Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: July 2007

Thursday, July 26, 2007

looking for a new england

The years I spent with Aaron helped me understand exactly how much of a New Englander I am. Although I had lived abroad (and in New Jersey) before I had met Aaron, there was something about those years, about traveling to the Midwest, that solidified my understanding of exactly what it might mean to be a New Englander.

Aaron grew up in the exact center of Kansas, which, he is fond of saying, is the exact center of the continental United States. As a boy he was so sure of this that he imagined the President sent two planes careening across the country on the Fourth of July to cross paths over McPherson ("there's no fear in McPherson"), Kansas, their grey plumes superimposing on the map an X. McPherson, in some ways, is not unlike Storrs. It has a somewhat awkward combination of rural and suburban areas. It has a small college in the town and is nestled among Wichita, Topeka, Hutchinson, and some other Kansan cities. In other ways, of course, it is drastically different.

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Aaron was raised by, quite possibly, the only couple with leftist leanings in the entire town. Let us not forget, Kansas is a red state (a fact that caused me no small amount of anxiety upon my first trip there). Had I known, at the time, what I know now, I would not have been so anxious. The conservatives in McPherson are not nearly so confrontational as those who are members of my extended family. (Or, at least, I can't see the ways in which they're confrontational.) He was, although in many ways privileged—upper middle class, white, male, able bodied, intelligent—part of a minority. I wonder (I have not asked) to what degree he hid or tried to streamline his parents' beliefs while growing up. In some ways, he needn't have tried very hard: his father and grandfather and aunt were all part of the town's most prestigious law firm. His uncle was a very successful business man. There is a certain amount of prosperity and small town history associated with the Bremyers. That should have shielded some of the eccentricities of his nuclear family.

But let me put the easy difference of politics aside for a moment. The thing that surprised me most, that pricked me to attention, was the degree to which I was made uncomfortable by the friendly, familiar greetings of strangers. Aaron and I would be driving around town and the overweight man mowing his lawn would pause, wipe the sweat from his brow (depositing some grass clippings and, one imagines, some chiggers), squint his eyes, and wave. "Do you know him?" I asked, brow pursed, trying to hide, somewhat from the mowing man. No, he didn't. That's just what they do there. They say hello to people they don't even know. Even when they're all sweating and in the midst of less than pleasant chores.

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My heart was pounding in my ears. I couldn't even look Aaron in the eye. What was going on? I looked down at my hands to see that I was madly clutching at the skin between my left index finger and thumb. I looked past my hands to see that my legs were pressed, firmly, together. Why was I having such a strong reaction to this small act? I let it pass.

But the greetings continued. Walking down Main Street, people he didn't know said hello (and he responded with apparent reciprocation of their enthusiasm). We went for a stroll around the park near his aunt and uncle's home. I looked up. About 100 feet away a person was walking in the opposite direction, toward us. I trained my eyes back down on my feet. "Come on, Megh. Say hello to the person," Aaron said to me. I was grinding my teeth and I had started to hold my breath. "I'll try," I muttered. I looked up, offered my most stoic and salty New England nod of the head acknowledgement, and mouthed the syllables "hello." I tried.

I thought about it, a lot, that night in bed. I tried to recall people who had said hello to me like that, who had waved. There was the old (octogenarian) blind man who used to sit on the stone wall in front of his house by the road and wave his cane at passing cars. There were the drunk men I would sometimes encounter in bars as a child, sipping on my Shirley Temples. There were the down and outs in Willimantic who would try to par out advice to little girls. There was the occasional very old person, who more often than not would say "God bless you," not hello. But I always thought they were up to something. There was the Viet Nam vet who had always struck me as shell shocked; he walked the streets around campus and would, shaking, wave his walking stick at passing cars. There were the letches.

But it isn't standard practice in New England to greet someone with whom you're not acquainted. Even with acquaintances, more often than not a nod of the head will do; no need to stop what you're doing and have a conversation. It seems to me that New Englanders tend to foster this illusion of isolation, of privacy. When someone threatens that illusion by being too forthcoming with unsolicited conversation, we tend to read the behavior as, well, crazy (or, at the very least, highly exceptional). We look on it as very suspect.

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I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. I have a couple theories, though. (Aaron used to always be amused by the theories my family tends to come up for things, and then present as hard and fast beliefs. They rarely are the result of any kind of authority on a given topic. In other words, we're a family of hucksters, we're bullshitters.) A possibility: New Englanders, historically, are predisposed to a certain degree of austerity. Given our propensity for being alone and working or thinking (or, at times, glowering—a facial expression I perfected as a youngster), as New England becomes more densely populated, as our forests are carved into by developers, we need to pretend that we're more isolated than we are; we need to bolster up the illusion that we don't have all these neighbors swarming about.

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There's nothing really, fundamentally wrong with being friendly. I decided I would test out Midwestern behavior in Connecticut for practice. I go for a lot of walks. On my walks, I try, now, to say hello to everyone I encounter. The only people who seem to appreciate it are the residents of the assisted living homes on my block. They are expert porch-sitters, so I get the opportunity to say hello to each set several times per day. They are, almost without exception, enthusiastically friendly in return.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"You're a lawyer of Capitalism; I'm a lawyer of Communism. Let's kiss."

I am really rather fond of the poem I've written about the American Exposition that was on view in Moscow in 1963. I've sent it out for potential publication, but if you'd like to read a draft let me know.

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Monday, July 23, 2007


Lately, I've felt the need to tell people about animals. Here's a quick list of recent animal correspondences and communications:

1. In Northampton, eating pizza after Cat Power, I interrupted a perfectly normal conversation to point out a bird carcass:

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2. This year, for my annual Battle of the Boyne poem, The only thing I could think to write about were the Red Deer in Enniskillen. Usually, the poems have to do overtly with politics or familial history, but not this time. Nope, all I wanted to write about was staring down a captive deer in Enniskillen.

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3. Last night, I wrote a message to Martyn. All it said was "very loud owl outside."

4. Also last night, I interrupted Melissa's schemes to get me rich so that I could tell her about the white dog wolf thing that I nearly hit on the drive over. I stopped the car. The thing was unscathed. I rolled down my window to tell it to get out of the road and go home. It circled my car, approached the window, and then—paws on the window sill—stuck its face in, smelling my left temple and ear. It got down and sauntered off into the woods.

5. At the pet store the other day, I saw something quite alarming. Some of you know that I have a near-paralizing fear of dead fish. I opened my car door and was about to step out when I saw one of those little baggies in which they package sold fish. It was on the hot pavement. There was water in the bag, but there was no fish!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I am a really really bad person

So, Cat Power has a bit of a reputation. I'd had a dream about her a couple nights ago, so when, after quitting my job, I looked on my desk calendar and saw "Cat Power Pearl Street 8:30," I thought: "What could possibly be more cathartic than to see a pretty woman break down in public about her occupation?"

I went. It's lucky I'm an atheist; if not I would be concerned about the special corner of hell that is surely reserved for people who want to watch public break downs.

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Well, she was fantastic. She did an incredible cover of "The Dark End of the Street," and while it seemed a bit grandiose for her keyboardist to introduce her as "the best living soul singer," she was really breath-taking.

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There's part of me that will remain steadfastly dedicated to the Cat Power of What Would the Community Think. The early work negotiates the hysterical so deftly. And I have to appreciate any musician who, when a certain one of their songs is on repeat and blasting, makes my mother question my well-being.

But blusey Cat Power makes me swoon.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

on having both things

I hadn't realized it. I thought that I had read enough cultural theory to give up the polarized thinking and structures that are built into how we approach the world.

These days realizations happen like so many wine glasses slipping through my fingers into the sink.

I spent the morning trying to unpack the disappointment I've felt lately in the men I encounter. Having this overriding disappointment in some ways is ensuring that I can place myself in a position of superiority. Not very generous. I kept thinking how I'm disappointed when men find me attractive, and that I'm disappointed when men tell me I'm smart or (recently) "brilliant." It makes me feel as though they're constructing me, not really looking at me, polarizing me.

When I started graduate school, my mother's mother sent me a photograph of her great aunt, who was one of the first women to earn a graduate degree from Cornell. My great, great aunt earned her Masters in Classics. My grandmother told me in the note that she remembered conversing as a girl in Latin with her great aunt, the spinster.

My mother's mother didn't have a job outside of the home to which she bore twelve children. She told my mother that she had wanted to be a nun before she got married. Polarization.

This is my familial legacy: women who raise families, spinsters who engage their intellect. Of course, on a conscious level, I recognize that this is extreme and that there are a thousand-some degrees of compromise, but I wonder to what extent my disappointment takes its root in fear. Am I still scared of having to give things up?

Did that refrain of my grandmother's—you're too smart for your own good—sink in?

Monday, July 2, 2007

Amelia Earhart

I start my days like this:

1. I realize that I'm awake and try to hold onto those first thoughts of the day (lately they've been ideas for course syllabi). I try not to write during these first 15 or so minutes of consciousness, but just to think, to be available to my thoughts. (This is not to suggest that my thoughts are particularly grand, just that I like the exercise of respecting the process.)
2. I make my bed.
3. I feed the cat.
4. I turn on the kettle.
5. I read the New York Times (or, at least, parts of it).
6. I write.
7. I reluctantly drag myself from my desk, away from whatever I've been writing, in the the this-and-that of my day.

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In today's New York Times the editors noted that 70 years ago today, Amelia Earhart's plane went down. I've been thinking about her all day long: about how surprised I was that she had a husband, about how beautiful those last moments staring into the blinding sun must have been, about how people might have read her independence. I wondered if she really ever picked lemons with William Randolph Hearst. I wondered if she downed her plane intentionally. I wondered if it was all too beautiful to bear.

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Her husband spoke calmly from the Oakland Airport, where he was waiting to meet her, of how the empty fuel tanks would make the plane bouyant.

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Sunday, July 1, 2007


When Louis Daguerre announced the invention of the aptly named daguerreotype in January 1839, it quickly became a matter of State in France. Scientists, Artists, Politicians—everyone seemed to have a stake in what photography's uses would be. François Arago, a physicist and member of the French Chamber of Deputies, engineered the purchase of the process by the French government. It fit into his picture of how France could secure world-wide economic supremacy.

Daguerre had become obsessed with capturing the images in camera obscuras. Camera obscuras—in the Latin, "dark chambers"—were mainly used as tools for drawing naturalistically representative images. For this purpose, they usually took their smaller form:

But they also exist as room-sized chambers in which one can sit and watch an image of the world go by:

Daguerre's obsession is an interesting idea, one that strikes me as profoundly sad—fixing moments in time, disallowing their passing.

The beautiful Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art has in it a room sized camera obscura. I was visiting the museum with my friend Mark Williams this winter. We stepped into the room. It takes some time for ones eyes to adjust, but then, there it is, an image of Ridgefield, with its prams and golden retrievers, flags and stonewalls, painted upside down on the wall.

I don't know how to say this. There was something about it. Some kind of convergence of variables—being in this museum, founded in my mother's hometown when she was 14, being in that small space, being somewhat prone to liking camera obscuras over photographs (with which I have a possibly unhealthy obsession anyway)—made me not only certain that when I have my dream house it will have a camera obscura room, but equally certain that I will have lots of sex in it.

There you have it; I fantasized about photography's precursor.

dance dance immolation

I've been batting about the idea for some time now to write a series of poems on the topic of immolation. It's a fairly broad topic, but I had, until today, assumed that it would be generally somber in tone.

I was interested in contrasting protest immolation:

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with sati (a Hindu mourning tradition that involves the immolation of new widows):

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As I was doing research this morning, I stumbled across something called Dance Dance Immolation! Apparently it's a version of the popular dancing game, only instead of losing points for bad dancing, you're met with a blast from a flamethrower. Granted, participants wear fire-resistent gear, but still. Flamethrowers blasting at your body!? Wonders never cease.

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Goodness, me. Now I have a dance dance immolation poem dancing through my head. I'll post a draft later this week.