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Stench of the ashtray
Stench of every
consumed and discarded
cigarette.

Country dress, country porch
in the middle of a sleepy city
slick streets, streetlights,
gunshots in the news
and the tireless trill
of crickets,
passing cars.

If I could do it over again,
we’d order a subscription
for weekly boxes of vegetables from a farm.

You’d still be a smoker,
our kitchen would still be filthy,
however much I try to clean,
and there would still be
the gunshots
and the insects.

Either way I’d be left
with this ashtray.

Maybe we’d have saved on groceries.
Maybe we could have
figured out compost
and recycling.

A little less filth,
a little less
packaging
and advertising
and garbage.

That’s what I would do
if I could do it over.

I know that asking if you could have loved me
would be the same
as asking you
to stop
craving
cigarettes.

This is the house she didn’t belong to: Art on the walls, wooden floors, high ceilings, a garden alongside, hazy humid heat infused with work sweat and pungent vegan cooking.

The hippies all sense something in her – something taut and bleak and anxious. She’s never been accepted in a hippie house.

She tells herself she could never live with vegans, anyway.

She’s lived with troubled teenagers.

She’s lived with a troubled single mother.

She’s lived with prim and proper and highly organized family friends.

She’s lived in a house full of international twenty-somethings who alternately kept to their rooms or went out drinking all night, were sports fanatics, hosted backyard dance parties. Despite being absorbed into their circle of camaraderie she had almost nothing in common with them. She remained quiet and somber, her sense of humor askew. She stood at the edges. Tethered to him in spite of him, but when it got very bad, sometimes, she would take off alone.

Top down, driving along the levee beneath darkly underlit nighttime clouds, she luxuriates in the heavy, balmy breeze. Only when she stops to sit by the water and listen to the cicadas hum in concert, chorusing abstract patterns like the voice of the universe, like electricity, then the mosquitoes swarm and she gets eaten alive.

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Well, it’s been a very long time. I found that, when it comes to the content of this blog, what I originally intended to write did not match what I was actually comfortable writing. I like to maintain clear boundaries between personal and private, and this space is very grey, very grey.

So from here on out I’ll just see where my intuition takes me. I’m afraid some posts will get very abstract and very vague.

I don’t want to write anything about What Aging Is, but I’ve noticed what it can be. It can be social isolation. Old friends move away or die. Children grow older and focus on their own lives. It takes energy to learn new things. It takes energy to meet new people.

Many elderly people seem to be only interested in the past, only interested in sharing what they have seen and what they have done. Bitter remarks about the present, a disinterest or antipathy in learning anything new.

It can be exhausting to be the recipient of so much history, so much concentrated loneliness – to be the recipient of a one-way brain dump. Exhausting to have an interest in a person who has very few friends – someone who pushes, someone who needs, someone who is to be pitied.

Exhausting to negotiate standing one’s ground, maintaining one’s own and the other’s dignity, protecting the other’s feelings.

Exhausting to negotiate time lines, a fantasy option of simply walking away. How much distance to maintain?

Unfortunately the biological response to an elderly person is not the same as a biological response to a baby.

Aging populations.

Dysfunctional communities.

People in need.

To do one’s best… It can be exhausting.

Obliquely, I was thinking of Purcell. I’d confused him with William Byrd.

The solace of solitude:

You know, I think it’s generally easier to discuss things through the lens of fiction – or easier to discuss things that are fiction. The less personal, the less real, the easier not to offend.

I’ve been ill this past week – jet lag -> weakened immune system -> nasty cold – so I’ve been watching a lot of DVDs.

I was watching CSI with a friend, and I commented that I really didn’t like one of the main female characters. There are a few reasons, but the main one is that the show makes it very clear that her career takes priority over the emotional well-being of her kid.

My friend defended the character, and added that, as a woman, I should unquestioningly support other women in their ambition.

It made me think of something I had heard another Arab woman say – that she was shocked to see how, in the United States, women don’t automatically look out for each other – that she was used to a much greater sense of solidarity.

That the character is a single mother in the United States and is estranged from her extended family I would say strengthens my critique. That she is the only strong support for her child is all the more reason for the child to be her top priority, especially considering the fact that in her career, while she is important, she is not unique. Nothing drastic would happen if she quit.

This is obvious and reasonable to me. I wonder what it says about me. That I am a US resident, accustomed to individual needs and individual responsibilities? That I am an nth-generation feminist, more concerned with abandoning the playing field than leveling it?

I really wanted to talk about the American Way of Life and Casablanca.

Casablanca is a very enjoyable movie with great actors, great dialogue, an exciting setting, and a genuinely interesting story. It’s easy to see why it’s a classic, but the thing is, it is also supposed to be a great romance. However, a) there is no chemistry between Bogart and Bergman that I could see, and b) I don’t see how the Paris story really fits either of their characters. I mean, sure the idea of the romance in Paris in which they were escaping their problems – but they way it’s shot it seems more like Roman Holiday (which has fantastic on-screen chemistry, by the way) than anything set during a war.

So I really wonder, how and why did Casablanca achieve its reception, its reputation, as a great melodrama?

The only thing that comes to mind is to link the dialogue, which is romantic, with something very literally minded about the WWII American mindset. Something in line with the fact that even though the politics in Casablanca appear to be very cynical, very ambiguous, the “sentimental” romance is linked to the moral dichotomy – Germans Bad, French Resistance Good. The tension between Rick’s cynical exterior and his lovelorn heart is also a tension between his outward neutrality and his ultimate decision to kill the German officer and allow the Resistance leader to escape, even subordinating his personal romance (“the problems of three little people”) to that greater goal.

Hell, I think it’s a compelling story, and I could see how, leaving the theatre, one might retroactively imagine the romance to be more believable than it actually was.

(Even as a nth generation feminist, no, I’m not happy about Ilsa telling Rick to do the thinking for both of them, but on the other hand… it fit the era, and it does simplify the story, so I‘m not terribly perturbed.)

What concerns me more is the idea of Rick as an American Hero. Even presented as an anti-hero, it is understood that Rick’s true nature is Heroic – I’d say, primarily because he is American, and America in Casablanca is the ideal realm of strength and freedom to which everyone wants to escape. The fact that Rick supported the underdog in Spain and in Ethiopia (really?) is enough to warrant his being a top priority for the Germans and, more importantly, prove his strength and virtue in the eyes of the audience. Even though he supposedly spent a year in Paris doing nothing but make love and after that becomes avowedly neutral and cynical, his Masculine Americanness (in a sea of non-Americans) demands innate heroism.

Even this I wouldn’t say bothers me – this is an American film released during World War II; it’s only to be expected. But the assumptions that came out of WWII – war is a conflict of good vs. bad; America is the ideal society – I should say that these ideas didn’t originate with WWII but were very powerfully reinforced by it. Really set the tone for the 20th century, at least the US narrative.

Cut to present day. Here I am in the Middle East, realizing how powerful an idea the American Way of Life really is. I’m used to critiquing consumerism, imperialism, the all-consuming expansion of American culture – but on the other hand, the idea of having access to global culture, having access to all the conveniences of modern life – it’s a very compelling notion, and it’s one thing to critique it from within the culture, but it’s another thing to not have access to that culture.

Which I guess brings me back to the idea that most people, all over the world, want pretty much the same thing. They want to be able to live comfortably, with dignity, and most of all to provide security and dignity to their families. They want to be able to give their kids what other kids have. That there are consequences to the achievement of this way of life… that’s another question.

And speaking of WWII film tropes, every now and then, when I read something along the lines of “collateral damage” and what’s “fair” in situations of, say, civilian death tolls or human rights abuses, I think about this Mitchell and Webb sketch.

O VIRGO SPLENDENS. This piece is a cac’a, or medieval canon for three voices, in which the second and third voicessimply repeat the music and words sung by the first. As is partly true of the other two canons contained in the same manuscript, the parallel fourths, fifths and octaves bear witness ot the very old form used in this composition. Whoever wrote it was closely acquainted with the contrapuntal technique of the 12th and 13th centuries, and was also thoroughly familiar with Gregorian chant. Up to this point there is no similar example in the history of medieval music: that of a canon sung in unmeasured rhythm and sounding like “sulcis armonia,” which is the title the composer gave it. It is a canon such as the “fadrins musichs” might have sung in the shrine of Montserrat to create a suitable atmosphere and put the faithful in the proper frame of mind to hear the rest of their musical offerings.

O Virgo splendens hic in monte celso, miraculis serrato, fulgentibus ubique, quem fideles conscendunt universi. Eia, pietatis oculo placato, cerne ligatos fune peccatorum, ne infernorum ictibus graventur, sed cum beatis tua prece vocentur.

Capilla Musical y Escolania de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos
(Fray Luis Loazano OSB, Director)
Atrium Musicau
(Gregoria Paniagua, Director)
JOSE LUIS OCHOA de OLZA, Director

waterfront park

I finally composed myself enough to say, “It’s just so typical of this city: pour millions of dollars into creating a tacky conversation piece that appeals to the affluent while neglecting the actual function of a central public library, which is to provide a service for everyone.” This was substantially calmer than my initial reaction to any mention of the Seattle Central Library, which is to sneer and spit words like “tasteless” “pretentious” “nouveau riche,” to bewail the decline of public space and common good. The people who claim to love this aesthetically confrontational parking garage are the people who never use it but buy all their reading material from cafes and bookstores. No warm or comfortable place in this city but it must be paid for. The most beautiful spaces are in private neighborhoods.

This weekend I observed men, women, and children with clothing neat and new and clean and weather-appropriate, the understated affluence of Seattlites who must be prepared, at any moment, must be prepared for the possibility of an impromptu hike. I wore my own boutique-bought coat and three-inch heels, shivering in my knee-length skirt as cold, wet winds gusted through the corridor of extravagant storefronts. Chuckling at my own hypocrisy. To think about everything all the time, it’s a sort of madness.

I was on my way to a play written by a disillusioned proto-socialist. I was struck by the way fiction can do such concise work of conveying complex ideas. Amazing how much more sophisticated the picture is when presented in music and dialogue than when broken down and reassembled into… sociology, gender studies, philosophy, economics. (Woyzeck, the schizophrenic soldier, accusing and demanding: “What did he pay you?!” Deliciously black comedy: what did he pay you?)

Local food. Local clothing. Local entertainment.

I think that there is great opportunity in Seattle, currently being more or less wasted. There are artists who have some taste and little money and bourgeoisie who have a great deal of money and deplorable taste. I think that Seattle is ripe for cabaret – raucous songs and bitter satire.