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Or Maybe Like This, Carl

6 Feb

     BUTT Freezer for the World,
     Slush Maker, Stacker of Snow,
     Player with Wind chills and the Nation’s Ice Box;
     Stormy, frigid, squalling,
     City of the Big Shovels:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
     have seen your cars stranded on Lake Shore Drive
     helpless against the winds of Lake Michigan.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
     is true I have seen backs bent under the weight of a shovel
     laden with wet snow.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
     faces of women and children I have seen frost-bitten noses
     and chapped lips.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with 700 billion pounds
     of accumulation in twenty-four hours.
Flinging snow into the Chicago River and piling it high
     as skyscrapers, here is an awesome Yeti set vivid against the
     tepid soft cities;

Fierce as a snowthunder, at once clamorous and silent, cunning
     as a flurry pitted against the month of May,
          Freezing, thawing, refreezing,
Under the snow, frost all over his mouth, laughing with
     white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of multiple layers laughing as
   a midwestern Winter laughs,
Laughing even as a naïve Southerner who has
     never seen our Snowpocalypse, our Snowmageddon,
Bragging and laughing that under his wool sweater is the pulse,
     and under his thermal undershirt the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, raspy, brawling laughter of
     Winter, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Butt
     Freezer, Slush Maker, Stacker of Snow, Player with
     Wind chills and the Ice Box to the Nation.

Straight From Romania

24 Jan

A reader characterized my last essay as one that only a “typical liberal” could post.

Liberal! I know that’s bad.

As a typical woman, I shrink under criticism.

However, I recovered from hurty feelings by recalling this Israeli joke:

A young woman asks her rabbi for advice:

— Rabbi, is it a sin to keep a secret from my fiancé? You see, back in Romania, I was a prostitute. If I tell him, I’m afraid he won’t want to marry me.

— Well, my dear, the Good Book says we must tell the truth, but it doesn’t say we have to tell the whole truth. Tell him that you were a prostitute…

…but don’t tell him you’re from Romania!

I cop to liberal, but I’ve never even been to Romania. Niciodată!

(Romania, for the literal-minded, represents “typical” here.)

And For What?

16 Jan


When I think about senseless, inexplicable violence, I remember the character created so brilliantly by Peter Stormare in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. The flat affect. The vacant eyes. The silence. 

Remember, Proudfoot did not vouch for him.

And now Mrs. Lundegaard is dead. And those three people in Brainerd.

Look, this guy is just plain nuts. How else can you explain that wood chipper?

This is absolutely not what Jerry Lundegaard intended.

Certainly, Wade Gustafson, Jean Lundegaard’s father, is not to blame. Though I can’t shake the feeling that he contributed somehow to this mess.

And he’s not the only one. There is so much that is cold and desolate in the landscape of Fargo.

And now, with Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, we bring in our own mysterious perpetrator.

We look at him through the rearview mirror, and wonder what it was all for.

Stormare is extraordinary in that scene, and, for a moment, I imagine a flicker of understanding in his expression. And I feel sorry for him.

And here you are, Jared.

And it’s a beautiful day.

I just don’t understand it.

Rashomon on Tverskaya

6 Jan

We hadn’t seen each other in twenty years.

The whole way there, I kept thinking about what I would say if she had gotten fat and old. Of course, I would tell her that she looked great.

I learned long ago, through hard experience, that no matter what, you always tell a woman that she looks great. When I saw her, standing there at the entrance of the Pekin hotel, I couldn’t believe how good she looked. How had she maintained her figure all these years? After two kids. Molodyets, I thought. I didn’t even have to lie.

After Berkeley, I got married and had kids, she said, “because that’s what one does.” In addition to raising a family, she had also gone to law school, practiced law, learned and taught Hebrew.

Molodyets, I thought again.

We talked about old times, about Russia, about what had become of so and so. Just like old times, we still picked up on the same things and found the same things funny. And she still had the same thought-provoking ability to articulate things that I felt but hadn’t quite been able to figure out.

“You know, all of Shakespeare’s comedies have a dark side,” she said. I suddenly remembered being depressed after seeing a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, as I thought about how often it seems that there is a demon that makes us fall for the wrong people and how many are condemned to unrequited love.

At some point, there came the question I was dreading: “So. You never got married?”

How did she know that, I wondered.

Moscow is a good place to be a single man, I said. She rolled her eyes with disdain. It was embarrassing.

She had gotten married and raised two kids, one of whom was already studying theater in Moscow. I was still at the social maturity level of a college sophomore. Even worse, I have to live in a country where the women all complain that the local men are drunk, lazy and unfaithful because I had never had much success getting women in the U.S. to go out with me.  [Sw&Sp editors recommend the Russian verb  прибедняться, as the key to understanding this last sentiment.]

But despite the eye-roll, she didn’t really seem to care.

As I walked home, I thought about how great it had been to see her. It would be a shame to let another twenty years pass. I was sure that she felt the same way.

A few weeks later, on Christmas eve, she sent me a blog entry about our meeting entitled “What Matters Most.” I expected a touching story about the importance of old friendships. To my horror, she had presented the evening as a contest in one-upsmanship with me apparently trying to top every one of her achievements.

But as I thought about it, I realized that I had misunderstood and that she was writing about herself and her own insecurities and about how meetings with old friends always force us to be introspective and to take stock.

I started thinking about the evening again, and what I had been insecure about, and decided to write about it from my perspective. This is the result. She had done it again – as I said, she still had the same ability to make me think. And for that I am grateful. 

An (actually) touching story about the importance of old friendships.  In no way earned by my blogging shenanigans.

These mortals…Lord…

Search Term Sonnet

29 Dec

In September, I wrote a post about James Thurber and creativity called The Naked Woman on Top of the Bookcase.

I did not imagine that the combination of the word sweat from my blog’s title and the phrase naked woman from the Thurber post would attract so many unsuspecting and unlikely (many of them spelling-impaired) visitors to my site.

Daily, I let them down.  

This calls for an apology:

I know you must be disappointed, dear,
Who googled woman naked in a sweat,
at 2 AM, alone with half-drunk beer,
to find that Mr. Thurber’s all you get.
Small recompense for clicking on this link:
One lame cartoon, with enigmatic text;
No steamy photographs? You surely think:
“Dude, sprezzatura, doesn’t that mean sex?”
But, gentle would-be reader, hear my sighs:
You come, you go, (you read?) unmoved, unheard;
Not one among you heeds my bootless cries;
No comments, no subscriptions, not a word.
Though I with perspiration readers earn,
My nakked, necked, nekkit soul you spurn.

What Matters Most

23 Dec

We meet twenty years later.

In Moscow.  In front of the Peking Hotel, a hulking reminder of the days when Russia and China were friends, but competitors.

So far from a student apartment on Telegraph Avenue with bookcases made of cinder blocks and plywood.

He’s in an expensive, navy blue, wool overcoat; but I wore snazzy two-tone pumps.

Round One

Oh my god, you look exactly the same!

Oh my god, so do you!

Round Two

So, what, you live in Moscow now?

Yeah, four years already.

Wow, that’s awesome. Chicago’s a great city, too.  It really is.

Round Three

OK, so what became of you after Berkeley?

I went to law school.

Really? Me too!

Round Four

Yeah, I went to Harvard.  Classmates with Barack Obama.  Hahaha.  How bout you?  Where did you get your law degree?

Oh, well, y’know, I knew I was going to practice poverty law, so it didn’t make any sense to look at expensive schools.  Legal aid work: it doesn’t pay anything and I don’t get to live in Moscow, but I feel good about what I’m doing.  Helping people.

Yeah, that’s god’s work.


Round Five

And, you’re married, right?

Twenty years now.  What about you?  You never got married?

No, never did.  There are lots of beautiful women in Moscow.

Right. That’s very true.

Round Six

You know, I’m never moving back to the U.S.  It’s so boring.

I have two children.

Round Seven

So, I’ve seen a lot of theater since I got here.  Last night I saw the visiting production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theater.

Sure. I saw it on Friday!

Round Eight

I’ve been keeping a blog for a few months now.  Trying to write a little bit about this Russia obsession we have.

Really?  Interesting.  I’m thinking of writing a book about Khodorkovsky.

Round Nine

This is it.  I’ve been saving my strength.

I lean in close, and almost in a whisper, I say: I’m amazed that museums in Russia are still charging foreigners higher entrance fees, but (can you believe it?) I guess my Russian is still OK, because I haven’t been charged the foreigner’s rate once since I got here.

Friday night, he says, I was at the theater.  It was packed.  At curtain call I bolted for the coat check. I think I knocked a couple of people down along the way.  The babushka checking coats said to me: At first, judging by your clothes, I thought you were a foreigner, but then you behaved so rudely, that I decided you were one of ours.

I slink back to my corner.

Will It Go Round in Circles?

4 Dec

I’ve got a story ain’t got no moral:

At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

According to a paper co-written by Jan Souman, a research scientist in Germany, and featured on NPR,

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

people, when blindfolded,  

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

cannot walk in a straight line; 

Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

We naturally walk in circles;

And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.

around and back again,

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

ending up where we started:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

War Heroes and Empty Frames

28 Nov

In a room full of portraits, I look at empty frames.

This is the War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum in Sankt-Peterburg.

Here’s the story:

Alexander I commissioned portraits of some three hundred military heroes who achieved the rank of general in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon.

English artist George Dawe, with a couple of Russian assistants, completed portraits of all but thirteen, who (I have been told) died before any likeness of them had been preserved. For each of the thirteen faceless generals hangs a canvas covered with green silk, framed, and bearing the general’s name.

The whole of Russia knew the names of those whose portraits were placed in the War Gallery of 1812.

One could write a heroic ode to each of them.

So says the Hermitage website.

Now, if you’ve ever gone to a Russian museum, you know that a Russian babushka (an old–frequently, very old–woman) militantly guards each exhibit.

I dare you to put your dirty boots on that velvet-covered bench. Or sneak a picture with a flash. Ha! Or forget to check your coat at the garderob, god forbid.

That is nekul’turno. And babushkas will tell you about it.  Forcefully. The whole of Russia knows that they are in charge.

I swear, one could write a heroic ode to each of them.

More than twenty years have passed since my first visit to the Hermitage, and the babushka brigade is unchanged. Still wrinkled, stern, frumpy, and often barrel-shaped.

Except that the brigade has totally changed.

My Hermitage babushkas have long since retired; most, I suspect, are dead.

They were the Greatest Generation of babushkas.

Forget the Patriotic War of 1812, our 1980s babushkas had lived through the Great Patriotic War, the one we call (prosaically and impersonally) World War II.

They had survived the blockade of their city. For nearly three years, Leningrad was under siege.  No public transportation.  Often, no heat, no water, no electricity.  Mass starvation. Rumors of cannibalism.  Countless deaths.

Real war heroes.

I’m sorry to say that the babushka pictured above is more recent, part of a terrific photography project called The Guardians of Russian Art Museums. I love what the photographer has done.

But, he was too late to capture the likenesses of the women I try to remember.

After Two Shots

18 Nov

My daughter’s singing teacher at the Moscow Art Theatre Studio is about my age. I shouldn’t be surprised by our shared musical tastes.

I am invited to observe class on a November morning, still a little jet-lagged from yesterday’s more-than-trans-Atlantic flight.

I listen to my Anna sing a Turgenev poem called On the Road, set to music, and now more widely known as Misty Morning. A classic. One of those Russian romances about the inescapable, irretrievable past.

In the 1980s, at Leningrad State University, we sang it, too, usually around the table, with exaggerated pathos, after a couple of shots of vodka:

Misty morning, grey morning,
Sorrowful fields covered with snow;
Unwittingly, you recall times past,
faces, forgotten long ago.

You recall effusive, passionate words,
glances so eagerly, so timidly espied;
First meetings, last meetings;
the beloved strains of a quiet voice.

You remember parting with a strange smile;
You remember so much: so distant, so dear,
listening to the relentless murmur of wheels,
gazing, lost in thought, at the broad sky.

I know that Anna came to Moscow to study acting. She knows that I sent her to Moscow to learn Russian.

So, after class, we put on our coats, scarves and mittens, and head up Tverskaya (in my day called Gorkovskaya) Street, taking the words of the song apart: why the instrumental case in this phrase, the proper pronunciation of that unstressed o, and, finally, a bit about how (I think) this simple poem works.

Look here, Anna. Two things I like:

Turgenev, the poet, is remembering his past: faces, glances, words. But all of the verbs are in the second person. And (though this is lost in the translation), in Russian, the verbs are all in the future tense. Whose past are we talking about here?

This will happen to you, too.

And, notice that by the end of the poem, the past and present have intertwined: Did you smile strangely at the time of parting or do you smile strangely now recalling it?

That’s the way it feels to be back there and here at the same time.

Endless cars rush by us on Tverskaya/Gorkovskaya, as always. We talk over the din.

The foot traffic is pretty scary, too. Walking here demands your full attention.

Eyes straight ahead, no gazing at the sky.

Gershwin Teaches Me to Blog

11 Nov

Cyberquill says that I can’t expect people to read every word I write.

Even if I write very few, I guess.

He tells me that on-line readers pay attention to the first few sentences, and then they skim the rest of the post.

OK, then.

I’ve written you a post
A beautiful routine.
(I hope you like it.)

My technique can’t be wrong
I learned it from the screen.
(I hope you like it.)

I studied all the themes that all the bloggers ply;
Then just for you I give this text a try:

Blah, blah, blah, can’t stand,
Blah, blah, blah at all.
Blah, blah, blah, blah Rand,
Blan, blah, blah, blah Paul.

Tra la la la,
Tra la la la la
Sarah’s here to stay:
Tra la la la,
Tra la la la la,
Cure you of ‘the gay’.

Blah, blah, blah Glenn Beck,
Blah, blah, blah blah Bill:
Blah, blah, blah, blah dreck
Blah, blah, baby drill.

Tra la la la,
Tra la la la la
Tea Party blues,
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah
All on Fox News.

My own (garage band) version soon to come.