Pennies for Ben

September 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Ben_Franklin_SeatedIn Philadelphia Mom and Bob and I went to the courtyard where Ben Franklin’s house once stood. Gray stone squares are carved with excerpts from letters he wrote to his wife Deborah about the house she was moving into and furnishing while he was being diplomatic in England. (She begged him to come home often, writing that she was ill due to “dissatisfied distress” at his absence; he preferred being feted in London and Oxford.) But these are not the letters quoted. Rather, discussions of books, bedrooms, and curtains.
I found it more evocative than many actual famous-person residences I’ve seen, even those preserved down to the jacket and candle stub, perhaps because words live beyond the control of curators. It brought back to me that passion between spouses for a new home being made slowly. I remember long days of tramping down Orchard Street looking for curtain material—calling Charles at work to update him on my progress—and weekends in Beacon and Gardiner buying antiques. Now I’m reduced to buying litter boxes and pet candles (specially designed to cover pet odors—no, I didn’t believe it either, but they smell nice).


Franklin is buried a few blocks from where his house used to be. You have to pay to get into the graveyard, so we looked through the fence instead. His gravestone (flush with the ground) was covered in pennies. I like to think this is a nation of profligates’ repudiation of the idea that a penny saved is a penny earned, but it’s more likely that it’s a nation of dimwits’ idea of tribute to this most practical of our country’s founders.


Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody.

–Ben Franklin

If all the rich people in the world divided up their money among themselves there wouldn’t be enough to go around.

–Christina Stead


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

–Philip Larkin


September 25, 2009 § Leave a comment copy copy

me, bell, Bob, bell, Bob, Mom, Bradley

My mother is visiting my sister Davis in Pennsylvania for a while, so I went down for a few days. We sat on the rosy brick patio in the lush garden; I cooked a couple of dinners and played with Bradley the Mackerel Cat; Mom read and proofread my novel; and Bob took Mom and me into Philadelphia for a day. Davis was working—doing acupuncture on an aged, crippled dog who also has a regular physical therapist to exercise him in the pool, and a lady to sleep with him at night, should he have bad dreams. My sister has a lot of great stories. I’m thinking: comic novel about a vet. I could publish it after she retires.

Bob is my sister’s SO: charming, handsome, kind, an electrical safety inspector (another great occupation for a fictional character) who’s good at building patios, mixing drinks and getting along with everyone. He took us to the Liberty Bell, which Mom and I had never seen.

The Liberty Bell, as everyone knows, is cracked. The letter ordering it instructs, “Let the Bell be cast by the best Workmen & examined carefully before it is shipped with the following words well shaped in large letters round in vizt. ‘By order of the Assembly of the Province of Pensylvania for the State house in the City of Philadª. 1752’- and underneath – ‘Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof – Levit. XXV.10’”

Few have remarked on it, but that missing ‘n’ in Pennsylvania, a typo the engraver faithfully reproduced, was the root cause of the crack. What happened was the engraver saw the mistake, got upset and fixed it, then thought maybe he was wrong about the correct spelling and changed it again, and did this six or seven times until his hands were trembling with nervous exhaustion, his wife hit him over the head with a candlestick and tied him to the bed, and the bell was sent out with the ghost ‘n’ following it to the new world to wreak its subtle havoc on the bell, the country, and liberty itself.

I made up the part about the engraver. Rather, it came to me in a vision.  In any case, who can doubt that missing N has been floating around causing mischief for the last 257 years? Where do you think the term “Nobama” came from? (Google ‘Nobama’ if you want your daily shudder.)

Trust America to revere a bell that cracked the first time it was struck. “It’s a bell you’d feel comfortable having a beer with,” they said. “Let’s keep it.”

Poem: Sonnet To Liberty

Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know, –
But that the roar of thy Democracies,
Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
Mirror my wildest passions like the sea
And give my rage a brother -! Liberty!
For this sake only do thy dissonant cries
Delight my discreet soul, else might all kings
By bloody knout or treacherous cannonades
Rob nations of their rights inviolate
And I remain unmoved – and yet, and yet,
These Christs that die upon the barricades,
God knows it I am with them, in some things.

-Oscar Wilde

davis2Davis and part of Bob

Brain Food

September 18, 2009 § Leave a comment


I want to lose fifteen or twenty pounds, and every now and then I feel determined, certain I can cut my diet to the bone and get at least 2/3 to where I want to be, then reconnoiter. It wouldn’t take long. What’s a few months these days? I still think of 2001 as yesterday.

But the problem is I only feel this committed when I hate my body, and to keep up that state of mind 24 hours tends to make me sad. So I find something that fits and flatters me and come to terms with my image in the mirror. I go out for a long walk in the cool September air—in the excitement of New York in the fall when the students return, art and theater picks up all over the city, fashion glamors the streets and dealmakers shout in restaurants—and my resolve withers in the face of pleasure.

Being around people makes it worse, although if I’m not around them I’ll get dangerously lonely and decide that, really, a few pounds are not the issue. But other people eat. My husband, who was just visiting, eats annoyingly often. Others want to meet in restaurants, or I have to cook for them, and feel constrained to offer more than boiled vegetables. And it’s nice to see my friends and they make me feel loved and who cares about diet when cuisine is the product of thousands of years of human creativity and nurture?*

If everyone agreed to stick to my own silly diet (1000 calories, nothing after 6 p.m.) and were clever at finding ways to distract me from hunger pangs, then maybe it would work. One can achieve almost anything with mimicry. This is very different from encouragement or solidarity. I don’t want to chat with pals about our diets. I want to eat greens because that’s all there is and everyone’s excited by the garlic or the ginger. Diet is already a religion in America, but it’s a very inept one. More creative brainwashing is needed.

Meanwhile scientists are getting closer to a pill solution. Gastric bypass surgery may work in part because it affects hormones that regulate hunger. Certain people, mostly young, have something called “brown fat” which ups the metabolism.  The tinkerers have a lot to play with.

I’ve been reading a book called What’s Next?: Dispatches on the Future of Science,  a collection of essays by young scientists about the future. Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University (what a cool job title, no?) writes about genetic enhancement, arguing that you need to understand why evolution didn’t select for a desired trait before you consider doing so yourself. Assuming you have the ability to fiddle with the genome, of course.

Consider brain size. We’ve all heard the theory about how our brains stopped getting bigger because women’s pelvis’s couldn’t handle big-headed babies, but Bostrom notes that the brain uses 20% of our calorie intake, and in an era of food scarcity—most of human history—it wasn’t worth it to be smarter and starve. Now that caesarian sections are so popular and cake and hamburgers even more so, a bigger brain might be feasible. What I think is that my head is just the right size and it’s too late to change it anyway, but if I could somehow shoot the calories from every snack in that direction and make my neurons hum and sizzle while my hips shrink, I’d be a very happy woman.

Crazy About Her Shrimp

We don’t even take time
To come up for air.
We keep our mouths full and busy
Eating bread and cheese
And smooching in between.

No sooner have we made love
Than we are back in the kitchen.
While I chop the hot peppers,
She grins at me
And stirs the shrimp on the stove.

How good the wine tastes
That has run red
Out of a laughing mouth!
Down her chin
And on to her naked tits.

“I’m getting fat,” she says,
Turning this way and that way
Before the mirror.
“I’m crazy about her shrimp!’
I shout to the gods above.

– Charles Simic, The Voice at 3:00 A.M. : Selected Late and New Poems, 2003

* One of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read

Friday Night Out

September 12, 2009 § Leave a comment



Charles wanted to go out again last night, so we tried Los Dados on Ganesvoort Street, in the meatpacking district. I had a blueberry margarita and pork taquitos: good but not great. I don’t usually like tequila but last night it tasted like cactus, not motor oil. We sat in the back to avoid the bar music, but had to contend with workers drilling electrical outlets through the dinner hour. They apologized very sweetly, and we weren’t in the mood to care. Charles made friends with them all, as he tends to do, while I sat in the glow of liquor and hot sauce, dreaming up plots for thrillers.

It’s a festive neighborhood, the wide cobblestoned streets full of young people clumped on the sidewalks and corners, smoking and fiddling with their phones (when are they going to make a cellphone that doubles as a cigarette case?),  the facades of new buildings lit up in changing colors reminding me both of early modernist painting and of ships. The fresh rain and cool wind made me reconsider my earlier declaration that I’m sick of New York. I’m not—just yearning for mountains, desert, country roads and fields of long grass gone to seed, grackles* and bramble bushes. Instead we investigated a shoot involving an ugly bald model in a silver evening dress and pink lipstick.

I could go out every night and take pictures of events like that, and then I’d get advertisers on this blog. I could jazz it up by choosing a celebrity or two to stalk, keep a running diary. How hard could it be? Throw in a weekly feature on medieval torture devices and female orgasms (the most popular search terms used to find this blog) and I’d have a success. Perhaps a serial about Bob, a fellow with a touch of Asberger’s who works hard researching medieval torture devices, and his clever wife Mary who finds a new means of achieving orgasm every day.

* “The Common Grackle forages on the ground, in shallow water or in shrubs; it will steal food from other birds. It is omnivorous, eating insects, minnows, frogs, eggs, berries, seeds, grain and even small birds.

Along with some other species of grackles, the common grackle is known to practice “anting,” rubbing insects on its feathers to apply liquids such as formic acid secreted by the insects.

This bird’s song is particularly harsh, especially when these birds, in a flock, are calling.”—wikipedia

A Hedge of Rubber Trees
by Amy Clampitt
The West Village by then was changing; before long
the rundown brownstones at its farthest edge
would have slipped into trendier hands. She lived,
impervious to trends, behind a potted hedge of
rubber trees, with three cats, a canary--refuse
from whose cage kept sifting down and then
germinating, a yearning seedling choir, around
the saucers on the windowsill--and an inexorable
cohort of roaches she was too nearsighted to deal
with, though she knew they were there, and would
speak of them, ruefully, as of an affliction that
     might once, long ago, have been prevented.

Unclassifiable castoffs, misfits, marginal cases:
when you're one yourself, or close to it, there's
a reassurance in proving you haven't quite gone
under by taking up with somebody odder than you are.
Or trying to. "They're my friends," she'd say of
her cats--Mollie, Mitzi and Caroline, their names were,
and she was forever taking one or another in a cab
to the vet--as though she had no others. The roommate
who'd become a nun, the one who was Jewish, the couple
she'd met on a foliage tour, one fall, were all people
she no longer saw. She worked for a law firm, said all
     the judges were alcoholic, had never voted.

But would sometimes have me to dinner--breaded veal,
white wine, strawberry Bavarian--and sometimes, from
what she didn't know she was saying, I'd snatch a shred
or two of her threadbare history. Baltic cold. Being
sent home in a troika when her feet went numb. In
summer, carriage rides. A swarm of gypsy children
driven off with whips. An octogenarian father, bishop
of a dying schismatic sect. A very young mother
who didn't want her. A half-brother she met just once.
Cousins in Wisconsin, one of whom phoned her from a candy
store, out of the blue, while she was living in Chicago.
     What had brought her there, or when, remained unclear.

As did much else. We'd met in church. I noticed first
a big, soaring soprano with a wobble in it, then
the thickly wreathed and braided crimp in the mouse-
gold coiffure. Old? Young? She was of no age.
Through rimless lenses she looked out of a child's,
or a doll's, globular blue. Wore Keds the year round,
tended otherwise to overdress. Owned a mandolin. Once
I got her to take it down from the mantel and plink out,
through a warm fuddle of sauterne, a lot of giddy Italian
airs from a songbook whose pages had started to crumble.
The canary fluffed and quivered, and the cats, amazed,
     came out from under the couch and stared.

What could the offspring of the schismatic age and a
reluctant child bride expect from life? Not much.
Less and less. A dream she'd had kept coming back,
years after. She'd taken a job in Washington with
some right-wing lobby, and lived in one of those
bow-windowed mansions that turn into roominghouses,
and her room there had a full-length mirror: oval,
with a molding, is the way I picture it. In her dream
something woke her, she got up to look, and there
in the glass she'd had was covered over--she gave it
     a wondering emphasis--with gray veils.

The West Village was changing. I was changing. The last
time I asked her to dinner, she didn't show. Hours--
or was it days?--later, she phoned to explain: she hadn't
been able to find my block; a patrolman had steered her home.
I spent my evenings canvassing for Gene McCarthy. Passing,
I'd see her shades drawn, no light behind the rubber trees.
She wasn't out, she didn't own a TV. She was in there,
getting gently blotto. What came next, I wasn't brave
enough to know. Only one day, passing, I saw
new shades, quick-chic matchstick bamboo, going up where
the waterstained old ones had been, and where the seedlings--
     O gray veils, gray veils--had risen and gone down.

Labor Day

September 9, 2009 § Leave a comment


Labor Day: First fall meal: roast pork with apples, wild rice and parsnips. Charles and I talked about all our possible futures—living arrangements, money—the various strands of love, sex and friendship that unite us and our desired others. We agreed that we don’t like it that our lovers have to (choose to) lie. But we keep them anyway. Or, in my case, keep him in mind.

Then we took a long walk through the mostly deserted Village, the quiet blocks west of 7th avenue I never get tired of, past a deli with an abundant outdoor flower display hitting us with a wave of rich perfume, and a stoop with a couple of paperbacks left out—Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, and Elie Weisel’s Night.  I remember reading those books. They made me feel like a grownup. Now they make me feel old. We finished the evening at home eating Haagan Dazs’ new ice cream flavors, passionfruit and ginger. Charles put the oregano oil I use for female complaints on his serving. At least he won’t be having any yeast infections this week.

Today—Wednesday—Charles is reading my fantasy novel and even though this isn’t the sort of thing he ever reads on his own, so his reaction may not be terribly relevant, it matters to me. I’m going to show it to a few other people this month. Then, we’ll see. I need to stuff myself with beauty this month to counteract all the anxiety.

This is one of my favorite poems. I had it memorized, before my brains started leaking out.

Ode to Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

–John Keats

Eyes like Ripening Fruit

September 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

We went to the Met today, early enough that the lines weren’t long, and wandered through Chinese decorative arts, American landscape painting, the Greek and Roman rooms, and the African rooms. I told Charles about Delilah’s friend Zach Hyman who’s been shooting nude women in various places in the city. He was doing it at the Met a week and a half ago, and the model, K.C. Neill, got arrested for public lewdness. That’s a little better than arresting a painting for lewdness, but not much.

It reminded me of the time Charles got busted by a Met guard for sketching. He wasn’t sketching, merely taking notes, and argued this, which the guard disputed, and when the guard grabbed him to take to the interrogation chambers, Charles resisted and ended up falling down the long staircase. They let him go after questioning, mostly because he showed them his MoMa ID, but I had to wait around, wondering if I’d need bail money. “We should have sued,” I said today. That’s a wicked staircase.

But it’s hard to stay mad at the Met. There’s so much beauty and it makes me happy. I like going on impulse, when there’s nothing I’m dying to see. I notice the building more. I’m aware of it as a palace I’m privileged to enter rather than as an endless, feet-punishing maze. Like everybody, I want to live in it.

Today, although I started out most interested in the cinnabar plates and boxes in the Chinese Decorative Arts exhibit—because I have cinnabar beads I use in jewelry-making*—it was John Coplans’ nude photographs of himself that I most loved. No beautiful young woman has anything on him  as a model. His creased, aging belly with its scattering of hair looked like a Japanese watercolor, a winter landscape with thin, bare-branched trees.

It made me think of my painter friend Camilla and her anxieties about nude self portraits and my own nude self portraits (photographs) from several years ago, which I felt joyful and excited about—my first foray into visual art in decades—until my friends reacted with everything but the idea that these might be, however imperfect, works of art. But I suppose I agree with them, in part, because I didn’t choose a torso shot for this post. Even considering it made me remember what porno movie theaters used to be like in the 1970’s. The huddled masses…the sticky floors.

After the museum we went for tea and pastries at Sant Ambroeus, on Madison Avenue and 78th. It was a perfect day, just slightly cool, the weather New York was made for, and I was having sweet and melancholy memories of the neighborhood. This was my first home in New York, when I was eleven, and my part-time home  for a couple of years before Philip moved back to Brooklyn. Today all the usual reasons for disliking the Upper East Side dropped away and I was intoxicated by art, cake, brownstones and Central Park. Of course, most of the residents were away for the long weekend. That provided exquisite psychic ventilation. The skins of the buildings were shimmering with relief.

* Take a look at my jewelry

Archaic Torso of Apollo
By Rainier Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Where Am I?

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