Bizarre Boston Blog

Emptyish streets, sheen of rain. The college students have all left for the summer, or they’ve graduated and their long lives are about to begin, or they’re sleeping. There is no difference between a college student sleeping and a college student in a distant town. In the morning, when they slumber, you feel a total absence, like a minus sign; but by Boston’s mid-afternoon, wafting pot smoke signals awakening hormonal hordes; at 4 PM or so, they become more tangible and jog by, as if exercise were necessary for them. They are added back to the world.

I’ve been living my life too much in a state of emergency. Instead of consulting a professional, I have come up with a three step solution. Recalibrating my life solution. The first step is to ignore all existing emergencies. Now, this—I can already hear you saying it—can’t last, this is not a workable solution. It sounds in fact like the opposite of a solution. Patience! Wait till you hear my next two steps.

Step two—the real genius hinge of the whole thing—is then, in the absence of all emergencies, in the vast plain of false calm left after the tyrannical banishment of all the old emergencies, to choose to treat the smallest things as emergencies. Take the tension that needs an outlet, and re-apply it, like a salve or leech, to trivia. For instance, that morning, the morning of the sheen on the streets and the city asleep, I put some water on to boil and I realized that there was no oatmeal left in the cupboard. Indeed, I’d simmered my last oats into mush just the day before. No oatmeal! Suddenly I was racing around the apartment, whipping up usable underwear, a shirt, the bike lock, nearly dropping my bike lock key into the toilet in my haste, knocking a coffee cup onto the floor (necessitating a time-wasting cleanup, sighs of impatience and desperation), searching for my wallet in all the previous day’s pants, choosing perversely the socks that will look most idiotic in combination with my sneakers, all of these things done poorly, in an urgent heat, just to get myself out the door. Then there I am, biking along the Fenway towards the Whole Foods (just any oatmeal will not do). Part of the timeline’s gone missing; I don’t quite recall how I got out of the museum and onto the path. I whiz by geese. Yes, geese. I do not feel I can do justice in words to these geese, honking at empty stretches of grass, honking at time intervals, not periodically but at intervals. It’s not a joyous noise but it’s got something, it’s scooped out of some really pungent vat of sound. The geese are all facing in angles, like in a Renaissance painting, ideally miscellaneous honking angles. This randomness is perhaps chosen, to make clear to the other geese that they’re really not honking at them–and to distribute their message to the maximum cross-section of the universe.

Someday, it is inevitable, there will be a collision between myself and a Fenway goose. There will be a terrible clatter, a squawk and cry, some lone bicycle part will roll off down into the muck, and there will just be me and a goose lying there, damaged. People will walk by. I don’t think the goose and I will resent each other.

Anyway, back to my three-step solution. The thing is, having applied unbearable tension to these trivial acts, step three is a kind of hilarious transcendental emptiness—my goal. I swerved rapidly across Westland Ave., curving violently to avoid nonexistent oncoming traffic, I incommoded a harmless pedestrian, skidding my way up to the bike rack, braking just in time to pull my bike into the slot, I rapidly rotated my backpack, zipped it open with a flourish, unlocked the lock, hands trembling, slipped it onto the wheel and rack, almost forcing it on, then turned to face the doors of the Whole Foods like a superhero arriving just in time, and in that moment of stoppage the world—I didn’t quite recognize it. There were a couple of people, aimlessly making their way in and out of the supermarket. There was a man, leaning down to chain his dog, giving it a soothing pat, a there-there. There was a shhh and whirr of wheels in the rain. A scattered chorus of small activities implying humanity’s inactivity. The rain and the cloudiness and the smell of rain in the air. Distant honks. It occurred to me I was going to the grocery store to get some oatmeal.

Like a mantra, or a symptom of incipient insanity, as I walked through the Whole Foods I kept repeating to myself “I am at the grocery store to buy some oatmeal,” partly to prevent myself from buying $40 bags of organic goji berries.

Go ahead, quibble with my math. Replacing what seemed like real emergencies with obviously fake ones (x=y); draining these fakes of import (x minus x); and transferring this back to the more serious zones of life (y=x); and from this fraudulent circular calculation finding yourself suddenly delirious, damp, giggling in the cereal aisle, out of breath from a near goose collision, in love with the experience of a calm Sunday morning… I can’t pretend to a theorem; in fact I’m sure something important has vanished. Luckily, happiness is not a sum.

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  1. Mark
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Mornings. Do you practice differently in the morning? The only kind of practice that’s really productive in the afternoon, for me, is the sort of drilling practice that you have to do; scales, or what Charles Rosen talks about, just playing the damn thing over and over (and he would scan the newspaper during this, if we can believe that). In the morning I can connect with the piece, learn from it, etc.

  2. Daisy
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    This is so ridiculously insane, it’s bordering on genius. Love it!!

  3. Posted May 21, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Since you are waiting for transcendental emptiness, we were told by the young lady who escorted us through the Orchard House in Concord on Sunday: “Unlike prevailing Lockean thought, Transcendentalism holds as true that people are born with innate knowledge which can be revealed by their life experience.”

    That by way of explanation why the Alcott family persisted in its educational experiments throughout the mid-19th century.

    Charles Ives mentions that house on the Lexington Road in Essays Before a Sonata and he also mentions the spinet piano which is in the parlor on which Sophia Thoreau gave lessons to the Alcott children and on which one of them played the Beethoven Fifth–which provides the main motivic material for the third movement of Sonata Nr. 2.

  4. Justus Schlichting
    Posted May 21, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant. A three step path to Happiness. Actually four, if you count accepting the inevitability of being Goosed.

    I am profoundly relieved to read that you have not relaxed your oatmeal standards.

    PS: I actually don’t like Whole Foods; I only like the idea of Whole Foods.

  5. Thomas P
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    Surely you meant to say “… in all the previous days’ pants…”?

  6. vcdarty
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    jolly stuff, per usual. I shall ask Marc to ensure a generous supply of WF oats while you’re here in the City Diff.

  7. Nitpicker
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    You left the water boiling. Narratively speaking.

  8. anna martina sodari
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    thankfully, you don’t have to go beyond simple arithmetic to do really big game theory. and that’s a very good thing because poverty level are the ones that need the biggest change. if you can see change at that level, it doesn’t really matter what the college students are doing. okay, some multiplication and division. do you know how hard it is to teach even this to poverty level, who never really learned it in school to start with? however, if they can see results, they start paying attention! when i start feeling stress, i make myself go REALLY slow. slow movements, slow everything. if i start knocking over my coffee cup and glass of water, i know something really sinister is after me, egads! a very nasty slave master! i came home from portland with 3 pieces of wonderful soft cheeses from whole foods in the small insulated pouch that i take the frozen chorizo that i’ve made in sierra vista for my son, very hot, lots of cayenne pepper. i have to put a note on the fridge, ‘chorizo!’, so that i remember to take that small bag out of the freezer and put it into my luggage which is already in the car from the night before. when i make gruel for the 8 trailer park cats, i put cooked oatmeal in it. the closest whole foods is in tucson. of course, i am disabled and don’t work, but that makes no never mind to those crazy slave masters, disorientation and stress are their forte. just ask our disabled vets, i bet they knock over LOTS of morning coffee cups. just ask their wives and girlfriends and their caregivers. if you start moving really slow and take deep breaths, it’s almost as if they can’t find you . . . you’ve dropped under the radar. and maybe they go SPLAT! into a wall because you disoriented THEM with your disappearing act:-) and soon you will even do the little things like notice that you’re almost out of oatmeal and put it on your shopping list . . . . i like pictures of michael tilson thomas at the farmer’s market in his tweets, he always looks so amazingly calm and content and happy:-) of course, i have gray hair, too, and a lot of things just fall off of that emergency list when you ‘arrive’ at serious gray hair. the veggie garden and the peach trees are coming along, i hand water every day, i put the little rectangular pond that had been upside down in the backyard for several years out in the front yard with the little fountain pump since the pond pump no longer works, i bought 3 little arrow signs at the family dollar store that say ‘at the beach’, ‘by the sea’ and welcome to paradise’ and i am waiting for 2 wonderful 3-piece large wall murals (stick-on) of palm tree, beach and ocean to totally transform my sense of where i am. i have created a little oasis just for me which is a totally zen feedback loop. the rest of the world can carry on at break-neck speed, i have shangrila. you’re obviously headed in the right direction.

  9. jean
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    If I ran out of coffee in the morning, that would be terrible ’cause it goes with toasted bread and butter. I only have apple/cinnamon oatmeal in the evening to settle my stomach, for some reason. It’s a type of comfort snack for me. I always add milk, golden raisin, and dried cranberries.

    Don’t take geese lightly. Two neighboring (?) geese attacked me and my brother when we were little kids; my neck & chest were mauled by their beaks (bill, what ever that part is called). My little brother just cried (he got it on his naked butts), but luckily my mom ran out from the kitchen to see what the commotion was….

    Yeah, so much work, but please take it easy sometime.

  10. jean
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Let me recapitulate:

    1) Ignore all existing emergencies
    2) Choose to treat the smallest things as emergencies
    3) Hilarious transcendental emptiness

    Coincidently, step 1 and step 2 happened over the weekend. That turned out peacefully; and yes, there’s a certain peace in doing that. But couldn’t deal with step 3; it’s the feeling of ‘out of gas’, this can either be hilarious or miserable….

    Current emergency is to buy dogs’ sweet potato treats asap. The older one taught the younger one how to lead me to the food pantry to get treats, and get my ‘out of gas’ butts off the sofa every time. Sometimes I had to say to the younger one “You just had it, where’s the (water) bottle? I’m gonna spray you!”, and amazingly she understood, and stopped bullying me that moment. OK, have to go get the treats anyway….

  11. Posted May 31, 2013 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    And you’re still eating oatmeal? Go to the source of your problems. Switch to toast.

  12. jean
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Almost got into an emergency, panic mode, when the TV/Internet box in the closet started beeping, and the battery’s light is on (I got worried, yes, but not panicky). I had to pull out the manual to read before calling the tech support person. I didn’t know there’s a backup battery in there, and the battery is like a miniature car battery! Still, according to the tech, it’s something I have to replace myself. I checked out the model and everything, then found out where to order a new battery. In the mean time, I’ve learned to stay calm while it does the business of beeping, periodically. It only beeps although it’s called an ‘alarm’. The button to stop the alarm for 24hrs doesn’t seem to work….

    I remember at my previous place, one day, all the fairly new smoke alarm units suddenly screamed uncontrollable. You should see how terribly I felt while my mom was helpless about that. I called the fire dept. They came and checked the CO2, the smoke, etc….There’s nothing (unlike the smoke you got in your apt. when you baked the chicken not long ago). So, they tried to replace the smoke alarms for free, but what they had on hands were not the same sizes. Later, I went to buy the new units. I told someone about it, and he said that “next time, yank them out and throw in the garage. I have a dozen of them in my garage’….Anyway, now here, when the smoke alarms start beeping, I just calmly go get a tall ladder to replace the 9v batteries. I need to distinguish between a real emergency and a state of mind kind of emergency.

  13. jean
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Oh, forgot to say that I never spray my dog. Sometimes I sprayed the water in the air so she could see, and she doesn’t want to get the mists on her. Now, I only ask “where’s the bottle?’ and she just goes to her rocking chair to sit, so I can do some personal work. She has a bunch of vocabularies so she can understand many things. I forgot that she’s not a person, and the other day I almost asked her to move a stepping stool to me because my hands were busy making turkey patties to bake for her. Too many treats….She used to take aim and jumped onto a bar stool to see what’s on the counter. Now, she’s chunkier, can’t fly all over the place like before….But she got to eat what she wants….

  14. Janet
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    YAY! Jeremy Denk is writing a book. The New York Times says so. I realize I’m just making an off-topic comment on an old blog entry, but I have to express my jubilation somewhere, and this seems like the logical place. I’m trying to imagine what that unique way of thinking and writing will turn into when it has the length of a whole book to expand in. I can’t wait! (Although I guess I’ll have to. The Times article says 2016.)

  15. anna martina sodari
    Posted June 19, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    i wish i could go to the ojai festival in california in 2014, he is the music director of that. and my son just gave me his 10-yr. old car when he bought his new truck so if jeremy comes to tucson, now i will be able to get there! it is 100 degrees in sierra vista, arizona, everyday, TOASTY!!!, im fighting pests in the garden, hope the organic neem oil extract does the trick . . . . . . . thank you, jeremy, for reminding me about oatmeal since my cholesterol level is not the best! if you ever get to cochise county, my second cousin just opened a small art gallery in bisbee and cafe roka is right next door:-) she’s a good little artist, herself. if i had a wee bit of energy, i would make some handpainted totes or clothes or do an abstract oil or two, but that was my past, it was another life . . . . . . these days i am grateful to be able to putter in the garden! best, anna martina

  16. anna martina sodari
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    it should almost be time to buy fresh hatch, new mexico green chiles and roast them on a small grill on my stove. i have been craving chile rellenos!!! i use them when i make a hamburger for myself, too, with cheese. we used to buy 20-30 lbs., if not more, for my mom when she could still cook, and she would roast chili for days and freeze it for green chili salsa and to use in her delicious sopas. i’ll save a bite or two of chile relleno for you, jeremy:-) we got a wonderful thunderstorm yesterday, our monsoons have arrived, the thunder was delicious, my little trailer felt like it was rocking. a friend drove to the hitachi grill the other day and that’s the first time i’ve listened to music other than my classical music station in a very long time. eek, it grated on my ears, that other radio station! i am spoiled for forever! i played your and joshua’s ‘french impressions’ cd the other day on repeat all day long. bubalou, my cat, didn’t mind. when your book comes out, i will have to buy one for myself and for my niece, who taught herself how to play the piano. she will be done with her masters in education this december. when garnet hill put their duvet cover with the sheet music of debussy’s ‘la mer’ on it on sale, i bought it for her birthday, she loved it. my sister didn’t understand why she was so totally into that duvet cover to decorate her bedroom, she was clueless. my niece picked out eric satie’s music to play on her own, she has good taste. i should tell her about your blog:-) hope your summer got off to a very good start! blessings . . . . . .

  17. anna martina sodari
    Posted July 31, 2013 at 4:12 am | Permalink

    i am trying not to be overwhelmed by all of the peaches on the peach trees. i think i have given away 100 lbs. of peaches! and the trees are still loaded. i am enjoying fresh peaches, sliced peaches with frosted flakes cereal and in smoothies with ice cream, milk, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and a dash of vanilla. have put up 5 peach packs for the freezer with fruit fresh and i bought a box of 18 1 qt. freezer bags. they would be great for your oatmeal, jeremy:-) the peach season is short so i am trying to stay in zen and enjoy it. it is a great feeling of contentment to go out there and actually hand pick the peaches, very nirvana:-) they represent months of watering 6 peach trees with the hose, 3 of them i planted, 3 of them are volunteers. i didn’t fertilize until late, but it’s just as well because several branches have already broken from the weight of the peaches. am putting the peeled skins back out there underneath various plants in the backyard to compost down and fertilize, continue the cycle of life . . . . . aaron copland’s ‘apalachian spring’ was on the classical music station this evening and that made everything perfect:-)

  18. jean
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Two years to write the book….You can easily writes a page a day. What if you wrote two, three pages in one sitting a day, then it’d be a thick book; better be. Compilation is a good idea ’cause trying to read everything from the blog here is not quite practical for me.

    Was going to tell you a long story about the birds who built nests around here; first, the purple martins, then the sparrows, lastly, the mockingbirds on the apple tree. I’d became the spontaneous birds watcher; this had taken a lot of my time and my soul, and left no mind for any music. After burying two of them, then watching the last one on the ground learned how to flap its wings and finally flew away, I told myself to let nature takes its course, I won’t want to watch any bird anymore, its mommy’s watching already….when I came too close (to help) they- mockingbirds both screamed like crazy….(scared the heck out of me). There’s always plenty of insects here, all i do is to provide the water, no worries….Sometimes I think it’s not a bad idea to be a bird.

  19. Janet
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Congratulations. You’re now officially a genius. But we knew it all along.

  20. Mab MacMoragh
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink


  21. Posted September 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Denk, just saw news of your MacArthur Fellowship – congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Well deserved! 🙂

  22. anna martina sodari
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    congratulations, jeremy!!!!!:-)

  23. Patrick
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    After 1 year of inactivity (coming up in May) I’m going to assume this blog is dead and remove it from my RSS feed.

  24. Janet
    Posted May 20, 2014 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Today, alas, marks a sad anniversary. It is one year since the last post on Think Denk. While we can hardly accuse Mr. Denk of being innactive either as a writer or a musician, I do think this is a terrible pity. The loopy, freeform blog format leads to some wonderful creations that we won’t get anywhere else.

  25. Genevieve Jones
    Posted August 28, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    We have geese in Lafayette, too.

  26. Joe
    Posted August 17, 2017 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Can’t wait for the next post — or a farewell.

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