Anne Notations

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

45 mph gusts

Our beach at 8:30 a.m., temperature 33, wind 30-50 mph. Click on photos to see larger.

I wonder what it's like to live in a year-round warm climate. My entire life has been spent in New England, with a four-year sojourn in a Chicago suburb – and let me tell you, the weather there made New England weather look like a day at the beach. It was the only time my parents ever purchased an air-conditioner, and (geezer alert!) we kids walked back and forth to school twice a day* no matter the weather. I was only 6 and 7 years old, and sometimes the snow was up to my waist and the windchill well below zero, but the sidewalks of Elmhurst, Illinois, were always shoveled and life went on, dammit! (*Why twice a day? In those days, most children went home for lunch. It was the 1950s, era of stay-at-home moms and neighborhood schools.)

Living on the water as we do now has made summers infinitely more bearable than they were in the scorching, humid city. I have always loved the crispness of autumn days, and the first half of winter is usually fun – visions of White Christmas and picturesque snow scenes. My biggest complaint with New England weather is that we have no spring to speak of. Winter drags on ad nauseam into March and April. Snowstorms in April are not unusual, and I recall the big snowstorm in early May 1977 that brought limbs (already in leaf) down all over the East Side of Providence. It's not until mid- to late May that I believe our brief spring is actually here.

In December and January, though, I'm OK with winter. We Northerners take a perverse pride in our stoicism in the face of needles of sleet, white-out driving conditions, bone-rattling winds, and black ice. We juggle two wardrobes – summer and winter, with some transitional clothes for the in between times – and know all about layering.

When the temperature is below 30F and the wind is blowing hard, I begin with lightweight "silk skins" longjohns, then thick socks, jeans (denim is great for blocking wind), a Cuddleduds insulated camisole, lightweight polarfleece shirt... Then I go downstairs to don a heavy Lands End parka, polarfleece hat, long muffler wrapped several times around my neck, lined leather gloves, glasses (they keep the wind off my eyes), and a pair of insulated boots from my collection of Sorels and Columbias. Then I'm ready to walk the dog.

It's amazing how warm you can get while walking even in hideously cold temperatures. Today I actually had to tug my parka's zipper down a bit at the neck and take my gloves off for a while, I was getting so toasty as Daisy and I strolled along the beach and across the peninsula for 40 minutes.

Roiling whitecaps ruled the bay. The wind was wild and insistent, blowing plumes of sand off the beach and into the parking lot. Gulls huddled in the little park, their rumps facing the wind.

As we strolled eastward and reached the lee side of the peninsula, the wind abated a bit and we admired a festive wreath hung over a post at the city boat-launch parking lot – deserted today, a stark contrast to the long lines of boaters in pick-up trucks who wait their turns in warmer months.

Inland a bit, a tangle of bittersweet vine made its last stand, and a near-lifesized Santa waved from a gaily decorated front porch.

We headed westward toward our street, the wind whomped us in our faces, lifting Daisy's ears straight up and making me gasp for breath. (How well I understand the nautical expression "into the teeth of the wind". For it bites.)

Up the porch steps and into the house – warmth! Food! A sunny spot on the couch, a cup of hot tea, and the day's newspaper! Such contrasts are what I imagine I'd miss if we lived in Florida or Arizona. Not to mention such sights as the dark winter bay dotted with restless foam.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Swanning around

Because they are an artificially introduced "alien" species – originally from Eurasia and brought over in the mid-1800s to adorn parks and estates – and can crowd out less assertive waterfowl, swans are not universally beloved of American naturalists.

They are beautiful birds to behold, however. On our little peninsula, there seems to be a durable truce between swans and the other fowl, principally mallard ducks and Brant and Canada geese, that frequent our section of the Atlantic Flyway, particularly in the winter. I can't get enough of looking at them.

This morning at around 8:30, before the day became overcast, Michael and I took Daisy on a walk up Seaview Avenue past a small brackish pond on the east side of the road and Brushneck Cove on the west. As we stood on the hyperbolically-named Danger Bridge – a tiny section of road with railings on each side where a tidal brook connects the cove to the pond – our year-round resident swan couple swam toward us with two of the seven cygnets they raised this year, now nearly grown.

Daisy stared and trembled on her leash as the birds neared, and the father swan responded with a series of warning hisses – one of the few sounds made by this species formally known as the Mute Swan. They also emit, according to Cornell's guide to birds, a "snorting 'heorrr'." I like the urgent whooshing melody of a swan in flight, produced by air rushing past or through its powerful wings. The Anglo-Saxons were said to believe that a swan's wings sang with a human voice when it flew. Goose-bumpy, no pun intended.

In addition to the pond swans and their undaunted mallard companions, we noticed what appeared to be an entire convention of swans in Brushneck Cove just to our west. Michael counted 20 of them. That's a lot of swans in one place. I read on Wikipedia that such congregations may be the swan equivalent of debutante balls, where the year's young adult fowl gather to pair off with their lifelong mates.

I like to think that "our" swans will continue to coexist peacefully and share the wealth (algae, in this case) with other local species. I'd hate to miss their stately progress across the local waters, the noble curve of their lovely necks, the bobbling gray babies paddling in their wakes each spring. Today we returned home smiling and grateful for swans, alien species or no.

Click on any photo to see it larger.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Once upon a time... or, adventures in narrative and theory

Yesterday Michael and I were talking about our daughter's and nephew's college majors (the first unknown as yet, the second sociology and criminal theory), and I recalled that I had thought as a pre-freshman that I might major in political science – never having sampled a single course in it. Then I actually took the introductory political science course, and while the lectures were lively, the readings lost me fairly early on. I had long considered this a defect of my character, but now I realize what dampened my interest 39 years ago: theory.

You don't have to go too deeply into an academic discipline before theory rears its head. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but I now know it's not my thing. I'm all about stories. Narratives. What happened to whom, why, how – and what resulted.

I came very close to majoring in art history at Brown, mostly thanks to the brilliant teacher Kermit Champa who taught the four courses in 19th- and 20th-century European and American art that I took after being smitten with the introductory art history survey course, brilliantly team-taught by Champa, Anna Schultz, and others. My dear friend Laurie Hormel and I devoured these courses, side by side, our notebooks filled with descriptions using arcane Champa terms such as "scumbled".

I have rarely worked as hard at anything as I did at memorizing the slides we had to know for our exams. Perhaps most thrilling of all, I read and re-read our two primary texts by John Rewald, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, which to this day hold places of honor on our bookshelves. Rewald told the vivid, thrilling stories of painters in France who broke free of the academy's rigid technical and subject strictures and began painting light in thick brushstrokes, dots of color, patterns that resolved into shimmering images of landscapes, people, and flowers. Manet, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso. And the women! Yes, women painted among these giants. I was enthralled by the work and the personal stories of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, to the extent that I wished I could be them.

Eventually, in studying modern European and American art, we plunged deeper into theory – inevitable as the student seeks to understand just what the heck those abstract artists were up to. Laurie and I traded copies of ArtForum magazine, reading them cover-to-cover. We studied critical theorists and bowed at the altar of the eminent Clement Greenberg.

It was only as I began to entertain the thought that art history might be my chosen major that I realized that the thrill was ebbing. My head was becoming filled with theoretical jargon. On personal field trips to museums and galleries in Boston and New York, I pondered towering canvases by Newman, Motherwell, and Louis and analyzed their place within the color field movement, considered the tension between surface and edge. Some of the wow of seeing these beautiful, innovative works seemed to seep away. Instead of my heart, art increasingly engaged my brain. I knew more about what critics thought about Jackson Pollock's scribbled masterpieces than I did about Pollock's journey as an artist – the very narrative sweep that had engaged me in art history in the first place.

And that's when I chose the other fork in the road. Instead of art history, and in spite of my love for it, I majored in American civilization with an emphasis on literature and ideas – the stories of this nation and its people. (In retrospect, I was probably lucky that I graduated in 1973 just ahead of the English department's wholesale embrace of critical theory and deconstruction.)

Graffiti from a university restroom stall, posted by an anonymous faculty blogger.

I had similar experiences as I explored sociology, psychology, and religious studies at Brown. Topics that initially excited me quickly devolved into studies of theory. The Old Testament course I'd eagerly signed up for, although well taught by a respected professor, was not, as I'd hoped, a guided tour of Biblical characters and stories and their foreshadowing of New Testament themes, but rather a long digression into how various scholars dissected those stories. At midsemester I changed my grading option from letter grades to satisfactory/no credit, reflecting my disenchantment.

"What did you like about sociology?" I asked Michael, who majored in that discipline at Brown.

"Statistics and theory," he answered. What floated his academic boat were theories and the design of studies that proved or disproved them, the gathering and analysis of numbers to produce insights into how societies defined and sustained themselves, how groups of people behaved.

"The opposite of me," I noted. My take-away from my intro Soc course was: It's amazing how organic societies are, how they act communally to define behavioral norms, status, and boundaries. I still mentally reference much of that rudimentary knowledge when I read the newspaper and watch the news on television; it helps me understand ethnic conflicts around the world, urban violence in the U.S., the trend toward adults living with their parents, and so on. But spare me the drudgery of designing studies and crunching numbers; call me when the sausage is cooked. I want to read the completed narrative. What do we humans do, and why? That's the good stuff!

I work in a university among brilliant theorists of every stripe, and I assure you that I respect what they do – I am awed by it. I learn bits of disciplinary and interdisciplinary theory in the course of my work, and I feel privileged to visit what are essentially alien lands far from my parochial mental landscape.

And still I remain all about the story. Why is this scholar inspired to juggle molecules in his laboratory, that woman to explicate the evolution of an ancient religion? Who are these amazing minds, why are they doing this, what have they learned, where will it lead us all? It's no surprise that I became a feature writer. Stories are my bread and butter.

As a child I sat spellbound as Grandma Poenack told little stories. She was a masterful and dramatic teller of both fiction and first-person experiences, punctuating sentences with breathless prompts – "And what do you think happened next?" Really, I haven't strayed far from that stance in 50 years: I'm still the wide-eyed kid waiting for the twist of plot, a character's transformation or epiphany, the crescendo of the narrative, the fright, the resolution of conflict by story's end.

What do I dread most about my own death? Aside from the potential for physical agony, I dread not knowing what happens next. I read once that certain documents relating to the assassination of JFK would not be released until a certain date in this 21st century, and I was aghast to realize I likely would not be alive to learn what they contain. Unbearable not to know how the story ends!

Dare I hope that some essential consciousness survives my physical being, enabling me to see how our children's and grandchildren's stories turn out? How American society looks in 100 years? Probably not. And even if it did, I suspect my insatiable hunger for narrative arcs will prove to be a figment of my mortal existence.

Once upon a time ... people loved, fought, mourned, created, built great civilizations, made beautiful songs, devised plots, reaped riches or poverty, died horribly or well. Stories carry me like cresting waves, keep me alert and startled and moved. Alive. The heck with theory, with discipline; I just want to race ahead and find out, over and over, what's next. What happens. The end.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Web log, Yule log

Our family at Caroline's birthday party on Nov. 29: Melinda, Kevin, Andrés, Anne, Jon, Caroline, Michael, and Leslie.

Hello! What a hectic month. I started a few blog entries, but didn't have any stamina to proceed with them. But now, four days into a blessed two weeks off from work, I am beginning to unwind a little.

I just saw this quote from the late novelist Taylor Caldwell on a Myspace board, and it made me happy at a time, historically and personally, when there is much reason to despair and fear; much darkness; bitter-cold winds.

I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.

The economy is falling in shards around the beleaguered people of our state and nation. My husband has no job, and we need to make a decision about selling (or defaulting on) our house sometime this winter, and then become renters for the rest of our lives – nothing wrong with that, but this little house was our dream. We are desperate to keep our children in their good university and high school somehow. This will be our most parsimonious Christmas ever – only stocking-stuffers and a little money for the kids, no gifts between adults.

We have cut back and cut back. Our magazine subscriptions have all expired, even my beloved New Yorker. I haven't had my hair cut or colored in way too long (behold the mousy brown-gray roots). I plan our meals around whatever the cheapest protein sources are in a given week (hooray for eggs), buy the store brand of almost everything, clip coupons like a fiend, and make sure to fill up at the gas station on Warwick Avenue that has regular unleaded for $1.54 a gallon, about 10-15 cents cheaper than anywhere else. I never, ever go shopping recreationally anymore, only with a list of specific needs.

A lot of this is good news, I think, for us and others. While consumerism fuels the U.S. economy, we have all become habituated to buying on a whim, shopping just to sate our endless craving for something new. That kind of shopping is learned craziness. I feel better leaving it behind. I enjoy using our crockpot to tenderize tough meats and make big, hearty stews and chilis. There is pleasure and virtue in paring down to the essentials.

This week we'll go to the Christmas Eve midnight Mass at St. Sebastian's; I'm one of the lectors that night. On Christmas Day, we'll host a small family gathering – my brother and his wife and kids, and my stepdaughter and her husband and daughter, the latter being our darling Caroline, now three years old.

Caroline "reads" her birthday card from Uncle Andrés at her third-birthday party as her cousins look on.

There is some 10" of new snow outside (glazed now with ice), and it definitely looks like Christmas with our front porch a-sparkle with little blue and white lights after dark. The Christmas tree is decorated, half of the annual cookie baking done, the cards all sent. My dear ones are nearby, and outside, stars as sharp as ice wink in the velvet sky.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to all who celebrate. May 2009 realize the hopes of our 2008 elections and restore the American Dream.