Stray Thoughts

On relationship…

  • We spend most of our time interacting with who we think people ought to be, and not with who they are.
  • When did it become fashionable to disparage our spouses, children, and parents, and reserve the uncritical affection for our pets?
  • Why is it that when animals and babies depend on us and cling, it steals our hearts–and when grown-ups do it, we recoil?
  • The best walks are when the dog’s off lead, and we can each go at our own pace. Marriage is like that, too.
  • A man sits on a bench beneath a tree, staring out at the lake, grieving his mother… Trees and water hold you. They let you think without dreading the sadness.
  • Maybe the original reason for chastity was to keep us from wasting our physically best years on our emotionally worst choices.
  • To me our house is half public space and should be ready to welcome guests. To my husband, it’s as private as an underwear drawer and can be just as messy.
  • Those who make a virtue of blunt candor are usually simply incapable of dissembling.
  • Dan Savage lists monogamy’s drawbacks as boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death + being taken for granted. He’s not looking at a good marriage.
  • Grinding tiger penises, bear paws, rhino horns as aphrodisiacs… The desire for desire can be even stronger than desire itself.
  • The weirdest thing about gossip? That smugness people get when they know the person who’s suffering a tragic fate and can relay the details…
  • Good, obedient, docile, quiet—we use these words interchangeably, talking about the temperament of a child or dog. What if “good” meant spirited, smart, and independent, and passivity was “bad”?
  • People roll their eyes about their boss, their rabbi, even their mother, yet they rave about their personal trainer. Narcissism or Stockholm Syndrome?

On society…

  • Anthropologists say we fight not to kill but to dominate. Yet with more abstract warfare, the enemy has no chance to surrender.
  • Would we be more charitable toward the old if they were immortal, and didn’t carry the stink of impending death?
  • If we ever relax about differences, lose all the ‘isms’…what will we do with our fear?
  • In American studies grad courses we analyzed the public sphere vs the private sphere. Now I’m not sure there is a private sphere.
  • Poor greasy peasants, sleeping on the ground in the hot sun. They need to make money, so they can oil up and sleep on the sand in the hot sun.
  • I despise capitalism—until I see two kids with a lemonade stand.
  • I wonder what America would be like if we hadn’t come of age worshipping Europe. Calmer and less brash?
  • Apparently thoughts of death and war make us more conservative, while thoughts of pain and suffering make us more liberal. But how do you separate them?
  • So which came first: the meme about aliens doing anal probes, or the colonoscopy?
  • Tom Stoppard: “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”
  • What if we’re reincarnated as the president of the sort of country we’ve resigned ourselves to?
  • Thanks to the length of our long lives and the pace of our change, generations now coexist across completely different lifeworlds.
  • We lose the town square then develop the electronic one. People always find ways to brush up against one another.
  • Every gun crime should be covered by the media, and the coverage should include the provenance of the gun. That might bring both sides of the debate to a little reality.
  • Cougar, MILF—are we finally beyond madonna, whore and crone? And is this progress?
  • When I grew up, women were burning bras. Now they want modesty panels to conceal their nipples. What, exactly, happened?
  • A Czech hospital solved its nursing shortage by offering new hires free plastic surgery and breast implants. Oh, Gloria.
  • Botox, suctions, emerald-green contacts… Now that beauty can be so easily bought, are we reacting to it differently?
  • Real style is being able to convince the world you’re wearing your old clothes deliberately.
  • The UK banned Julia Roberts’ airbrushed makeup ads. Wouldn’t it be fun to see what the world looked like with all artifice banned?
  • Looking at blue halogen headlights, thinking how golden gaslight must’ve looked…Visually, at least, the world is getting colder.
  • Garnishes cause a lot of ambivalence. They look more appetizing than anything else, but if you sneak one, you’re destroying others’ aesthetic pleasure.
  • “The roofs of Chinese houses were turned up at the eaves so that the dragon could rest on its travels through the sky.” And what do we give the dragon? Skyscrapers.
  • Why do we go numb to whatever surrounds us? Candy-makers hate sweets. Mixologists drink beer or single-malt.

On belief…

  • “Finding religion,” falling in love, adopting a puppy—it’s all the same joy. Your mind leaves yourself, and can adore wholeheartedly.
  • All these years, I never knew: It turns out we knock on wood to wake the spirits sleeping inside, because we have a request for them.
  • We name things with one side of our brain but describe them with the other. No wonder we’re judgmental.
  • It was so pleasant, thinking we humans were artfully designed. Now it looks as though we’re sort of…random.
  • I told my husband I was starting my own religion. He said I need a guy who lives on another planet or nobody will join.
  • If one more person says, “Everything happens for a reason,” I’ll scream. The real challenge is making the random stuff meaningful.
  • Fatalism’s useful: not because what happened was necessarily for the best, but because accepting it lets you use it for the best.
  • What if the Garden of Eden’s just an allegory for adolescence? Sudden nakedness, self-consciousness, lost innocence, nothing simple anymore.
  • My 87-yr-old Jesuit uncle, refusing more bloodwork with a shrug: “The body’s matter. It’s bound to deteriorate.”
  • At our wakes, we talk about the dead person. At a medieval wake, you talked to the dead person. have we lost our illusions or our courage?
  • I like religion better when it acknowledges mystery than when it pretends to solve it.
  • In Japan, Buddhism’s losing followers, so its priests are using anime and hip-hop to renew interest. Is everything a marketing issue?
  • Humming old Jesuit hymns in the shower, I remember what a source of tenderness the Church once seemed.
  • Lifeboats, imminent train crashes, a chance to save five people if you kill one… Why don’t we use common everyday situations for moral exercises? Are we scared to be reminded that we fail daily?
  • Soul music’s great when it’s unpolished, imperfect, raw. We use “soulless” for what’s invulnerable. The theological implications are…?
  • In Mayan witchcraft, intention’s as good as action. Scary.
  • Our urge to make vampires likeable—are we befriending their need or their power?
  • Now the Brits recognize Druidry as an official religion? Stonehenge was what, foreshadowing?
  • It helps me slow down when I pretend there are traffic surveillance cameras on every street. Is this how people feel when they believe an angry God sees everything?

On growing old gracefully…

  • Once you pass 45, you will never again be described as a “promising.” Don’t we think experience makes any promises?
  • The difference between middle age and youth? You’re relieved, not embarrassed, when your mother’s proud of you.
  • “Stream of consciousness” presumes fluidity. Most of us harden into our opinions and stop thinking at all.
  • Bifocals come at just the right time: When we’ve learned enough to look condescendingly at idiots over the top of the frames.
  • Middle-aged eyes…I’m learning to step back so I can see things clearly.
  • As we get older, our emotions are more mixed—bittersweet, happy-sad. Apparently all this ambiguity helps us stay on an even keel.
  • Zen’s easier now: you either spend next 20 years dreading next 20 years, or you accumulate 20 years of (mostly) enjoyable present moments.
  • All you hear is what’s lost with age—smooth skin, sharp vision, instant memory. What about gaining ease and joy and confidence and a sense of humor?
  • Middle age’s hope: that as flesh falls, spirit will rise.
  • I no longer like to rush. Or multitask. Or fret.
  • Crow’s feet, turtle mouth, elephant knees… As we age, we become the animal kingdom.
  • Getting ready to go out, I realize I shouldn’t mind aging. I always liked art class better than biology.
  • Retirement: You finally have time to read, see, keep up with, everything—and no longer care as much about any of it.
  • In t’ai chi class, this amazing burning energy spreads through my body. It’s the chi! It’s Enlightenment!… It’s a hot flash.
  • Thank God we indulged the Baby Boomers. They’re about to redefine old age for us.
  • Christmas party at the assisted-living center. You try keeping a straight face when grown men wearing furry antlers are singing “Amazing Grace” in a barbershop quartet.
  • The best game used to be flirting. Now it’s taming a wild animal; delighting a small child
  • People’s world shrinks as they age if their bad experiences have outweighed the good… There’s so much to avoid…

On living in a small town…across the river from a big city…

  • I love that my neighbors set out all their best yardsale stuff the night before, with no thought of theft.
  • In Waterloo, companies can’t set flashing signs to flash too fast. It’s a meditative experience waiting for time to morph into temp.
  • Kids chalked a triple-digit hopscotch down the sidewalk. We’re all walking on people’s lawns to preserve it.
  • Poor ambulance crew. They finally got to use their siren and it didn’t even crescendo; the emergency was two blocks away.
  • Nicknames in Monroe County: Tick. Gorky. Rehab. Mushhead. Puddin’. Potsie. Yukyuk. Smooth. Smudge. Squirrel Bait. Crow. Quirky. Chipper. Growing up in St. Louis, we called a guy Duck in seventh grade, and that was it.
  • In the city, it was white or yellow corn. Here, it’s “Doug’s corn” or “Mike’s corn.”
  • If you eat in town on a weekday and you’re dressed up, they ask if you’re going to the bank.
  • Prid’s Salve, Grandpa’s Weeder, bag balm, syrup of Coke—these things actually work. I feel cheated by modernity and all it forgets.
  • Walked uptown, heard the boom of big speakers. Rock concert in Waterloo? Then I heard it: B…6. … O…64. … I…19. The church picnic!
  • We went to the Monroe County Fair, and my husband saw his first demolition derby. “All they need is Caesar seated on high,” he remarked, “and the drivers saying, ‘We who are about to die salute you.'”
  • Maybe the celebrity craze isn’t shallow. Maybe they’re just our only shared points of reference, the way, in a small town, everybody’s news.
  • 8/31, Waterloo issues “Boil Water Order.” Like a pioneer woman preparing for childbirth, I boil cauldrons. 9/1, the crisis is over. I’m almost sorry.
  • There’s something about driving under a railroad bridge in fog, on the East Side, train chugging above, smelling strong coffee, listening to St. Louis blues…

On nature…

  • Guy outside REI: “Sir, would you sign this cannabis petition?” Man with gray beard, bemused: “I just came to buy a canoe.”
  • Extreme temperatures, drought, pestilence, contagion…Now we learn how to design ‘rooms for outdoor living’?
  • “To be able to live in strict conformity with nature is what the men of old defined as the end of happiness” (Philo). Man, have we changed.
  • People in cities with seasons live discontent half the year, waiting for the weather to change.
  • Ants occupy the same biomass we do, on earth. I find this humbling.
  • There is something incomparably cool about shopping for boulders. I bought 1,000 pounds of limestone yesterday. Beats lingerie-shopping any day.
  • The anarchist in me loves making the first tracks in unbroken snow. The purist hates it.
  • Saw vultures circling at the prehistoric Indian burial ground at Millstone Bluff. They’re late.
  • We’re living in 11 dimensions and only grasp 4? This can’t bode well.
  • I remain absurdly delighted that there is water on the moon.
  • It’s a measure of…something, that I just considered bringing my banana peel home for the compost.
  • In my lifetime we have come to fear water, air, and sunlight.
  • We’ve realized there are other animals who use language, tools, emotion, even deception. Are there any who appreciate beauty?
  • Squirrels can rotate their ankles 180 deg, and at the end of the day, they greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. How can I hate them?
  • Ah, global warming. We live in Ireland for a week, then Nova Scotia for a day, tomorrow Belize, soon sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Mother Nature’s in menopause.
  • Walking at the lake, I’m filled with an odd sort of relief: There are still people in this world who can sit still long enough to fish.
  • Diane Ackerman: “Slugs mate acrobatically, at the end of slime bungee cords, while waving their eyes around. It’s sloppy but effective.” Also: “I envy slugs their eyes, which sit at the tips of rubbery stalks, can be angled into dark corners, and are retractable.”
  • When I carry a bug outside, I don’t feel scared. When I squash a bug, I do. Either compassion erases fear, or feigning it resets the brain.
  • In Bermuda, chickens strut around the bus terminal, walking the walk. Here they sit dull-eyed in coops. There’s no substitute for freedom.
  • The geese walk on the ice like bridesmaids.

On dogs…

  • I’m sitting on the floor by the fireplace, reading a book on my iPad. The dog comes up and, with one swipe of his nose, neatly turns the page for me.
  • The difference between cats and dogs: Cats are pissed off that they’re not wild anymore. Dogs are relieved.
  • Dogs like to play peek-a-boo. Who knew?
  • You adopt a dog who’s never had a home and promise you’ll never leave him. Then you go to work the next morning.
  • Walking a dog without tugging the lead: the fastest way to achieve the inflection of a Method actor & the rhetorical passion of Homer.
  • Wild yapping from a neighbor’s back yard. Little girl, about 6, folds her arms and sighs, shaking her head. “Teacup yorkies. They’ll drive you crazy.”
  • I want my dog’s eyes. He guilted two strangers out of their steak leftovers outside Gallagher’s last night.
  • Part of why “rescued” dogs are so good, I think, is that knowing what they’ve been through makes us tender–and they sense our sympathy.
  • Pity the dogsitter. We left her a memo detailing the treats, the walks, which squirrels he stalks. And a corkscrew in case it all got too much.
  • Andrew, with a resigned sigh: “If my ancestors could liberate Jerusalem from the Greeks, I suppose I can express the dog’s anal glands.”
  • I come home and decide the dog’s psychotic—first he’s hiding under the bed upstairs, then he’s stalking across the kitchen like the Pink Panther, eyes glazed. Andrew comes home and calmly ushers out the squirrel that was hiding in the kitchen.
  • Wondered why the dog kept bumping into me. He was looking over his shoulder whenever we passed a house with Christmas lights.

 On technology and media…

  • I send emails just to hear that whoosh.
  • We’ve become a nation of retweets and re-pins. And even that thought isn’t original.
  • The gas pump talked to me today! About a robotics contest for kids, which made it almost onomatapoetic. But can’t they leave us any peace?
  • Wonder what Jung would’ve said if he’d known something called Mozilla Firefox would be offering us each a persona.
  • Used to be, a phone rang in a tavern and everybody yelled, “I’m not here!” Now they’re all on their cells.
  • I hate Christmas lights that stay lit when one burns out. It’s taken all the drama out of trimming the tree, plugging it in and holding your breath.
  • Why do radio stations stop the music to tell you it’s an hour of nonstop music?
  • The problem with watching a lot of TV isn’t that it makes you stupid or violent, it’s that it leaves no room for contentment.
  • Now that we have personal brands instead of reputations, who decides what price to put on our heads?
  • It’s important to buy something electronic regularly, just to get those great black twistie-ties.
  • God I love a touch screen. The gravitylessness of it. No friction. No moorings. It’s like sailing into the wind instead of rowing.
  • People used to sit down and memorize poetry on purpose. We know advertising jingles and bad movie lines by heart—even when we don’t want to.
  • Russian scientists say they’ve grown a plant from late Pleistocene fruit tissue. Next up, a tyrannosaurus.
  • Developmental milestone: Our Internet connection flickered and died, and my heart rate stayed steady.
  • Anybody else ever swipe at an iPod’s bar with your nose because you don’t want to take my gloves off? Oh God. It’s just me, isn’t it?
  • The old generation gap showed up in sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Ours shows up in widgets.
  • It just dawned on me why those 40 and under have no fear of technology. They didn’t live through Escape-Transfer-Clear.
  • Progress? We’ve gone from mechanical manuals to “just keep pressin’ buttons” or “unplug it and start over.”
  • What if I start reading things I want The New York Times to know I read so it will recommend more of them, instead of reading what intrigues me at the moment?
  • And what will Facebook do with the knowledge that I hate ads?
  • Judging from the ads online, the urge to see “who searched for you” appears to be stronger than the urge to search for somebody else.
  • Drive-ins, phone booths, bookstores, small-town post offices, smudgy crackling newsprint… What will go next?
  • I just tried to go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo archive and was told by Firefox that the site is not trusted.
  • An easy gauge, across all media: Does the content sensitize me to human experience or substitute for it?

On the art of living…

  • Luxury’s just indulgence—a break from chores or routine or blandness. It doesn’t have to be expensive.
  • Emotionally, we need the comfort of familiarity. Intellectually, we need freedom. So what do we do? Sever emotional ties and take refuge in old ideas.
  • My idea of luxury: rise with the sun, drive to work in light, drive home in light, sip wine and watch the sun set. Why is this not possible?
  • What a shame, that it’s easier to learn pain than joy.
  • If overthinking’s a problem, what about overliving?
  • The trick of handling chronic pain: to be exquisitely aware of your body without ever focusing on its distress.
  • The trick of being easier on yourself: to start by cutting others the same slack.
  • Life is constant change. And what do most of us dread most?
  • Trail mix is far more addictive than any one of its ingredients. Life’s all about gestalt.
  • I love Halloween. When else can you give strangers’ kids candy, ponder Jungian archetypes and laugh at your least rational fears?
  • Remember when “being alone with your thoughts” was not only desirable but possible?
  • The best mentors make what’s good for you seem as sexy as what’s bad.
  • Photos, journals, scrapbooks…we’re terrified our memory will fail us. But memory’s purpose isn’t to document—it’s to make meaning.
  • Only after eating a rich dessert or comforting bowl of macaroni and cheese do I possess sufficient strength of will to go on a diet.
  • Our waitress described one of the cocktails as more “spirit-driven.” I thought, “That’s how I want to be.” Then she elaborated: “boozier.”
  • We’re all constantly telling each other how busy we are. Anybody ever thought of changing?
  • I try so hard to simplify my life, I sometimes think it would be easier to keep it complicated.
  • You know you’re too busy when you hear it’s daylight-savings weekend and panic.
  • Our life is the sum of everything we pay attention to. If I could only remember that when I’m obsessing or surfing or fuming.
  • William James called attention “the taking possession of the mind.” Gets harder every day.
  • The Chinese phrase for staying awake worrying is “feasting on maggots.” That could cure my insomnia.
  • Why does it take most of us half our lives to learn to…just…be…ourselves? Shouldn’t it have been obvious?
  • I’ve decided to yelp when dentists or doctors hurt me. It seems more honest. And they could use the feedback.
  • Shoulder still inflamed. Impatient to start t’ai chi. Will have to learn patience to start t’ai chi.
  • The t’ai chi is slow enough, I’m told, when the hummingbird doesn’t fly away.
  • One of my fellow t’ai chi students, struggling to learn and wanting a distraction, suggests we play Chinese music in the background. Our teacher just smiles. “You think, in 300 years, we wouldn’t have thought of that?”

On absurdity…

  • I dreamed a fat little raccoon came to our dinner party, and we got him drunk and set him, giggling, on a chair at the dining room table.
  • Driving to work at 7 am, I see a woman striding along Highway 3, arms folded. Then I see a man hurrying after her, bald, tattooed, still wearing his jammies. He loses his flip-flop trying to catch her.
  • Those first few steps onto a stopped escalator…the vertigo of expectation.
  • I love it when I give up and slump onto the sofa and the guy on the exercise dvd says, “EXcellent! Really good job!”
  • A hair stylist, telling me the effects of a loved one’s stroke: “You could have parted her right down the middle.”
  • Why has it taken me so long to read regional fishing reports? “White bass good on light colored soft plastics; catfish slow on chicken livers, worms and stinkbaits; crappie fair on jigs and minnows.” Fabulous.
  • I saw an ad for “pet fencing” and thought they’d taken up swords.
  • I just heard about somebody who picked up Elie Wiesel’s book Night because he thought it was a sequel to Twilight. I really want to know what happened next.
  • We think we’re so grown up, drinking our lattes in our sippy-cups.
  • I read the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog like a novel. This time it’s got a dishwasher-safe wallet. How I’ve yearned for one…

On language…

  • After years—years!—of wondering, I finally looked up the definition of “mutatis mutandis.” It’s a sweet relief.
  • Why does all that grammar instantly drop away when we talk to babies and animals? And why do we all break the same widdle rules?
  • My mother taught me to spell “stationery,” not “stationary,” by pointing out that there’s an “e” in the word “paper.”
  • Grammarians have lost the battle on “comprise.” And predicate nominatives. And “whom.”
  • David Foster Wallace is dead, Esquire is dying, the New Yorker is broke, and Twitter flourishes. Did Umberto Eco know this would happen?
  • Resolution: stop writing OMG, omigod, or even oh my God when i reply to emails. I sound like a Valley Girl or a supplicant.
  • “It’s all good,” a colleague just assured me. Who started that saying? An amoral golden retriever? And if it’s “all good,” why does everybody keep saying “my bad”?
  • “It is what it is”—does that mean we don’t have to figure it out?
  • My favorite collective noun: A parliament of owls.
  • Why is “accessible,” in describing prose, an insult?
  • I want an amanuensis. Or a factotum.
  • The British call evangelical charismatics “happy clappies.” Reason enough for anglophilia.
  • Saw new maxipads named “Infinity.” Who thought that was a good idea?
  • Why “hell in a handbasket”? because that’s what they used to catch guillotined heads. I love etymology.
  • For years now, I have suspected “funicular” of being a made-up word.
  • The water cooler at work identifies its contents as a hydration beverage.
  • Sign on a hair salon: “Split End Removal.” Didn’t we used to call that a haircut?
  • Brits wear trainers & jumpers; we wear sneakers & sweaters. They go to a water closet; we go to a can. They get petrol; we just get gas.
  • In a film review: “The inelegant beauty of her refreshingly non-model-like body.” Suppose that means she’s fat?
  • If writing is thinking on paper, what happens when formal grammar dissolves?
  • U.K. etymologists, trying to trace slang for going crazy, quote the St. Louis Globe-Democrat from 1886: “He has roamed…like a boy who had lost his marbles.”
  • Essays are wondering out loud. Journalism is gossip.
  • More and more, we write episodically, so readers can shuffle, link, and find their own coherence. is this respectful, inevitable, or lazy?
  • It’s easy writing confessionally when you’re young. There’s less to say.
  • Journalism’s reincarnation: blogs, vlogs, hyperlinks, podcasts, tweets, posts, data mining, mapping, animated graphics. Do you all really have time for all this?
  • It’s a sad comment on reality, that it’s the ability to create an alternate one that signals creative success.
  • Magazines don’t need to be reinvented. People just need more time to read.
  • From online news comments: a murderer “took his family for granit” and someone else is told to “think before you speak, you moran.” Sic society.
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