February 4th, 2009

Changes in the Weather

When fiction is criticized for lacking in realism, it's often because turns in the plot seem arbitrary and unmotivated. Arguments of this sort seem to presume that change is always a long time coming. And perhaps it is. But that doesn't mean that we can see it coming.

Back when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was struck by the monotony of the weather forecasts for the region during the lengthy dry season. "Fog in the morning, clearing towards midday. Fog returning in the late afternoon and evening." Even in winter, when storms sweep in, predictions were rarely wrong. The radar would show the massive front marching down from Alaska, its daily progress easy to project.

I think most of us can appreciate the appeal of emotional weather with a similarly steady character. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if some of California's inhabitants moved there precisely because they feel so unstable inside that they are desperate for stability outside. Unfortunately, though, the psychic world is a lot more like the mid-Atlantic region where I grew up. In Washington D.C., the forecast of six inches of snow is as reliable as a fortune teller's advice on the stock market. Confusion and surprise are the rule.

That's why I have the impulse to defend fiction that fails to trace the development of a situation methodically, but instead springs it on us out of the blue. An hour ago, I was consumed by bleak feelings, unable to imagine making it to the next hour without exploding. But a little while later I was patiently screwing a new fluorescent bulb, for which I had undertaken a long search in the garage, into one of the house's outdoor light sockets. And then I thought to myself, after extracting my hand from the the covering, "That's a sconce, the root of our verb "ensconce."

Pondering the origins and history of that term, as well as its lexical relatives, I was inspired to sit down at the computer to do some research. When I recalled how awful I'd felt less than an hour before, though, I decided to write this entry instead. I suppose that impulse is another way of weathering ambiguity.

I'll Drink To That

While we were visiting the San Diego area the weekend before last, Skylar and I stopped at Lou's Records in Encinitas. It's one of those stores that, in trying to adapt to the times, has largely dissipated what was left of its appeal through a remodeling job that just makes it look like much of its stock has vanished. That said, since I'd brought Skylar several times before and explained to her that it's the sort of alternative business that needs our support, I figured we'd better pay a visit. After all, it might be our last chance.

As depressing as that realization was, I was heartened to find two inexpensive collections of Broadway show tunes amid the north building's "previously owned" merchandise. She and I had spent most of the drive out listening to the Broadway channel on our rental car's XM Radio, further stoking her already keen interest in that sort of music. One of our finds, a collection of "showstoppers" from 1909 through the early 1930s, gave me the occasion to explain to her the significance of that term and make the related point that Oklahoma! was so revolutionary because it dispensed with the contrast between story and song, weaving them together in an intricate pattern.

The other used CD, a compilation of songs from the 1970s, had the virtue of giving us the song "Tomorrow" from Annie, which Skylar has been singing daily since December. But the reason I wanted it was that it contained two Stephen Sondheim numbers, "The Ladies Who Lunch", from Company, which my friend Laura kindly took me to see in December, and the famous "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music. I expected to Skylar to like the latter. Surprisingly, though, she has shown a fondness for the former as well.

Because Skylar likes to sing along, I have been hearing her deliver lines like "lounging in their caftans" with the sourness of Elaine Strich and wondering, with a mild degree of anxiety, whether it's appropriate for her to declaim, "I'll drink to that!" Luckily, she is already so well schooled in the appreciation of culture that her experience of this sort of content is intensely mediated by her will to know. I can explain to her why Sondheim was so important in the history of Broadway or play her songs from other musicals of his, knowing that the information I convey will help her to establish the distance she needs from material that's disturbing or just too grown-up for her to grasp fully. We heard a song from Sweeney Todd on XM Radio driving back from San Diego and she quite rapidly made the connection between that number and "The Ladies Who Lunch." I'll drink to that. . .