Showing posts from 2007

The Best Music Of 2007

I had a lot of time to listen to music this year, and with the help of NPR’s wonderful All Songs Considered podcast and certain websites, I managed to keep up with what was going on in pop music in 2007, even in France (where the majority of pop music is English-language anyway). Here’s an opportunity to spread the joy—my ten favorite albums of the year.

This list represents the music that appealed to me most and stayed in constant play on my iPod and stereo while I cooked, exercised, or just shuffled around the apartment. This is the soundtrack of my French year.

Armchair Apocrypha by Andrew Bird

No record got more spin than this one. Andrew Bird manages to be progressive without losing his humanism, staying bound within a soft-rock/singer-songwriter classification, but stretching it as far as it can go. Bird expands his rock trio by looping pizzicato violin riffs and ghostly whistles over his rock guitar, and never lets things get stale. Melodies build and shift and the action stops an…

Sleeping Beauty

A funny thing happened on the way to adulthood: all my sisters turned into women. It’s something you don’t expect, that day you look at your kid sister, the one who used to dominate your home and life with her toys and songs and absurd fascinations (the Olsen twins), and see instead a Jane Austen heroine, someone emerged from that long, unambiguous, and unambitious childhood and adolescence into astonishing womanhood, and all in that single day.

Today is not that day for Coleen, my sister of twenty-one years, though it is her birthday. Her maturity came earlier, a year or so ago; hard to say, as I was not always here. But that did make it easier to spot it, Coleen’s blooming: she was here when I arrived.

What a funny, lovely girl! She always was, but now she comes in a more handsome package: student, worker, teacher. I meet her in the hallways and kitchen of our house. She is my next-door neighbor, and I catch her coming up the stairs on her way to her room. Ours is such an easy relatio…

I'm Not There

I might have forgotten to mention that we would be going on break here at Sancho Panza. A month-long sabbatical in fact, obviously necessary to pressurize ourselves in preparation for a new life, one like the old one, and nothing like the last one, that holy sabbatical, an island out of time that will be forever suspended above everything as an example of life when it was good, or very much near it.

I am back in New York, standing on the cusp of the future, all black. And mostly I mean that as it is unrevealed to me; I have every opportunity open. I might begin again in New York or I might board a train tomorrow for Chicago or Los Angeles or Napa Valley (all places in consideration). These opportunities are there because of that other metaphor, the one that the future is black because it is unhappy.

I have lost my love, my great love, the best I ever had. My sweetheart is gone, my companion, my best friend. We fell apart. We speak still, across a continent, and tell each other of all we…

Closely Watched Trains

Not much movement here at Sancho Panza I’m afraid, and I do apologize. We are a week away from moving this operation to Paris, and then a few days later to New York. It’s a rough time, logistically, because we have to go through all the stress of closing down an apartment and all that business, but in French, which makes it that much harder. We’re getting somewhere, now the last day is imminent, but there is a lot to do and I’m not in the right frame of mind for writing very much.

We found out yesterday that there will be a countrywide strike this week, effectively closing down all trains and public transportation throughout France. We’d bought a train ticket to Paris a few weeks ago, and for the very day that they have declared the big strike day, because that’s when teachers will join the rail, bus, gas, and electricity employees, as well as the students, in their strikes.

The teachers and the transportation and utility employees are all fighting to retain their sweetened pension pack…

Bringing Up Baby

Thomas is seventeen. Great Scott, I don’t see it. The Owens baby is practically an adult, one year shy of being eligible to run for political office or ready now to sign up for military service: little Tom, terrified in the back of a Humvee, white knuckles on the stock of a heavy gun. Tiny Tom-Tom, who can now rent Eyes Wide Shut with impunity.

Unbelievable, that the little rat let his childhood slip by us so fast. Not that we didn’t see it: he’s been bigger than all of us for a couple years. (“Check out these trapezii. Jacked out of my mind.”) And he’s made a distinct divergence from any paths we, or at least I, had laid out for him. I didn’t raise him to be a football star.

I can’t see adulthood yet, but I can see his separateness, his individualism. He’s been bucking his babyhood for a long time, and why not? He’s watched the rest of us leave. He’s had as much a chance to be different as any of us: lastborn, male, country-raised and city-tested. Now he’s what none of us has been, an …

The Atavist Damns You All On His Blog

Now is the magic time.

Summer has exhausted the sun and the green things of the earth have swallowed up their abundance. Trees fat on plenty count another ring and bear down for the dormant season. They expend themselves on a last gasp, bright green leaves drooped with ants explode to red then gold and the wind shakes every living thing out. Every last sunbeam catches, and then the sun burns out before any earth thing has given up.

It’s the moon season coming. Furious winds blow out of the great earth and steal away each last dry and cracked leaf. They fall far and long in looping, swirling descents whose grace dwarf humanity’s attempts at beauty: no plastic art has eclipsed the complex, everyday miracle of motion in nature. Who has studied a painting for as long as they have a flame or the surf or the rustling of ten thousand leaves in a gentle breeze?

Black leaves line the banks of the river. The trees are stripped bare and shrunken. Moonlight falls splashing on every inch of the black…

The Quiet Man

Let us broach the subject of my father and investigate him in small amounts. The danger shows even here, before the words have started flowing, as my brain becomes crowded with sentiments and remembrances and theories and emotions. There is so much to say.

Let this not be an obituary, because the man is only-half-lived. Fifty-three today and fifty-three these days is middle age—early middle age. I know men fall sooner than 106, but men like this?

He stands stooped in his garden and pulls flowering yellow squash from the vines. The basement is filled with paper bags of his tomatoes. He tells my mother he will be a vegan, but maybe she knows better and keeps cooking everything with a pile of sausage. Once he ate a live mussel from the cold Maine seawater and fell violently ill.

My mother tells me what he says to her in secret. To me he says my veganism is turning my bones to paper. He tells me how Bush is strengthening America, but he has voted for Ralph Nader in the last two elections. On…

Fear Eats The Soul

It’s time for a statement of principles. Let’s get to the bottom of me, finally and firstly. Let us define me and then start from that. I cannot have a direction until I have a standpoint. Let me let you know me, and let me say aloud what I’ve always meant you to hear. (Mother, look away.)


There is no God, in any sense. There is no Christian or Jewish God or Allah or any of the Hindu deities. And before you chime in with your surety, first define which God you mean, and allow me to ask you why a somewhat larger group believes something totally different, and why there is little solidarity even within your own group.

I was indoctrinated as a Catholic from birth. When I began to define my own beliefs, I became an agnostic, which is to say I no longer believed in the same God I used to, and I didn’t know what else there might be. Recently, I applied an afternoon’s thought to the subject and decided my ambiguity was a weakness. I had to stand for something.

I am an atheist. There is …

Human Desire

Buddhists believe that only when we are free from desire are we ready to achieve bliss. I’m not a government-registered Buddhist, but I have read a bit about them and they seem all right. I like that part about the love and oneness and fair treatment of all folks and that’s how we’ll all enjoy paradise together. Like whatshisname said. Jesus.

I thought they might be right about the desire stuff, so I’ve been keeping a log of my daily desires, the stuff that pops up in my head in the middle of all the sexy thoughts. (The iPhone is considered a sexy thought.) And when I look at the list, I realize that if I didn’t desire all this stuff—or at least if I had it already—I’d probably be a lot happier.

Catalogue Of Desires
October 11th, 2007

10:37 A.M.–– Pancakes
This is generally how I start all my days (except that this day began a little earlier than usual). This is a great first desire to have, because when I actually fulfill it and eat a stack of pancakes, I feel terrible for the next five h…

The American Friend

Dear Joey,

What strange relationships we foster! I cannot remember your face or the sound of your voice, yet through our biannual correspondence I am forced to consider you my most loyal friend. I dare say I will have to come back to Los Angeles before I die simply because you have made it feel more my home than any other place. “A letter from Los Angeles!” I cheer, and my heart glows to a color and temperature that if they were quantified would be called Home. Why doesn’t Crayola produce a box of feelings? Rage, lunacy, kinship, absence of God. How we see these cannot be so unalike.

You do me a great service, too, in quashing my sweetheart’s recurring opinion that I am incapable of making or keeping friends. An aberration she calls me, a total perversion of man’s social tendencies. She tells me of experiments with apes, infant primates raised without any companionship. They had pleasant quarters, were fed, and given some toys, but eventually they stopped eating and starved to death, af…

The Root Of Humor

“Light a cigarette, Jean. Listen to me.”

“What is it?” Jean asked. He’d been in the process of lighting a cigarette. He gave Bernard a quizzical look and flared a bright match near his lips. He sucked in the smoke and let his shoulders drop a few inches. In a minute he would take off his jacket.

The thick flesh of Bernard’s hangdog jowls nearly quivered. He’d just shaved, Jean saw. Twice a day all his life and, presently, there was no wife. She left, or he kicked her out. That story wasn’t set in stone yet.

“I had a drink at Les Halles today,” Bernard began.
“Sure that wasn’t yesterday?” Jean chided.
“Shut up. Listen. You know Henri? He sells the potatoes?”
“I know Henri. On Bastille Day I get my blue, white, and red potatoes from him.”

“Shut up, jackass,” Bernard said. He paused then, and laughed, and remembered the year his wife made a potato salad that looked like the tricolor. They’d pissed her off by eating all of fraternit√© and not touching egalit√©.

“You made her leave, Jean.”
“I’ll buy …

Man's Fate

We celebrate fifty years of space exploration next month, the anniversary of the first manmade object to break free of the confines of the gravity and atmosphere of our home planet to reach outer space—or, at least, orbit above our planet. I say manmade, but I think it may be the first of any Earth object to find itself in outer space, unless there can be a case made for volcanic debris.

Sputnik, the first and still the most beautiful space vehicle, was launched by the Russians on October 4th, 1957. Having little other purpose than to orbit very quickly around the planet and beep for ham radio operators all over the world, the tiny satellite was symbolic of the superiority of the Soviet space program. Now, seen from the end of fifty years, it stands as the beginning steps of one of humanity’s greatest, most romantic endeavors. Someday, when our parents are long gone, and only we who are ignorant of the Cold War are left to teach, all that will be important will be that man first left h…

Delinquency, Consequence

The Salted Orchard Part VIII
(Read Part VII here.)

Some weeks passed. Anwell Cusack sat up in bed, the heavy blankets wrapped tightly around his neck and shoulders but coming short down at his knees. He wrapped these in sheets to his feet. He coughed deep and hollow and wet, as though the air had to explode out of his lungs to pass through the film of thick mucus that blocked up his throat and windpipe and saturated the alveoli. There was no more pain in the coughs, and after each there was some satisfaction that he had moved the fluid, but then he breathed fast and deep and still felt the muck that would not dislodge but would have to be thinned with mullein tea and broth.

“You take this, Mr. Cusack,” said Fiona Hammond as she walked into the room and set down a small wooden tray. “It’s bitter and you’ll want to spit it up.”
She looked at him. The broad span of his forehead was pallid and flourished with swirls of hair stuck to it with damp. “I think you’re coming through at last. How do…

The Passenger #5


The Decemberists have had to work very hard to make me a fan. I found them first a few years ago with their second full-length album, Her Majesty The Decemberists. It registered a few spins, but the combination of Colin Meloy’s gratingly high and nasal voice and the relative austerity of the band kept it from becoming part of my collection.

Their next album, Picaresque, fared somewhat better with me. The sound got bigger and the songs seemed more confident. Meloy still had a voice that was by no means mellifluous, but he sang anyway. As with Bob Dylan and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, whose voices have always been the largest obstacles to their more popular success, the focus moves to the lyrics and the story being told.

The Decemberists are a concept band, the concept being that they are and create music for history nerds. Their songs are marked by both their subjects—long-forgotten historical events and eras—and their terminology—archaic words and expressions. I can’t ima…