Sunday, February 26, 2012

How Not To Kill A Wasp

Last Saturday morning, I discovered an uninvited and unhappy houseguest clinging to my kitchen window. It was a wasp, spindly and long, with narrow brown wings that lifted, as I watched, in a threatening V shape over its dark body. I bounded backwards with alacrity that was truly surprising given my pre-caffeinated state. And how was I supposed to make coffee? The French press was clean in the dishwasher, but the dishwasher is just next to the window. The wasp’s domain, now.

This wasn’t the first wasp to appear in my mysteriously porous apartment. The first wasp, which came last September, died on its own after a day of desperate starvation. I called my apartment company when the second showed up a few days later; they sent a maintenance man to find the leak in my walls. He did not do that, but he did kill the wasp.

Never again, I decided. I would not be the girl who cried for help when confronted with an insect smaller than a Cheeto. But I also wasn’t quite the girl who could boldly smush the little intruder into oblivion. And why bother? Why endure the fear, why risk the painful sting? The new wasp would surely die naturally. I suspected that turning off the heat might urge it along to death. Until it succumbed, I would just have to arrange a few minor protection (and warming) strategies. I donned a hoodie, hood included, and tied the strings tightly under my chin. Then I slipped on my yellow dishwashing gloves. It wasn’t a terribly uncomfortable way to putter around a kitchen.

I had never been stung before, you see, and the prospect incited almost as much anxiety as the thought of a Santorum presidency. Who knew how much a sting would hurt? Who knew if the wasp’s venomous prick could swell my throat closed? Best to avoid the errant insect piteously tracing the window’s edges, always seeking a nonexistent exit. Best to let it fret itself to death.

But the wasp refused to die. Every morning I expected to find its featherweight husk supine on the kitchen floor. But even if it were hiding at first glance—the wasp tended to crawl into a covered space at night—it would soon zoom into my presence.

“You see, wasp, your plight is just like the human condition,” I said one evening, while chopping an onion to begin dinner preparations. The wasp was pacing the black rubber perimeter of the window, its sticky yellow legs and antennae in busy motion. “We too face an impenetrable barrier to an all-to-visible utopia, and spend our days fecklessly trying to reach it.” Timidly, I approached the trash bag beneath the window and disposed of the onion peelings. Outside the window, clumped remains of the season’s first real snow gleamed in the streetlamp light. “And if we could reach that paradise, it would destroy us.”

The wasp took off from the windowsill and I fled the kitchen.


Yes, the wasp had to die. And it became increasingly clear that I had to be the one to kill it. The maintenance man made it look easy enough last summer, just slammed a wadded paper towel on its unsuspecting form and thrust the bundle in the trash.

I had my paper towel ready to go. Armed with it, I would stand by the window, staring at the still wasp. The ordeal would be over in a moment, a single moment, I knew. But like a grad student Hamlet, I hesitated again and again. The wasp would move; my nerve would fail.

“Do you really deserve death at my hands?” I would ask the wasp, who would sometimes fan its wings and sometimes not. I could argue that the wasp had no right to loiter in my apartment, that it didn’t pay rent here, that it was threatening my safety. But the wasp could equally argue that I, as a human, had taken over its rightful habitat, and that it, as a wasp, could not be expected to acknowledge such concepts as private property and trespassing. And what was so bad about having a wasp in the house? As long as our bodies remained at a respectful distance, we could probably be friends. Yes, I was as indecisive as Hamlet, though clearly no questions could be raised about my sanity.

But I really wanted my kitchen back. So on Tuesday night, after giving up on reading at last, I decided it was time to take action. No more delaying, no more awaiting a natural death. Now I’ll (actually) do’t, I said to myself. I went to the kitchen and picked up my waiting weapon. But the wasp wasn’t in sight. I searched around its usual resting spots to no avail. The tension in my chest started to ease. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

Or maybe the wasp had disappeared for good. How wonderful, I thought, undressing in my bedroom, that I might actually be spared the horror and the guilt. I slipped on the nightshirt that had been lying crumpled on my bed and immediately wondered why the fabric felt so sharp.

Reader, the wasp was in my shirt.

I shrieked as loudly and pointlessly as a car alarm. Idiotically, I shook the shirt out, trying to dislodge the wasp but succeeding only whipping it into such a panic that it into stung me again, again, again. At last I froze. I could feel the wasp creeping down the shirt’s interior. I screeched again, ripped off the shirt, and ran from the bedroom naked except for my underpants.

Events then took a humiliating turn.

The stings — on my shoulder, chest, and back — were rising into mean white welts against rapidly reddening skin. What if I were allergic? How long would it take to start dying? Remember that kids’ movie, “My Girl,” where Macaulie Culkin dies from a bee allergy at the end? For the first time in my life, I called 911. The dispatcher sent out EMTs. Dave called while I waited—responding to my hysterical text—and reminded me that I was, in fact, breathing and therefore probably alive.

The EMTs concurred (I did put on a bathrobe before letting them in). There were four of them, mortifyingly enough, all cheerfully amused by my panic. Some of us sting when we’re scared, I wanted to say; some of us call 911. The burly middle-aged EMT asked where the wasp was. I pointed to the shirt. After some poking, the wasp revealed itself and the EMT ended its life.

I, on the other hand, survived. I would like to be able to say I miss my insect companion, but I don’t. It has been a pleasure to enter my kitchen without my neck hairs raising like a suspicious nun’s, without feeling compelled to sheathe every inch of my skin in protective rubber and cloth. But here’s the thing: wasp stings aren’t that bad. The panic was worse than the pain. The wasp’s welts had calmed by the time I woke up the next morning; indeed, the five little wounds barely existed.

Yesterday, another wasp squeezed its way into my habitat. I grabbed my paper towel and smushed it into eternity.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Three Thoughts on Translation, Elation, and Relation (Part 3)

Part 1 here, Part 2 here.


January 4, 2012. After two days of apocalyptic spring, the Boston temperature dove into the single digits, a development I wasn't aware of when I left my parents' house with hair still shower-wet. It froze almost immediately as I ran my downtown errands, using my brand-new iPhone to navigate the quirky streets of the city where I was born but where now, after six years of only occasional visits, I remembered mostly images, not directions.

A T-ride later, I was back in Newton, that upright, high-strung suburb of professional parents and ambitious offspring steeped in the last dregs of old-school New England reserve. After a family dinner, I picked up my friend Kate and went with her to see "Young Adult" at the local indy movie theater. (Kate, who studies film in Denmark, is by far the best movie companion I've known.) We were both on break from grad school, and, just like the film's morose protagonist, visiting a hometown that felt vaguely foreign. After the movie, I drove Kate back to her parents' house and she invited me in.

The Krosschell home is my favorite in Newton. Their three-story house, perched on a tiny dead end street, is deep green on the outside and utterly cozy on the inside. From the porch, you can peer into a warmly-lit living room, where someone is almost always reading on the couch pushed up against the wide window. Mia, a quiet, inquisitive mini black poodle greets you at the door. On visits in recent years, Kate and I have broken from our teenage habit of escaping immediately to the chilly basement, pausing instead to chat with a parent in the living room. Cindy and Jim, both writers, have excellent reading recommendations and always seem genuinely interested in my literary-world wanderings.

Tonight, though, the living room was empty with the exception of a full, crystal-lit Christmas tree. Kate made tea and we ensconced ourselves in a couple of comfortable old armchairs. I set my mug on a coffee table next to a stack of New Yorkers, a couple short story collections, and a literary magazine I didn't know.

Since middle school, my conversations with Kate have been littered with French words, phrases, sentences. She was always better at the language than I was -- all the more after she spent a year in Paris, and then another in Normandy -- but we could generally understand each other. Until this night. At first, I thought I had just lost my French through lack of practice. But the new phrases in her speech weren't French; they were Danish, the language she is learning in Copenhagen. Usually, seeing my puzzled look, Kate would stop and explain the meaning of her new words; occasionally I had to ask. Kate was, of course, ecstatic in Denmark, in love with the language, excited about her new roommates, and still passionate about film. "Passionate" is a good descriptor for Kate in general. Passionnée. Lidenskabelig (according to Google translator). She was clearly still "young and idealistic," a curious phrase she has used to describe herself for years, as though anticipating some sudden collapse into cynicism.

My own brand of idealism, marked by rare but delirious minor revelations, hasn't fared as well. Certain things in life have been very good, but the isolation of grad school -- the pomposity and ultimate vapidity of too many things -- the sense of years slipping, of time evaporating unrealized -- these continue to grate. In uninterrupted English, I told Kate about dinner at a professor's house at the end of the fall semester. Maybe it came to mind because that house had much in common with Kate's -- same antique feel, same preponderance of books and literate magazines, same reliance on un-showy, eminently comfortable furniture. Instead of Mia, a sociable gray cat; instead of two tall blond daughters, an energetic young son and sweet toddler daughter. But the engagement with culture -- and specifically, the studied vaunting of culture over money, the determined emphasis on the home as a place for quiet reading rather than sensory indulgence -- this was the same.

At table were the six seminar students, my professor and her professor husband, and her children. My professor, a sharp scholar with an elephant memory and waifish figure, sat to my left. We discussed finals stress, our plans for reproduction (all female students; make of it what you will), and our individual family lives. All of us were feeling the shock of domestic stability after a semester of hunkering in our inherently temporary apartments, in our inherently temporary lives. And so our minds leaped back to the domesticities we had once known.

At some point, the toddler transitioned from her high chair to my professor's lap: a mound of soft, fat baby at home on her mother's slim thighs. She looked up at me with round blue eyes; I grinned awkwardly in response. My professor noticed, smiled, petted her daughter's head. I guessed we were all thinking about the dramatic differences of our life stages. Propertied versus nomadic, established versus striving, parents versus children. What alarmed me was that, though not yet a parent, I was infinitely less like this beaming little girl, now waving her arms at me, than like her middle-aged caretakers.

So yeah, c'était bizarre, I said to Kate. Mia pawed at my knee and the living room continued to swathe us in the illusion of adolescence.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Three Thoughts on Translation, Elation, and Relation (Part 2)

Part 1 here.


On July 4 of the same year, the weather in Provincetown, Massachusetts was disappointing. Thick clouds hung low over the harbor that runs parallel to shop-lined Commercial Street. Cool gusts of drizzle blew in sideways from the dark, choppy water. My parents were visiting a friend there for the holiday weekend, and I eagerly joined to escape my Providence apartment for a few days of seaside play. In the afternoon, we were supposed to migrate to a house with a view of the annual parade, a characteristically flamboyant affair involving dozens of patriotic drag queens. But I was allowed to spend the morning (originally marked for the beach) shrouded in a hoodie on the deck of Sharen's condo, reading Fitzgerald's last completed novel Tender Is the Night.

Tender is a terrible novel in many ways, and, over-conscious of Bob Dylan and Woody Allen's withering pigeon-holing of Fitzgerald readers, I was trying very hard to stay attuned to its flaws. They're easy to find. Fitzgerald was drinking heavily at the time he was writing the final draft, and it shows in the text's poor organization and irritatingly overwrought themes of aging, decline, the tragedy of wealth, and the emptiness of society. But page by page, snips of Fitzgerald's language would prove so gorgeous that I couldn't help loving it. I enthusiastically underlined passages, like this one, that supported my theory that Fitzgerald was really more of a failed poet than he was a prose artist:

The conductor shut a door; he telephoned his confrere among the undulati, and with a jerk the car was pulled upward, heading for a pinpoint on an emerald hill above. After it cleared the low roofs, the skies of Vaud, Valais, Swiss Savoy, and Geneva spread around the passengers in cyclorama. On the centre of the lake, cooled by the piercing current of the Rhône, lay the true centre of the Western World. Upon it floated swans like boats and boats like swans, both lost in the nothingness of the heartless beauty. It was a bright day, with sun glittering on the grass beach below and the white courts of the Kursal. The figures on the courts threw no shadows.

I didn't much care what would happen to Dick, the psychiatrist who marries his beautiful rich patient, or Nicole, his insane spoiled wife, or Rosemary, the dewy starlet who seduces Dick. I cared about the decorations, the non-plot-related paragraphs or even sentences whose intense concentration of talent and keenness marked them as the novel's real substance. It was almost time to leave for the parade when I came across this conversation between Nicole and her soon-to-be lover Tommy:

“Five years,” [Nicole] continued, in throaty mimicry of nothing. “MUCH too long. Couldn’t you only slaughter a certain number of creatures and then come back, and breathe our air for a while?”

In her cherished presence Tommy Europeanized himself quickly.

“Mais pour nous héros,” he said, “il nous faut du temps, Nicole. Nous ne pouvons pas faire de petits exercises d’héroisme — il faut faire les grandes compositions.”

“Talk English to me, Tommy.”

“Parlez français avec moi, Nicole.”

“But the meanings are different — in French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity, and you know it. But in English you can’t be heroic and gallant without being a little absurd, and you know that too. That gives me an advantage.”

“But after all —” He chuckled suddenly. “Even in English I’m brave, heroic and all that.”

She pretended to be groggy with wonderment but he was not abashed.

It's probably important to admit that, this specific summer, I was (possibly due to overindulgence in Fitzgerald novels) guilty of feeling, as Cynthia Ozick puts it in Foreign Bodies, "proudly, relentlessly, unremittingly conscious of [my] youth." At the time, this consciousness didn't seem even slightly embarrassing, so I jumped up from my seat, heart actually pounding with the possibility that Fitzgerald and I could have shared a thought. Even such a trifling thought.

I had to move. Downstairs, out into the street. I strode down quiet lanes of antique wooden cottages to Commercial, the town's main drag, where the drag queens were already preparing for the afternoon festivities. Hairy breasts and knee-high glitter boots; three-inch lashes and five-o-clock shadows. Fantastical wigs and opulent lipsticks. More convincing performances of femininity than I had ever been able to muster, to be sure. The town, with its quaint Puritan-cum-Portuguese weathered seaside aesthetic, provided a delightfully bizarre background for such technicolor extravagance. Inhaling salt air, I hurried along, dodging the slow-moving crowds already gathering in defiance of the dreary day.

Not surprising at all, I suppose, that I finally halted at the used bookstore. Tim's has been around forever and is always stocked with all the classics and that half dozen books you never knew you needed. I really needed nothing - had a stack waiting for me back at Sharen's - but wanted in my swooning college-girl way to be surrounded entirely by spines. I wandered the shop's tiny rooms, lingering at last in the Anthology section. A very old, squat book caught my eye. It was edited by Edmund Wilson, a critic whose name I had just learned via Fitzgerald. But it was the title that mattered: The Shock of Recognition.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Three Thoughts on Translation, Elation, and Relation (Part 1)

Reading Lydia Davis's new translation of Madame Bovary has dredged up some old impressions about what it means to switch from one language to another. First one below; two more to come.


In the spring of 2008, I spent many afternoons seated outdoors at a certain café on the market square of a certain medieval city in Southern France, wholeheartedly acting the part of the Study Abroad student, pen in one hand, rapidly cooling espresso in the other, eyes flitting to and from the the grid-lined notebook that I had selected because it was so different from the types available in the States. On the square, miniature trucks were starting on their daily work of cleaning up the debris from the morning market, whose merchants unabashedly abandoned piles of produce refuse, fish heads, and chicken feathers on the square's smooth golden stones. Farmers having departed, the trucks would unleash their hoses, spraying and soaking the massive granite slabs while maintenance workers swept the trash. Soon the stone would glisten in the ever-strengthening sun, and a breeze in the plane trees would create mad sparkles on the ancient square made as naked and new as if hundreds of people hadn't been haggling there an hour before or 300 years before.

The gridded notebook was rapidly filling with lines of poor French in my sloppy, hurried, left-handed writing. I was working on a truly awful story about a wistful, itinerant boy who falls in love with a childhood friend and, later in life, tracks her down to declare his passion. The ending is, of course, quite grim in a gratingly melodramatic way. But for the most part I didn't care. For the first time in my writing life, sentences were tumbling from my mind; I didn't have to yank them out with excruciating force. I didn't feel the need to test every word for irony and ambiguity, nor to put them through the idiot exam. Instead I felt unencumbered, ecstatic, thoroughly surprised at my own ability to produce freely. This sense of freedom grew, in part, from the fact that I had not thoroughly mastered the language and therefore didn't really (couldn't, really) hold my prose to any rigorous standards.

But the freedom also derived from an incipient sense that French literature, and words in general, can be much more straightforward than English-language literature. It is not less complex, beautiful, or expressive, but it seems to contain less anxiety about potential attacks, potential dismissals of romanticism, of emotionalism, of naïve sincerity. I can't remember much of what I was reading that would have given me such an impression. Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Balzac certainly figured into the mix. Just as influential were the conversations I was having with French peers, who expressed their views with incredible clarity and lack of self-mockery or doubt. There was also the time a friend said, in French, that he loved me, and I had to assure him that in English he did not.

This paragraph comes a third of the way through my story, which (it must be admitted) relies heavily on the color blue as a symbol:

From the top of the staircase, I could see Lavande's parents and my own hovering by the front door. Suddenly, my father moved, and for the first time I saw Lavande. Oh, how I froze! I hadn't met many young girls, and certainly I had never seen a girl like her, frail as a summer cloud, with fine soft hair, almost white, and ivory skin so transparent that I could see her blue veins coursing underneath. Her eyes were so blue that I could discern their color though the long staircase separated us. Many years later, I would read an old poem that describes exactly what happened to me at that moment. Damon, a shepherd frustrated in love, recalls the moment in his childhood when he first saw his would-be lover picking apples. "Ut vidi, ut perii!" he says. "I saw her, and I was lost!" Only after reading this poem did I decide my feelings for Lavande could be called love. At the moment of our first meeting, with the staircase dividing us, I merely thought I was very afraid.

I do remember hesitating here. I looked up to the glistening granite square where the trucks were finishing their market purge, where pedestrians traversed the worn stone with baguettes under arm and a North African accordion player squeaked out the tired standards by a fountain. I looked up to the broad plane leaves and the bright Mediterranean sky. Elation and mortification filled me in in equal measure. I was 21, a student of literature, old enough to recognize a terrible story but still perhaps young enough to write one innocently. Bending back to my notebook, I wrote, in French, in the margin next to my new paragraph:

This would make no sense in English. In English it would receive nothing but laughter. Never translate it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"This consciousness that is aware"

With winter break comes a welcome and terrifying expanse of free time. I've heard that this will be the only grad school break that's really free, what with orals and the dissertation to consider down the road. I don't quite believe that. The life of an English graduate student (judging by mine, this past semester) is not overwhelmingly busy, certainly not the busiest life I've led. Lots of work, yes, but work of the most enjoyable sort. Working (for wages) 20 hours a week on top of my course load would not have been detrimental to my academic achievements, but fortunately (or was it?) I didn't need to.

This is not to say I was idle; there was plenty of text to fill my days. Mostly novels, as it turned out, and now it seems my next semester will be filled with them too. So now one item on my list of Things To Do 'til Jan. 17 is Refresh and Enhance my relationship with verse. Hence poem blogging. A poem (that I've never studied) and a few words about it. Nothing explicative, nothing definitive, nothing at all academic -- just something about each work that strikes me. Something to share with the many friends who don't necessarily reach to poems for a dose of concentrated human existence, and with the few who do.

To start, a short poem by Emily Dickinson, whose work I barely understand:

This consciousness that is aware
Of neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone

Is traversing the interval
Experience between
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men--

How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and None
Shall make discovery.

Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be--
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.

What is it about this poem? I have found it nearly impossible to memorize, or at least to hold in my long-term memory. Other works I committed to mind at the same time are still intact; this one breaks through in fragments. The meter is responsible for at least some of the difficulty. The first stanza's rhythm is well-ordered, predictable iambic. Easy enough. But then the first line of Stanza 2 completely throws you off! Or at least, throws me off. To keep the meter ordered, you'd have to say TRA-versing vs. the more (currently) standard tra-VERSing. I frankly don't know which Dickinson intended, or which pronunciation was more common in 19th-c Massachusetts, but I like to think that she wanted to create a jarring effect.

And I don't think it's an accident that she starts the jarring with the word "traverse."

Like so many words in this short poem, "traverse" is a combination of two (or more) Latin roots (trans = across, versare = to turn). To name a few more, there's "consciousness" (con=with, scire=to know), "interval" (inter=between, vallum=rampart), and "adventure" (ad=towards, venire=to come). Here's where it gets crazy: several of these combo words' parts are seemingly easy to break off and attach to parts of other words in the poem. I say "seemingly" because you can't really break apart and recombine the words (to make "ex-versing" or "ad-periment," say... although now that I think of it inter+venire=intervention), but the potential for such word-play makes the poems actual words very difficult to distinguish and memorize.

Minor (and self-serving) as this point seems, I think it provides a key for understanding one of the poem's central concerns: taking apart the notion of the individual. From the first line, we know that "consciousness" is the subject of the poem, the noun doing all sorts of things like "traversing" and being "adequate." From the last stanza, we can (erroneously? I'm not sure) gather that the "Soul" is synonymous with "this Consciousness," and also that "its own identity" is not synonymous with it. The "Hound" of identity is distinct from, yet attached to, the "aware" consciousness. Something similar can be said of the long-ago compounded words that dominate this poem: the parts have meanings of their own, but they also have a meaning (distinct but related) upon being combined.

This attention to distinction/separation is delightfully apparent in the poem's most common word, "itself." Emphatically non-Latinate, "itself" appears in full form five times. It has the freshman-discovers-Derrida double-meaning going for it, where pronounced it is impossible to determine whether it serves as the reflexive pronoun "itself" or the (etymologically identical but contextually distinguishable) "its self." This second, separated form is suggested twice: "Its properties shall be" and "Its own identity." In fact, Dickinson never refers to the "consciousness" merely as "it." The consciousness, until the moment of its re-definition as "Soul" is referred to only as "itself." Her double-reference to the possessive consciousness "its" all but forces the reader to read "itself" as an instance of the "consciousness" possessing a specific self.

If this reading works, then the last stanza is incredibly chilling. The words "condemned" and "Hound" don't set expectations high for a cheerful finale, to be sure. And consider the last line: is it too much of a stretch to equate "identity" with the "self" that has been attached to "its" throughout the poem? I make this leap based on definition alone: one's "self" is, in common parlance, nearly indistinguishable from one's "identity" -- hence the emergence of phrases like "self-identity" and questions about how you "self-identify." If the association of "self" and "identity" is possible (albeit questionable), then the "identity" has in fact been "attending" the consciousness/soul throughout the poem. Even at the end of the first stanza, when the consciousness is supposedly "itself alone," its "identity" is secretly tagging along in the form of "self." There is literally (letter-ally, linguistically) no way in English to separate the broader, perhaps universal "consciousness" from the discrete and possibly miserable "self."

Yes, this claim could lead to an over-long argument about definitions of self, individual, consciousness, and all those other terms that prove so easily deflatable, but what's here is already more than "a few words."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I must have a mind of winter

Spring is too thrilling to think anything and summer is for slipping back into past times, into lush white-lit cycles; autumn is for sharpening a focus and winter oh winter is for coming alive inside your own mind. These are my seasons, the markers I grew up marking, the weathers of the Northeast, and now that they too are threatened, vanishing, it seems ever more important to notice and grasp at them and feel all the things I've always felt with their coming and going.

Everyone hates winter. My father hates winter and skinny-legged girls hate winter, but I was born in winter and am built for it and outside my high school was a brown-grass field beyond which lace-branched trees supplicated a smoky lavender sky. Dendritic trees. Before the snow falls, skeleton season: bare trees, bare earth, someone who's not me might say the "true nature" of things. In any case, as naked as the land gets.

Every winter, an obsession. All that darkness and the cold that confines you to a small warm space - it concentrates my thoughts. When I was a kid I knew they were obvious because I would get themed gifts on my birthday: countless calligraphy pens one year; a platoon of teapots another. In college I got lucky and devoted several winters to writing. Last year, I wandered empty Gowanus streets and etched Hopkins into the inside of my skull. Now here it comes again: long nights, muted skies, loud weightless air. The Thing hasn't taken shape yet but the restlessness is here; right on cue the restlessness is invigorating my veins. Just in time for me to finish up in Virginia and head north for a real winter.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Oh hi I moved to Virginia

What are the moral implications of running a dishwasher when one lives alone? You can only dirty so many dishes per day, and it is an economical and environmental waste to run the machine three-quarters empty (isn't it?) but at the same time the dishes you most want washed are the ones you use every day like the coffeepot.

Having a dishwasher is fantastic.

Although sometimes, when I am using clean-up time as a break from reading, washing pots and sweeping floors with a TV show or NPR story playing in the background, I regret that the dishwasher makes it go quicker.

I can hear when my downstairs neighbor is running his dishwasher. The sound doesn't bother me; the reminder that he could, at any moment, turn up his speakers loud enough to make my floors vibrate does. The more quiet I have, the more I want. There is always the library, of course -- but here is my couch, here are my things; here are the walls, angles and odors carving comfortable grooves into my brain.

I haven't been here (in Charlottesville/Virginia/the South/graduate school) long enough to be able to say "what it's like." Freshman year of college, my life was essentially confined to three quads. I still remember my amazement, at the beginning of sophomore year, when I turned a corner and found myself in a part of campus I'd never before seen. Here, now, I'm more or less back to those three quads.

My classes meet Tuesday and Thursday. Does that mean I have five days of weekend? No, of course -- there are hundreds of pages of reading to absorb, and soon there will be papers to write. But also yes. Today was a no-class day. I woke when I wanted, which was at 8am. I had breakfast and read until 10:30am. I went to the gym, where I did more reading while working out. Back home, I showered and dressed, then drove to the grocery store. Originally I'd hoped to have all of my reading for tomorrow done by 6pm, but a project intervened -- because I wanted it to. Because I get to choose when to do things.

The project was peach butter. Dave visited this weekend, and despite the heat and intense humidity (which thankfully seems to have passed), we visited a nearby orchard to pick apples and peaches. Apple picking is one of my favorite things to do; peach picking is something I had never done. It was interesting. Much quieter. With apples, you've got to yank the fruits from their trees, sending the tough branches flying back in a great indignant shivering of leaves. Then there's the incredible crunch when you bite into your prize, the surge of tart to your tongue, crisp flesh caged in your teeth, Autumn.

Peaches -- you barely have to touch them to take them. A gentle twist near the stem, and the soft luscious orbs all but swoon into your hand. Biting into a peach is slow, silent, seductive. Your lips do more work than your teeth. You cradle and coddle them, you smooth their silky skin -- because you must. The peaches you want to take home would bruise or break if you treated them roughly.

...And if you're me, they bruise despite all cautions because I don't know how to handle them. A quick inventory of my remaining stock today proved depressing: all peaches were downgraded from eating to cooking quality. But I had wanted to try the Smitten Kitchen peach butter recipe anyway and was not unhappy to have an excuse. So I set about pureeing peaches and cooking them for a while with some sugar and lemon juice. I stood by the stove while the mixture bubbled away, stirring occasionally, burning my tongue on stolen tastes and reading an article about conceptions of marriage in the early 20th century.

Thought stream: before 20th century, many great works of literature culminate with a marriage. One obvious reason why: the story of an engagement makes for an extremely convenient arc. And why now, in the 21st century, do so many people like to write/blog about the dishes they cook (I pondered while checking the SK directions and considering writing about my own peach-butter-making experience)?* It must be for the same reason: the arc. The initial confusion and worry of collecting ingredients, the plot (or sauce!) heating up, transforming and mingling everything in it -- and, finally, the result. Aromatic, edible, a triumph or comedic failure that might serve as a Learning Moment. Usually with photographic evidence. Here is mine:

The goopy brown stuff on the left is the peach butter. It is delicious, with all the tangy purity the recipe promised. The bread is also homemade (and yummy) but that's another story.

I suppose cleaning up is the denouement? I cleaned up with the new episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm playing on my computer. I loaded the dishwasher. Even with all the kitchen activity, it was only a third full.

*It was at this moment that I realized I am an English graduate student.