Monthly Archives: October 2010

morning in brooklyn

9am on friday.

view from my window.


on día de los muertos and those departed

growing up, my school had an annual día de los muertos celebration, where we set up an altar, a fake cemetery and everything. I’ve was always fascinated by the holiday and have a great deal of love and respect for it. I think it is just the most beautiful tradition, and such an affirming way to deal with death and those we have lost: to celebrate the fine line between  the living and the dead, to speak the name of your dead, to take pause to honor and think about those special to you who have moved on into the next world.

la catrina

a few years ago, I went as la catrina (see above) symbol and personification of día de los muertos, for halloween:

me as la catrina, 2008

earlier this year, I even bought a dress printed with dressed-up skeletons for the holiday, which I am excited to wear for the first time on monday.

I am particularly obsessed with the line between the living and the dead, with death itself, and the beauty of the life cycle. always have been—I’m not morbid, I am just a scorpio to the core (which means my tarot card is the card of death, which is actually a very lovely card, representing rebirth and regeneration, the shedding of what is no longer needed.) in the fourth or fifth grade I read “romeo and juliet” for the first time and remember with astonishing clarity (I have a pretty poor memory, actually, just ask my sister) just how deeply it struck me. it did not make me sad, but it punched me in the heart with the profound gravity of love and death, and I just thought it was the most wonderful and tragic and beautiful thing ever. I remember even trying to explain this feeling to my mother, who subsequently became a little worried about me (but I guess when your 11 year old tries to tell you how beautiful the story of two young lovers dying for each other is, that’s a totally logical response) and we had to have a little chat. what a sweet mom.

number XIII, death (rider waite deck)

occasionally I’ll drink too much wine and go on what I’ve dubbed one of my “death rants” (usually to my poor darling, E, who constantly has to endure my nutty cosmic ramblings) where I go on and on about how amazing the cycle of birth and death is, how interesting the process of decay is in our world and how much we rely on it, how wonderful it is that nature wastes nothing and how the first law of thermodynamics always stands true (energy being never created nor destroyed, simply transformed and re-purposed)… etc, etc. none of this is an attempt to intellectualize or lighten the sadness and tragedy that death in our lives can be—the death of a loved one is always absolutely crushing, a wound from which we never fully recover—just a total sense of wonder about the cyclical nature of life and death. I love visiting cemeteries, and have my own little wacky customs that go along with those visits. recently I read about the jewish tradition of leaving a stone at the grave of a loved one at each visit–I just love that. it makes so much sense to me, and also reminds me of the piles of rocks left by hikers and backpackers along hiking trails the world over. when I was very young and on a wonderful backpacking trip in alaska, I loved the moments where we’d find those piles, they were so reassuring but austere.

one of my favorite poems deals with this exact subject matter. it is “peculiar fascination with the dead” by brenda marie osbey, former poet laureate of louisiana. I not only had not only the great honor of meeting ms. osbey a few years ago (and a more fabulous person you’d be hard-pressed to find), but I had the pleasure of hearing her read this poem, which absolutely brought me to tears it was so wonderful. it is a very long poem, but the first stanza is what sticks with me the most (note: basin, canal, valence and esplanade are names of streets in new orleans):

“light candles to honor the dead.
set flowers on the altars of the dead
which must be raised in your home.
wear the memory of the dead plainly
so anyone looking will see
how the decent do not forget.
speak of the dead
as though you thought they might hear
from the adjoining room.
keep mourning portraits
always about your home.
marry memory to the dead.
put silver coins in the corners of your rooms.
pray for the dead.
go into tombed cities
along basin, canal boulevard, valence and esplanade;
carry flowering plants
bits of brown paper
smooth stones
the burdens of what time you have left
to honor the dead
as they ought to be honored.
live among your dead,
whom your have every right
to love.”

that last line in particular absolutely slays me: live among your dead,/ whom you have every right / to love. damn, ms. osbey. as we say in new oreleans, “yeah, you right.” so striking.

I set up a small altar in my home every year in celebration of día de los muertos, and while I’ve gotten some raised eyebrows over the years for this (I am not of Mexican ancestry nor am I religious), it’s a very personal and solitary annual tradition of mine that I very much enjoy. I have been setting up my altar today, after a trip to the florist this morning to get my hands on some marigolds, the traditional flowers of the holiday.  here is my altar from last year:

as I set up the altar, I’m enjoying the fond memories of those whom I have lost, and those who I never even knew but I feel in my heart. I try to keep it positive, to remember the happy times and call up my feelings of love for these dearly departed people. many members of my family have passed in the last few years, and I especially am feeling for them right now.
with this in mind, I have been going through the stack of letters I have from my sweet grandmother, who passed away last year. I miss her a lot, especially at this time of the year, as she would usually visit us in october and really loved halloween—we’d always carve pumpkins, and she even helped with my costume some years (check out the following stunner, where I don a particularly terrifying wig):

and it is so nice to have her letters, to see her handwriting and re-read her lovely thoughts and stories. in her memory, I present some very sweet gems of southern grandmotherly wisdom and general adorableness (these are pulled directly from her notes and letters):

remember that southern belles are frills and lace but have petticoats of iron.”
who still speaks like that! so very sweet.

“hope your easter was bright and beautiful like you are. I dyed eggs tonight, I love to have them, just because they are pretty.”
she, like me, appreciated beauty for beauty’s sake.

this letter is from right after she had her name changed back to her first married name/family name:
“sure was glad to get your note about my name-change. I feel so good with the ketchum name back after 33 years with a name that I wasn’t too proud of… I had to go before a judge to make it legal. it was very interesting and the judge was very friendly. he let me sit in the witness chair, as he saw me with a cane. he had a cane also, he had fallen on our ice (during the ice storm) and broke his leg. we had a lot in common to talk about. ha. so I am legally a ‘ketchum’ hooray!… familys are so important, and you are a big part of mine. I brag about you  a lot to my friends, and carry a picture of you in my purse, so I can whip it out to show what a beautiful granddaughter I have… I’m glad you are doing well in school. love you honey, granny gen.”

“you are special people in my life. I love you forever + ever.”

“I’m doing fine and had such a great get-together at village creek, wish you could have been there. I cooked a soul food meal. we had black-eyed peas, cornbread, slaw, corn on the cob, creamed potatoes and for dessert bread pudding. we had eleven people. so much fun!”

this note is my favorite:
“to my little shadow in louisiana: I was glad to hear from you and so proud of you for getting a job and going to school too. I bet the jewelry shop is fun. I worked one summer in a 5 & 10 cent store after I graduated from high school. that was fun and I loved selling stuff. later I worked as an assistant beekeeper in a wholesale grocery. I worked until I married (at 18 yrs) and was 7 months pregnant, then I stayed with my mom and dad while my husband served in the army in the philippines for 2 years. not the best way to start a marriage, but I don’t regret any of it… I’m glad to have a granddaughter who remembers me in her prayers. I sure remember her in mine. I pray that you will be safe and healthy, and be able to make your grades, and know that you are loved. drop me a line again soon, I love it. granny g.”

(see? I am destined to keep bees!)

during this time of remembering those we have lost, I hope everyone takes time to think of those departed who are dear to them. we love you and miss you.

films, part one

part one of a roundup of my favorite films, in no particular order.

Some Like it Hot

Hands-down, one of THE funniest movies of all time. In fact, every time I watch it, I am surprised yet again at just how hilarious it is. Gangsters! Millionaires! Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag! Marilyn Monroe’s breasts on all-too-prominent display! She actually gives, in my opinion, a pretty stellar performance, but apparently she was a nightmare to work with as she was a little, shall we say, zonked out of it and unable to remember her lines. I also read that she was actually pregnant at the time of filming (which the costumers tried to hide) and later miscarried. Poor Marilyn. But this film is one of her best, and Lemmon and Curtis couldn’t be funnier. The scene of the party in the train car is my favorite, and in close second the tango scene. Oh, and the last line! What a hum-dinger! They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Annie Hall

My all-time favorite. Pitch-perfect. Woody Allen at his best: this film is funny, charming, heart-breaking, sweet, nervous, and delightful. Diane Keaton positively COULD NOT be any cuter. The ultimate relationship story (my favorite topic) that examines the ups, downs, and ultimate demise of Annie and Alvy. Alvy’s ending voice-over monologue about how he feels about Annie (“… how fun it was just knowing her…”) is the most we can all hope for in terms of how we feel about former lovers, and it’s a beautiful thing. One of my favorite parts is the “spider in the bathtub” scene–it’s such a moment of emotional truth, and most of us have been there. The film is also chock-full of funny Woody Allen one-liner exchanges:
Annie – “Do you want some chocolate milk? I’ve got the good chocolate…”
Alvy- “What am I? Your son?”
HA! Gets me every time. It’s also full of great little celebrity cameos (some non-speaking): Paul Simon, Jeff Goldblum, Sigourney Weaver, Shelley Duvall,  Truman Capote…

Sunset Boulevard

Absolutely classic film noir. The sets and cinematography are absolutely wonderful in this creepy and gripping film. Bill Holden plays the archetypal struggling young Hollywood writer who ends up a kept man by Gloria Swanson’s reclusive,  jealous, needy silent film star of a bygone era—very Ms. Havesham-esque.

Joe- “You’re Norma Desmond… you used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma- “I AM big. It’s the PICTURES that got SMALL!”

The murder-mystery in reverse set-up allows the plot to unravel in such a structured, 1940s way, as it winds through issues of possession, delusion, insanity and need. The whole thing is totally spooky eye-candy that is just brilliant. The monkey funeral? The rotting old mansion? The closing scene? Creepy perfection.


ballerina project

check out the ballerina project.

absolutely beautiful photos.

sympathy for the devil

it’s wednesday morning. what is one to do when she boards the subway ten minutes late to find a crazy man preaching a book of revelation-esque hellfire and brimstone version of christianity on the very subway car she has selected?

the only logical thing is to get a seat facing away from said crazy man (check) and listen to something reasonably loud on one’s headphones (check).

for this morning’s ride, I selected early rolling stones as my drown-out-the-crazy music of choice:

ignore with me their current status as the band who annoyingly won’t quit and keeps touring forver. ignore that the stones do not command the cool factor they once did, and may have drifted into “music that old goofy white people like to awkwardly boogie to” territory:


let it die, chaps! let us remember you as you were, instead of forcing us to see you as saggy old sober men who try to strut about like teenagers and open every show with the ear-numbingly-obvious choice of “start me up.” (full disclosure: I have seen them live twice, and yes, it was kind of awesome, if not partially due to the spectacle aspect of it all). ignore with me also the culture’s never-ending fascination with keith richards (not that he’s not interesting, but aren’t we over that yet?)

let’s just focus, as I did this morning, on some of their music from the ’60s and ’70s. because much of that was legit, right? right.

this morning’s playlist included the following gems:

1. “it’s only rock ‘n’ roll” (1974) a song with which I have randomly become recently obsessed. it’s my imaginary karaoke song (I do not karaoke). I dig the lyrics and it’s kind of a rockin tune, though I wouldn’t classify it as intensely significant or meaningful. the video is a hoot: sailor suits, bubbles and mick’s patent winning-attitude-but-kind-of-awkward-british-strut.

2. “gimmie shelter” (1969) is perhaps one of their best. aside from being what seems like a timepiece for an era of social and geopolitical turmoil, it’s just so solid musically and lyrically. it’s one of the only major stones songs to prominently feature a female voice (vocalist merry clayton, who makes the track, in my opinion–her powerful and twice-cracking voice lends a “form matching the content” kind of vibe).

3. “sympathy for the devil” (1968) perhaps the perfect antidote to a wacky subway preacher, if only in a literal sense. lyrically a bit of an epic (which may be an overstatement, but I guess a pop singer appropriating the voice of lucifer over 40 years ago is pretty epic, if you ask me). when listening to it today, I noticed for the first time the cool piano instrumentation, which is definitely there, despite being somewhat overshadowed by the vocals and electric guitar. not sure if it’s a “challenging”  piano piece, but it sure is cool and I bet it could have some legs just played alone. this track is famous for it’s “whoo whoo” lyric repetition, which was allegedly anita pallenberg’s idea (at least I think I read that once) and the thing that made the song work when it was being written. very cool.

4. “under my thumb” (1966) the track that makes all the feminists cringe due to some of its more unsavory lyrics (“she’s the sweetest pet in the world” type stuff, and referring to a woman as a “squirming dog, who’s just had her day”). but taken less seriously, as intended, it’s an ok track. the element I find most interesting is the use of the marimba and its juxtaposition with the fuzzbox. apparently that was all early member brian jones’ influence, since he was a multi-instrumentalist, and it seems as though he made a lot of cool musical contributions (he’s often credited with advancing the band’s early sound).

5. “paint it black” (1966) one of the best examples of early badass stones and a very influential track (anyone else think the clash’s 1982 “rock the casbah” and “paint it black” sound like distant cousins?). its trademark sound was achieved through use of the sitar, which brian jones apparently taught himself to play after a visit with george harrison (who famously used the sitar in my very favorite beatles song “norweigan wood” in 1965). an excellently quirky and uptempo but sad pop song.

so, if nothing else, my point is this–headphones can really make or break your daily commute.

highly recommended radio

I love radio. and radio podcasts. so naturally, free downloadable podcasts and free online streaming of awesome radio shows are two of the best things ever.

seriously, if you’re not on this train, then it’s time to get hip to the boogie. (I like a good mixed-metaphor now and then). many great shows make a weekly free podcast download available, enabling one to listen at her leisure, such as while riding the subway.

I’ve long been a fan off the universally-loved-and-adored this american life. I have a gigantic crush on ira glass. (I mean, who doesn’t? my best pal F saw him in an airport once and I nearly died of jealousy, insisting that she tell me the story at least three times.)


the show is brilliant and just one of those things with a totally well-deserved sterling reputation. there isn’t much bad to say about it. (although it was hilariously referenced in an early 2000’s teen tv show as “that show where the know-it-all-hipsters talk about how fascinating ordinary people are”–this primtime incident was subsequently mentioned on TAL by mr. glass himself). TAL’s short-lived tv show was lovely, too.

I also enjoy the new yorker’s fiction podcast, where each month, a writer chooses a story from the new yorker archives to read and discuss. I actually find a lot of the discussion (just a few minutes between the reader and the magazine’s fiction editor) to be boring, banal, and pedestrian. (wow that sounds like something a stuck-up jerk would say–but trust me, I’m not one). the questions posed by the editor quite often seem so arbitrary, lame, and beneath the quality of the work being discussed.
but I love the podcast anyway, as it does amazing things like allowing me to hear mary gaitskill (be still, my fiction-loving heart!) read nabokov.


By the way, I had the good fortune to see my homegirl m gaitskill in the flesh last month at the brooklyn book festival—reading from her most recent book on a panel about “primal impulse in fiction”  (swoon!)—and was blown away yet again by just how fabulous she is. (at this point I will also mention that we share the same birthday).
I also recently listened to a reading of that stalwartly seminal work of american short fiction that’s de-rigueur in high school english classes, shirley jackson’s “the lottery.” I hadn’t read it since high school, and was so thrilled to find it even creepier and masterful than I remembered. absolutely chilling.
this week’s podcast is also nice, a reading of raymond carver’s “chef’s house”, which is totally classic carver. although, it’s markedly similar in plot to a posthumously-published (I believe) story  of his, “call if you need me” (from the book “call if you need me: the uncollected fiction and other prose”, which I received for my 20th birthday).  in many ways, I think,  “call if you need need me” is a much better (but perhaps “less carver-ish”) piece. in fact, hearing “chef’s house”, lovely piece though it is, just made me want to read “call if you need me” for the 1,000th time. I’m not sure of what the editorial process for “call…” was like, but I would suspect that mr. lish, carver’s editor (and subject of that famous debate/discussion), did not have a chance to take a crack at it… interestingly enough, according to the commentary of the “chef’s house” podcast-reading, mr. lish also didn’t have a chance to edit “chef’s…” hmm… what a fascinating topic: the nature of editing, how far is too far, and where the line between revealing and sculpting/manipulating a writer’s voice is. so whatever one’s opinion of lish and carver’s relationship may be, we can at least thank them for making us think about it in a way we might not have collectively done otherwise.

look at me, I start talkin’ radio an end up on fiction. that happens with me I suppose; it’s a conversational hazard–I’ll nerd out and start beginning sentences with “so back to the cultural and gendered biases of the term ‘magical realism’…” and saying asinine things like “so you’ve read ‘court in the west eighties’ by carson mccullers, right?”

in fact, I wanted to write this post to give props to another radio show, aside from TAL and the NYFP, one with which I have only recently become totally obsessed (I’m a scorpio like that)–the genius that is radiolab. two parts hardcore science-stuff and one part funny, insightful chatter.  it’s just the right type and presentation of science-y stories to a scientifically-curious-but-not-so-much-inclined chap as myself: stories about the science of the afterlife! of monkey language! whale rescues! malcom gladwell lectures! stories about nuns! jane goodall! (who is back on my hero list in bold-faced type, p.s.) head on over to their website and stream episodes while you work; you will be pleased.