Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fragile House : Mirth, Optional

Frank Lynch via Flickr

I work in a business park not unlike a long corridor. Down the corridor, there are "exhibits" on either side displaying curious goings-on all the day. I've dubbed one particular exhibit "Fame, Cruel Mistress Factory." That may mean I have an overactive imagination but that is beside the point for the time being. I've dubbed the exhibit such because each time I pass by, there is a precarious new dream being documented; a hopeful starlet being minted before the camera's watchful eye. Blond, brunette, auburn, raven black - the tossed-about tresses change hue from hour to hour, but the poses never do. The click-click-clicking of the photographer's lens marches on dutifully, indifferent to its recently transplanted subjects. Rushed along by a late winter wind or sluggishly plodding in the cloying heat, I've passed this exhibit to find the exhibitors unchanged: stand here, kneel this way, tilt your head left, smile brighter, touch-up please!

I live in the land of the stars so the endless parade of wannabe celebrities isn't new -- but for some reason I've a bit more empathy for the possible emptiness that awaits the hopeful these days. Their peripatetic existence makes me a little wistful - imagining from whence they came and if they'll have a home to return to should their big break break down. Maybe the need for sympathy isn't there and this isn't really so sad an exhibit. I'm sure the headshot-takers aren't all crushed beneath the weight of giant ambitions; maybe they've very few expectations at all. Maybe their real priorities are quite grounded. But in the event landing in the stratospheric echelon of a very thespian few is everything to them, I have an Edith Wharton-induced tenderness for the any machine's sacrificial cogs. Poor Lily Bart. Forgetting to mention my imagination can be dramatic in addition to overactive, I can see a parallel or two...

It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of deeper impoverishment—of an inner destitution compared to which outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. It was indeed miserable to be poor—to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still—it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the years. That was the feeling which possessed her now—the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had never been a time when she had had any real relation to life. Her parents too had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them from its shifting gusts.

She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others. In whatever form a slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood — whether in the concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or in the conception of the house not built with hands, but made up of inherited passions and loyalties—it has the same power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum of human striving.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spring's Eternal : Hope's An Orange

Image via We Heart It

Considering the great effect geography and surroundings can have on one's experiences and the perceptions subsequent, I suppose I am not unique in regarding my "native Southern Californian" status as an integral personal trait. I've heard haughty New Yorkers, proud Mississippians and even one fiercely loyal Nebraskan recount their indigenous tales with possessive rosiness and have soaked up the secondhand magic therein.

Locals the world over have their own means of hailing the spring's seasonal changing of the guard. There is no transition as drastic as winter to spring and maybe that's why you're all the more overjoyed when it occurs. But you're from Southern California, you say. There is no such dramatic passage for you. People in other parts of the world like to use California's lack of seasons against her. "I prefer to know when it's fall," one friend will quip. "I would get bored of all that sunshine," another claims. Yet just because there is subtlety in the changing of the seasons doesn't mean they don't exist. In fact, it is the subtlety which makes me feel all the more a gleeful co-conspirator in the spring that universally signals our emergence from all kinds of literal and metaphoric hibernation.

And so perhaps there is nothing that can lay claim to native Southern California status more wholly than the orange tree. The orange tree is instrumental in my mission to decry the shift in seasons and is ultimately the bearer of that slight but definite evidence of springtime: the orange blossom. The scent hits you before the sight of those sultry miniature blooms when you happen upon them out of the blue one warm April afternoon. And just as surely as you were longing for far-off Saturdays spent beached on the sand moments before, the realization that spring has sprung is heralded by the orange's faintly sweet, honeyed triumph. True, spring may be more dramatically signaled by the descent of New Yorkers on sunny Central Park after a late winter ice thaw. But sorry my Manhattanites, I'll take the understated harbinger of spring that is the orange.

And as a fan of the tangerine colored orb, it appears I am in the best sort of company.

Of the fruits of the year I give my vote to the orange. In the
first place it is a perennial--if not in actual fact, at least in
the greengrocer's shop. On the days when dessert is a name given
to a handful of chocolates and a little preserved ginger, when
mac├ędoine de fruits is the title bestowed on two prunes and a
piece of rhubarb, then the orange, however sour, comes nobly to
the rescue; and on those other days of plenty when cherries and
strawberries and raspberries and gooseberries riot together upon
the table, the orange, sweeter than ever, is still there to hold
its own. Bread and butter, beef and mutton, eggs and bacon, are
not more necessary to an ordered existence than the orange.

It is well that the commonest fruit should be also the best. Of
the virtues of the orange I have not room fully to speak. It has
properties of health-giving, as that it cures influenza and
establishes the complexion. It is clean, for whoever handles it
on its way to your table but handles its outer covering, its top
coat, which is left in the hall. It is round, and forms an
excellent substitute with the young for a cricket ball. The pips
can be flicked at your enemies, and quite a small piece of peel
makes a slide for an old gentleman.

But all this would count nothing had not the orange such
delightful qualities of taste. I dare not let myself go upon this
subject. I am a slave to its sweetness. I grudge every marriage
in that it means a fresh supply of orange blossom, the promise of
so much golden fruit cut short. However, the world must go on.

Next to the orange I place the cherry. The cherry is a
companionable fruit. You can eat it while you are reading or
talking, and you can go on and on, absent-mindedly as it were,
though you must mind not to swallow the stone. The trouble of
disengaging this from the fruit is just sufficient to make the
fruit taste sweeter for the labour. The stalk keeps you from
soiling your fingers; it enables you also to play bob cherry.
Lastly, it is by means of cherries that one penetrates the great
mysteries of life--when and whom you will marry, and whether she
really loves you or is taking you for your worldly prospects. (I
may add here that I know a girl who can tie a knot in the stalk
of a cherry with her tongue. It is a tricky business, and I am
doubtful whether to add it to the virtues of the cherry or not.)

There are only two ways of eating strawberries. One is neat in
the strawberry bed, and the other is mashed on the plate. The
first method generally requires us to take up a bent position
under a net--in a hot sun very uncomfortable, and at any time
fatal to the hair. The second method takes us into the privacy of
the home, for it demands a dressing-gown and no spectators. For
these reasons I think the strawberry an overrated fruit. Yet I
must say that I like to see one floating in cider cup. It gives a
note of richness to the affair, and excuses any shortcomings in
the lunch itself.

Raspberries are a good fruit gone wrong. A raspberry by itself
might indeed be the best fruit of all; but it is almost
impossible to find it alone. I do not refer to its attachment to
the red currant; rather to the attachment to it of so many of our
dumb little friends. The instinct of the lower creatures for the
best is well shown in the case of the raspberry. If it is to be
eaten it must be picked by the hand, well shaken, and then taken.

When you engage a gardener the first thing to do is to come to a
clear understanding with him about the peaches. The best way of
settling the matter is to give him the carrots and the black
currants and the rhubarb for himself, to allow him a free hand
with the groundsel and the walnut trees, and to insist in return
for this that you should pick the peaches when and how you like.
If he is a gentleman he will consent. Supposing that some
satisfactory arrangement were come to, and supposing also that
you had a silver-bladed pocket-knife with which you could peel
them in the open air, then peaches would come very high in the
list of fruits. But the conditions are difficult.

Gooseberries burst at the wrong end and smother you; melons--make
your ears sticky; currants, when you have removed the skin and extracted the seeds, are unsatisfying; blackberries have the faults of raspberries without their virtues; plums are never ripe. Yet all these fruits are excellent in their season. Their faults are faults which we can forgive during a slight acquaintance, which indeed seem but
pleasant little idiosyncrasies in the stranger. But we could not live with them.

Yet with the orange we do live year in and year out. That speaks
well for the orange. The fact is that there is an honesty about
the orange which appeals to all of us. If it is going to be bad--
for even the best of us are bad sometimes --it begins to be bad
from the outside, not from the inside. How many a pear which
presents a blooming face to the world is rotten at the core. How
many an innocent-looking apple is harbouring a worm in the bud.
But the orange has no secret faults. Its outside is a mirror of
its inside, and if you are quick you can tell the shopman so
before he slips it into the bag. 
- Golden Fruit from Not That It Matters by the inimitable A. A. Milne 

Monday, April 27, 2009

W.W.J.D.D? (What Would Joan Didion Do?)

Joan Didion via

My borderline obsession with Joan Didion began spring quarter 2002 during Professor Hollowell's course on the American novel. Since then, her work, from the most obscure old Holiday essay to the most widely-known bestseller, has been a sort of aloof pseudo-muse. She is that rare combination of brilliant wordsmith and self-effacing dear friend - the kind who says what you're thinking first. She is the ultimate raconteur of the everyday human condition; perennially cool, minimalist without showing off; she tells it like it is but in the succinct, heartbreakingly poignant nugget you could never come up with on your own. And because of her timelessness, it seems only fitting to have a weekly post devoted to her enigmatic prose and the light it sheds.

It was with pleasure that I came across her piece, "On Self Respect", and found it as dead-on an assessment of one of life's most elusive sought-afters, despite having been written over forty years ago.
"Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with onself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards -- the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others -- who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something people with courage can do without."
From On Self-Respect by Joan Didion, 1961

Here's to a courageous week.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

In Love With Color : In Love With Carle

Image by Eric Carle

"In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf."
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar
by Eric Carle, 1969

Since the epic Eric Carle is in town this weekend for the LA Times Book Festival at UCLA, (the best campus in the country, much less Los Angeles :) it seems like the perfect time to wax poetic about his most well-known masterpiece, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The feast for the eyes celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and the messages of patience and transformation remain as poignant today as they did when we were 6-year-olds taking in Carle's tactile, richly colored pages for the first time. Here's a clip of the author/illustrator talking about how TVHC was born. Warning: you will want to pick him up by the suspenders and take him home!

Eric Carle Talks About the 40th Anniversary of TVHC

Friday, April 24, 2009

Coffee Spoons: Cosmic Boons

{Image erosie via ffffound}

For Words, Worth's inaugural post, it seems fitting to incorporate the impact even casual conversation can have on a new day's course.

"How's your morning going?" the barista asked pleasantly.

"Great, so far! We'll see once I get to the office," I answered.

"Positive!" he joked. "Is that the energy you want to be sending out into the universe?"

We laughed, but he brings up an excellent point. Words, thoughts verbalized, shape the flavor of our everyday; the way we experience our lives. Even when used carelessly, an offhanded remark, they have a cumulative effect. Like little fenced-in corners, they encourage either the boundlessness of spirit or the confines of fear in our minds. And T.S. Eliot sums it up with characteristic perfection...

"For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?"

- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock