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The Crack-Up

July 22, 2014 | by

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Image via Markscheider/Wikimedia Commons

For longer than I care to admit, I have been unable to scroll down on my computer. This is only the latest in a series of laptop-related inconveniences, but, given the nature of my employment, is something of a problem. If you manage to catch the scrolling bar to the far right of the screen, you can generally navigate okay, but if you relax your vigilance for a moment and move your cursor, that option is closed, and it is necessary to refresh the screen. At least, that’s the only way I know how to do it.

I have lived without video and Flash capacity for some five months now, and it has been a rich, full life, but this scrolling situation seems untenable. I am going to have to go to the Genius Bar, a prospect I dread.

It’s not that I mind the trip, the wait, or even the well-deserved condescension of the Geniuses. At least this time around, there is no varicolored crayon wax mysteriously covering my computer, leading me to mumble some absurd, half-formed lie that implied I either had small children or was a preschool teacher. I’m just terrified that they’re going to tell me the computer can’t be saved, that the scrolling is indicative of a more serious—terminal—illness. (From this you might imagine how conscientiously I deal with actual medical issues.) Read More »

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Beards

July 21, 2014 | by

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An early illustration of Saint Wilgefortis.

If you had asked me two days ago if there existed any Catholic-themed YouTube video stranger than the one where G. K. Chesterton battles a cartoonishly evil Nietzsche, I would have said, “Of course not.” But that was before I saw this group of French feminists in beards paying tribute to Saint Wilgefortis.

Wilgefortis is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “a fabulous female saint known also as UNCUMBER, KUMMERNIS, KOMINA, COMERA, CUMERANA, HULFE, ONTCOMMENE, ONTCOMMER, DIGNEFORTIS, EUTROPIA, REGINFLEDIS, LIVRADE, LIBERATA, etc.”; her attributes are listed as “bearded woman; depicted crucified, often shown with a small fiddler at her feet, and with one shoe off.” Considered a “pious fiction”—that is, a sort of unofficial folktale—she enjoyed popularity throughout Europe. Before the Church removed her commemoration in ’69, July 20 was her feast day.

Though her cult is thought to date to the fourteenth century, concrete details are sparse: generally, Wilgefortis is described as a young, Christian, sometimes Portuguese, occasionally septuplet princess who, rather than marry a pagan against her will, prayed for disfigurement. Her prayers were answered in the form of a beard. Her father, furious with this development, had her crucified. Nowadays, it’s thought that the Wilgefortis story—as well as the related fiddler/shoe legend—evolved from a misinterpretation of the famous Volto Santo crucifixion sculpture in Lucca, Italy. The art historian Charles Cahier wrote, Read More »

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A Travel Tip

July 18, 2014 | by

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An 1854 French advertisement

Not too long ago, I was asked to contribute a travel tip to an article. I felt like a complete fraud, of course; my vacations, such as they were, consisted of the occasional bus visit to friends in D.C. and the odd weekend with my parents, heavy on historic sites. If I passed along any sort of “tip,” I risked conveying the impression that I was the sort of person who breezed through security with effortlessly straight hair, applied travel-size unguents in her seat, and, when she felt like napping, draped herself in an improbably large cashmere wrap. (This sort of person also had a roll for her jewelry, and had a pricey makeup bag that, in a pinch, could double as a clutch.)

I knew of no special hydrating sprays or extra-good earphones. I almost wrote, “Bring steak sandwiches,” since this is in fact something I like to do when I travel. But certain standards must be maintained. So I recommended wearing a new perfume when one goes on a trip.

I’m not advocating for the purchase of an expensive bottle every time you go to a cousin’s wedding. But for me, the act of dignifying a journey with its own scent can be enough to elevate a humble getaway to vacation status. It’s nice to find something that has a connection to wherever you are, but the actual perfume is secondary. The point is to create a sense memory for the experience that has, for you, no precedent. I’ve worn the same perfume since my twenty-third birthday, when I treated myself to my first bottle of En Passant, but from the moment I get in the cab to the airport, I like to wear something different, unfamiliar.

It should be a scent you can live with, of course, but it need not be one you love. I usually look for something inexpensive, in a travel roller; perfume samples are also perfect for this. I found an eau de toilette called Green Leaf in the LaGuardia terminal before leaving for this trip to Maine, and I have applied it religiously throughout my days here. Months later, I will be able to smell it and remember—or not, as the case may be.

I know it all sounds rather twee. “I wish we could see perfumes as well as smell them. I’m sure they would be very beautiful,” says Anne Shirley, in Anne of the Island, when she is at maximum insipidity, and everyone is in love with her, and everything she does is ethereal and enrapturing and the relatable, human Anne of Green Gables is a distant memory. Even by her standards, however, this is idiotic: a scent is a million times more transporting than an image. Stanislavski could have told her that. Because, really, that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? You’re creating a character: someone who travels, who’s capable of relaxation and maybe even adventure, and who—why not?—has an improbably large cashmere wrap in her bag. Or pretends to.

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Thinking of You

July 17, 2014 | by

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A postcard from Maine. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When I was thirteen, and my dear friend Laura went on a teen hiking tour of the British Isles, I wrote her religiously. Letters, yes, but cards, too. I was stationary in New York, but I had found a lot of vintage postcards somewhere ,and sent a pair of fictional spinsters around the country on an imaginary road trip; each card chronicled their increasingly lurid and ridiculous adventures. One of the sisters proved man-crazy, the other developed a gambling addiction in Reno. When Laura transferred to a boarding school in Wales, their adventures continued.

Nowadays, that doesn’t seem like that big a deal. People are always sending Flat Stanleys and toys and gnomes around the world; you can download a template right from the Internet. Nothing new under the sun, I guess, but I loved having that imaginative connection to a friend across the world.

Now, as a grownup on vacation, I’m sitting here with a pile of postcards in front of me, wondering what to do about it. What, after all, is a postcard? In the age of e-mail and Instagram and Twitter, it’s a self-conscious anachronism. When you read an old postcard, their messages—in that spindly, legible, Palmer-script hand—are often strikingly banal. People really do say “wish you were here,” without embarrassment, and talk about the weather. With traditional postcards, the thought is what counts; these were, by and large, generic images bearing the most impersonal of greetings. Read More »

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Tragic Beauty

July 16, 2014 | by

Axes from The Shining

Axes from The Shining at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo: Eric Chan, via Flickr

The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle. ―Stephen King

The rain is pouring up here in Maine: King country. The weather is regenerative and generous, but awfully forbidding, too. Someone hearty told me that this weather is, in fact, the best time to take walks up here—certain vivid mosses have been known to appear. But this is the sort of individual who enjoys icy five A.M. swims, and I did not want to admit that my study of bryology never really extended beyond carpeting bowers for the occasional fairy, and that said experiments generally resulted in pulling up large hunks of moss, moving them, and then being surprised when they died. In short, I am still indoors. And for good measure, we watched The Shining. I remembered it having been much scarier.

Wikipedia:

Cabin fever is an idiomatic term, first recorded in 1918, for a claustrophobic reaction that takes place when a person or group is isolated and/or shut in a small space, with nothing to do for an extended period. Cabin fever describes the extreme irritability and restlessness a person may feel in these situations.

A person may experience cabin fever in a situation such as being in a simple country vacation cottage. When experiencing cabin fever, a person may tend to sleep, have distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail. The phrase is also used humorously to indicate simple boredom from being home alone.

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Blue True Dream of Sky

July 15, 2014 | by

The schooner Isaac Evans, under full sail on Penobscot Bay in Maine. Photo: Joe Berkall

“You’ve certainly had good weather,” people keep telling us. They say this almost resentfully, as if we do not appreciate the honor being conferred, could never understand the rarity of a full eight days of cloudless blue skies and temperatures in the midseventies, in coastal Maine, in early July.

The weather forecasts have been equally dour. Don’t get your hopes up, they seem to say. Each morning, the icon on my phone will show a sun cautiously peeping out from behind a cloud. If the forecast must admit to the possibility of sunshine, it does so reluctantly: Yes, it is fair now (say the icons) but at three P.M., there will be a cloud. Not three? Four. Five, then. Certainly by six. Well, anyway, sunset is at seven, so then your fun’s over. Never once has that cloud departed from the screen, even as the skies have stayed stubbornly blue.

I don’t care; nothing can dim my excitement. I have not gone on “vacation” in many years. I am not sure how to do it, although I have notions. I read E. B. White and The Lobster Gangs of Maine in preparation. Streamed Stephen King adaptations. Isn’t that what you do? Thus warned, I came braced for a range of weathers. I packed slickers and boots and ghost stories. (Puzzles, I was told, the house already had.) I privately harbored gingerbread-related plans.

Instead, the aggressive, unflagging beauty began to feel vaguely tyrannical: it seemed an act of gods-tempting hubris to miss a single moment of potential hiking or swimming or general beauty-celebrating. We did not take our luck for granted; to the contrary, each day, when I set out for a walk or a ride on the bicycle I was borrowing, I tried to give a little ecumenical prayer of thanks. Read More »

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