Friday, August 28, 2009

Norwegian Good

Like most of you, I suspect, I have my favorite—usually slightly dopey--summer songs (“Heavy Metal Drummer”) and summer novels (Mysteries of Pittsburgh), but I've never really thought in terms of summer paintings. If I had to, I’d probably look around for work that is somehow lightweight and pop, to go along with my fizzy choices for music and prose. The visual art equivalent of a beach read. But Jason Wilson, wrirting in The Smart Set, makes an unlikely nomination: the melancholic Norwegian Edvard Munch, most famous for “The Scream.” Wilson is a fan of Munch’s “The Voice (Summer Night),” which you can check out in the slideshow that accompanies his essay. Wilson says the painting “depicts a woman, with her hair let down, standing in a secret lover’s spot near the shoreline on one of those endless Scandinavian midsummer nights.” He writes:

The thing about Munch is that, no matter how dream-like or metaphorical or obvious or depressing he becomes, the landscapes he paints are somehow always right. He catches the seductive-yet-ominous mood of those midsummer nights. He knew better than anyone that the flip side of the glorious midnight sun is the long, dark, melancholy winter to come. That even within the moment of great happiness, it’s already swiftly moving into the past tense.

That’s a little heavy for summer, and maybe a little too good, like a really fine Bordeaux on a 90-degree day. But then, Wilson makes a good case for Munch, and I wouldn’t say no to the Bordeaux, either.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

License to Ill

Having spent the last five days kicked around by a particularly nasty flu bug, I’m ready to see some redeeming value in being ill. (This is how you know I really am sick: when I start seeing the good in bad situations. Someone call a doctor!)

If nothing else, my condition has arrested some of my tendencies toward overparenting. My eight-year-old son started third grade this week and I was unable to join him and his mother, and the rest of the neighborhood, for the traditional walk to school for the big day, nor was I able to be with him the night before at Meet Your Teacher Night. Also, he competed in a Punt, Pass and Kick Competition run by his flag football league, while I was home in bed watching Andy Griffith reruns and trying to get down yet another piece of dry toast. And here’s the utterly amazing thing: Everything seems to have gone just fine without me. He and his teacher hit it off; school is off to a good start; he won the PP&K contest.

These are probably useful lessons to relearn every now and then. That my kid, whether I’m there worrying over him or not, will probably do okay, and that his mom, in any case, seems to have things covered.

Now that I’ve duly noted my blessings, it’s back to the dry toast.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Summer Reading #7

From Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon:
Some mornings they awake and can believe that they traverse an Eden, unbearably fair in the Dawn, squandering all its Beauty, day after day unseen, bearing them fruits, presenting them Game, bringing them a fugitive moment of Peace,--how, for days at a time, can they not, dizzy with it, believe themselves pass'd permanently into Dream...?

Summer takes hold, manifold sweet odors of the Field, and presently the Forest, become routine, and one night the Surveyors sit in their Tent, in the Dark, and watch Fire-flies, millions of them blinking ev'rywhere,--Dixon engineering plans for lighting the Camp-site with them, recalling how his brother George back home, ran Coal-Gas through reed piping along the Orchard wall. Jeremiah will lead the Fire-flies to stream continuously through the Tent in a narrow band, here and there to gather in glass Globes, concentrating on their light to the Yellow of a new-risen Moon.

"And when we move to where there are none of these tiny Linkmen?"

"We take 'em with huz...? Lifetime Employment!"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Problem with Mountains

Living as I have in Illinois all my life, I can’t claim a lot of experience with mountains. So I was bowled over by the ones we visited in northern New Mexico on our just-completed family vacation. We were visiting (or should I just come right out and say discommoding?) my in-laws, who live on the flank of a peak in the Sangre de Cristo range on the edge of Santa Fe. I spent most of my week there gaping at the kinds of vistas you just don’t get in the flatlands. I did a little running on the gorgeous trails that wind around the mountains there, and every once in a while I would round some bend on a twisty path and have to stop to gawk at some spectacular view. There were a few times when I was sure I could see half of New Mexico.

The problem with mountains, though, is that they make baseball a very complicated sport. My boy AJ and I make it a habit to bring our gloves and a ball on every vacation. On our driving trips, we make sure we have a catch when we stop for a rest along the Interstate—so that we can now claim to have played catch in most of the states east of the Mississippi. Matters were a little trickier in the mountain west, though. When we tried to have a catch on the steeply pitched street leading to my in-laws’ place, we learned that wild throws could roll downhill for a long, long way. We had to stop after one throw got past my son and he couldn’t stop the ball—our only ball—before it rolled off into the brush. It probably came to a final rest somewhere near Albuquerque.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer Reading #6

From "A & P" by John Updike:
In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I'm in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs. I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. She's one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She'd been watching cash registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Party Animals

One of our neighbors threw a luau last weekend. I’m not sure what the occasion was, except that it just seemed like the right time to roast a few pigs and make tiki drinks. According to this piece by Michael Gazzaniga, from the summer issue of Daedalus, it’s exactly this kind of impulse that makes us most fully human. Dinner parties, barbecues, baby showers, and, yes, luaus are unheard of in other species, he writes:

What other animal would plan an event, provide food to unrelated others, and sit together and share it without a food fight, all while laughing about stories of the past and hopes and dreams of the future ? There is none. No matter how smart your family dog may be, he would not divvy up a prime rib roast and pass it out to the other dogs of the neighborhood with a happy little bark; neither would our closest relatives, the chimps. Humans are social beings, and although there are other animal and insect species that are social, our species takes sociability to a previously unknown level. We are party animals, and on our way to becoming such we have evolved a whole host of unique features - features so unique that we humans are playing in another ballpark.

I’m not sure how convincing an argument Gazzaniga makes (I bailed out during his discussion of primate brain biology, including “the intriguing Brodmann Area 10”), but I do find his premise comforting. Next time I find myself overindulging at a wedding reception, I will feel less like a lush and more like a philosopher-king.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Summer Reading #5

From Jim the Boy by Tony Earley:
"Okay, Doc," Uncle Zeno says. "Keep your eye on the ball. Here it comes."

The baseball in Uncle Zeno's hand is almost invisible, a piece of smoke, a shadow. The woods on the far side of the pasture are already dark as sleep; the river twists through them by memory. Uncle Zeno tosses the ball gently toward the boy, who does not see it until its arc carries it above the black line of trees, where it hangs for a moment like an eclipse in the faintly glowing sky. The boy is arm-weary; he swings as hard as he is able. The bat and ball collide weakly. The ball drops to the ground at the boy's feet. It lies there stunned, quivering, containing flight beneath its smooth skin. The boy switches the bat into his left hand, picks up the ball with his right, and throws it back to Uncle Zeno.

"I hit it just about every time," the boy says.

"Batter, batter, batter, batter," Uncle Al chirps in the field.

"Say, whatta-say, whatta-say, whatta-say," chants Uncle Coran in the ancient singsong of ballplayers. The uncles are singing to the boy. He has never heard anything so beautiful. He does not want it to stop.

"Okay, Doc," says Uncle Zeno. "One more. Now watch."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sleep History

Those of you who participated in our roundtable on middle-of-the-night reading know that I’ve learned to rationalize my occasional bouts of insomnia as opportunities to get through my bedside stack of books. But, even better, this NPR story says that those hours of wakefulness place me in a great historical tradition. It features this bit of sleep history from psychiatrist Thomas Wehr: Those of us who wake up in the middle of the night are really sleeping—or is that not sleeping?—just the way our ancestors did.

"There are historical records of people sleeping in two bouts at night," Wehr explains. "They called the first bout dead sleep, and the second bout was called morning sleep. The wakeful period in between was referred to as watch or watching.”

In one study that simulated the long winter nights that people would have experienced in the days before artificial lighting, Wehr points out, subjects ended up sleeping in two stints separated by a two-hour period of wakefulness, a “quiescent, meditative state” that some called “midnight comfort.”

I’ll try to keep this bit of soothing news in mind next time I'm up in the middle of the night. Because if anxiety contributes to insomnia, one of the things I end worrying about most at 2 a.m. is that I’m not getting enough sleep.

The piece goes on to say that such wakefulness is not uncommon. especially as we age and our sleep becomes more fragile. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with me--I’m just getting old.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Summer Reading #4

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Real Cruelest Month

The other day in the drug store I saw a woman and her school-age son pushing around a shopping cart filled with school supplies: Notebooks, folders, pencil cases, erasers, loose-leaf paper. I felt like crying. It was August.

It’s been decades since I’ve had to shop for school supplies, but to this day an advertisement for a back-to-school sale will cast a pall over me. And August is the month of the back-to-school sale, the month when summer’s end comes into view.

I feel about August exactly as I do about late afternoons. It is the drowsy, listless, humid time when you realize that the clock is running out on your big plans. August has always been, for me, a 31-day period of reconciling myself to the fact that this will not be the transcendent summer that I had imagined back around Memorial Day. The classic text for August-haters is Slate editor David Plotz’s “August: Let’s Get Rid of It,” which first ran in 2001, but which has become a summer tradition at Slate—sort of a crabby, online version of the old “Injun Summer” cartoon by John T. McCutcheon that used to run annually in the Chicago Tribune Magazine—and is now back again. Plotz has his own socio-historical reasons for loathing August. Perhaps the most damning point in Plotz’s anti-August argument? “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted in August," he writes. "(No August, no Sonny and Cher!)"