Sun-day Afternoon

The song playing in my mind (and now on my laptop) is “Tuesday Afternoon” by the Moody Blues, although for the better part of three hours I was singing “Sunday afternoon” to myself.

Tuesday, afternoon,
I’m just beginning to see, now I’m on my way.
It doesn’t matter to me, chasing the clouds away.
Something, calls to me,
The trees are drawing me near, I’ve got to find out why?
Those gentle voices I hear, explain it all with a sigh.

I’m not sure what it was about a Tuesday afternoon that moved Justin Hayward to pen these words — the same could’ve been said about today, an afternoon with just the right dose clear blue skies streaked with fleeting, white clouds, with gentle breezes whispering softly and getting just a bit frisky with my hair as I strolled to a local park to enjoy one of the finest sandwiches (or, if you’re in Philly: hoagies) this side of the Atlantic. At its warmest, the temperature began in the low 60s and rose to a respectable 80 degrees — mention-worthy in late August, when phrases like “heat wave” and “oppressive heat” are the norm.

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Perhaps my pre-emptive nostalgia comes from the realization that this is my last summer Sunday of the year. Next week, this time, I will be cleaning out my office (long overdue) in preparation for the start of the coming academic year. The summer days in Philadelphia draw to an end as the slow frenzy of New York City prepares to takes it hold. The challenge this year, as it always is, will be to keep the stupid frenzy at bay.

What distinguishes stupid frenzy from, say, beneficial or even useful frenzy you ask? In simplest terms, the degree of agita that it induces. It is why I work hard to avoid all known persons during the summer (save my friends, of course); to wit — while walking out of our main building last week (during one of my 24-hr visits to the city for semester-related prep), using guerrilla-like maneuvers, I rerouted myself three times when I spotted oncoming agita from afar. Call me a coward, but I was the better for it.

Of course, an active embrace of one’s inner zen is probably the more healthy approach. I’ll work on it, and in the meantime, as summer recedes into the land of memories, the Moody Blues can soothe my soul.

 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bit more sun to be had on this summer afternoon.

Sunday morning cafe

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I get lost in words — on the page, spoken by others around me, the new ones that swirl with the old ones in my head.

Smells, sweet and savory, waft in my direction and then move swiftly away.

The occasional eye contact with a stranger; reading someone’s lips while pretending to listen intently to whatever is(n’t) streaming through my silent headphones; the random utterance or facial gesture that reminds me of my grandmother (she would’ve turned 90 yesterday).

Über concentrated forms of distraction.

Incarnations of bread and water.

Avoiding people/dogs while acting like I’m not bothered by (scared of) them.

Mind wandering, thoughts out of nowhere; a long standing dilemma eases naturally as if the answer was present all along; at peace with where I am.

This must be what church is like.

A Christmas story

My father’s birthday falls about a week before Christmas and for the past several years my siblings and I have had some local chocolates delivered to his place of business. There is much fanfare, his employees are also able to participate in the fun, and the delivery makes the day memorable for all involved. This year, as he was approaching a milestone birthday, I thought briefly of doing something different — that is to say, ordering a delivery from somewhere different. The town where I spent my childhood, and where my father still lives, is not entirely devoid of clever gustatory options but since taking my leave many years ago I am less familiar with what those options may be. So after approximately two hundred seconds of google-mediated soul-searching, I opted to stay with tradition. Not being tethered to a sense of tradition in most of other parts of my life, this decision was therefore more practical than sentimental. However, all that changed after a phone call.

I rang the local chocolate shop on the weekend prior to the big birthday and proceeded to explain my request. I wanted a one-pound box of sugar free chocolates (for my diabetic dad) and a box of other chocolates (for his non-diabetic staff) delivered to his office. The voice on the other end of the phone balked. Wha– Um– We don’t do deliveries…? She said in that inflected manner in which statements sound curiously like questions. I explained slowly that I had been placing the same order for at least five or six years now and each time it is a delivery order. Um…. hold on. [I can hear some conversation on the other end between my telephone interlocutor and her colleague (collective age, 35… I’m guessing…) and then returns, with a gasp, to the phone] Yeah, we don’t deliver…? Um, but you can call Sue on Monday. She can help you…? I thanked her for her assistance and then on the following Monday morning, I placed a call and had the most pleasant chat with Sue:

Me: Hi, may I speak with Sue please?

Sue: This is Sue.

Me: Hi Sue, this is [me] and I’m calling to place an order for delivery for my dad’s birthday.

Sue: Oh! I was waiting for your call! How are ya? How’s your dad?

Me: I’m doing well and so is he, thanks. And you? You must be busy this time of year.

Sue: [pause] Yeah… well, I hope it gets busier. [pause] Well, what are we putting together this time? The sugar free box, right?

Me: Yes! And also something for his staff — maybe you can help me with this.

Sue: Sure — so the one-pound assortment – Sugar Free! I always remember [i think i hear her smiling] and I’m putting a label on it, too — and then, do you wanna put together a tray of other goodies? We’ve done a few for some local law firms — we package them up nicely with cellophane and wrapping — the whole works. It’ll be great.

Me: That sounds really lovely. Thank you — I think they’ll enjoy it. [pause] Do you need the address?

Sue: Nah — I know where it is — on the second floor, right? Yeah, not a problem.

I give her my payment information, and spell out the names for the card, and thank her again for her help.

Sue: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And thank you for thinking of us.

We hang up. Her last words linger in my mind as I recall her response to my query about how busy they must be: “I hope it gets busier.” And suddenly I am overcome with a deep (albeit somewhat fleeting) sense of sadness. All of the chatter in the mediaspheres about fiscal cliffs, taxes on small businesses, the pundits and politicians waxing (non)philosophic about the pl/fight of the middle class — all came into stark relief in this small moment. Business decoupled from finance, businesses as staples of communities, businesses as dependent upon and depended on by citizens. In a world dominated by Amazon and the like, it’s easy to forget (or at least it was for me) the importance of the smallness. Local is not mere ontology or discursive opposition to global — local is quotidian, local is lived, local is in many ways global itself. (I’m resisting the urge here to pontificate further on this notion: What is globalization but a series of connected locals?… You’re welcome)

Now, I’m no purist nor extremist (nor any -ist, really) — I won’t stop using Amazon, but in the moment of my conversation with Sue, and our follow-up exchange (below), the bigness of small moments moved me deeply. And I’m reminded of the fruit and veg stand on Southampton Row near the Sainsbury’s where I bought fruit for several months last year; and the series of coffee shops around my home in Philadelphia that are not franchised, some of which are host to artwork by local artists including:

  • Chapterhouse – where there’s an exhibit by Lynette Shelley and Eleanor Grosch currently ongoing
  • Red Hook Coffee – currently hosting a photography exhibit by students from Fleischer Arts til January 20th.

*****
Later the same afternoon–

Me: Hi Sue, I saw you called.

Sue: Oh yeah, I forgot how to spell your dad’s last name but then I remembered right after I called you.

Me: Ok, great. Did you need anything else?

Sue: No, it worked out fine. Your dad is so cute — as soon as I walked in, he looked up and said “She never forgets.” And he looked so happy. And we put the cookie tray in the main room for everyone to enjoy.

Me: Thank you so much. Really.

Sue: Well, thank you for thinking of us and using us. Have a good holiday.

Me: You, too.

It turns out that they do not, in fact, deliver. Except for this delivery each December. For the past few years, and, if I can help it, for the next several to come.

****

May 2013 bring continued glimpses of humanity, joy, and small moments that make up lives…

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Seen on a wall, on a small street in Philadelphia

Slip and fall

 

The almost-gash on my leg, just below my knee, refuses to bleed. The indentation, the size of a large staple, taunts me as if it is daring me to take a closer look, knowing full well that the sight of actual blood would induce swooning. So instead, the capillaries along the two-inch abrasion scream silently, the bright maroon from a few hours ago now settling into a brownish wine color. Another, smaller patch of this strange hue sits just millimeters below.

It’s not the pain or the embarrassment that lingers after a fall. No, it’s the split second between realizing you’re about to fall and the moment you begin your descent. The heart, perhaps out of self-preservation, holds its breath. We’re falling, it says, steadying itself before bracing for impact. It’s that instant that reoccurs, the memory of the moment just prior to losing all control that leaves the most indelible mark on the mind and in the body. It’s a recognition of fear about which we can do nothing but succumb. Powerless.

Let me go back a few hours, back before I had cause to wonder how early my doctor would be able to see me Monday morning.

Friday, the 23rd, the day after American Thanksgiving. To the internet and consumerist world, it is Black Friday. For me and three others with whom I passed the time this afternoon, it was a respite from the busy-ness of ordinarily hectic and over-scheduled days. All of us educators and researchers; three of us faculty at universities and the fourth a junior high teacher; all of us, despite our geographic distance, are ever in conversation with one another.

I snapped the second plastic buckle into place and adjusted my scarf before swinging the bag over left shoulder. What I was wearing as a scarf was a large, rectangular, thick cut of green wool that my grandmother had used as a shawl. Along the edges thread has been woven back and forth to resemble the shape of flowers or something else in the flora family. Folded lengthwise, I could wrap it around my neck a few times or, as I was wearing it this time, I often left one end hanging low in front of me and flung the other end across the opposite shoulder. As I started walking toward the door, I was filled with a soothing bliss, a flashing remembrance of the last several hours spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom I had attended graduate school, with whom I enjoy talking and thinking about and imagining new questions and ideas that arise from our intersecting threads of inquiry.

We sat in the corner, occupying two small tables that on one side offered seating in the form of a curved cushioned bench with a tall, arched back covered in dark fabric, and on the other side could accommodate chairs. I had noticed the clusters of food scraps that rose up from the dark, vinyl floor like mini-landfills here and there, but, other than making a mental note to avoid them I hadn’t paid them much mind. During the course of the afternoon spent at the cafe where I once was employed for 36 hours, and to whose food preparers I almost completely handed over the responsibility of meal preparation during the year that I was writing my dissertation, I had successfully maneuvered my way to the counter to order a total of two cups of coffee and a scone. The service had been pleasant — not overly impressive given my very simple order, but worth noting all the same.

My friend, who would be giving me a ride home, walked a few steps in front of me and I had no reason to think anything was out of the ordinary… and the next instant, I was gripping onto metal and plastic poles that had been set up to direct traffic to the salad station. Down I went, but not before gliding uncontrollably for what, in that instant, felt like an unending spell of torture — the ground mocking me as I struggled to maintain some semblance of an upright posture before recognizing that pain would be unavoidable.

Perhaps I should have stayed down for a few more seconds, but in that most powerless of moments, the only thing the body wants to do is return to normal. How bad can it be, you think, fully aware that your shock impulses have taken over. There is an inexplicable impulse  to smooth your hair, to dust the unbelievably filthy floor dirt from off of your jeans, and then, while all of this maneuvering is happening, a glimpse of crumbs on the floor. A patch of wet crumbs. The culprit. So harmless looking. A non-issue had the crumbs never been dropped, or had they been swept up in a more timely fashion.

And it was perhaps this latter point that brought the manager, who was working his very first shift, rushing outside while my friend and I waited for our ride. Was I ok? Was I sure? What was my name? First name? Last name? And my number? And my address? But I wasn’t comfortable sharing my address. Oh, well my supervising manager will ask me for it. My head was reeling, I wasn’t all quite there. Thankfully, my friend had the presence of mind to ask for the manager’s card, noting that I would get myself checked out and be in touch if necessary. The man shook my hand asking, Are you sure you’re ok? Do you promise?

My friend later told me that I had inadvertently used the magic words that no business wants to hear: Slip and fall. It was the simplest explanation. And yet, they carry with them the ominous promise of legal action. Litigious action was the furthest thing from my mind as I inspected my leg at the scene of the crime incident. A visible scrape, some swelling, the promise of an abrasion and no doubt a scar to come.

Our bodies carry stories. And now mine carries a reminder of one more.

Size matters

When Y asked me to reflect on what elements or affordances characterized this past year as simply sublime, I was momentarily rendered speechless. Everything, I wanted to say – that is to say, nothing: no appointments on my calendar for days at a time, no mandatory meetings to plan more meetings (in between which no actual work is accomplished), long blissful stretches of time of silence and solitude (and not only when I was sitting Vipassana), no guilt when spending full days free from agenda with my spouse, friends, or family. A full sense of nothing. No thing.

The answer, it turns out, was far less philosophical. I relished my limited wardrobe, namely a predictable uniform of jeans in some form and a tee shirt whose sleeve length was determined by the weather. It was the denim, however, that was the linchpin, the signifier of time spent away from judging eyes, the reassurance of moving through the hours and on the streets on one’s own terms. Of course, in an academic environment, jeans have become commonplace (thank goodness!) and form the core of my work wardrobe, as well. Ah, but the freedom from a work wardrobe

My penchant for dwelling often in the comfort of denim showed when, last week while walking upwards of seven or eight miles between domicile and commercial enterprises, several times in fact, I was made suddenly aware of a sad reality. The year’s ocean crossings and multi-terrain, varied climate travels had taken their toll on these woven denim relics and had rendered all of my remaining jeans utterly worn (through). And then the other shoe dropped: I needed to shop for new jeans.

It has been years since I stepped foot into a store with the express purpose of purchasing a pair of jeans. I had taken a page out of my father’s book of “find something that fits and buy multiples” – and so I had done just that. Only now, the jeans stockpile was no more. (To be absolutely truthful, there are still two or three pairs tucked away on a shelf somewhere – or now, in a suitcase waiting to be unpacked having traveled back from Philadelphia to New York – that will do in a pinch, but they are one critical assessment short of the donation bag. When will I learn that trends are not for me?)

Syllabus planning, book writing, email responses, phone calls – they all took a back seat one afternoon as I steeled myself for the task at hand. The Center City crowds seemed overwhelming, so used to the quiet of my neighborhood had I become that constant chatter blended with car horns and diesel engines struck a cacophonous chord in my ear. Simply to escape the noise, I opened the glass door of the first store ready with anticipation to be enveloped in the icy cool blast of air conditioning, although it was less of an embrace than a full frontal attack by the air duct register hung above the main entrance.

My air assault was followed by a cloyingly sweet greeting uttered by a salesgirl with an oddly brusque looking face; she took on a completely different appearance when she smiled. This was not to be the place, I determined quite quickly and, with a perfunctory tour around the store, I skirted the glare of the first salesgirl and scurried out without so much as bothering to feel the fabric or decipher the code for the different jeans leg openings.

Similar scenes played out in three more stores, although I did manage to take a few candidates into the dressing room, only to be completely confounded by a) what passes for denim and b) the sheer lack of understanding on the part of jeansmakers about the meanings of words like rise and flare and straight as they pertain to the garment of their livelihood. In short, no luck.

I didn’t intend to purchase jeans from The Gap, nor do I intend this as an advertisement for the brand or corporation. But my curiosity and historical familiarity pushed me to pull open the excessively tall doors that are initially resistant and then, without warning and with encouragement of the spring hinges, augment the motion by swinging widely. It’s a wonder more people aren’t injured for just entering the store.

What happened next was swift, free from overthinking, easy. I tried on six pairs of jeans in a range of waist sizes, lengths and styles. One worked well, the same style name I remember purchasing nearly a decade earlier, but the length was a bit long. So I gathered up all of my things – because by this point in the afternoon on a day full of meetings, gym, and errands, I had acquired an additional few bags of various shapes and sizes that, in addition to my laptop bag, were hanging off of me – and avoided the wider abyss of the store by making a beeline for the jeans display and within a few seconds located the right leg length in the right style and size. Oh, if only that was the end…

I repeated this search and rescue operation two more times and in doing so came upon a strange fact: jeans of the same style, rinse, and size may have different material composition based on inseam. Length!

With the matter finally resolved, and with my new purchase tucked away between my sneakers and old gym clothes, I checked my watch on my left hand as my right found the metal handle to push open the large glass door. 97 minutes. That was the time it took to find a new pair of jeans and to be reminded that despite the industrial revolution and all the technical revelations in manufacturing, individual hands – thousands of them – are never far from the journey taken by the material goods in our everyday lives.

And then I remembered a short film produced by a young man — a teenager — who I met at an academic conference. For his poetic take on hands, take 2:21 minutes and watch this (part of the DigMe video collection):

the folly of language

There’s much fun to be had at the expense of the English language — that is to say, at the expense of the version of English spoken here in the States:

  • We park in driveways and drive on parkways.
  • One often pays a toll on freeways.
  • Night falls but day breaks.
  • Suits are packed in a garment bag and garments are packed in a suitcase.

In searching around the web a bit, I also came across several pages* devoted to the sheer silliness of English:

  • We must polish the Polish furniture.
  • He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  • The farm was used to produce produce.
  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • The soldier decided to desert in the desert.
  • This was a good time to present the present.
  • A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

And so it goes, this folly of logic throughout the English language. Of course, some linguists may be able to provide etymological history for why certain conventions for how we say what we say to mean what we mean came about. Saying and meaning, however, are two different things.

Once again, Twain provides sound wisdom on the matter: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is … the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

So I have been ruminating, while sitting amidst the remaining boxes of items prepared to be transported from one location to another, whether the apt phrase to use as this particular spell-of-time called sabbatical nears its conclusion is “going back.” Does one ever really go back, which is not the same as the more achievable act of going backward — i.e., on a bicycle, as a running technique to strengthen the forgotten leg muscles, in knitting (or so I’m told, because knit one, pearl two was too much for me to grasp).

“Going back,” however, attempts to evoke the sentiment of returning to something or somewhere stable. We go back home from vacation or go back to our offices having forgotten a book or keys — going back is as reassuring as it is unnerving. The latter is the reason that many choose not to attend their high school reunions for fear that going back to the physical structure of the educational institution may catalyze once again the social arrangements that existed ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. (Time travel is less daunting in some respects.) Going back can feel worse than anti-climactic; it takes on the veneer of the gruesome. Going back can feel as if nothing has changed. And yet, if nothing is unchanging, can we really go back?

The folly of language is also its beauty. Our inability to communicate in a manner that replicates our very thoughts for others is what gives rise to heart-stopping prose and enchanting descriptions — Sebald elucidating the poetry to be found in the way smoke billows or the anthropomorphic qualities of black silk as in this passage from Rings of Saturn where he is describing the actions of a dying man:

Apollo had burnt all of his own manuscripts in the fireplace. At times, when he did so, a weightless flake of soot ash like a scrap of black silk would drift through the room, borne up on the air, before sinking to the floor somewhere or dissolving into the dark.

Each time I read about Apollo Korzeniowski My mind’s eye follows the soot around the room, instinctively raising my chin as if I expect the ash to be twisting and floating near me, wherever I happen to be while reading those words. (One of those times happened to be while seated on a large slab of granite at the Met Museum in New York City along east wall of a room that contained the Temple of Dendur, the centerpiece of the Egyptian collection at the museum. The entire northern wall of the room leans inward and is made of several hundred small panes of glass giving visitors a feeling of closeness with the adjacent Central Park — closeness and airiness, inside and outside, embraced and alighted.) Does it matter whether the ash was silk-like or not? Is this a debate of historical accuracy? Can adjectives alone make or break history?

“Going back” viewed as an incarnation of returning may be cognizant of change; that is to say, if the traveler has changed — by the mere passing of time, through encounters and glimpses into other ways of being and living — so, too, has her home — even if only having gathered dust that was previously absent.

Yet, both “going back” and “returning” feel heavy, laden with the past rather than buoyed by the wisdom of history.

When words in our language fail us or, worse, stifle us, we turn to other tongues.

I recently learned that the sanskrit word “bhu” is used to mean both “being” and “becoming” —

How can that be? For so long I have pitted the two against the other: being as alternatively stagnant and resolute; becoming as responsive and generative. But both, and? How does one orient oneself to accept this as not merely duality or compounded noun, but what is? If so, can one be going back and returning?

In Korean, the word “han” connotes both despair and acceptance, sorrow as well as a desire for vengeance though without action; the definitions rendered in English are inherently inadequate, so devoid are our words of the implied cultural meanings and referents to which “han” signals almost before its utterance.

In a contrasting vein, the Greek word “kalon” — the Platonic descriptor of beauty — struggles to gain apt expression in English. Rather than attempt to paraphrase, I will quote directly from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

More typically kalon appears in contexts to which “beautiful” would fit awkwardly or not at all. For both Plato and Aristotle—and in many respects for Greek popular morality—kalon has a particular role to play as ethical approbation, not by meaning the same thing that agathon “good” means, but as a special complement to goodness.

Because kalon does not always apply when “beautiful” does, and conversely much can be kalon that no one calls beautiful, translators may use other words. One rightly popular choice is “fine,” which applies to most things labeled kalon and also appropriate to ethical and aesthetic contexts (so Woodruff 1983). There are fine suits and string quartets but also fine displays of courage. Of course we have fine sunsets and fine dining as well, this word being even broader than kalon; that is not to mention fine points or fine print. And whereas people ordinarily ask what beauty really consist in, so that a conversation on the topic might actually have taken place, it is hard to imagine worrying over “what the fine is” or “what is really fine.”

Translation, too, is far from an exact science — for that matter, science is far from being an exact science! All language, however precise, is mere approximation.

***

Well this is a fine rhetorical corner I’ve painted myself into, out of which the only way out is to embrace the reality that going to campus, to my office, and into the coming autumn semester with a sense of both being and becoming and to trust that things that seem unchanging have also undergone change, however glacial.

In doing so, I’ll ponder another unlikely discursive combination: rooted wanderlust…

The folly of language is also its beauty.

* If you click on this page, you’ll notice that the word “homonym” is used to mean heteronym.