Monday, May 4, 2009


When I was seven, my family got a new puppy. We got precious little Shetland Sheepdog (also known as a Sheltie) and named her Penny Starlight Bennett. "Penny" because she was the color of a shiny new penny, "Starlight" because she had a white star on her forehead, and "Bennett" because she was the newest member of our family.

That dog was something else. Since she was a sheepdog, she had a compulsive urge to herd things. Trees, people, cars... Danger was not in her vocabulary. It always frightened us when she would get out of our yard because she went straight for the cars. But she was so full of life! When she was inside the house and could not actively chase cars or trees, she would sneak into the living room (which was highly off limits for her) and watch the cars go by. We only half-heartedly scolded her for being there. She was meticulously trained not to go in any area of the house which was carpeted, a rule which she generally maintained unless there was a thunder storm or someone was vacuuming. Her barking drove us crazy and she shed more fur than you would believe, but we loved that dog within an inch of her life.

Penny was a part of all of our memories. She was there on Christmas and always received her fair share of presents (her favorite gift was the contraband ham-bone that my grandmother always brought). My grandfather affectionately referred to her as "Penelope". She joined us on every Thanksgiving day for our annual family hike...

For spring break in my sophomore year of high school my family went to Alaska. A few days into our trip we were much distressed when we received a call that Penny had had a stroke which had paralyzed her. The vet recommended putting her to sleep, but we said to wait for us to get home so that we could tell her goodbye. The next day, however, we got another call. Penny had died on her own... We were devastated. This was the day that we went snowmobiling, and all I can remember is the pain of having my tears freezing on my face as we sped through the stunning Alaskan landscape.

Though we eternally complained about the shrillness of her bark, we loved Penny more than any of us could say. She really was a member of the family. She was the member of the family that never argued back. She was always there when you needed a shoulder to cry on. She always ready to celebrate with you. She loved us all unconditionally.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Key.

Gestures of love appear in all forms, shapes, and sizes... And they appear everywhere in every culture.

Though I steer clear of watching even the smallest amount of TV, the last couple of years I have nursed an addiction to The Office. In the season two episode entitled "Valentines Day", there is a classic example of a great gesture of love. Dwight finds himself in a conundrum and asks Pam for advice on what to give his girlfriend for Valentines Day. Pam has been struggling all day because her fiancee has sent her nothing while Phyllis has received a plethora of bouquets, chocolates, and teddy bears... When Dwight asks for advice, the following interchange ensues:

Pam: Well, sometimes the gift is really about the gesture, you know, like what it means instead of what it is.

Dwight: You mean, like a ham?

Pam: No. Not like a ham. It's about doing something so that the person knows that you really care about her. That you remember her.

Dwight: Okay, I get it. That's great. Okay, shut up.

Dwight proceeds to get Angela a copy of the key to his apartment as a gesture of affection. Though the key is the tiniest of gifts, the implications of the key are monumental.

It's the thought that counts.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Simple Economics.

The story of the Ik tribe in Uganda frightens me. Is it truly possible to evolve in a way in which you no longer feel emotion? 

Ackerman's description of the Ik in A Natural History of Love is chilling: "After only three generations of drought and starvation, the Ik became hostile, selfish, mean. They had abandoned love along with other so-called virtues because they could not afford them. It was simple economics." And even after the drought had ended the Ik were incapable of regaining emotion... I don't want to believe that it is possible to lose the ability to feel emotions and love.

I have no evidence for the following claim, but I want to think that it is more a case of losing the ability to express emotion than a case of actually losing emotion itself. In her assessment of the tribe, Ackerman mentions that when they made eye contact with each other they would look away in embarrassment. Embarrassment is an emotion. I think that this instinct is a subtle indication of the emotions that are being stifled inside. Somewhere buried deep inside I would like to think that the Ik still feel emotions.

But maybe I just look for the best in people.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Trapeze Artist.

Love is a dangerous thing. It seems to require a denial of all human instincts. Personally, I always want to protect my heart from harm and therefore I put up walls and guards to keep myself safe... But as C.S. Lewis reminds us, to love is to be vulnerable. 

Ackerman describes the terrifying feeling of love: "He is like a trapeze artist swinging out over an abyss; ultimately he gives up hope of finding another pair of hands waiting to catch him, and he just lets go." It goes against all of our rational mind, but love asks us to jump blindly and hope that we are met halfway.

Love requires sacrifice on a multitude of levels. It is a scary thing to let go and fall into the abyss, but this sacrifice of personal welfare and safety is the pinnacle act of love. We must be vulnerable in order to truly love.

Monday, April 20, 2009


It is true that Beethoven's piano sonatas have a singular effect on the heart. The yearning and intensity embodied in the music can wrench any lovesick heart. In A Natural History of Love, Diane Ackerman describes the beauty of Beethoven: "No composer personified the passion of the age better than Beethoven, a tempestuous and defiant man who wrote avant-garde music full of majesty and organized alarm. Hampered by the rigors of traditional music, he fed his own anger, heartache, and struggle into his work. Expressing so much feeling would have been impossible in shopworn musical terms, so he invented a new vocabulary, one richer and more volatile, one closer to pure emotion... As the old rules crumbled, Beethoven's music became even more personal, alive with suffering and intensely human."

I have played my fair share of Beethoven. In high school I learned movements of both Pathetique and Moonlight. The first movement of Moonlight Sonata is one of the most satisfying pieces to play while wallowing in misery. I greatly enjoy closing my eyes while playing Moonlight and simply stewing in Beethoven's despair. In contrast, the first movement of the Pathetique personifies the anger and frustration brought on by passion. It is highly therapeutic to bang away on the piano in the form of the Pathetique.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Gritted Teeth.

"Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it."
-- Madeline L'Engle

I was particularly struck by the truth in Madeline L'Engle's assertion. It is true in life as it is true in writing: it is choice to write a paper, to cook dinner, to exercise, to love someone well... All of these are highly rewarding but often require gritting of one's teeth. The worthwhile things in life are rarely easy. If you have to tie yourself to your chair to write, then do it. Inspiration rarely strikes like a bolt of lightning.

Often at the beginning of a task the future seems insurmountable and hopeless, but it is a choice to commence chipping away at the issue. Inspiration will come with the methodical production of a paper as one sits glued to the keyboard.

And anyways, it's okay to have shitty first drafts.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Gift of a Quilt.

Meg Buzzi's account of her grandfather's poignant letters which covered a thirty year span of the family's story remind me of my grandmother's quilts. Nanny has been quilting as long as she can remember. Her mother, my great-grandmother, taught her to quilt when she was a little girl. Quilting is a tradition that was passed down from her mother, her mother's mother, her mother's mother's mother, etc. Accordingly, Nanny taught me to quilt when I was a little girl. Granted, I never made more than a couple squares, but I learned and appreciated the craft.

Quilting is one of the most time consuming activities that my grandmother engages in (second only to cooking, I would guess), and it is also one of the most selfless activities. She spends hours, days, weeks, and months producing beautifully intricate quilts and then consequently gives away the item which has so absorbed her energy.

A few years ago Nanny called all of the grandchildren into the living room on Christmas day. We were amazed by the sight that met our eyes: the couches, chairs, and walls were covered in quilts, each one uniquely exquisite.

"Pick one!" She said.

We excitedly ran about an examined our options. Somehow, miraculously, each grandchild got their first choice. I was soon the proud owner of the "Grandmother's Fan" quilt, which I sleep under to this day. Nanny's gift to the grandchildren provided a treasure for every single grandchild that created a link to her and a reminder of home.