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The Usefulness of Dreaming

August 10, 2012

My grandfather used to say his best time in school was spent staring out the windows, which he said were tall like doors and thrown open to passing clouds and the alluring gossip of birds. Having placed first in the county, my grandfather quit school at 8th grade to support his widowed mother by working as a teller at the bank, and then as a soldier. A few houses over, his future wife, my grandmother-to-be was selling scissors door to door to buy medicine for her mother, who had been supporting the family by taking in mending and ironing after her husband died, until — in the melodramatic fashion of the time — she too became ill and died.  At sixteen, my grandmother went to work for a milliner to support herself and her sister, and took part of her pay in hats. My grandmother was a soprano and when she wasn’t stitching hats, sometimes she sang as a soloist in a cathedral. One would think neither my grandfather nor my grandmother would have much time for dreaming. But still they dreamt. I do not mean the kind of dreaming one does at night, but the kind that happens in the day, in the absence or even in the presence of other kinds of noise, like teachers writing on the board and whirling around to see who is and isn’t listening, or hat-makers telling you to work faster:  the kind of dreaming that blurs the sound of their speaking, that walks over your consciousness with silky feet, murmurs to you like a siren, and winds you up like a top. I mean the kind that makes you believe you might go places such as you have heard about in books, and see wonders that shall not be named, at least not here, the kind that happens as you are stitching a cluster of violets onto a hat and your hand is moving so fast you may prick yourself.  One glorious thing after another lays itself down like a path and you walk along until you run out of thread. That is the point of dreaming. Then there comes a moment if one is living in this world that dreaming closes up shop and gives way to doing something, anything, that can be named without yearning. This is what is usually called life, is sometimes referred to as work, and is to play what east is to west. Much of it is wonderful, and most of it is forgotten. After seventy years of bending to the necessity of work and circumstance, what my grandfather remembered acutely and without regret were the moments of abandon, of looking out the window and watching the birds.

After eighty years of housekeeping, what my grandmother remembered was hitting D over high C in the vaulted church, and how it felt to make a hat with a clutch of violets, a bird of paradise and a cluster of grapes, and how its very heaviness made her feel lighter than air, walking down the street.


Guns, Soda, Liberty

July 26, 2012

En route to the Paris airport a week after Bastille Day, my cab driver asked if I’d heard what happened the night before in America. No, I said, I had been enjoying our last day in Paris. I had been eating the foie gras and the chewy bread, and drinking the wine. I had been crossing the bridges, gazing at the rooftops and listening to the accordion players. I had been strolling around the city and noticing – among other things — I saw no people bent over laptops in cafes. Mostly, people were talking to one another and watching other people walk by. Stores were closed at noon for two hours while everyone ate lunch, presumably together.

Well, my driver said, there was a big shooting in America. Why do you have so many big shootings? Here we have shootings, but not like that. A person shoots one or two people, and then they stop.

That sounds so reasonable, I said. As violence goes, it sounds almost civilized.

No French people are allowed to own guns, he said. I am glad of that.

In our country we allow people to own guns so they may protect their family and property from intruders, I said. In our country we are also allowed to buy and sell enormous soft drinks.

That is not good, he said. The large drink in our McDonald’s is the small in yours. Why?

I don’t know, I said. There are many things I don’t understand about my country.  Everyone is allowed to own guns and therefore many people are terrified. Everyone is allowed to eat or drink whatever they like, much of the food is unhealthy and many people are sick. And when they get sick, they must pay for it on their own. This is a lot of freedom.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has recently become notorious for taxing the sale of enormous soft drinks in his city, is now asking our presidential candidates what they will do to protect our citizens from the guns, by which they are presently outnumbered. The candidates are squirming.

Perhaps you have too much freedom, my cab driver said. I kind of wanted to tell him to turn around and take me back to Paris, but then again I like my country.

So we are about to return to our lives in America, where I will now and then worry whether to send my daughter to the cinema with her friends, about whether we both should enlist in target practice and purchase twin revolvers so as to defend ourselves from lunatics who may, on an ordinary day, waltz into our public space and open fire.

And I am wondering what the freedom to buy and sell enormous drinks and semi-automatic weapons has to do with liberty, in its strict sense. With the bemused cab driver I am wondering what freedom is worth without a sense of the whole.

Forgive Me

July 26, 2012

for complaining about what amounted to a small bit of inconvenience at the end of a lovely trip I was lucky to take, thoroughly enjoyed, and during which I was protected from harm.  I like to spread cheer. I did not mean to be cranky.

Yours truly,


Why Fly

July 26, 2012

Dear Blank Airlines,

I am returning to you the unused vouchers for lunch, dinner and breakfast at the Hotel M. in Roissypole, France, issued by your company after canceling our return flight to Chicago. Thank you for treating my daughter and me to a bed and three meals at the Hotel M. We slept in the bed but did not partake of the meals. Having given us one thing we didn’t want, in the guise of compensation you gave us a few more: an offer of three meals and a day-long stay at an airport hotel, bringing the total to five unwanted things brought to us by your friendly skies.

Thank you for giving your flight attendants at CDG a slip of paper containing the email address of the PR department should I wish to offer additional feedback beyond my first response at the airport to hearing my flight was canceled, not for reasons of weather or mechanics, but – according to these same attendants — because the plane never left the ground. Thank you for giving your representative in India the same email, which he advised was the only port of call. Thank you for assuring him it would not be possible for a customer of Blank to speak to anyone by phone, but that I could address any correspondence it to the public relations department and perhaps receive a word of apology, or, like pennies tossed from a carriage window to the destitute, a couple of Blank Miles toward my next voyage.

I am not a preferred customer of your airline. I am not a Frequent Flyer or whatever is your endearment for the faithful.  When you can cope with me as deftly as you handle baggage and turbulence; when you are as friendly on land as you are in the sky, then will I consider making Blank my special airline.

Until then: Have at it, Chester!


Your Bread if not your Butter

Bust Your Kneecaps

April 15, 2012

The most adorable song about a broken engagement I have seen yet.

Get Smiley

February 29, 2012


Not long ago, my daughter and a friend announced they would form an Optimists’ Club. The small band of pessimists in their classroom was growing and they had to do something. We were in the car.

From the driver’s mirror I winked at them in solidarity.

They observed it was tricky to identify an adult optimist. I said they’re scarce: it’s not easy, and you can’t be a fool.  They asked me to be their advisor.

For fun, they said they like to smile at people who aren’t used to being smiled at. I said this sounded like a good idea for starters, but that one had to be careful. A smile could mean many things.

We speculated about developing a new icon for optimism — perhaps an emoticon? — and optimistic swag (buttons, t-shirts, you name it) to promote their agenda. We talked about how it’s good to look up, but not so much that you let the door slam in someone’s face who is right behind you.

We decided to survey the competition and assessed that existing optimists’ clubs are not enticing to us.

For one thing, there are too many pictures of people smiling. It gets on your nerves.  For another: too much happy sounding talk. Also annoying. There has to be a way to capture the modern optimist: understated, ready to smile but not in-your-face, with a touch of budding irony — crisp, wry, like a cracker. Forgive me, I’m getting carried away.  So now it is a contest: to coin the emoticon that captures the spirit of the modern optimist, and makes everyone — even the ornery — want a piece of the pie.

On Facial Treatment for Ladies

February 25, 2012

I am going to a party tonight and it is not every day I go to a party to which I will wear — or as the young people say, rock — a velvet dress. As it happened I am reading Ovid (The Erotic Poems) and stumble on his prescriptions for beauty. Lucky me. Now you might say: Ovid! What are his creds? to which I say Ovid is a lover of women and as such, he makes it is business to get all up in our business, including our complexions. That’s his niche. Let’s give a big shout-out to Ovid for his take on staying foxy:

Let me show you how, when you first wake in the morning your face can be bright and fresh. Take imported Libyan barley, strip off its outer husk and chaff, measure two pounds of stripped grain, and add an equal measure of vetch steeped in ten raw eggs. Let this mixture dry in the air, then have your donkey grind it slowly, taking the rough quern round; prepare two ounces of powdered hartshorn, taken from a vigorous stag’s first fallen antlers; stir this well into the powdery meal, then sift the mixture, at once, through fine-meshed sieves. Take twelve narcissus bulbs, skin them and pound them (Use a marble block); add them in, with two ouncees each of gum and Tuscan spelt-seed, and a pound and a half of honey. Any girl who uses a face-pack according to this prescription will shine brighter than her own Mirror.

The donkey is grinding my vetch right now.

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