, as usual, and me on my front, doing the breast stroke I have done in swimming pools across the world.  But it turns out that if you put your head underwater in the Tuckernuck harbor, all you see is a blue-green wall.  It turns out, as well, that the vision of this wall is more terrifying to me than anything I used to imagine.  And even though I love my Dad, I now know that I’m never swimming that harbor with him, ever.

Friday, September 7, 2012


"[A]nd especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

"Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage … yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment."

When we first moved to San Francisco we lived in a furnished rental house which initially seemed charming to me and then within a short time seemed to me to be a monument to the wide variety of things that exist, and to the insanity of trying to possess them.  The owners cleaned out the house for months before we moved in but even so it was filled with so many things that required my attention, and because we had just moved across the country and I was pretty unhappy about it, the form of attention I gave those things was to hate them.

Near the end of our year there, I wrote:

If you were to write a book about the house we’re living in, you wouldn’t write it about us. We’re the interlopers. We’re the symbols of a new age, an age without poetry and imagination. We didn’t rescue the house, this very yellow house, from the wrecking ball and nurse it back to health. We haven’t wrapped ourselves in furs and done business in the icy wastes of northern China and eastern Siberia. We haven’t searched the markets of Iranian towns for little treasures that we later misplace somewhere in the kitchen cabinets. We haven’t entertained members of famous orchestras on a piano that is short three keys. We haven’t made or lost great fortunes, and no injustice, that I can recall, has been visited on us. We want to be able to get our cars in and out of their spots without having to negotiate about it, and we’d like our security deposit back. No, if you were going to write a book about this house, you’d write it about our landlords, and the lives they have led, the great deeds that they have done, and all the things that have run through their fingers, and, even in escaping them, left their mark.

There were Chinese urns by the fireplaces, and white silk couches, and on the floor next to one of the white silk couches a jagged piece of glass as big as your head.  Commissioned tapestries hung upstairs and down, living and dining room were ringed with high shelves holding a significant collection of artistic glass dishes, chandeliers twinkled in every room, and there was nowhere to go to escape the paintings, a number of which had been painted, although (pardon me for noticing this) not always to completion, by the owners themselves.  Users of the ground-floor powder room shared it with a couple of brass fish which I rather liked, actually, as well as a fake tree, ceramic wall tiles that depicted some kind of scene, and a magazine stand filled with auction catalogs from the late 1980s.  Thumbing through those catalogs revealed that certain items had been circled and, occasionally, annotated admiringly, acquisitively, “Good price for this.”  Had those things been bought, and were they somewhere in the house with us?  There were so many things in the house that you could  miss things, you could almost, for example, not notice an Austrian ceramic oven the size of my older son standing decorously in the corner of the kitchen.  If you did notice it, and looked inside, you would find a small brochure about hand-made Austrian ceramic ovens, unfortunately in German.

So we moved to an unfurnished house and had our things delivered.  When we did that we discovered that the house was a little small for all of our things, particularly our books, which we had to keep in boxes in the little room off the garage where David has also set up an exercise bike, and where we may try to cram in John’s drum kit, when we buy it next week.  We had been here a year when I went down there looking for Moby Dick, and it took me a half hour of slicing through packing tape with a key to find it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


"Since the Sperm Whale's eyes are positioned on opposite sides of his head, he 'must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side.'"

I took Moby Dick to Nantucket, where I read Elizabeth Renker's introduction, some of Melville’s prefatory material, and the first ten pages of the novel itself, picking it up for a minute or two or at a time. That was about a month ago, at the beginning of my August vacation. Melville hadn’t visited Nantucket when he wrote Moby Dick, and in the end I wouldn’t read Moby Dick while I was in Nantucket, although I thought about it a lot.

I don’t know what Moby Dick will mean to me later, when I’ve read it, but not reading it, it still managed to mean something, or even many things: it was fear, it was happiness, it was writing, it was swimming, it was certainly fishing, it was death and it was freedom. It was the lost dog we found on a walk and returned to its house, where an empty red leash hung from the door. It was my parents‘ dog, who ate a bottle of suntan lotion and shit on the bed. It was my pregnant sister, who had to go home and wait to have her baby. It was my sick uncle, it was sunset, it was the swim and tennis club. It was It, it was out there, and it was waiting to reveal itself to me. When it surfaced, and I saw it, I would see the shape of the world.