Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Baby Ducks

Walt will play for minutes—minutes!—on end and by himself these days. He hugs, points to his eyebrows, distinguishes mom from dad from grandma from the friend visiting last week who brought over for the house a head of kale and six pounds of butternut squash. Walt is drawn to wheels of every variety. He pulls the giant plastic bin filled with cars out from under the piano, dumps them on the floor, and runs a few across the carpet. The slightly larger plastic cars are self-propelled, but he hasn’t quite figured out the winding mechanism. I hold and point these cars toward the sofa, but often they run in circles—bad tire, poor alignment—and end up behind the easy chair, or under the coffee table, where we dig them out weeks later.

Last Sunday, at the park, Walt borrowed from another kid a miniature pram with a plastic baby doll inside of it. He ran the pram back and forth on the sidewalk, alternately smiling and furrow-browed, pleased and determined. The sidewalk was really a narrow strip of cement between two sports fields, beside a school. When the pram ran into the grass, Walt pushed and pulled a bit, stood back, then grabbed the doll and tossed it onto the ground. Too heavy. He labored across the grass.

We saw friends in the city last weekend: birthday parties, brunch. It’s a little more than an hour’s drive, and we timed the last trip poorly. As we drove up and over the hill, Walt started to konk out. His eyes glassed over. He went limp in the car seat. We desperately named every fire truck, ambulance. We asked Walt the same few questions, over and over. Do you want to go to a party today? Do you think you’ll see your friends there? Sluggish, a tad imperial, he replied, Dah. As we got out of the car, Walt saw other kids and perked up a bit. He ran pell-mell between fabric discs placed on a yard, racing from one iceberg to the next.

Whenever Katie and I visited Indiana, I would get a lot of mileage out of mocking animated shows: getting the words wrong, misnaming the characters, asking pointless questions about the plot. It sounds so awful now, but then, I think my nieces and nephews were at least sometimes amused. As you probably know, I love The Wonder Pets. I have fond memories of singing (the wrong lyrics for) its theme song. When did parody become sincere affection? My nieces and nephew have since moved on to more sophisticated fare, which I love, too: The Office, Friday Night Lights. Perhaps I will one day get them on board with Parenthood.

When Walt and I watch The Wonder Pets, I struggle mightily to enjoy the show and not get too sentimental. We are watching The Wonder Pets to entertain him for a few minutes. I can wax nostalgic for my personal history another time. Walt loves, especially, Ming-Ming (the Wonder Pet duck), which is to say, he loves ducks. Our bathtub is filled with plastic ducks. Our bookshelf is rich with fowl-ian tales. Duck was Walt’s first word. He points at many things still and, lacking the word, offers a heartfelt, Dah.

Perhaps the duck fascination is inherited and short-hand. When we first met in the Peace Corps twelve years ago, I liked to offer Cait false consolations about the culture shock overwhelming us. When it gets bad, I would say, just think of the baby ducks in the world! It became a running joke in our friendship, then our marriage. Walt will no doubt role his eyes one day at some duck-related anecdote from his early, precognitive youth. I keep on my desk a photo of Cait watching gulls fly across a lake in the Sierras. They swirl around her head. Cait is facing away from the camera, a little older than Walt is now. According to his mother, Walt is my spitting image, but I don’t see it. We walk around the house, yard, playground, and parking lot. He holds my finger and pulls me in one direction, then another. In safe climes, he toddles off and plays a while on his own, comes back to say hi, then heads off again.

Baby Ducks

Fragile as epiphytes,
tight as silk saris or orange peels:
the truth always gives way.

The day we met
I convinced you I overcame
childhood rickets. Later:
that I flew with John Denver
the night before he died.

Here’s a fact:
95% of baby fowl
purchased each Easter
never make it to their first birthday.

Forgive all of this

but when I told you
if it gets bad
to think of baby ducks
I didn’t love you. Not like this.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mrs. Bridge

Walt this morning stepped onto my face to reach the cat on the bed. I managed to grab hold of his legs so he wouldn't fall, and also to toss my eyeglasses across the floor so he wouldn't stomp them, and then I waited. He poked at the cat, giggling. I have no idea if he reached the cat, or if the cat was (most likely) standing just out of reach, or if that cat cleared the bed immediately and ran into the bathroom. I waited there a while, on the floor, on my back, face-footed, until eventually Walt lost interest and climbed back down. We got dressed for the morning, went outside and walked around the block, visited the birds next door, played in the living room, had some oatmeal. A little bit later, he stood at the stairs pointing at the door to the basement apartment. Nap time.

I finished reading Mrs. Bridge last night. A good friend, and talented writer, recommended it as a kind of anti-Cheever opus of the mid-20th century. There is so much to admire about the book: its plainspoken and sparse style, the range of feeling, the mix of satire and gentle humor, the short vignettes (117 in all) that often find India Bridge just short of connecting meaningfully with the friends and family in her life. I was born and lived the first 14 years of my life in Kansas City, so there is a certain fascination with the names and places in the book. I couldn't help feeling that the book is rather cruel to India Bridge, who seems to have no curiosity about the world or engagement with it, except for the conventions of her social circle. She does not know or particularly like her children. She is prim and defensive, calculating and manipulative. Like all of the women in the book (except for the friend who kills herself, and the daughter who moves to New York City and never returns), she is both boring and bored. Still, as I finished the book, I felt intensely sad and lonely for her, and I suppose, for myself and about the world around me. Reading the book initiated that mix of feeling, thoughtfulness, and empathy that often make the best literature so satisfying, so good; that makes me want to keep reading, to find some sense of understanding about the world in which I live, and maybe also (to borrow a phrase from a colleague) to find it and myself on the page.

I like Eliot's notion, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," that a poet develops his/her taste in three stages. First, he reads until he finds those other poets he really likes. Next, he reads those poets intensely, so that he understands what he likes about them. Finally, he attempts to read the rest of literature, and uses it to test those taste, and to observe how it might evolve. Of course, that last step is quite a challenge one, to which we must inevitably fall short. But I suppose it's more problematic to stop at the second step, to decide wholesale that there can be no literature except for what we know we like. To do so would seem to satisfy not a love of literature, but instead a love of compulsion, and for the accompanying anxiety about what we have not read, or worse, about how our own work might fail. Of course, it also seems difficult to decide that benign neglect is the way to go; to love everything, so as to exclude and risk valuing nothing. Liking anything, I suppose, requires a certain vulnerability about judgment: the limits of one's range of interest and exposure, alongside everything to which it might be compared.

In his review of the best films of the year, David Edelstein notes the many occasions for our cultural obsession with apocalypse. Zombie plagues, diseased plague, global warming, world war, even melancholy begins the end. Last week, the NewsHour ran a feature about extreme weather in 2011, the radical frequency and scope of it. If it is our cultural moment to decide how we feel in the abstract about annihilation, and whether we intend to fortify the bunkers or anticipate and solve the problem, then the latter feels conventional and overly confident, while the former is titillating and exotic, tinged with all the promise and release of nihilism. I suspect these are alternately economic questions, a manifestation of faith in markets and currency--Why take precaution, why not maximize the take, if it's all destined to come to an end?--and also the familiar questions of liberal democracy and empire. Will government do the work to serve the neediest, empower the capable and competent, and represent and protect everyone? Must it?

What little time Cait and I have some evenings to watch television, we've newly devoted to Parenthood. If the first season is a bit uneven, still, at its best, this is a very, very good show. Developed by the creator of Friday Night Lights, Jason Katims, and Ron Howard (director and producer of many things, including Arrested Development), Parenthood hits nearly all of my buttons these days. I could say I like it for its great writing, strong cast, Northern California setting, and gentle optimism for and about the world and family at its center, but I doubt I would have given it a chance were it not for the New Yorker's strong endorsement of it this week, and it's ready availability on demand. Parenthood is still another example of how NBC can develop excellent shows--Friday Night Lights and Community come to mind--that get critical raves and a cultish audience, for which it nonetheless can't quite find its audience. If you get a chance to check it out, do so soon, because as things currently stand, it may very well be canceled at year's end with season 3 (the best one yet).

Parenthood uses for its credit sequence Dylan's upbeat version of "Forever Young" from Planet Waves. The song also very neatly bookends its pilot with this version and his more contemplative slow-down from that same album. The folky original is absent in the episode and show. That version was Katie and I's wedding song, and I didn't know the later versions until I sought them out after her death. I might try to say something very clever here about the many manifestations of the things we both desire and grieve for in the world, but instead I'll say that I felt a tremendous relief that hearing this song, when I didn't mean to, was okay. I could handle it, and I even enjoyed it. May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung. I'll post below two videos. First, the pilot episode; watch it through the end of the opening baseball scene (up to the credits). Second, in keeping with a common thread on the blog, a pretty great duet of "Forever Young" by Dylan and Springsteen.

Cait, Walt, and I walked down to the campus bookstore yesterday afternoon. The academic term starts next week, when the students arrive, and I wanted to check that my course texts were in-stock. They were there, alongside the novels, poetry and story and essay collections, histories and criticisms, of the other classes offered by the English department. Such a wide range of styles, authors, and genres are read and taught and discussed and loved here, from Milton to Bishop to Chandler to Berryman, to Lowell's imitations of Berryman to Mitchells' translations of Gilgamesh to Plath's journals alternating jealousy and earnestness about her ambitions to publish poetry in The New Yorker; and this doesn't yet count the course readers, with parts and fragments to complement the full texts. We didn't linger too long there before Walt started pulling books, indiscriminately, from the shelves. Off to the upstairs cafe, then out to play in the fountain and quad, which are deserted only a day or two more, before heading back up the hill and home.