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Entries in kara vanderbijl (70)

Tuesday
May072013

In Which We Are Taken Aback By Bold Greetings

by amy stein

Blue Line

by KARA VANDERBIJL

There is a stretch of the blue line train route that rushes out of the tunnel after Belmont Ave and balances precariously between the branches of Interstates 90 and 94. The platform, while completely immobile, seems to shift to and fro underfoot. Cars rush past deafeningly, and even if it is not windy, it is all you can do to stay upright.

Once a week I find myself standing on this island, huddled below the heat lamps. There is rarely anybody else on the platform. There are only cars, blowing in and out of the city, and half-empty trains lurching down the track. I have never gone further down the line than this stop and it feels like the very edge of the world.

It is the loneliest place in the city.

+

I rarely remember my dreams, but this morning I woke up in a cold sweat with the memory of being chased by a starving tiger. I also remember waking myself up from that dream right before the feline sunk its teeth into my face, afraid to leave my bed for a drink of water in case it was lying in wait. Then, in those moments between 4:15 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. I dreamt again, this time of cockroaches crawling underneath all of our sofa cushions because we had left a few crumbs out on the coffee table. It was so very detailed that I remember the distinct crunch every time we gingerly sat down to watch television.

+

I’d like to believe that, much like the infamous “Carolyn Keene”, Harold Bloom is really just a pseudonym for a group of individuals who did not have enough talent to make it big on their own but were able, somehow, to attach themselves to some greater ideal, one that sleep and nutrition-deprived college students would later cite extensively in their papers.

+

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I would not spend my money on eating out unless I had specifically made plans to eat out with someone else. So far, it has been a great decision for me.

Today, though, I have an apple and chicken noodle soup with me for lunch. The chicken noodle soup isn’t really soup anymore because much of the broth evaporated or else the noodles soaked it all up, and all I can think about is some sort of sandwich smothered in tomatoes and pesto and melted mozzarella.

+

Coworker: Do you know, I thought this the first time I met you, you look a lot like—

Me: Shosanna Dreyfus?

Coworker: Yes!

Me: You're the 18th person to tell me that.

Coworker: You've been counting?

+

Peruse the shelves of your local drugstore to find an opaque bottle of castor oil; fill the bottom of a clear glass vial with this slow, thick substance. Then, cover it with twice the amount of either olive or jojoba oil (olive is by far the more economical choice, and works just as well). Finally, add a few drops of lavender and rosemary essential oils. Shake well. At dusk pour a quarter-sized amount into your palm and rub your hands together gently to warm the mixture. Smooth it into your face beginning at the temples. Breathe deeply; the lavender and rosemary soothe away anxiety and smell like the south of France. Let the oil rest on your face for a few minutes and then douse a clean cloth in warm (not hot!) water. Gently apply the cloth to your face, not wiping the oil away as much as letting the warmth coax it out; do not hesitate to leave a bit in your skin.

Repeat the ritual every other night, alternating with a simple warm-water cleansing. After repeated use your skin will glow naturally. You will never need to buy cleanser, make-up remover, or moisturizer again.

+

Do you ever grow weary of your own perspective? — of the mistakes you fall into, the biases you lean towards simply because you are only ever looking out your own eyes?

by amy stein

For many years my mother would switch around all the furniture in our living room once a month. While it was still in her possession, she would even move her piano around the room on its wheels and we would help by picking up the bench with its wobbly legs and placing it reverently behind the instrument. Other things — cushions, picture frames, side tables — moved around the room as if in some sort of dance. Christmas afforded Mom the opportunity to change everything around so as to open up the appropriate space for our tree; at the arrival of summer, our kitchen table moved closer to the doors of the terrace so we could dine al fresco. All this she did primarily by herself although my father helped her when she needed to move a large cabinet.

We responded with an incredulous “Again!” each time it happened, although it was secretly delightful to discover our living room all over again. The furniture seemed new, cool to the touch; for a brief disorienting evening it seemed as if we were guests in our own home.

What belongs to you has very little to do with whether or not you spend money or time on it. I am discovering more and more that for most things in my life, I feel the same level of attachment that I do for historical monuments or other tourist attractions. They belong to me in the same way that they belong to the rest of the world, and they are not more mine than anybody else’s.

“They are just things,” my parents taught me, when we moved from place to place and left more and more in our wake. But I have begun to find it difficult to escape from this mindset even in relation to people and experiences. I do not know if this is the epitome of unwellness or if it is mature; I remember crying for a pretty calico cat that my father took back to the pound because she could not accompany us on our move, but the years that separate me from that child also spunkily create distance between me and loved ones in airports as if there were no thread of feeling between us.

I do not think I will stay here forever. I have high hopes of finding a place that I will make mine or settle into. Realistically, though, I have barely been living in my current apartment for four months and I am already considering other neighborhoods and various methods of paying for heat. I quell the growing restlessness by moving pictures around, by planning to create a new reading nook, by sitting in different corners of the room. Searching out apartments in neighborhoods closer to the lake, I feel guilty and excited at the same time.

Removing yourself from any place or thing feels like a betrayal at first, and then the wounds close and the guilt only flares up in rainy weather. After I threw a penny into the Fontana di Trevi, I knew I would eventually return to Rome. When I do it will not be returning home or to some ideal of a fixed state; it will be a revisiting of what once flourished and then crumbled. We are better off different than we were yesterday.

+

Sneaking into meetings late with trays of mini pastries and fruit, meetings to which I am not invited but come to bearing food, is most embarrassing. The projector casts a blue glow on my mess of curls and I feel suddenly as if I am seven feet tall and enormous, that my hips are in the way of everything. My hands begin to shake; the platters rattle, the mini pastries fall out of their semi-perfect arrangements. I have no need to be sorry because it is the person delivering the pastries who is at fault, but I feel all eyes on me, accusingly, anyways.

Before leaving Los Angeles I went to the FIDM end-of-the-year fashion show with a friend and agonized for a few minutes beforehand about what to wear.

“Remember,” my roommate said kindly, “this is not about you.”

+

I'm really glad my mother taught me nail polish remover will remove candle wax from various surfaces, because otherwise I’d be in trouble right about now.

+

At the escalator I am taken aback by a stranger's bold greeting. My fingers brush my own coiffure, wondering if the gentle twists at the nape of my neck or the abundance of bobby pins suggest mornings spent in stark Baptist sanctuaries, the smell of stale coffee, the air whispering with the sound of paper bulletins filled with song sheets, empty envelopes for the offering plate. I contemplate waving back; imagine jumping the last two feet that separate us to catch up. She might promise to call later in the evening, to discuss casserole options for an upcoming potluck. A thousand lives whizz by on the tracks.

I feel unbearably weary. Some of it is good weariness; the weight of love, of trust complicit with the most satisfying of friendships. Some of it is the weariness of crying myself to sleep because I could not write something I wanted to write well. The last cobwebs of thought before slumber remind me, You can write something, but sometimes, you are not supposed to.

You can live one way, but sometimes, you are not supposed to.

+

by amy stein

Before I woke up, I had moved into a studio apartment approximately the size of an airplane lavatory that smelled like a dingy roadside motel. The bed and the small expanse of counter were plastic; the floor was linoleum. I thought to myself, “Good, this will be easy to clean.” I brought with me a tiny all-black cat with a white face and boots. We spent three days there together before I realized I had not fed him nor provided a litter box. He looked at me disdainfully, made a move to bolt whenever I opened the door. We sat together in complete darkness as there were no lights save for his luminous green eyes. Nobody else came.

+

There is a yellow orchid on my back porch.

Every Wednesday I nestle three ice cubes into the soil and rotate the pot ever so slightly to the right so that the plant will grow evenly in the sunlight. When I get home from work and it is droopy and unhappy I turn the hot water on in my shower and set it just outside the curtain, on the edge of the sink, until my little bathroom is so full of steam that all I can see are the bright yellow flowers and the little hard green buds trying to open.

They bloom at night.

Why can I not trust that this other person does not hurt me on purpose? And even if they do, that they are full of good intentions towards me? And even if they’re not, that I cannot expect them to be? Forgiveness (and love) have a lot to do with trust in the other’s spirit, in their desire to do good by you even when it doesn’t always happen.

My father keeps telling me that you have not forgiven someone until you have done something good for them. And I am full of words and sweet intentions but there is little good left in my hands.

+

In an early morning dream, I asked a friend which of my items of clothing looked worst on me. She unabashedly criticized all the pants I have with lower waistlines. “They give you a muffin top.” She went on to tell me that the look was so offensive that Hugh Jackman had complained.

I was so embarrassed I had to wake myself up and try on all of my pants to make sure it wasn’t true.

+

Verizon has inexplicably locked me out of my voicemail, because apparently none of the dozens of number combinations I have attempted in the past few weeks work. I seem to remember using my birthday month and day as the password. Now I have ten unheard voice messages and absolutely no way to get ahold of them.

Perhaps the problem lies with me, in my inability to remember a combination of letters or numbers that will somehow crack the code to my life. However, I’d like to believe that there is not enough room for human error in this system. People keep telling me to write my passwords down somewhere, and I keep asking, “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”

It’s not a good enough secret if you have to write it down.

+

Over the next fortnight I attempt an experiment in which I withdraw twenty dollars at the beginning of each week, and spend only that amount on myself.

A foggy Saturday morning I spend praying on the brown line; nothing is quite so easy as having faith on an elevated train. My headphones run like beads through my fingers. I find myself wishing for the simplicity of a command. Not praying the rosary or anything coherent, but moaning to any divinity who will listen, I receive miraculous signs: Sedgwick is next, doors open on the right at Sedgwick. Standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors.

I notice a proclivity in my relationships towards people born in June. Summer birthdays end in fireworks at the beach. I break two glasses at work and throw the pieces over my shoulder into the trash can. When I notice superstition curling up around the radiators at night or in the tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, I rinse it out with the truths I am most uncertain about.

When you lose someone close to you, most people assume that you want to be left alone, when that is generally the last thing you want. I find that I am not sure how to ask for help, so I carry all my groceries alone.

by amy stein

I'm making note of the already-sweltering heat at 7:30 a.m., the way the perspiration gathers on my abdomen underneath my dress, the way the ice melts in my tea before I walk two blocks, how the cup sweats and drips onto dusty toes, the heaviness of the air which makes every whisper seem like a shout and every shout foggy, how my curls double into more curls with each half-mile, how Tom Skilling promises this will be the hottest day Chicago has seen in six years.

I am making careful note of these things so that I will remember them in February.

+

We swam to the surface. Immediately in front of us was a rocky shoreline decorated with people in evening wear. The sun was going down in the background. I wanted to dive down immediately to retrieve the bicycles (they had been pulled into the soft, mucky sand at the bottom) but you insisted that we reach the shore. A few men at a table, garbed in tuxedos, played cards and looked on as you dragged yourself out of the water. There was a strange moment of recognition that is particularly fuzzy. I think you started running away from them, and I dove under water so that it would seem as if I had never been there. They saw me, however, and began shooting a machine gun after me. I got hit twice in both legs, but the bullet holes were only the size of freckles. I kept swimming. My bicycle was floating past, and I grabbed it. I wondered how I would manage to get it out of the water without help. When I surfaced, I was next to the beach, but it resembled the ledge of a pool. I rested my cheek against it, exhausted, but you were there, and helped me pull the bicycle out of the water. Blood was running down my legs. The holes were near my ankles, perfectly aligned like bug bites. I woke up on my back with all the covers off. I spoke to you for a moment before I realized I was alone.

Today I saw a woman sacrifice her sunglasses for a place on the train. Closing doors knocked them out of her hand as she squeezed into the last available spot, and they landed with a clatter on the platform. We stared. “Oh shit,” she said. “Oh shit!” She made a move as if to jump out of the train. I saw her debate, behind the silver half-circles of her eye make-up, sweaty hands pushing back blonde strands of hair.

There was only a moment during which she might have stepped off the train to retrieve them, but as it was, the doors closed right as she reached the end of her debate. “Oh, well,” she laughed breathlessly. I imagined her walking in the Loop without sunglasses, ducking behind buildings, a slim wrist thrown up for shade.

And what of the glasses? Are they like the mittens abandoned in January that mysteriously melt with the snow? Will somebody kick them into the tracks, steal them, throw them away?

+

I could love anybody in an airport for their foreign tongue, for their smart trench coat.

+

Down the street from my office a man leaves his blinds open. His desk is consistently messy. I tally up the damage when I walk past, before I cross the railroad tracks: one untouched glass of water with speckles of dust floating in it, three pens with chewed lids. What most intrigues me is the giant box of raisins that sometimes rests on the edge of his desk but now, oddly, on the windowsill. Not many people eat raisins because they love them. Some, like myself, put them in their morning bowl of oatmeal because there is something about raisins and milk. Some hate them but eat them because intestinal traffic is slow. I wonder which kind he is. Why has he moved the box from his desk to the windowsill? Did he eat too many and make himself sick? Did their uselessness cause him to exile them in a fit of righteous constipation?

+

To describe the process of barring someone from our lives, we call it “cutting out” or “cutting off”. The violence of this, as well as the idea that we can disregard a person — exclude them, remove them like we might remove a limb — does not ring true. You could not cut off your finger and not miss it. Subtly, the phantom remains. Rather it is like diving into the deep waters of yourself, and pulling someone out. There is beauty and darkness and truth at the bottom of this river; there is also fear, and there might be a monster or two. You say, come back to this appealing light. Here, the water is not so heavy. Here you can tread, disregard the profundity pulling at your feet. Remain at the surface where you are safe, where I can curl away from you to the places you no longer wish to visit.

+

How is that I can walk ten miles most Saturdays at a fast pace, and come home feeling on top of the world, but as soon as I run half a mile I feel like dying?

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here. She twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the spirit animal. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

by amy stein

Monday
Apr292013

In Which We Try To Catch The Deluge In A Paper Cup

Two By Two

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Mad Men
creator Matthew Weiner

When the news breaks that Dr. Martin Luther King has been assassinated, we're sitting in a room full of white people listening to Paul Newman give a speech. Shock reverberates; it's a moment not unlike the one in a much earlier installment, when JFK was shot. Suddenly everybody is a neighbor. Everyone wants to make a call. Megan is up for an award for her writing on Heinz Beans, but the relevancy of an award show, not to mention the defunct Heinz account, is quickly lost in the fray.

I didn't hear at first who had been killed. This added to the mayhem of the moment, and I was just as quick to respond in worry as this room full of people. Nobody cares who died or what happened, what matters is what is going to come of it, who else is going to have to pay, how we can prove our mettle. Destruction seems imminent. Fires break out and, like the ancient flood which gave the episode its title, they threaten to engulf the city. 

So it is murder for King, and it is softcore murder of whatever uncomfortable unity had begun to creep into offices and apartment buildings. "Negro" punctuates scenes. Other than two moments in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler, Gleason & Chaough, we aren't privy to what any of the black characters are thinking or feeling. They are marginalized, either as the perpetrators of violence in their neighborhoods, looters and rioters, or as objects of pity.

When Joan puts her arms around Dawn and says, "I'm so sorry", it is deeply patronizing: what will you do now that you've lost your messiah? Compared to the compassionate hug between Peggy and her secretary, which happens just moments before, it creates more division than the street blocks separating downtown from the riots. Fear, pity and guilt are not the biggest feelings. They are not the only ones we are capable of experiencing, but they are the most difficult to sidestep. They sell. 

Critiquing, perhaps, the past weeks' media frenzy over Boston or the advertising industry in general, Weiner gives both Harry Crane and an insurance salesman that Roger is trying to court for business the callousness that we have almost come to expect alongside catastrophe. Profits will soar, but at what cost? People will buy a t-shirt if you tell them part of the proceeds are going to a good cause, but what they're really doing is filling their closet with more shit. Fear, pity, guilt. 

Family was important this week, even if nobody can get along. Pete calls Trudy and offers to come spend the night, but the only thing uniting them, even in this moment, is the television blaring in his Manhattan apartment and her suburban living room. Megan may be exasperated by her father's intellectualism and Don's drinking, but it hasn't been enough to push her out on her own yet, although we're catching more and more glimpses of how successful she is becoming.

Peggy, who opens the episode dreaming of a future in a new apartment on the Upper East Side, seems surprised to learn that her live-in boyfriend Abe has imagined their future children and the "different kinds of people" he wants them to be exposed to. Don is worried about Sylvia, whose husband whisked her away to Washington D.C. for a medical conference, and whom he can't call.  

Tragedy has a way of showing us what we really want — and nobody is content, no matter how much they may talk themselves into it. Like Don's (hilarious) speech: "When you have children, you act excited, but you don't feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don't. The fact that you're faking that feeling makes you wonder if your father had the same problem", we are made aware in this episode by the fragile presence, not the previous episodes' absence, of the things that are soon to disappear or fall apart. Megan and Don's intimacy and marriage. Don's relationship with his children (who are quickly growing into adults who know better.)  


Even Peggy, who seems so excited about new apartments and Abe, keeps making eyes at Ted Chaough. Michael Ginsburg, who doggedly refuses his father's attempts to set him up with a nice Jewish girl, reveals how nervous (excited) he is by prattling on at her in the diner about children and the fact that he's never had sex before. 

We finally got more of a glimpse of brunette Betty, whose dreams for her political husband seem to be coming true as Henry reveals that he'd like to run for state senate. "I can't wait for them to really meet you," he murmurs, and we know Henry well enough to understand that he means his supportive, charming wife, but Betty still parades in front of the mirror holding a party dress of yore against herself. These old habits are comfortable; it takes calamity to reveal how poorly they fit. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of our recordings about Mad Men here.

"King Sized Death Bed" - The Weeks (mp3)

"Harlot's Bluff" - The Weeks (mp3)

Tuesday
Apr232013

In Which We Will Not Keep These Vows

Swing

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Mad Men
creator Matthew Weiner

In a certain light, Megan's resemblance to Anne Hathaway is remarkable. Perhaps it is just that aura of unappreciated talent, the tender tears, the innocence. When Mel, the writer of her soap opera, and his wife invite Megan and Don to swing one evening over dinner, what holds the Drapers back is Don's dogged determination to prolong the pain as long as possible. If you experience something mildly unpleasant for long enough, you begin to think it's the best you've ever had. 

Take ketchup, for example. In the summer, living outdoors, you cannot imagine yourself consuming anything else but hot dog after smothered hot dog. Hibernating inside, it's another story; I'm not sure I know anyone who would partake except under duress. When you can only appreciate something in a certain context, an outside experience feels foreign, new, almost forbidden. I don't think Pete and Don would have gone for Heinz's Ketchup if it wasn't a little bit like an affair. Hell, they even conduct the initial conversation in Pete's Manhattan apartment, far from Roger's nagging and Ken's worrying. But if we learned anything from Pete's tryst-turned-sour last week, it's that the pretty visitor in your bed might have some secrets of her own. 

Much like the beginning of a tragedy, the show's central conflicts express themselves through outlying characters. If this week's ensemble was bigger than ever, it's because the weight of what's to come has to rest on everyone's shoulders. Harry's secretary Scarlett brought out a side of Joan we hadn't seen in a while when she skipped out of work early to attend a party and had Don's secretary, Dawn, punch her timecard. And here we were thinking that Joan's biggest problem was that she had to sleep with a sleazeball to make partner at SCDP. When Joan fires Scarlett and (eventually) gives Dawn additional responsibilities, we see a side of her we haven't truly seen since the very early days of the show: Joan the office manager. 

If Harry is angry at Joan because she was made partner and he wasn't, it's for the wrong reasons. He's quick to call out the dirty deed that got her to the top, but what he doesn't know about Joan is that she feels no shame in being desired. In fact, quite the contrary: a girls' night out with an old friend from out of town, Kate, proves that. If Joan is willing to do anything for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it's because she needs to be essential; her greatest fear would be to discover that in the end, she's just a glorified secretary, as replaceable as all the other girls. 

But Harry never was very good at reading people, which is why he demands to be made partner and is actually surprised when they don't hand him the title on a silver platter. You've really got to hand it to the people who have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, by which I mean, hand them a consolation prize and show them the door.

Don and Peggy face off for ketchup, and there's no moral high ground here. Both of them sold out to be in this hotel room: Peggy betrayed Stan's confidence, and Don betrayed Heinz Baked Beans. Their pitches are doppelgangers, simple and sophisticated, but it is Peggy's that has the defining characteristic that lets the rest of the world know which is which, who is who. What makes her better than Don is her ability to capitalize on what the client actually wants without having to justify a vision. Regardless, neither SCDP nor Cutler, Gleason & Chaough win the business, and in the process, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce loses the rest of Heinz's business because of their indiscretion. 

We'll have to wait and see whether or not this exposure of infidelity presages things to come. For now, we can only celebrate as one character's honesty pays off. Like all Don's secretaries of yore, there are big things coming for Dawn, although we're not sure what. He promoted one of them and married the other, so I can only assume she will be made queen.

The council for human rights has begun investigating the advertising industry in the interest of black employees. Risky, perhaps, in an episode where Dawn and her friend have coffee (twice! in two different scenes!), the first time characters of color have been given any significant screen time or personality on Mad Men since Carla, the Drapers' maid. It's possible that Lena Dunham wrote to Matthew Weiner and shared her concerns for the future of the show. The irony is painful, but like all wounds the more you press on it the better it feels.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here 

"Mountain Child" - Nora Jane Struthers (mp3)

"Beyond the Farm" - Nora Jane Struthers (mp3)