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JAN
04

Farewell to my First Hobby

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If you read Schooled, you'll recall I learned how to tie lanyards in the 3rd grade. I loved it so much that I kept tying them until I left home, at which time I had not only accumulated a sizable collection of supplies (string, hooks, beads, not to mention all of the finished lanyards themselves), but I had also realized that I couldn't possibly bring said supplies with me to college. Nor did I really want to at that point. I had outgrown my beloved hobby, only I couldn't bring myself to throw the supplies away.

I'd forgotten about them until I was at my parents' house over Christmas going through various bins of childhood belongings in an effort to consolidate. With my recent NYC-inspired gutting of possessions (see Less > More post), it seemed like the right time. Indeed, most everything in the bins got thrown away. Things like my She-ra dolls, my troll collection (remember the two minutes when those fluorescent-haired little things were trendy?), oodles of school papers, a box of dried up corsages (from what events, I have no idea, since the only dance I ever attended was my senior prom), framed photos of Olympic gymnasts from back when I was sure that the same level of glory and athletic prowess could be mine as well.

But nothing gave me as much pause as those spools of lanyard string. As Billy Collins says in his own poem, The Lanyard, nothing "could send one into the past more suddenly." I remember so well sitting through that after school program and, after having no interest in any of the other activities (think chess), I remember loving the lanyard tying right away. I recognize now it was probably because it didn't involve interacting with any of the other kids...nor was it something at which they could handily beat me. Indeed, I could not even count the hours I spent in my room over the next decade tying those things. It honestly makes me a little sad to think about--all the time NOT hanging out with friends or becoming an Olympic gymnast--but it made me happy.

I might have opted to keep the string instead of throw it away when I unpacked it from a bin last week, but apparently plastic lanyard string doesn't have a 20-year shelf life. Let's just say it was not in tie-able condition. And that is how any future child of mine was saved from inheriting a tub full of plastic lanyard string. Not that this will stop me, should any such child ever exist, from teaching her how to tie them. She may not be as introverted as I am, but I hope there is at least one season of her childhood where the calming repetition of strand over strand engenders a sense of independence and creation. Besides, we can't all be Olympic gymnasts, now can we?

NOV
01

Meeting your Favorite Poet: Be Cool

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It's like this. Billy Collins is my favorite poet. Although I'm in an eternal argument with my parents around whether his work really constitutes poetry, I find it delightful no matter the classification. 

Billy was in Brooklyn this past week, and though it was my second time seeing him, it was the first time I actually got to meet him. When you're the kind of person dorky enough to have a favorite poet, dorky enough to trek across town to meet him, dorky enough to end-of-the-world-style panic when your re-routed subway train makes you late, dorky enough to ask someone to take your picture while sitting in your auditorium seat waiting for Billy to come out, then you are probably also the kind of person who will totally dork out when actually face to face with him.

As I approached the front of the line after the reading, it occurred to me that I had no idea what to say. "Nice job." Or maybe, "I love your work." I decided to tell him that it was my second time seeing him (a true fan, see), and I told him which of his poems was my favorite. It's a poem that praises the familiarity of home and routine, especially in contrast with the stress and annoyances of travel, and as a staunch homebody, I always took great comfort in it. Only when I heard him read the poem in Cleveland the first time I saw him, it became clear by his tone that he was not, in fact, siding with the homebodies. He was mocking the very idea that staying in one's own environment could be superior to exploring the world. I felt a little disillusioned, and as I told Billy this story last week, I wished he would tell me what I wanted to hear, which is that my initial way of looking at the poem had been right. But he didn't, of course. Yet even as he was confirming my gross interpretation error, I couldn't wipe the dopey look off my face, hovering at the table even as he'd moved on to sign the next person's book.

Maybe no one can expect to be cool when in the presence of a literary idol. Maybe no one can expect to correctly decipher an author's intent 100% of the time. And I can live with that. Although I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish his "To Tali" inscription had come with a more personalized post script. Something like, "From a fellow homebody." It would have been our secret, Billy.

 

MAY
11

The Lanyard

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This poem has special meaning to me. Not just because of all the lanyards I tied in my childhood, but also because it of course makes me think of my mom. Oh, and it's also hilarious. So Happy Mother's Day to all the women out there. (Shot above brought to you circa 1985.)

NOV
23

Road Trip

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I was on the road this week for work, and while I did decide to fly for the longest stretches of the trip, most of the week I was driving. In fact, I feel like that’s all I did. Drive. You have to know me and my relationship with driving to understand how truly significant this is, but after a week of driving all over 4 states I am by and large unfamiliar with, I managed to always get where I was going. Not only without incident, but without so much as a wrong turn. It was unprecedented. And considering one evening found me in the thick of NYC rush-hour traffic, my ultimate goal being Long Island (um, has anyone ever tried driving to Long Island?), actually getting there—and in the dark of night, no less—made me want to fall to the floor of the blessed Marriott that housed me that evening and weep for having arrived in one piece.

Instead I wept when I got home last night. I’m not sure why. Partly because I was exhausted. Because the NYC drive surely took years off my life. Partly because I got to meet up with my Airman brother while on the road, and I’m so incredibly proud of him. Partly because the world is such a beautiful place, and one you can only see close up when you do exactly what I had done—drive. And perhaps partly because I returned to Cleveland full of tales from the road, and the only one here to greet me was my cat.

Since there is no one on hand to listen, I’ll have to tell you, dear readers, that a detour in Maryland took me through the most beautiful patch of land I’ve seen in years. I stopped in the middle of the winding country road just to take it all in. I glanced over my shoulder with a smile as I passed Coney Island and drove across the Verrazano Bridge on the clearest and most beautiful day imaginable. People had pulled off the road and gotten out of their cars just to look out and sigh for a minute before rolling on. And when I crossed the Susquehanna yesterday, I thought about Billy Collins and his poem about fishing in July. Not because I’ve ever fished the Susquehanna, but then again, neither has Billy. In any case, I’m grateful for the trip, grateful to be home, and grateful to now put away the GPS.

JUN
07

Torturing Confessions out of Poetry

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I typed the word "stopping" into google search this morning, and the first thing that came up was "stopping by woods on a snowy evening." Which, incidentally, was exactly what I was looking for. What a tribute to Robert Frost that is. Impressive. The poem has been on my mind since having a conversation with my brother the other day. He's in college and was expressing frustration over professors who insist upon a "right" meaning or interpretation of a piece of writing. I know what he's saying, and I can see both sides of the argument. It seems narrow-minded (and presumptuous) for us to assign a single meaning to a poem or story, but, then again, authors usually do have a particular meaning or theme in mind when they write. Especially these short mediums.

The first poem that came to my mind was Introduction to Poetry (Billy Collins), because it captures this frustrating sentiment perfectly; the idea that sometimes we just want to read poetry, revel in it, delight in it, relate it to our own lives, draw our own parallels. But in an educational setting, it's all about the meaning. The right meaning. I can remember several times in my college years when I suggested meanings or interpretations and was told, "No, he/she didn't mean that." Most times I was probably just wrong, but I also think that we can't assume we know everything about why authors say the things they do. Speaking of Billy, we were once given an assignment in a poetry class to take a certain poem of his and make an assumption based on the contents of the poem. It's the poem with the beautiful description of introducing a child to the moon, followed by the suggestion--if your house has no child--to "gather in your arms the sleeping infant of yourself." The description that follows, that of a sleepy infant-in-arms, struck me as painfully sweet. The assumption I turned into the professor was this: "Billy Collins has no children." To which the professor actually scoffed, claiming it was simply not possible for a childless man to describe so perfectly the limp and lolling head of a sleepy baby. As a childless person myself, I can tell you that this professor overestimates the difference between experience and circumstance.

So back to Robert Frost. I once heard a professor tell of a particularly unique student interpretation of Stopping by Woods which claimed that the narrator might be none other than Santa Claus. There are details in the poem (snow, nearly the darkest evening of the year...think about the timing of winter solstice, the "small horse," miles to go, etc). The poem is not about Santa, but the student got full marks on the paper, which, as I pointed out to my brother, is how I think writing ought to be approached. Your interpretation might be wrong, but especially if you can make a good case, your opinion is still valid and should be heard. These types of dialogues and questioning are healthy, keep us open to new ideas, and make literature that much more accessible. And isn't that the point?

MAY
17

For Dad: It's back to Billy

No, I don't have a Father's Day poem from Billy Collins for this post. But I do find it funny that he's making his way into the conversation again. Because today being Father's Day and all, I was reminded of the first thing my dad said to me after he read Schooled. He told me that he wanted to lodge a complaint, or at least go down on the record as saying that I had mis-stated something in the book. I asked what it was, and he brought up the "On Billy Collins" section that directly proceeds my graduation from college. In that section I mention that my parents don't consider his work to be poetry, but that since he was at that time our poet laureate, they lose the argument every time. Dad then insisted (in a surprisingly emphatic manner) that it is I who loses the argument every time, and that his work really isn't poetry unless the very definition of poetry has changed. I do think the definition has morphed over time, but I suppose what I really mean in the book is that I think they lose the argument, just as they are sure that I lose the argument.

No matter, the point of this post is simply that it's Father's Day, and my dad never ceases to crack me up. Why just today I was complaining to him about how much my vet will surely charge for the analysis of my cat's stool sample that he (my vet) is insisting be a part of my cat's check-up next weekend. My dad, himself a vet, said I could always bring some of her poop home with me when I fly out there in a couple of weeks and he would do the analysis for free. We were then in stitches at the thought of cat poop getting through security. Not to mention my neighbors on the plane who would no doubt smell it. What he doesn't realize is I may just be crazy enough to do it. What a story that would make.

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