Friday, May 23, 2008

on the road again

Two nights ago, during my odyssey to Basel, I spent the night in London at the St. Paul's youth hostel. As usual, I got in too late and had to leave too early to do anything. So for me London still remains the world's largest pit stop, a place I go en route to somewhere else.

In the hallways of the hostel are various maps of nations once in the British Empire. I found this to be a striking choice of decor. No posters of the Queen's guard or of Parliament or double-decker buses. Rather, maps of Canada and Australia figured prominently on my floor. The Australian map was one of those promotional cartoonish tourist maps, the kind that signify major cities by their famous buildings or favorite sporting events. There were smatterings of sheep and surfers, palm trees and kangaroos, the occasional penguin and opera house dotting the coastline. The Canadian map was more conventional, the kind you'd have on display in a classroom.

As I stood in the hallway, drying my hair after a midnight shower to wash away the airline grime and pondering these maps, it dawned on me how Babel is really a about Empire, the only force capable of unifying the globe under one language and thereby destined to fall.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

little sadist in the snow

Over a beer this evening I recounted the story of a mike stand falling and puncturing a hole in the side of my cello during a gig in Danbury eight years ago. I commented how I was shocked but also kind of relieved. And while I didn't say it at the time, I was reminded of a scene in the film Hilary and Jackie, in which Emily Watson, playing the cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, gets angry with her cello and the life it has made for her and leaves it outside overnight on the balcony of her hotel room during a snowy night in Moscow to punish it. Eventually, she has to drag it in out from under the icy banks that have accumulated in and around it and forgives it, because, obviously, she's the only one who is suffering and punished. (If they had cut the rest of the movie, that sequence alone would have made a pretty great film.)

Never let an instrument get its hooks into you: you can't abandon it, you can't sell it, you can't destroy it, you can't love it, you can't resent it, but it's persists nevertheless. The best revenge you can get is to neglect it. And still you'll feel guilty now and again and do things like buy it new strings or clean and polish it to make it up. But it's never enough. Anything you do to it boomerangs right back, and though it's not technically alive, it's got a healthy dose of autonomy. Everyone knows that instruments "like to be played." Do they also like to see you suffer?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

having sprung, the smells

The month of March has come and gone and cigarette season is almost over. The faux fur lining in the Barbour jacket is out and the thing feels ten pounds lighter but no less warm in the face of blustery winds that, at last, portend spring. There's no turning back now: the windows are wide open, it's ten to midnight, and there's lightning and the sound of rain to fall asleep to. I've bleached the whites that A. gave me - towels and a comforter - and the room smells faintly of chlorine. I'm not sure if that's bad for me, but it masks the musty smell coming from the protective case for my cello, lined with sheepskin with a blue shell made of the same material they use for circus tents. This case makes an appearance from whatever basement it has been in over the last ten years to transport the cello on flights without my having to spring for another seat - and I've never had so much as a loose string after all the baggage handling. But now I don't have a basement and the "behemoth" (as my grandmother affectionately calls it, for it's spent most of its days in her basement) now sits in my dormitory room, exuding the odor of another, stranger part of a house. A part of the house for luggage and junk and memorabilia but not for people.

Monday, February 25, 2008

tonight was a quasi night

The lock on my letterbox is an imprecise machine. I go to the basement, tipsy on two glasses of shiraz and two cigarettes on an empty stomach, searching for my mail. I'm confronted with a combination lock - an object that is my nemesis if there ever was one. The first time I swore out loud was at age twelve, wrestling after hours with the combination on my first school locker. (The word was "Shit!" and it unleashed a lifetime of foul-mouthed fury that oddly reaches its apex anytime I am around a child younger than I was then.) Most recently, as I was packing to return to the States, I locked my suitcase only to realize I had utterly forgotten the combination. Even if I had had this insight before the fateful click of the lock, I doubt I would have steered my hand away - such is the siren song of the combination lock. (I spent my last two days in Basel wending my way systematically through the possible permutations, and when I found it, 559, and realized the obscure mnemonic device behind the choice, it felt like the most productive thing I had done all fall.) Now I have a mailbox that, when I concentrate on unlocking it, resists my touch. But when I am inebriated and have no interest in the day's contents, it is as pliant as a person asking you for a favor.

Tonight was a Quasi night. I have recently procured the means with which to listen to music on the go. As all my belongings are still lodged in a warehouse somewhere in Wooster, I have the same three CDs I took with me to Germany, Quasi's Field Studies among them. I was down in the basement, futzing with the combination lock, listening and wishing that I'd be met with a bigger struggle just so I could finish out the album before having to head upstairs. Quasi is pretty dangerous for those of us keeping depression at bay; it's so easy to indulge in the unhappiness they articulate, so comfortable to wrap their self-pity around you and think Exactly. That's exactly how heartless the world is to me. At least that's how they sounded to me ten years ago, when A. introduced me to them somewhere in the San Jacinto Mountains, an hour out of Twentynine Palms. Now when I listen to Quasi, I direct their words to others: I listened to them at people who were a pain in the ass to me today. It saves me the trouble of having to tell them off myself. The combination lock included.

Friday, February 15, 2008

friends in small places

It happens about once a year: circumstance has thrown a new person in your path and suddenly you see them everyday. And you are addicted. You can't get enough of the laughs and the new stories. You get consumed by the other person and you regret the moments when you have to sleep because there's still so much more to say. These are the friendships that flare up and don't do too well over email and the phone. They need the intensive German class, the menial labor summer job, the six hour train rides during a vacation, the research gig where there's not much to research. You have this vague sensation that if you could just get back to a place where you are kind of trapped together on a daily basis, you could pick up where you left off, so there's no need for the phone calls, the email, even the casual cups of coffee or the brief visits passing through town. There's a lot of talk about love at first sight, but do we have words for best friends at first sight? It's the closest you're gonna get to the childhood friendship - the ones forged in homerooms and geometry classes, the ones where you have nothing to lose by cutting to the chase.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

rainy sunday

Today was a day for watching the weather. The sky was blue, nary a cloud - enough to motivate me to take my new sunglasses (in old frames) out for a test drive. Then the light moved somewhere between dim and grey, sometimes feeling dark and sometimes feeling just as bright as before, but just a different color. Then came the famous Bostonian "wintry mix": a blast of precipitation from nowhere, squalls and sleet, huge flakes of snow falling amidst a thousand daggers of drizzle. How can it snow and rain simultaneously? And then the wind dies down, the heavens part, the sky is blue once again, for a minute or two, and the driving rain begins, falling horizontally, in sheets. The sheets give way, the raindrops regain their verticality, and there I am, looking out a window, admiring how the rain still strikes me, now, after all these years away from L.A., away from the desert, as the most beautiful weather to watch.

Thursday, January 24, 2008