Tuesday, October 18, 2016

M.L. Titsky

When I was in high school, I got somewhat of a reputation among close friends as being game for tagging along on almost any errand that needed to happen.  Gas? A card for your grandma? A pizza you're going to pick up for your family now?  Sure.

If your car was running and the radio was on, I was down. 

I'd like to blame this part of my personality for being willing to read so many things my friend Amelia suggests.  Not unlike that time Tim's eyes lit up when I started reading Freedom, these books add texture to our friendship, and keep us in a shared conversation I absolutely cherish. 

Source: this fascinatingly angry review.
It's possible I would have heard about Shrill by Lindy West if Amelia hadn't urged me to read it, but I'm not sure I would have actually gone to the trouble of doing so, for no other reason than it at first came across to me as somewhat of a "humor" book. The chances of me making it past page four of a humor book are actually lower than me making it through a duck hunt. 

That's a lie.  I've never been on a duck hunt and I'm sure I've finished a humor book, but if so I've repressed it.

Shrill, however, while making me laugh a lot, and being in somewhat of a conversational tone that could be mistaken for glib, easy prose, is full of articulate, somewhat painstaking arguments, and I really did enjoy it. 

Lindy West is perhaps best known for her online writing for Jezebel and The Guardian, but aside from seeing her name in some reviews before this book, I didn't think I had any experience with her.  Then, writing this, I realized she wrote a piece about Jonathan Franzen's response to writing about race, an article I admired and also chafed at when I first read it. 

Lindy West.  Source: announcement of her Stranger Genius Award in Literature

I also realized, while reading her book, that she was probably blipping across my radar screen more than I knew, when she described her involvement in the national discussion around Daniel Tosh's disturbing, dismissive, aggressive rape jokes at one of his shows. 

Without going into all the details of that incident and its rippling reactions that folded backlashes into backlashes, let's just say that, in her book at least, West takes credit for speaking up against this kind of behavior in what has, for a long time, been a boys club of comedy.  Here's a write-up of the initial incident, and here's West's report on people's response to her taking to task comedy's permissiveness regarding certain dangerous remarks in the name of not censoring anyone. 

What I admire most about all of this is how at the center of her narrative West remains.  I happen to really like Twitter, and I get a lot of my news from various online news outlets in addition to our quaint paper that arrives on the porch in an un-quaint manner (thwack!) three times a week, bringing me precious Parade magazine articles about actors I'd long forgotten, pages of comics, and the delicacy that is The Bargain Corner (people hocking complete junk for anywhere from $2-$300 with the greatest descriptions ever: "lawyer diorama," "leather coat: fuschia"). 

These days, with so much information coming at every angle on every screen, scandals like ones involving quasi-famous people can feel a little nebulous, and occasionally trumped-up on slow news days.  But for someone like West who works so directly in the outlets generating these articles, what floats across my screen is how she pays her rent, and her recall of those hazy-to-me stories amounts to what, in my world would look like: "First I sent that email, then I wrote that grocery list, then I got dressed, and now here we are!" Whereas it looks like one big internet dust cloud from my daughter's bed where I am scrolling my feed as I put her down for a nap, it's literally all in a day's work for this woman.

Lindy West shrilling out.  Source: her website
Granted, many of these news items we read now feel offensively non-newsy, click-baity, or just plain gossippy: Jezebel is (was?) a sister site to Gawker, after all.  I'm not here to debate how effective West is or was at moving the cultural needle, although from her point of view, she has been successful at bringing much needed attention to issues like fat-shaming, abortion-shaming, and rape culture in our country. 

What I marvel at is how explicit and unapologetic and direct she is about all of this.  Some of the book read to me as: "This bad thing happened, I attacked it in X, Y, and Z ways, and then this sort-of better thing that's not quite a full resolution but is a foot in the right direction happened."  She's saying this all very publicly, in a book where some of her publicity photos show her holding a bullhorn, and I find that remarkable. I don't even draw those lines through my successes in my journal at night. 

Also, to her credit, she seems extremely aware of her movements.  At one point in her book, when talking about the body image recovery she underwent after discovering "fat-positive" tags online which she started "furtively clicking like a Mormon teen looking at Internet porn" she writes:

"Studies have shown that visual exposure to certain body types actually change people's perception of those bodies - in other words, looking at pictures of fat people makes you like fat people more. (Eternal reminder: Representation matters.)"

Lindy West.  Source: this article that talks about a feud that fascinated me in her book, Shrill

In the first section of the book, she addresses her body image problems as a child which she describes getting over in a humorous list so laden with peculiar turns of phrase I didn't always know what was going on.  But I soon settled into her prose and some of my favorite parts of the book were the personal ones.

I got a pretty big kick out of her mother, especially.  Of her parents, she writes:

"Dad was the entertainer, but I'm funny because of my mom.  She has a nurse's ease with gallows humor, sarcastic and dry....When I was little, a neighbor opened a small temping agency called Multitask and, in an early stab at guerilla marketing, purchased a vanity plate that read, 'MLTITSK.' Around the house, my mom called him 'M.L. Titsky.' Later, just 'Mr. Titsky.'  Empirically, that's a great riff."

I've already covered the anti-gallows-humor kind of mom I am very lucky to have, but I would definitely like to spend time in a house with the mom who comes up with that joke. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"No" Is My Spirit Animal

"Like dancers, none of us gets over that figure we see in the practice mirrors: ourselves.  Choosing your twin gives you that reflection forever - or as long as it lasts.  Perhaps SL will leave me for one reason or another, but he will never go away: I see myself in him and he in me, except that for him our twinship is essentially private and silent.  So how do I justify putting our we-ness out in the world by writing about it?  I can't.  It's something I've always done; SL accepts this in me: half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it.  I wrote about my first kiss more fully than I lived it.  I wouldn't know what I looked like in relation to SL, my twin, if I didn't describe in on the page."

- Hilton Als in "Tristes Tropiques"

One of my friends recently "taught" the Michael Jackson essay in White Girls, a 2013 book with one of the greatest covers I've seen in a long time: serious and dramatic and artistic all at once.  When she told me she was reading the book, it made me want to revisit it.  I had already tried my hand at White Girls once but was, admittedly, put off by my background knowledge of Als as the theater critic for The New Yorker, a magazine my southern identity brushes up against forceably with uncomfortable results. 

Remembering the electric, down-in-the-depths-of-the-library-stacks feeling I had while reading John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead made me want to give White Girls another try. 

Als' prose has its own weight and rhythm.  I like this description of his work, from Literary Hub ("Als is a master of consideration, rarely grasping for conclusions and instead commenting on the state of things with his deep knowledge of cultural theory, always rebounding with a very-Hilton, remarkably reflective mood").  Once I committed to White Girls, my whole being felt taken through a pipeline to some velvety, synapse-rearranging place where I became slightly smarter for the hours I was in his hands.  Then I basically lost that connection once the book was closed and all I could remember was: I had to think hard reading that.  

But I loved that quote: 
"It's something I've always done...half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it," and I remembered it for weeks after reading it.  The older I get, the more writing is one of the few things that makes any sense to me.  Reading, writing, making food and eating it, and spending time with my family are some of the only activities I have the bandwidth for right now, in addition to basic exercise and fresh air.  It took a long while to get to acceptance of that fact.  Once I did, though, once I realized that all the activities that used to make me happy, like drawing or going to yoga class or watching movie, were actually somewhat of a burden if I insisted on them too much as a mother, life got really simple.  At the same time, some force of internal life started to expand, breathing in the new space. 

No, No, No, No has become my internal mantra over the past two years, as I've adjusted to raising a child and the presence, and surrender, that requires. 

"No" is my spirit animal, drawing a deep line in the sand around me that I find very comforting right now.  Inside that line, there's a lot of room for whatever I want to put there.  It took becoming a mother to take myself seriously enough to put up those healthy fences, a fact I don't love but it's also okay. 

Hilton Als.
(Source: Interview)

In a wondrous essay about Eminem called "White Noise," discussing the lyrics to "Kim" from The Marshal Mathers LP, Als writes:

"The operative word here is 'look.' Given Mathers' background where all eyes were turned on Mom as she made scenes, could Mathers feel he was real?  That he existed? Moms and bullies sucked all the air out of the room.  In order to be heard, he did what born writers do: he learned to listen - to himself, and to others, to stories."

The lines that connect my life with Eminem's are so far apart there's probably some planetary term to describe them as bodies that will never orbit in the same stratosphere.  I wasn't bullied, I wasn't harassed, and my mom is such a delightful person many of my friends at one time or another have joked she should move in with them and be there every day when they wake up.  However, I love that idea: Born writers learn to listen: to themselves, and to others, and to stories. 

To that I say: Amen. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Whole Art

Over the summer, I read a piece in Garden & Gun by Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron who was the author of Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, and The Confessions of Nat Turner.  About Styron senior’s devotion to a special type of Virginia ham he prepared, the article was called, of all things, “My Father’s Ham.”  It was accompanied by an antique-y looking photo of a curing room that I wasn’t ready to explore because I associate whole sides of ham with Thanksgiving and Christmas and it was June, July, finally August.  

After several rounds with the issue, hiding it intermittently from Samantha who is obsessed with a recurring Caribbean ad inside its first pages, I finally got around to reading the piece and something about its tone haunted me. 

Then, earlier this fall, while reading the new anthology Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers, I came across an exquisite essay by Alexandra Styron, an excerpt from her book Reading My Father. Suddenly, I wanted to read every.single.thing I could by her.  Now.  

I feel embarrassed that I haven’t read
any William Styron and in fact was only dimly aware of some of his highly lauded work. A friend of mine from college once told me Sophie’s Choice was her favorite book ever, but warned me that it would basically destroy me with sadness.  If you can imagine, I didn’t dive right into reading it. 

What I loved about Styron’s essay in
Every Father’s Daughter, though, and wanted more of, was her relationship to the man who labored successfully as a writer but was distant, tempestuous, and sometimes downright scary as a father.  I didn’t want to know about these details for the whiffs of scandal they might provide in the story of a famous family, but rather because in her writing, Styron is such a compelling narrator, especially as a child.  Reading her essay, I felt so much for her. I wanted to be closer and hear what she had to say. 

In her book Reading My Father, she writes:

“Until 1985, my father’s tempestuous spirit ruled our family’s private life as surely as his eminence defined the more public one…(If there was a golden rule in our house when I was growing up, it was, unequivocally, “Don’t ask Daddy about his work.”) First and foremost, my father was a novelist. ‘A high priest at the altar of fiction,’ as Carlos Fuentes describes him, he consecrated himself to the Novel….With a kind of sacred devotion, he kept at it, maintaining his belief in the narrative powers of a great story – and he suffered accordingly in the process.”

She also writes:

“Descendants of the so-called Lost Generation, my father and his crowd, including Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw, embraced their roles as Big Male Writers.  For years they perpetuated, without apology, the cliché of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth-century-literature a muscular, glamorous aura.”

And while I loved the education about this particular time in American literary history (you better believe I ate up confirmation that Norman Mailer was every bit of the nut I thought he was), what I came away with more than anything was a sensory experience of what it was like to be a little girl in that environment.  The Styrons lived in Connecticut but had an open, interactive communication line to New York City where her parents kept an apartment and where the family spent holidays being led in carols by Leonard Bernstein at his apartment.  I don’t have an excess of glamour in my life but I did grow up in Connecticut in a town that was heavily influenced by New York City, a place we frequented when I was growing up.  No matter what was happening in the narrative, it was comforting for me to imagine the homes, the weather, the horses, the sweaters and button-down shirts of rural, yet urbane Connecticut, and to hear about all of it from someone as trustworthy and present a narrator as Styron ends up being in her memoir.

She writes about her shock that her mother knew about a child of good family friend, Arthur Miller, a child who was institutionalized and never talked about:

“Until 2003, when Martin Gottfried wrote about Daniel in a biography of Arthur, there was no public reference to him anywhere, including Arthur’s six-hundred-plus-page autobiography,
Timebends.  That my parents were complicit in the conspiracy of silence troubled me long after I had begun to make some sense of it.  It affirmed my suspicion that here, among all these people who traded in great truths, keeping secrets was still the coin of the realm.  And that one could spend a lifetime examining the human heart but remain personally, confoundingly, unexamined.  If you were good enough at the former, the world would always forgive you the latter.”

In case it sounds like this book is full of dirt on her father and his friends, I think the better thing to say is, at times it reminded me of Susan Cheever’s meticulous portrait of the Transcendentalist community in Concord, Massachusetts in her wonderful book American Bloomsbury, about Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louise May Alcott, although it is also, of course, a highly personal account of growing up with a famous artist father. 

True to its title,
Reading My Father is mostly about William Styron and his family, but in writing about him, Alexandra paints a portrait of a fascinating, destructive, highly masculinized time in American letters, and does so with expert research, as well as a flawless tone:

“The archives at Duke went a long way toward bringing my father back for me.  He came alive in all that paper, the medium in which he lived most purely.  I was utterly charmed by the soldier writing home to his father.  I communed with the funny and profane young writer abroad.  And I ached with maternal sorrow for the grieving boy who couldn’t shed well-earned tears.  All those words irrigated the arid soil that was my past.  Up sprung life in fresh stalks.  Voice, flesh, smell.”
Throughout the book, Styron takes a long, hard look at her father’s recurring depression, a subject which I feel personally unqualified to discuss at length, because everyone’s emotional terrain is deeply personal, and also because I am not a medical expert.

I do have some experience in the upkeep of mental
wellness, however, which for me includes tenets of nutrition, meditation, yoga, and creative expression, as well as any and every type of therapy you could want: massage, talk, girlfriends, art, baking, decorating, exercise, yada yada.  While reading about Styron senior’s battles with mental illness, I was several times reminded of something I read in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, a book I previously wrote about here.

Speaking about the vulnerability being an artist requires, and the blues that can swoop in on anyone at any point in their life, Mitchell says:

“There comes a point where you just kind of bleed onto the pages….Maybe it’s best to face your inner self in your teens when your body’s strong….In other cultures, that would be called a shamanic conversion.  In this culture, it would be called a nervous breakdown.  Your nerves are on fire.  Since we’re not a shamanic people, we don’t realize that sharper senses are coming in.”

Later in the book Mitchell says:

“In retrospect, I’ve learned that depression is necessary for growth….You couldn’t be a novelist without sensitivity, without a sense of detail.  And you can’t be deep without sensitivity.  And emotionality, God, without emotionality in the arts, it’s merely intellectual.  It’s boring, except to an intellectual.  If you’re trying to make a whole art, you really need all of those things.”

I love that phrase: a whole art.  I put about seven sticky notes next to that graph when I read it and then drove around for days wondering how the title of Wilco’s album
The Whole Love plays into that phrase.

If you listen to this Dear Sugar episode, you’ll hear India Arie talk about her take on this very topic of breakdown and breakthrough.  She says:

“The truth is, it wasn’t that I came to a point of realizing that I wasn’t living my truth, it’s that I came to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  And that’s the point, that you feel something different than what you’re living.  You feel the rub, and I always felt the rub.  I always felt it all along, but then it got to a point where I kept having health issues and ulcers and skin eruptions and I finally just had a breakdown.  And I still went on for a few moments after having a breakdown.  Now in hindsight I look at it as my personality and my soul separating so that my soul could say “No” to these people [managers, her business team, etc.].  But at the time it just felt like a nervous breakdown.”

Finally, there’s a somewhat amazing interview with Paul Simon on World Café in which he says something only Paul Simon could say about David Bowie: that he might not have been a terrific songwriter but rather he was a great performer.  He also talks about how the drum sound was recorded in the song “The Boxer,” and plays some new songs including “Wristband” which I found to be a pretty powerful song, particularly for this time in our history where so many longstanding systemic oppressions are coming to light in our culture.

That is all, my friends.  Thank you for taking a small trip down Connecticut lane with me. If you are aching for a few more female voices in your life right now, I highly recommend Reading My Father or even Every Father’s Daughter, which I’m only halfway through but which won me over right away with its introduction by Philip Lopate, because I would read a grocery list written by Philip Lopate.  Before having a child, I didn’t quite “get” anthologies.  They felt contrived and random to me.  Now that my days are sometimes scrambled and life is a chaotic (whole) mess, I’m coming around.  Anthologies now feel like cocktail parties introducing me to voices I haven’t heard before, like Melora Wolff, who stole the show for me in Every Father’s Daughter, or parties reuniting me with beloveds like Ann Hood, whom I wish would move into my house and wear cozy slippers and cook soups while reading aloud to me from whatever she wants.

(All drawings by Tim, as requested by Samantha)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Barbara Kingsolver Made Me Do It

The paperback of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life has a blurb from Rick Bass on its cover that reads: “This book will change your life. . . . Perhaps never before has [food] been written about so passionately.” 

When I first saw that, I thought:
I guess Rick Bass has never read a book about food before. 

Then I read the book, which I absentmindedly picked up in a used bookstore on vacation at the end of August, where I ran into someone I went to grad school with, which was fun and small world-y but also, like, where else are you gonna find two writers but in the three-dollar bookstore thumbing through trade paperbacks and, in my case, tomes about
decorating loft apartments? 

After starting
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to kill time while Samantha napped – and because I was not quite up to the copy of Moby Dick I also bought – I was quickly sucked into the world of Barbara Kingsolver, a writer I think of as, basically, vegetables for your life.  When I read High Tide in Tucson sometime in my pregnancy (or was it after Samantha was born?), I could not get out of my head Kingsolver’s moralizing, maternalistic tone: We are all connected.  Another person’s trash and/or bad ideas are your responsibility, too.  Do not turn your head, do not shirk your duties, think like a sane person and act like a kind one. 

The essays in
High Tide in Tucson range from ecology to sociology to Kingsolver’s childhood but, like everything else she writes, are crammed full of research which she deftly, and perhaps eternally, steers to moral issues. 

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a documentation of Kingsolver’s resolve, along with her family, to source all their food locally for one year, to examine what it would be like if we stop trucking fruits from California all over the country and stop raising animals in corporate-run slaughterhouses.  She and her husband and two daughters grow much of their own food, raise animals, go to farmer’s markets religiously and buy goods from farming friends (barring coffee which they purchase from fair trade venues, and cherished olive oil, made from olive trees not native to Virginia, where they live). 

The book is full of recipes, cheese-making tips, and canning summations.  It gives voice to Kingsolver’s longstanding gardening habit, introduces her animal husbandry forays, and somehow makes the thought of buying a food-dehydrator feel like a no-brainer.  It is also full of quiet, simmering humor, the kind that walks right beside a wide lens on the world. 

About mulching the garden she writes:

“My favored mulching method is to cover the ground between rows of plants with a year’s worth of our saved newspapers; the paper and soy-based ink will decompose by autumn.  Then we cover all that newsprint – comics, ax murderers, presidents, and all – with a deep layer of old straw.  It is grand to walk down the rows dumping armloads of moldy grass glop onto the faces of your less favorite heads of state: a year in review, already starting to compost.”

About the act of weeding, she writes:

“It is also noiseless in the garden: phoneless, meditative, and beautiful.  At the end of one of my more ragged afternoons of urgent faxes from magazine editors or translators, copy that must be turned around on a dime, incomprehensible contract questions, and baffling requests from the IRS that are all routine parts of my day job, I relish the short commute to my second shift.  Nothing is more therapeutic than to walk up there and disappear into the yellow-green smell of the tomato rows for an hour and to address the concerns of quieter, more manageable colleagues.”

I don’t know why this woman was getting urgent faxes in 2007, when her book was published, and not, say, urgent emails.  I also don’t know if anyone but close friends would ever call Kingsolver “a good time,” because she is so clear in her somewhat mansplain-y tone and unapologetic in her lecturing.  But after becoming a mother myself, and needing to step it up in somewhat matronly ways, I don’t always feel like “a good time” is what the world needs more of right now.  Instead, I rather enjoyed being chastened by Kingsolver about my food choices and being reminded just how far our country has gotten from being careful stewards of the land.  I was also more than happy to be inspired by her ideas about just how much my kitchen habits play a part in correcting that distance. 

So the book did change my life in certain ways (you were right, Rick Bass!) because it forced me to pay attention to how I am using my money right now
to vote for food systems in our country.  Do I make it a point to buy from the farmer’s market, where food is so abundant and cheap it feels criminal not to support the people bringing it to me in bulk?  Do I drag myself there on Saturday mornings and talk to real live people selling beautiful fresh food instead of putting up with the zombie apocalypse that is my local grocery store?  Do I use all the canned goods gifted to me by industrious friends and family members, valuing the work and photosynthesis packed in those hard-eared rows?  Am I embracing food as a way of life, or merely scrambling to survive one hurried meal at a time?

I’ve thought about all this before, of course.  I noticed how utterly uninspired the people who work at our grocery store are and despaired when my interactions with them were beyond lackluster.  Then I kept going in the same circles, putting up with sub-par food and outlandishly absent customer service because I was lazy, and I’m an introvert, and because the farmer’s market is so intensely crowded and overwhelming with quality choices that every week, about seven minutes in, Samantha pulls me down to her level and whispers in my ear: “I’m ready to go now.”

Hey Kids!  Free activity offered by the CHILD EVANGELISM FELLOWSHIP.  Run, run, run.

I get it.  It isn’t always easy to do the right thing, and the right thing can also be a rapidly moving mark.  But something about Barbara Kingsolver’s tone and wisdom and, I don’t know, gall, is like a coach in the back of my spine right now, pushing me forward to keep exploring food choices and believing in a better way for our country, our bodies, our communities, our local economies.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
also got me into weeding, which I consider the real miracle being referred to in the book’s title.  We don’t have a garden but we do have a beautiful yard that I have no idea how to care for, a fact that gives me no shame.  After reading about Kingsolver’s enthusiastic plunges into canning and chopping and making dinner with her family night after night, rolling up her sleeves again and again to accomplish what she’s set out to do, I’m basically unafraid to make mistakes right now: in the dirt or in the kitchen.  Traditionally, if I don’t know what I’m doing, then I simply don’t do.  But lately, when Samantha drags me out to the yard, instead of insisting we change out of our pajamas first or, I don’t know, do something besides sweep the patio for fun, now I’m all for it.  Big honking clippers in hand, dirt under my nails, I suss out what belongs and what doesn’t, enjoying the sun and fresh air as Samantha sits sans trepidation in patches of ivy I’m certain host a few unseen garter snakes and frogs: the id of the world doing its work.  Suddenly I am willing to be part of this messy, fertile place.

There are a few books on my desk that I've dog-eared in and out, but I sort of want to break up these mega posts I’ve been writing lately.  The ruminative, examining spirit I try to set on SNB is often at odds with the world of giving Samantha breakfast, tap-dancing one step ahead of her toddler-y suggestions, squeezing in runs before dinner, and pretending to give myself some sleep.  Lately I’ve been staying up late reading, which is nothing new for me exactly, but I’m sort of amazed by the long stretches of nights I keep doing it.  I am a night owl, at heart, but having to be up in the morning for the girl means learning to put myself to bed so I can avoid being an ogre the next day.  I’ve been casting my vote for literature the past two weeks, ogre-ness be damned, and while it’s sort of dreamy, it’s also a little strange.  After a long, active summer full of sunshine and crisp, wet foods, I think some part of me is so happy to sit for a spell, and that part of me isn’t about to give up the soft throws I wrap myself in, or the stacks of un-read books climbing the tables beside me.  That part of me is like: I hope you went to the bathroom before you sat down because it is ON, lady.

This bird is dead.  For an hour-long presentation I thought it was alive and just intent on studying the audience.

This is all to say: I’d like start posting more frequently, maybe sharing a quote or two from the books I’m reading, sharing a few thoughts and photos and then calling it good. I’m so invested in sharing something of quality, though.  So I guess we’ll see.   

And now.  Let the pumpkin fetish and apple eating begin. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tail of the Dragon

This is a pitiful way to begin anything, but I've been meaning to write for weeks.  It's almost the end of August, a new season is on its way, and I do not know which end is up.  We visited friends in Pennsylvania, family in Ohio, had family visit us in Michigan and other friends come to town.  We've basically had so many adventures in such a short spurt of time that Samantha doesn't know which baby goes with which adult anymore or whether anyone lives five minutes or five hours away. 

I haven't written because...I have no idea what I'm doing.  I've been in a dry patch as far as reading goes, and I'm not really out of the woods yet.  I keep picking up short stories and reading one and then moving onto another collection, wedging essays and spiritual books into the middle of those, punctuated occasionally by full-length works. 

I did settle into Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs, by Dave Holmes, which is amazing and hilarious. It gets everything right about being young and clueless in New York City while also being touching and wise about finally learning to be yourself.  On top of all this, its descriptions of popular culture and music are absolutely brilliant, which is sort of unfair.  Why does one person get to be funny and wise AND brilliant?  Gah.

On going to a conservative, preppy college when it wasn't a great fit for him--a young gay person obsessed with pop culture--Holmes writes: "I was probably supposed to be going to a school where people had open meltdowns, and went through bisexual phases, and broke their legs jumping out of trees while on mushrooms, but I was determined to make my relationship with this very normal, practical place work this time.  [He got kicked out for bad grades his first year at college.] As a compromise, I turned off everything that was unique about myself.  I was still manically social, but I wasn't dealing with what was happening in my mind or soul or crotch."

Later, he writes: "As graduation loomed, I decided that I needed to escape the Holy Cross of my mind [he went to Holy Cross, get it?].  Enough of small places where everyone knows one another, enough of homogeneity.  I was going to move to the biggest, greatest city in the world: I was starting over in New York City.  I had enthusiasm, a poor understanding of how the world worked, a 2.4 GPA, and no job skills.  I couldn't fail."    

In one of the "interludes" that are basically genius cultural analysis, Holmes breaks down songs from the 90's that got him through his lovelorn times including "The Freshman" by The Verve Pipe, "I'd Die Without You" by PM Dawn, and "literally anything by Toad the Wet Sprocket."  Of Toad he writes:

"Were these guys ever happy?  I picture them all in windbreakers, on a late autumn afternoon, just having finished crying." 

Several times while reading Party of One, I broke into the sort of whimpering, weepy laughter that builds on itself until I just had to curl up and breathe until I recovered, the sort of uncontrollable laughter to which my mother is especially susceptible late at night after eating too much sugar.

In my spate of vacuuming up pieces of literature around the house, I finally read Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of essays, which I highly recommend if you want to bathe your brain in flawless prose or send it off to pyrotechnic tumbling class.  Sullivan taught at my graduate school and lived in Wilmington, NC when I was there. I occasionally served him cups of coffee at the coffee shop where I worked but never introduced myself because I hide from heroes.  Sometimes, I creepily but innocently watched him from my spot behind the counter and thought, so that's how it's done, as if I could glean anything from watching someone sit at a computer and bounce their leg or chew on a hangnail and squint at a screen.

Sullivan looms large in our household, his name like others kept alive through mutual fascination or appreciation or Tim simply talking about a book enough so that when I finally get around to reading it, it feels tackling a classic (see also: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom).  Sometimes, it's an actual classic I tackle, like the summer I worked at the coffee shop more than usual because it had air conditioning and our apartment did not.  That summer I spent mornings doing yoga and reading Anna Karenina, cooling off with forward folds and images of winter wheat fields before running off to work and embracing the cold carrots I was tasked with washing and cutting for the pain-in-the-rear juicer, itself loud as a chainsaw.

Speaking of Franzen (which I'm always doing, according to Amelia), my worlds collided this month when Brad Listi interviewed Franzen for his Otherppl podcast, which remains one of my favorite podcasts around.  And while I didn't exactly learn anything new about the guy (Franzen, I mean.  I always learn something new about Listi, whom I submit as one of the most compassionate and kindhearted people on the internet today and also very funny, in an understated sort of way), I appreciated Franzen's gloss when he said (something like): I see the world through the lens of family, because I love that element in all his writing.  He appears to think deeply about what it means to be part of a family--all of a its benefits and complications--and I love hearing him think about that subject through all his work.  

He also said he always wanted to be a comedic novelist, and that because he's famous, people miss that element in his work.  They take him too seriously.  I have problems with some of his novels (I can barely think about The Corrections without cringing about every character except the mother, who is so uniformly unlikeable she is almost admirable), but I do find him deeply funny. 

I read a book called Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, which is a transcription of interviews between Mitchell and fellow musician and Canadian broadcaster, Malka Marom, over a series of decades.  When I was growing up, Mitchell seemed to me someone who knew what she was about and didn't pull punches.  I appreciated how she seemed able to be herself and fully feminine while being recognized among a bunch of male musicians.

Reading In Her Own Words sort of flipped things around for me an extra spin, because she really throws the covers off some of her male companions' bad behavior.  She is forthcoming about her disappointment when Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen lifted lyrics without crediting sources, and about the infuriating misogyny of the music business.  She tells about a time when Dylan told her to "say something sexy" into the camera for a documentary they were making, something I had a lot of trouble picturing until I realized if I had been given even a little bit of power in my twenties, I surely would have misused it.  (But still.  Kinda gross, Dylan!)  And I took a weird delight in her account of David Crosby trying to credit his band for inspiring her song, "Woodstock," when she says they had nothing to do with the writing of it at all.  Funny how history looks a little different now that we're hearing from the women, eh?

Mitchell can be caustic and shockingly ungrateful sometimes, but she is also honest, and the overall effect to me is tonic.  The book is an education about her life as an artist, from her training as a painter through the hardship of giving a baby up for adoption when she was very young, through her evolution as a musician and her fierce allegiance to artistic exploration throughout her career.  At one point she calls her collaboration with Charles Mingus "steak and potatoes jazz" and pretty much says she had to trick him into letting her have a little fun with the project, which made my jaw drop. Did you just call Mingus old hat? 

I have a hard time relating to Mitchell's desire to outgrow expectations constantly, because I am someone who lives about sixty-five beats behind every one else. But I loved hearing about the different choices she made musically and imagining her devoting all of her time to whatever project called to her in the moment. 

Of Wayne Shorter, one of the musicians in her jazz band, Mitchell says: "A genius like Wayne is always exploring, so he's gonna be more inconsistent.  He's gonna be all over the place.  Because he's going into new territory.  The great things nearly always come on the edge of an error.  What comes after the error is spectacular.  So if you are hung up on the error, you missed the magic." 

That's a pretty amazing indictment of perfectionism, right?  "If you are hung up on the error, you missed the magic."  I like that. 

There's a mini stack of food memoirs on my desk and a short list of home repairs I have avoided all summer.  With two weeks left to September, can you guess which one I'm eyeing?