Strong Perfume

I have finally figured out why deodorants are so strongly perfumed. It’s for those days when you’re in a hurry, and you’re just about to run out of the house, and you wonder if you remembered to put on your deodorant. All you have to do is aim your nose roughly in the direction of your armpit and take the quickest of sniffs. You’ll know.

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SITY: High-Flying Spider

Spider, spider in the sky, waving just above my eye: I just want to say hello, and take your picture from below. Spider, spider in the sky, thanks so much for staying high (and not dropping on me while I was taking this picture).

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SITY: Halloween Decorations

I haven’t put up any Halloween decorations. I usually don’t, because we don’t get trick-or-treaters here, and I spend enough on costumes as it is. But out in the yard, the plants and animals have started creating their own holiday displays.

The Japanese andromeda is decorating with fake pumpkins.

And the spiders have really gotten into the spirit of the holiday!


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SITY: The Bugs Are Watching

The praying mantis surveys its domain.

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SITY: What’s Beautiful Today?

I spent some time outside this morning taking pictures. I found quite a few beautiful things, including this cicada skin. According to Wikipedia, the term for this is “exuviae,” meaning “things stripped from a body.”

Cicada’s Cast-Off Skin

I’ve seen a lot of these things over the years. This is one of the best examples I’ve ever found. They’re not always in such fine condition. It’s amazing how many details you can see in it. Maybe some people wouldn’t call it beautiful, but I do!

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Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad

Aside from the word “the” (a perennial classic), the word I seem to be using most often lately is “sad.”

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Sad Truth

She who shirks her work and plays

Must work harder other days.

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People Change

Barrel Fever by David Sedaris

Grade: B-

David Sedaris and I probably don’t have that much in common. He’s a guy from the South, and I’m a gal from the North. He’s a good 16 years my senior, having been born roughly between my generation and my mother’s. Maybe that’s why he reminds me of both my mother and myself, and why he makes me think of what she and I would be like if we were smushed together into a male body and given a pen. That’s a really frightening image, but funny, too, if you think that kind of thing is funny. In any event, we can sum up my feelings about David Sedaris with this one phrase: “I don’t know why, but I get his sense of humor.”

We all need our humorists. I feel the loss of Kurt Vonnegut especially keenly these days. Someone has to take his place. Someone must interpret the madness of the modern world for me and tell me that it’s all just a big, dark, ugly joke. I’m calling on David Sedaris to be that humorist for me right now.

By and large he’s doing the job. Just a few months ago I read a piece he wrote for The Paris Review about the election of Donald Trump. In the same way that he found comfort in saying, “I’m not alone. I’ve got Cher,” I found comfort in saying, “I’ve got David Sedaris.” Everything is OK, because David Sedaris is laughing with me about this big, dark, ugly joke.

Today’s David is working for me, and I’m happy. But yesterday’s David wasn’t, and Barrel Fever belongs to that yesterday. The stories just didn’t work for me. I’m okay with that.

So I don’t recommend Barrel Fever except for the final essay, Santaland Diaries, which is hysterical, if not entirely PC by today’s standards. But I recommend David Sedaris in general as one of the humorists who can help to keep us sane in these crazy days.

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I have had this song stuck in my head for days. It is an art song by Claude Debussy, called “Beau Soir,” the lyrics of which come from a poem by Paul Bourget.

Lorsque au soleil couchant les rivières sont roses
Et qu’un tiède frisson court sur les champs de blé,
Un conseil d’être heureux semble sortir des choses
Et monter vers le coeur troublé.

Un conseil de goûter le charme d’être au monde
Ce pendant qu’on est jeune et que le soir est beau,
Car nous nous en allons, comme s’en va cette onde:
Elle à la mer, nous au tombeau.

The song is pretty, but it’s creepy, too. The setting is sunset and the rivers have turned rose-colored. How lovely! But then the creepiness comes in with “frisson,” which in English is so often used to describe a shiver of fear. Its definition in French is pretty much the same. This shiver is in the wheat fields (or corn fields), which is even creepier. Creepiest of all, the poem ends with “we’re going to the grave.”

I didn’t realize it until I sat down and really thought about the lyrics, but the theme of the poem is “Be happy. Life is short,” or something along those lines. That’s clearly some kind of birthday message. My mind has gotten so desperate that it’s using French songs to send me messages.

That’s sad.

Or should I say, “C’est triste?”

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For the Love of Language

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

Grade: B+

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, but moved with her parents to America when she was just two years old. Her parents spoke Bengali at home, and she learned that language to an extent, but English ultimately became her everyday language. Now, when visiting India, everyone assumes she can’t speak Bengali, and they treat her like a foreigner. In America, she speaks American English fluently, but because she looks Indian, people always assume she’s a foreigner. Consequently she never feels quite at home in either language.

But Lahiri had a talent for language and a desire to express herself, so she wrote books in English, and wow! She won a Pulitzer Prize. Fantastic.

Still something was missing in her life. Then she fell hard in love with the Italian language. She struggled fruitlessly to learn it through study. Finally, she decided to immerse herself in it fully, moved to Rome with her family, and even began to write exclusively in Italian.

This struggle to learn Italian and to be accepted as a user of that language is what In Other Words is about. It is a collection of short essays and two very short stories. She wrote them all in Italian, but the English-language version of the book is bilingual, with Italian on the left-hand pages and the English translations on the right.

Writing in a foreign language is, I would imagine, somewhat like the exercise of writing in monosyllabic words only. Have you ever tried that? I have. It’s a terrible strain to say exactly what you want to say with only a limited vocabulary, but it also forces you to be creative, to take different linguistic paths. About writing in Italian, Lahiri said,

In learning Italian I learned, again, to write. I had to adopt a different approach. At every step the language confronted me, constrained me. At the same time it allowed me to rebel, to go beyond.

I can see the appeal such a constraint would have for an accomplished writer, especially given her love for this new language. Success, if it came, would be doubly sweet.

Whether or not it was a success, well, that’s up for debate. Looking through the reviews, it seems that some readers genuinely disliked the book, calling it “self-absorbed” and “narcissistic.” Some even picked on the Italian (which they said is clunky and full of errors). I don’t speak Italian, so I have no idea how good or bad it was in that language. I read some of it, just for fun, pronouncing the words as I imagined they would be pronounced (and probably getting it all wrong). Sometimes I tried to understand it on its own, and sometimes I compared it with the English. Those are the kinds of things I like to do. For that reason, I don’t regret the pages “lost” to the Italian (though I suppose certain monolingual readers could feel cheated that only half the book is in a language they can read). I thought having the Italian to look at was cool.

As for content, the book had a strong start in an essay using the metaphor of literal immersion in water, but by the end of the book Lahiri lost her focus. The writing degenerated into more of a diary in which she poured her insecurities, which is not the kind of stuff other people really need to read. I wish she had cut those parts out and picked a few more related subjects on which to write more formally.

Still, I enjoyed the book overall. It was interesting, and I do not regret a moment of the time I spent on it. So I give it a B+, meaning that it’s a good read, though not necessarily a book I would keep. I would recommend it for fans of Lahiri’s other works who want to learn more about the author, and also for people who are interested generally in languages and/or the craft of writing.

On a much more personal note, In Other Words is one of those books that makes me wonder why some books pass beneath my eye and catch my attention, while thousands upon thousands of others do not. I had never read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri before, and if I were going to start reading her work, shouldn’t I have started with the one for which she won the Pulitzer? Yes! But that’s not the book that fell under my eye when I was walking through the library looking for subjects to use for puzzles.

Some days it makes me happy to play the game of guessing what reason some Higher Power, if there were indeed one, might have for throwing a book my way. Today is one of those days. What, then, would be the reason for In Other Words to cross my path? Does Jhumpa Lahiri have something to teach me?

Perhaps. Jhumpa Lahiri grew up in Rhode Island (the state in which I now live). She earned several advanced degrees from Boston University, which is where I got my bachelor’s degree, and it’s possible we were at the school at the same time. Those are our most obvious granfaloons. I know they’re meaningless, but they still generate an aura of meaningfulness that I like.

Less than 100 pages into the book I found something that she and I truly have in common. She wrote,

If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses, me, what pains me—everything that makes me react, in short—-I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much.

Me, too. So if I were to believe there was a reason for me to read this book, I would say it was this—a reminder of why it is that I need to write. When I do not write, I feel adrift, cycling through periods of confused numbness and confused fear and confused anger. I don’t know what to think, or what to feel, until I write it all down and force the words to make sense. Then I understand what is going on around me, and within me. Then I understand myself. So this is the message I will take from the book: write!

P.S. In case you’re wondering how I transformed my experience with this book into a puzzle, I chose English words with Italian roots (e.g., ARCHIPELAGO, PAPARAZZI, PIZZA, etc.). Most of the words in the list ended with A, I, or O. In some cases, this would be a bad thing, but for the puzzle type I chose, it created a satisfyingly tricky puzzle. Thank you, Jhumpa Lahiri, for the inspiration!

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