Tuesday, July 5, 2016


A weird thing is starting to happen.  I'm not going to say I'm turning into a summer girl, because in my mind that requires rollerblading in a bikini while listening to Van Halen's California Girls.  But I am truly enjoying eating lemons by the handful and putting cilantro on everything I touch.  In my own turtle-on-a-rock kind of way, you might say I'm soaking up summer.   

In the spirit of pink drinks and sitting in a hammock, I give you the following three thoughts: 

1. I recommend this episode of World Cafe featuring Mudcrutch, Tom Petty's first band which he got back together for an album in 2007, and which just released a second album. The interview alone is worth a listen because there's nothing as freaky or pleasant as Tom Petty's speaking voice, IMHO, but the music is great, too. 

I read Warren Zanes' Petty: The Biography when it came out last year.  If you ignore the unfortunate use of the word "girls" to mean "women"
by most everyone involved, it's an enjoyable read.  I could not stop thinking about what a load of work biographies are while reading it: interviewing, transcribing, writing, fact checking.  Wowzahs.  Whatever work ethic made that book possible kinda blows my mind.  On the other hand, I guess it's worth it because I probably muse on one anecdote or another from its files weekly.

The Mudcrutch interview also contains a strange moment where Tom Leadon, one of the original members of Mudcrutch who did not go on to be in the Heartbreakers, laments the fact that he stayed behind when the rest of the band went to L.A. Tom Petty breaks in by saying something like, "But we're all together now!  Let's not focus on that." It reminds of Zanes' allusion to Petty feeling guilty about the way things did and did not turn out for his bandmates.  I could be reading too much into that on-air moment, but it struck me as a weird thing to say, essentially cutting off someone who was just sharing thoughts about the way his life turned out. 

2. On the recommendation of a friend I checked out the HBO mini-series Olive Kitteridge, based on Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and was glued to my couch for two nights.  As we somewhat foolishly bought a wool couch and it's been above 80 degrees lately, that's really saying something.  I absolutely could not stop watching it and wanted to live forever in its bracing world of cold water, dark interiors, stiff clothing, and strained relationships. 

3. By some miracle of Twitter, I came across a newly released memoir called Boy Erased, written by Garrard Conley.  The book's pretty turquoise cover won me over right away, but I was moved by its interior pages, as well.   

The book tells the story of an "ex-gay" therapy program Conley attended, with the support of his parents who believed it was the right thing, so he might be "cured" of being gay.  It's hard to believe something like this could have happened so recently (he started the program in 2004), but I know Conley's story is one of many, and there's a long way to go before our country and small towns in particular support true diversity. 

I'm not just talking about the diversity you learn to pay lip service to if you go to a liberal enough college.  Really embracing people for who they are, despite our differences, and maintaining relationships with them across those divides is, to me, one of the hardest but also powerful things to do in this world.  I'm struck most by Conley's willingness to discuss growing up gay in a religious family in a southern town while also working to understand his parents' perspective.  That willingness is something to behold, and it made me wonder at all the work that went into crafting this book, as well.

Here is Conley on what it means to be an intellectual from a less-than-cosmopolitan hometown: 

"Sitting there in the midst of my professor's intelligent conversations, I had felt like both an impostor and a traitor.  I smiled at the appropriate moments, made droll comments about my upbringing, mocked the politics of almost everyone in my hometown.  Yet it was also true that coming home often made me feel, if not proud of my heritage, then at least grateful for its familiarity."

I loved Conley's sheer intelligence, and the bookish musings he weaves throughout his narrative:

"I stared into the gaps between the pads of his fingers, thinking about how people were never really touching even when they thought they were touching, how it was really our electrons doing the touching, a fact that made me feel slightly less guilty about the one major transgression I'd written about in that morning's MI - kissing an art student named Caleb - but also a little sadder about living in a world where one illusion could so stubbornly dictate the way I saw every interaction with the people around me.  It was a concept I'd encountered in one of my all-night reading marathons, its words sharp and satisfying as I'd silently mouthed it.  'Osculation': two curves touching but not intersecting, never intersecting.  From the Latin osculationem: a kiss.  Intimacy as a parlor trick, an illusion.  But what was one more illusion when it seemed the whole world operated on so many of them?  With each passing day at the facility, it seemed as though becoming straight was simply a matter of good lighting, of ignoring what you didn't want to see."

And finally, in this book I felt a wonderful closeness to the practice of writing itself, in ways I found endearing and perhaps even inspiring:

"I turned off the faucet and listened to the quiet in its wake.  In my pocket was a kind of charm against whatever might happen today: A number I could dial, and even if I didn't plan on doing anything with this mysterious Mark, the act of dialing would be my secret, something no one else would know.  It felt good to have a secret again...almost as good as it would have felt getting my Moleskin back and entering the secret world of stories that belonged only to me."

So there you have it, folks.  Music, film, books (and more books).  Does a person really need anything else in life?


Friday, May 27, 2016

Dog Run Moon and Hammertime Construction

I read the most delightful collection of short stories called Dog Run Moon by a writer named Callan Wink this week.  First off, what a name!  I'll be naming every child I have from here on out Callan, including minor characters in unwritten novels, thank you. 

Normally I would summarize what this book is about or what it did for me, but I'm tempted to say if a name like Dog Run Moon doesn't do it for you already, I can't help you.  The stories are set in big western-y places like Montana and Texas and have lots of dogs in them and people who shouldn't be seen together falling in love.  It's got heart but it's also smooth like a river rock, and I found myself staying up late reading it many nights in a row. 

Also, as opposed to some writers whose descriptions of nature have the potential to embarrass me, I found myself hoping Wink's characters would encounter a bird or a patch of dust, so I could hear about it.  It's a prejudice of mine, for sure, but if you consistently describe water in ways that make me want to take off my shoes and wade into it, you pretty much have me as a reader.  (Pisces alert!)

Speaking of water, we managed to slip away for a few days and see Traverse City.  If you are looking for friendly bookstore personnel, this is not your town.  Other than miserly librarians-cum-miserly cash register ladies, it is a nice, if tame, weekend spot.  There are lighthouses, bizarrely turquoise coastlines, giant sand dunes, and a general store that takes up to thirty-two minutes to brew an Americano.  The Workshop Brewing Company is an awesome industrial-design space I recommend.  It also has the best hand-squeezed lemonade I've had in my life, or at least since I was a kid and first learned to make it.  (You put in how much sugar?  Are you sure??) 

One morning behind our hotel, I was congratulated by a carpenter after finishing a light run.  I was probably gone for twenty minutes and walked half the thing, but he acted like I'd just completed a marathon.  He really understood how to treat a tourist, and I'd like him to follow me around all the time now, just to tell me how great I'm doing at basic things like dressing and eating.

In other news, Tim found this piece of paper from his days as a college student.  It's so well preserved it looks like it came from the top of his desk. He swears it was hidden away, and also that he didn't go to a high school for college.  I say star clip-art never killed anyone, especially student event planners.  I was pretty into stars as a college student, myself, as anyone who received a letter covered in stickers from me at that time can attest. 

The Velvet Dog is still in business, by the way, which is as it should be.  How could you deprive college seniors of a bus ride to a DJ dance at The Velvet Dog?!!  

Sometimes my dad refers to me and Tim as young people, as in: he'll appear in front of the television at his house and say, "Goodnight, young people!" as he's heading off to bed.  This makes me feel light and free, as if I'm not the old-feeling person I am these days, wondering where my metabolism headed off to and whether it's too late to do anything about it (verdict: unclear).  Being called a young person by my accomplished father makes me like everything is going to be okay, that even though I've covered a lot of ground in my life, there is still plenty more to go. 

There's also that next layer of gratitude beyond the realization that life keeps getting richer, and that is: I should be on my knees thanking my lucky stars that bad semi-formal dresses and dates that happen on buses are behind me.  THANK YOU, STARS!   

While we're on the topic of things I was once too young to understand, I just discovered an Elements of Style I may be able to stomach, because it's been illustrated by Maira Kalman.  Hallelujah!  I have never been able to ingest more than four lines of that book.  Here's my chance, thank you, world! 

Finally, circling back to big western spaces, I once impulsively embarked on a road trip with one of my dearest friends.  For some reason, probably a mix cd I'd made or something, we painted HAMMERTIME on the back window of my vehicle.  We then drove empty roads in Yellowstone and stayed in a tiny cabin on national forest land in Idaho, spent a harrowing night in Missoula and an anti-septic one in Seattle.  The whole thing was an education in fresh air and quiet and friendship which for me, frankly, is the best kind.  


Monday, April 25, 2016

A Week of Thomases

I did that dumb thing where I stacked up books with dozens of dog-eared pages and then quickly lost what I wanted to tell you.   I got sick and then Samantha got sick.  The weather turned cold.  Spring in Southwest Michigan is doing this weird, hot-flashy thing where I'm not sure if I need wool socks or shorts from one day to the next.  It makes me cranky, which makes me pause: who am I to tell the earth what she should be doing?

In happier news, Samantha turned two and started speaking in full sentences overnight, and I read a book I've been meaning to read for years: The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch.

Lynch is a poet, an essayist and, incidentally, a funeral director.  It's hard to believe that's his real name, but I'm pretty sure it is.  He writes about the living as he views us after years of handling the dead. 

It was a little surreal to finally read a writer I'd heard about for so long after moving to his state, because I never truly realized where he lived before picking up the book.  It's probably because I didn't realize the state of Michigan actually existed before I lived here, too, so it all serves me right.

ANYWAY.  I'd like to share a beautiful passage from The Undertaking with you.  Concerning making funeral arrangements before you die, Lynch writes:

"We are uniformly advised 'not to be a burden to our children.'  This is the other oft-cited bonne raison for making your final arrangements in advance - to spare them the horror and pain of having to do business with someone like me.

But if we are not to be a burden to our children, then to whom?  The government?  The church?  The taxpayers?  Whom?  Were they not a burden to us - our children? And didn't the management of that burden make us feel alive and loved and helpful and capable?"

I love this concept so much, that we would never in a million years choose - or even wish on anyone we dearly loved - the events, responsibilities, and duties that make us truly grow.  So much of what happens internally while parenting feels too universal, too fleeting, and too human to discuss.  I never want to offer up the "hardest job you'll ever love" kind of crap that makes me go blind with boredom when I hear it, but I live most of it daily and totally understand it comes from. 

And maybe that's how it should be.  True intimacies are hard to put into words without cliche or, worse, jarring, socially-transgressive honesty.  They require long friendships where anything goes, or whole novel plots, stories set up and walked through hand in hand with the writer.

Some things are even too sacred for books, which seems to deposit us right at another book I wanted to talk about: Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore.  This book has circled my life like a coyote for years, or maybe I'm the dog and this book is the innocent I've circled.  Or maybe we've circled together, Ouroboros-like.  Who cares?  The point is, I finally had occasion to wade into its dense waters and I'm happy I did. 

Friends, it is wondrous, a real education. I wonder if one could ever exhaust its gems.  Like a Terrence Malick film, I'm not exactly sure what I touched as I waded through its darkly-lit poetry, its imagery, its mythical tones, its Jungian exploration of dreams, and Moore's painterly expression of ideas.  There's so much in the book that it's not possible, and I don't want, to sum it up, but I can say that it is about examining the particularities that build a soul, which Moore differentiates from a spirit as a sort of earthly, gravitational pull inside - the part of us that likes, say, cookie-dough ice cream - versus the seemingly sophisticated "elevated" parts of us that want to be "spiritual."  Much like in yoga, where attention to the ground beneath you can become a path to greater lightness and forms of levity, Moore contends that care for these particularities of our soul is what leads to healing, and to peace. 

Warning against fundamentalism of all kinds toward the end of the book, he writes:

"I have said that the soul is more interested in particulars than in generalities.  That is true of personal identity as well.  Identifying with a group or a syndrome or a diagnosis is giving in to an abstraction.  Soul provides a strong sense of individuality - personal destiny, special influences and background, and unique stories.  In the face of overwhelming need for both emergency and chronic care, the mental health system labels people schizophrenics, alcoholics, and survivors so that it can bring some order to the chaos of life at home and on the street, but each person has a special story to tell, no matter how many common themes it contains.

Therefore, care of the soul for such a person must begin in the simple telling of her story."

That's a pretty dense passage, and I'm not sure it's the right one to offer you as a sample of what this book feels like to read.  I guess I just appreciate the dignity this man approaches everyone with, the dignity he implores others to see in themselves which he's convinced (and I agree with him) does not come in big important packages but rather in the simple, humbling moments of being alive. 

I watched a robin pull a worm from my neighbor's lawn this week, watched it stretch long and wet between the bird's beak and the ground, pinking in its center as it stretched and then popped toward  the bird.  How many children's books are about this very thing?  So many of them, and I love them all.  Children's books are, in fact, a great example of Moore's theories, studies in this world's ocean of particularities.  Children are so sure in the moment, demanding without anger.  They tend and it is an honor, a purifying education, to walk alongside.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Obvious - And Not So Obvious - Virtues

I wasn't at all sure I was going to finish Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's book, The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying when I started it.  Kubler-Ross is best known for her work on the five stages of grief, and if her writing is any indication, the woman did not lack for confidence.  It probably helped her as a psychologist and researcher, but as a writer, especially one of memoir, a little humility sometimes goes a long way.  Within the first pages of The Wheel of Life, I found myself craving a lot more humility from the writer, something the book never quite delivers. 

But in some ways, Kubler-Ross's story is so full of obvious virtues, it's easy to forgive its tone.  She writes about volunteering to rebuild villages in Poland after World War II as a young adult, visiting gas chambers and touring a Holocaust facility, and meeting one survivor who lost her entire family there, who told her, "There is a Hitler in all of us."  These stories, and the ones that come later about Kubler-Ross's ground-breaking work with people who were dying, feel so important, so educational and full of compassion, and I feel grateful to have learned so much while reading about one woman's life.   

The thing I didn't expect is how the book and Kubler-Ross's life swerve into psychic territory.  I won't say any more about it, so I don't spoil anything if you read it, except I don't know why a book about a psychologist who examined what dying people could teach us about life for a living shocked me when it veered into the world of spirits, but it did.  It also amused me.  (Life!!) 

I don't quite recommend the book, per say, but if only to learn about the too-recent past where we institutionalized people with physical deformities and treated psychiatric patients with cruel ignorance, I'm glad I read it.  These were practices Kubler-Ross felt strongly needed to change. Her medical interactions, at least those recorded in the book, put the primacy of people's emotional life at the center of her focus, and that is something this Pisces lady can get behind.  (Hello, watery depths!) 

The other thing I loved about the book was how aphoristic it could sometimes be regarding spiritual matters.  For someone who grew up going to church, who believes strongly in the undercurrents of grace that carry us all along, I found Kubler-Ross's intensity a welcome visit to some forgotten themes in my life, or a welcome fervor piling onto convictions of my own.

The following quote comes from a passage about a woman whose child is born blind, a woman who has been encouraged to put the otherwise healthy child in an institution (the practice at the time). Kubler-Ross tells the woman to keep the child and send her to school.  She writes:

"Obviously, I could not offer any miracles that would return her daughter's eyesight, but I did listen to her troubles.  And then when she asked what I thought, I told this mother, who wanted so badly to find a miracle, that no child was born so defective that God did not endow him with a special gift.  'Drop all your expectations,' I said.  'All you have to do is hold and love your child like she was a gift from God.'

'And then?' she asked.

'In time, He will reveal her special gift,' I replied.

I had no idea where those words of mine came from, but I believed them...Many years later, I was reading a newspaper when I noticed an article about Heidi...All grown up, Heidi was a promising pianist....I wasted no time looking up her mother, who proudly told me how she had struggled to raise her daughter.  Then all of a sudden, Heidi developed a gift for music.  It just blossomed, like a flower, and her mother credited my encouraging words. 

'It would have been so easy to reject her,' she said. 'That's what the other people told me to do.'" 

I know the topic of divinity is sensitive for a lot of people, and it's hard to do justice to spiritual discussions on the internet (or in any kind of writing, for that matter), but I love the confidence Kubler-Ross showed when a panicked mother consulted her, and also the extreme, daring compassion she offered as a medical professional.  I also happen to agree with this philosophy of child-rearing.  We don't all need to be good at everything.  We really only need to be good at one or two things.  We can help each other out with the other things.  That's how community works.  I'm not saying I practice this perfectly, but the older I get, the more I prefer to watch wildness unfold. 

Speaking of wildness, RIP Jim Harrison, the man whose prose knew no end of meat, drinking, and poetic, comic truth-telling.  Who will write about prostitutes and bird-hunting on the same pages now?  It won't be me, but Harrison's stunning 1988 Dalva may have changed my life.  I may forever remember discovering his novellas and reading about dog-training and wood-splitting and achy tangled relationships, as I sat against a window in bed, chilled beneath the hooded sweatshirt I had borrowed from my new boyfriend, Tim. 

This not-so-recent but well-written story from Outside magazine is a great primer on Harrison for those who desire one.  At the end of it, Harrison says something that feels so true about being an artist-wilderness-type, and that is he gave up all kinds of opportunities to keep going "outside."  He needed to be able to wander and roam, something that takes time and patience and for him could not be comfortably fit into an academic environment. 

Every time I try to lure Samantha to the car for an errand lately, I am coaxed up our hill and around the neighborhood by her.  Sometimes she sits on strangers' stoops.  Other times we sneak up on rabbits.  Often she picks up sticks and rocks and leaves, not to collect them but simply to handle them.  Yesterday, she identified a robin on her own with glee, and today she stood in front of one and offered it a guileless, "Hi."  I also had to beg her not to sit in thawing, muddy ivy, and I don't think a single plane has passed overhead without her hearing it long before it appears.  This girl is awake and aware and wants to range.  I can't believe I'm surprised.