Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Worst Hard Time

The title above comes from the Timothy Egan book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl. In our house, Egan is called Imothy, because a sticker covers part of his name on a book we own. I haven't read The Worst Hard Time, but as I've thought about what to write for a while now, how to offer something meaningful at this historic, tumultuous, grief-filled time, all while living with our sweet, endlessly rambunctious two-year-old, that title keeps coming to me.

We took a traditional beach trip with family, scheduled at a time when COVID case numbers were trending in the right direction, and undertaken with what might be described as cautious dread on my part. It was great to see everyone and wonderful to luxuriate in the ocean (with social distancing and mask culture fully in place anytime we left the house) but it was somewhat exhausting for me to engage in such a typically beloved activity as travel while contending with the reality of the pandemic. Our kids were saints (until we got home, then their demon sides came out) so it wasn't a problem keeping hands "han-i-tized" as Ellis says, or explaining what we couldn't do this year. Samantha is unbearably accepting about rules, and she mother-hens Ellis is wondrous ways, saving me time and good-guy credit, so that wasn't the complication. But where I normally kick up my feet and read magazines while Tim takes the wheel, driving through states and tunnels and mountains to our destination, I did all of those things without any of the usual lightness.

Truck carrying part of a wind turbine.

I did enjoy Lynne Cox's book Grayson, which details her experience helping a baby whale find its mother, one morning as Cox was doing a routine swim off the coast of California. I read Cox's Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer when we lived in Colorado and absolutely loved it. I wasn't sure Grayson would seduce me as much as Swimming to Antarctica, but it did. Cox was the first person to swim between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, shortly before the end of the Cold War, in 1987. The way she describes sea life is truly breathtaking. I also love how casually she discusses swimming for hours at a time. No biggie! 

I also chewed through Samantha Irby's new book, Wow, No Thank You, which had the unintended benefit of making everyone in the room look at its bright green cover, with its cute bunny, then read the title and start laughing before they read a word. In an essay masquerading as a mix-tape she writes about first hearing Pearl Jam in seventh grade:

"I was enamored with this idea that love was difficult and stressful, and that torrid relationships fraught with passion and rage were exciting. This was, of course, before I knew how tiring life can be for an adult . . . . 'All the love gone bad turned my world to black'? Swoon city. Eddie was the perfect embodiment of Brokenhearted Sensitive Grunge Man; I lived for him then, and I still do. I would totally listen to him howl about his electric bill."

Then, because souls are a mystery and mine is shaped like a plaid-lined hunting lodge, I read Mariel Hemingway's memoir, Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family. My mom jokingly asked, "Fun read?" Ha! I mean, parts of it read like the celebrity memoir it is, but most of it had an admirably self-aware tone, due in no small part, I'm sure, to its ghostwriter, Ben Greenman. The actress talks about growing up in a family aware of her grandfather's long shadow, being cast in Manhattan when she was a teenager, and about Woody Allen inviting her on a trip, just the two of them. (Gross. She declined.) She writes with love and clarity
about parents and siblings, and about the father of her children and the marriage that failed between them. I didn't follow Hemingway's career closely, but I found her accounts of it engaging, clear-eyed, and honest.

I read, along with Tim, our bookmarks moving back and forth in the same, slender copy, Gail Griffin's memoir of losing her husband, Grief's Country. I've long had an admiration for Griffin, a retired professor in our town who wrote a book about a murder-suicide on the small campus where she worked called The Events of October. My neighbor, a retired mail carrier who knows all the writers (and letter writers) in town, lent me a copy of The Events of October when we first moved in, and though the subject is grim and not something I'd normally gravitate toward, the writing was so clear, and the research so well-organized, that Griffin looms over my time in this town, not unlike the oddly comforting tower belonging to the still-functioning mental hospital.

Grief's Country is so masterfully lyrical, it does not feel like a memoir of grief so much as a poetic transcription of life. It's hard to describe, but from the first poem to the closing chapter, reading it felt like a form of prayer. I didn't want to miss a word, as in meditation, you don't want to miss a breath. Not that I'm getting any meditation "done" over here. Anytime I start to relax, it's like a bell rings in the other room and Ellis comes running across the floor, gleefully inquiring whether I'm "stretching." He then climbs onto me in some bizarre posture and starts butting me with his little ram head. As I try to do forward bends that don't squish his head against the floor, I think of something Tim once pointed out, while watching the awkward dance: no one with a toddler seeks out goat yoga.


Sometime this spring, when our library was still closed, I put Chris Rush's memoir The Light Years on hold and forgot about it. When the library opened, one of my favorite employees chastised me for trying to check out too many books, many items over the new, quarantine-friendly limit. This woman sat like a queen behind a giant sneeze guard. When I told Tim how amazing she looked, he joked, "The shield was already implied," because the regal condescension rolling off this woman is something to behold. But she checked out my books (god bless the queen!) and I gathered what was left after I returned the books I no longer wanted, having spent odd hours at night requesting books and movies I immediately forgot. What was left, after returning these, were five thousand Berenstain Bears books to take home for Samantha, and The Light Years, which I only dimly recalled.

Wow, was I delighted by what I found behind the pretty, neon cover. A book about drug addiction, Christian drug dealers, the American desert, Catholicism, growing up gay, a father full of hatred and his own trauma-turned-alcoholism, The Light Years was so surprisingly present, so impeccably-worded and warmhearted, I fell into my own addiction with it. I finished it one night as Tim put the kids to bed and I swung in the hammock, toes trailing the grass, face turned to the sky. It was truly mesmerizing, both because of Rush's focus on his family relationships and his restrained, whiz-bang prose. I was hooked from the moment I this description of his parents and the house they lived in:

"Finished in '56, our house was my father's midcentury masterpiece. Featured in newspapers and fashion shoots, our house was new, new, new! - no attic, no heirlooms, no trace of the past. Every detail was carefully managed by Norma Farrow Rush, the pale-skinned daughter of a taxidermist. She no longer had to do any dirty work for her father; the house was her shining rebuke."

Her shining rebuke! That will be the title of my poetry book, when it comes out.

That's all. Tim has a story in Quarterly West. You can read it here. I have a story in the forthcoming issue of Tampa Review (59/60). It's called Red Town and I only worked on it for, oh, about a decade. I'm beyond thrilled that it found a home, as they say, and more than that, I'm happy that one of its main characters, a postman who carries mail by mule, is finding delivery.  

In the summer, frogs like to sneak into our house. Tim found this guy early one morning.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Stung by a Bee

A few days ago I got stung by a bee and it was the most exciting thing that's happened in months. I was slightly allergic to bees as a kid, so I ran to the kitchen and clutched an EpiPen, uncertain whether my rapid breathing was some kind of chemical reaction or merely from the shock of the sting. Turns out, I have a great imagination. I was fine and tried to model how cool you can be when an insect stings you. Samantha was my companion through the whole ordeal, and after we knew I was okay she pointed out where I was and wasn't allowed to garden. "I don't want you to get hurt," she said, a dreamy thing for your kid to say, or maybe just self-interest at work. If something happened to mama, wth would the rest of her day look like?

I've been wanting to write, but also, like, not, because who needs more "content" right now? We're flooded with it. One of the most disturbing parts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been watching my email inbox shift from normal garbage to pandemic garbage. I don't mean to criticize. It just reminded me how strong the grasp of capitalism is in our country. As the coronavirus worms its way into every community, marketing finds new host bodies, maintaining its strength in the guise of offering information or connection.

I know, how cheery can I be? Tim is one of the funniest people I know. He makes me belly laugh several times a day and I also sometimes accuse him of being too dark. Ha! His response is that I'm the cynical one, that I don't tolerate dark humor because it hits too many nerves. (Things aren't always mud-slingy in our house, and anyway, the mud is slung with a very light touch. It's more of a mud spritz.) In the end, I think he's probably right, and things like my paragraph above make me see it clearly.

Now, with confessions of darkness behind us, do we begin with the absolute rot I've been enjoying on Netflix, or with the books that have been bathing my soul?  At the risk of sounding high and mighty, I'll start with the books. Just know that my foray into Love Is Blind was the tip of the iceberg and, if you opened the top of my children's heads right now, you'd find Kwazii and Shellington from The Octonauts staring up at you. I'm not proud of this, but I'm also not ashamed. Quarantine is driving the bus, after all.

It feels like a year ago that I read The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky, by Jana Casale, but it was probably back in March. First of all, I'm jealous of Casale's name. I'm sure it's her real name, but still. It's a good one.

I really loved this book. It was girly, literary, warm, funny, and really really smart. I love the way it combines normal life with thoughts about art and literature, and how the books in the heroine's life are almost their own characters. Sometimes I worry that I like books written for other writers - my love for Less, for example, had me wondering if others less acquainted with the farces of literary circles would find it as delicious and heartwarming. But then I think about a character in Less, a rich author, who shows up wearing billowing linen pants and I think, well, who doesn't like a good roast of linen-wearers? This from a woman who can't WAIT for warmer weather in Michigan so I can don my white linen pants.

Another book I loved, that is way dark and dangerously well-written, was Molly Bit, which I spied at our local bookstore, a store I'm proud of because they closed their doors voluntarily, before the governor's stay-at-home order. A satire of Hollywood's savagery, Molly Bit had me flipping to Dan Bevacqua's author photo in the back frequently, staring at it, whispering, Where did you come from? How did you get so good?

I waited a minute before diving into Sally Rooney's Normal People, waiting, I suppose, for the oxygen needed to combust inside the pages of another one of her gorgeous books. I wrote about Conversations with Friends here, and while I still love that book, it's possible I liked Normal People even more. I also liked thinking about Rooney's habits as a writer, how both books center around secrets, and explore the intimacy that blooms within them. Both books are just so well done, and I have such respect for Rooney's ability to explore all the angles of real, physical, emotional intimacy. Friends keep mentioning the newly dropped Normal People on Hulu. Pardon my disbelief, but I'm skeptical that anything on screen could touch the richness and anticipatory anguish Rooney creates on the page. Curmudgeon alert!

I made it to Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land, which I realized I had read parts of before. It's still exquisite, and I appreciate being inside the world of such a fascinating observer and, if I may say, stylist. I hadn't realized before how much Biss worships at Didion's altar. Revisiting Notes from No Man's Land felt like sitting next to a scholar of Didion, or a younger relative, a joke I'm sure I reach for because, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wonder if I'll watch The Center Will Not Hold, the documentary about Joan Didion on Netflix right now, produced by her nephew, Griffin Dunne.

I've been re-reading some lately, mostly short stories, and when I have the courage to sit for longer periods, I've got Seating Arrangements on my shelf, which will be a revisit of a favorite Maggie Shipstead book, an author I revere and mentioned in this joint gift guide with Amelia. Talk about sweet author names, re: Shipstead. Why didn't I get something nautical in my name? Thinking how to work whale or cephalopod into mine now . . . .

I just ordered my friend Corinne's book and am still swooning after reading her beautiful interview with them, found here. I also ordered Laura Munson's new novel, Willa's Grove, because I truly adore Munson's spirit and flow-y prose. Flow-y is a word, right?  I also can't wait for Molly Wizenberg's newest memoir, The Fixed Stars, about the major shifts that occurred when she discovered, while married to a man with whom she co-owned two businesses and as a mom to a toddler, that she needed to drastically rearrange her life. I adore Molly's writing (so much so that I pretend we're on a first-name basis) and I'm curious how she will write without the structure of a recipe-laden book. I have total faith in her ability to do so, but, I dunno, the new book sounds pretty thrilling. Wizenberg is one of those authors I'm probably always going to look forward to reading, because she seems embrace the examination of her life so fully, and I'm sort of fascinated by her ability to do so.

Did your dad stuff a doughnut hole full of candles for your birthday, when you were a kid?

Speaking of fascination, do I dare tell you that Tim and I watched all of Too Hot to Handle on Netflix? It's TRUE. I'd like to blame quarantine (and Tim will, in a heartbeat) but I have to say that watching cheesy settings and people offering up their souls to reality TV is strangely compelling. Is this how fans of The Bachelor feel? I think I finally understand. This is like the summer I realized I wanted to order Oprah's magazine and went from subscribing to Shambhala Sun, a magazine about Buddhism, to happily reading reviews of vacuums and A-line skirts, my legs kicking behind me as I read on my belly, in a backyard on the coast of North Carolina, in grad school. And isn't that what life is all about - finding who you really are, at the bottom of all your ideas? 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Welcome to the Jungle

Greetings from the apocalypse.  My notes for this post disappeared weeks ago which is appropriate.  Half of the people in our house have the flu, and those standing don't look so hot.  But it's okay because I started watching Love Is Blind a few nights ago - though I can't believe I'm leading with this.  It's a Netflix show about people who get to know each other by talking in "pods," who propose to each other without ever meeting in person.  It's ludicrous and fun, and I watched while cattily positing who was going to make it and who was not.  The whole experience has been a welcome distraction from the general stress of a pandemic, and the specific stress of two fevered, whining children. 

Another distraction has been, quelle surprise, a rock bio about Axl Rose called W.A.R. - The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose.  I can't explain why reading about people who soak their lives in adrenaline and chemicals soothes me so much, but it sure does. 
I drank it down.  A while back, I heard GN'R bassist Duff McKagan on Marc Maron's podcast, on this episode of WTF, and he just sounded so dang sweet.  Of course, the real reason I picked up the book was because of the stigma and enigma that is Axl Rose himself.  

Moving on.  At someone's suggestion, I read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and really, really dug it.  The title is not my favorite, but who asked me?  The ending was also a little wobbly for me, but I consumed the book in great big draughts, including one stint when I sat down at eleven at night, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind that I would stay up reading until I finished it, which I did with no regrets. 

I picked up a pretty cookbook called The New Sugar & Spice: a Recipe for Bolder Baking after hearing the author, Samantha Seneviratne, on my friend Amelia's podcastThe New Sugar & Spice has a narrative bent and is broken into these sections: Peppercorn & Chile, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove & Cardamom (my fave), Vanilla, and Ginger.  The book is infused with histories of all the spices, has beautiful photos, and was deeply relaxing to read, though I haven't baked from it yet.  Seneviratne's second book, The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life is on my list to read. 

I read Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill shortly after reading She Said, which I wrote about here, and really loved Catch and Kill's style.  Since then, I've heard Farrow describe his "preparation" for writing the book (read: procrastination), which was to plow through stacks and stacks of novels, in an effort to structure his own book with as much suspense as possible.  I appreciated this effort and think it paid off.  Though I knew much of the information in the book already, its pacing and the way its details rolled out made it a compelling read, indeed. 

I have heard Farrow intimate, in a few podcasts, that he's somewhat neurotic and an overachiever, and he writes in the book that he was no picnic to be around, when all the events of the book were unfolding.  But it is plain fun for me when a young writer reaches so big and sticks the landing.  It reminds me of how enamored I was of Karen Russell's debut, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, although let's be real, the wolf on Russell's cover won probably half of my devotion.

Speaking of youth, and its passage - while glancing right past my latest birthday in February - I watched Echo in the Canyon, which was not at all what I thought it would be.  I was expecting a deep dive on musical groups coming out of L.A. in the 60's, and while I got a little of that, it was more of a celebration of a concert put on by Jacob Dylan in 2015 celebrating the 50th year anniversary of the Byrds's Mr. Tambourine Man.  There were some beautiful parts to the movie, including some heavenly shots of Tom Petty (RIP) discussing musicians who influenced everyone, and there were details about Neil Young that made him look a little jerkish, which I welcome even though he has been one of my idols.  But discussion of Joni Mitchell was nowhere to be found and, in some ways, the whole thing was a little wan, though still worth a watch.  There were shots of David Crosby saying wonderfully arrogant things, making the assertion he made in Remember My Name, which I wrote about here, that Dylan went electric after watching the Byrds rehearse with electric guitars one day.  But probably the most touching scene was when Steven Stills was leaving a studio and clasped hands with Jacob Dylan.  The casual intimacy between them was moving.  It seemed simple and real and made me wonder, because of his father, if all these musical heroes are somehow family friends, too. 

Other books on my side tables right now: Sally Rooney's book Ordinary People and Dani Shapiro's Devotion.  Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss, and Muriel Hemingway's memoir Out Came the Sun, about mental illness, depression, and addiction in the Hemingway clan, await me on a shelf behind my desk, and I may never finish any of them.  Staying home all day with sick kids doesn't undo me the way it would some.  If I never had to get in a car and drop another kid off somewhere for the rest of my life, I would not miss it.  But the whining and clinging is not much fun, and I find myself unable to accomplish anything beyond drinking coffee some days. 

March is supposedly Women's History Month and while I don't love contrived, calendrical reasons to become more conscious, I haven't minded perusing National Geographic's Women book, which came out last fall and which I recently checked out with some hefty suspicion.  I don't always love National Geographic's take on the world, and I'm never eager to delve into human beings like they are exotic zebras, but there are some beautiful pictures in the book and nice interviews in the middle of it, including one with Oprah.  It's also infinitely interesting to read about how different generations of women have dealt with sexism in their careers.  Some older women tend to credit their success with their ability to ignore unfavorable environments, to stand up for themselves, without fail, or to put their heads down and work.  I'm sure there is much truth in these insights, but it also, at times, can read as slightly shaming for women who don't have unshakeable confidence, who aren't or weren't able to live so boldly. 

Friends, that's all I've got.  These are strange times, globally, and also for me, personally.  Ellis has some minor health problems that have been tethering me close to home, even before all the semi-quarantining, and it can be overwhelming.  Like most of us, I'm ready for some sunshine and some easier air to breathe. 

P.S. My sister-in-law sent me a link to this series that children's author and illustrator Mo Willems is doing right now.  We watched it yesterday, and it was a true lift.  There's also something endearing about how Willems's face, beard, and glasses seem to be taking on the spirit of Theodor Geisel.  

Speaking of Dr. Seuss, here is a picture of him in his office.  Would you ever in your life get a thing done if that was where you worked?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Less (the novel), Bikram (the predator), and Marrige Story (the movie)

I finally read Less (there's a confusing sentence!), Andrew Sean Greer's sixth book and winner of the 2018 Pulitzer prize for fiction.  It's so perfectly toned, in my opinion - hilarious and musical, elegant and bouyant - at one point, I asked Tim to look up how many other books Greer had written.  I knew I was in great hands when the main character, the eponymous Arthur Less, interviews a science fiction writer named H. H. H. Mandern.  That extra H. had me in stitches.  The rest of the book is chock full of jokes and lines I wish I had written.  When Tim reported that Greer had published five books before writing Less, I was like, "Good. He can have this perfection, then."  We also marveled at how simple the plot is, in the end, and what a delightful read it was, in spite of that.  In Tim's words: you can win a Pulitzer for that?  But it's so good and was the sort of book I almost started rereading the second I hit the last page.

Last week, a friend of ours visited and asked, of the filing cabinet in the foyer, "Is this new?" as if a used, battered, file chest belongs in everyone's front hall.  In truth, we had some electrical rewiring done in December and I shoved it there so the electricians could drill into our walls and ceilings and find all manner of foils to our best laid plans (they took care of the important things, though, like some seriously "vintage" wiring). Did Ellis run smack into the filing cabinet earlier this week and fall onto the floor, first going up in the air like a cartoon football player before landing, getting up, and stating, "I fell down"? 

He did.  Is the cabinet still in the foyer? 

It is.  What can I say?  He's a champ.

I just finished She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, about how they broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harrassment story for the New York Times.  It wasn't as dense as All the President's Men - which I wrote about reading here - but reminds me of that book at times, if only for my continued disbelief that I can drink in all those pesky reporting details, something I couldn't have spent ten minutes on twenty years ago.  Like watching The Great British Baking Show, I believe part of the thrill is watching other people work hard.

By chance, I listened to Ronan Farrow's interview on the Armchair Expert podcast in the middle of reading She Said, which was trippy in that the authors's investigative reporting overlaps with his quite a bit. 

Even trippier, Tim and I watched the documentary Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, about the Bikram Yoga founder's history of sexually assaulting young women who attend his teacher trainings, and the similarities between Bikram and Weinstein are alarming.  Especially alarming is the way each tries to break initial boundaries by requesting - and in the case of Bikram, always getting - massages.  And yes, Bikram is still holding worldwide teacher trainings, and no, hasn't been criminally prosecuted.

And now, please appreciate my seamless transition into Noah Baumbach's directorial work!  At my friend Amelia's insistence (er, request), I watched Marriage Story, which I had already been eager to see after my other friend Corinne - whose new book is on this ace list on Lit Hub - posted hilarious things on the internet about yelling at the screen when Adam Driver was singing and, maybe, I can't remember, turning the whole thing off.  

Even before that, though, I was prepared not to like Marriage Story.  On the day we watched it, I complained to Tim that Noah Baumbach gets credit for being good when really, he's just moody

I still say so, but I did cry sometimes while watching Marriage Story and was very moved by much of it.  The idea of figuring out custody in a divorce causes me such mourning, I'm surprised I didn't shake all the way through it.  Laura Dern was great - she plays hot, shouting, lady lawyers real good these days, don't she? - and while I sort of want to throw a rock at the screen whenever I see Scarlett Johansson, I loved her high-waist pants and indignation, and the idea of taking my child to live in a big double bed at my mother's sunny Californian house (my mother doesn't live in California) fills me with instant calm. 

One thing Marriage Story makes clear, though: there isn't a thing to be done about Adam Driver's hair.

After watching the movie over a two-night spread, I told Tim that Marriage Story is good at times but really just made me glad I'm not getting a divorce.  Tim responded that it made him glad he's not Noah Baumbach.  Ha!

Speaking of men with healthy egos, at the gym the this week a man of retirement age pointed at the numbers on my treadmill and said I had forty minutes to go to catch up with the numbers on his.  Then he leaned over and added, "I was on the elliptical for an hour before that, so double it."  I laughed because a) I hoped he was kidding b) wouldn't it be nice to have so many hours every day?

At the suggestion of my grad school professor who teased me for wearing a huge down coat in class, I'm reading Sarah Ruhl's 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write, a title I can really get behind.  In the very first essay, Ruhl, a mother of three children (and playwright of ten plays), says Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own needs "a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing."  I agree.  She then writes:

"There was a time, when I first found out I was pregnant with twins, that I saw only a state of conflict.  When I looked at theater and parenthood, I saw only war, competing loyalties, and I thought my writing life was over.  There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me . . . and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow."

I love that line so much.  All right, then, annihilate me.

Ruhl continues: "I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.  And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion.  At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.  And life, by definition, is not an intrusion."

And here I'd like to include something I read in Jodi Kantor's section of the acknowledgements at the back of She Said.  Speaking to the youngest of her two daughters, Kantor writes: "Violet, you were only a year and a half old when we started, and your innocence made you my refuge.  Parents are supposed to console their children, but I frequently found solace in your curls, songs, made-up words, discoveries, and above all, in the fierceness of your embrace." 

This is something I have often felt.  Not that my children console me, although they do.  I can't count the number of times Samantha brought me seltzers during my pregnancy with Ellis and in the weeks after I had him, when I was too ensconced in nursing to get one myself.  But the presence of their little bodies in a set of pajamas, their breath curling against me in a dark room, soothes me in unquantifiable ways.  And while the mere suggestion of one of them whining causes the hairs on my head to stand up, and my temperature raises four degrees whenever I hear a child cry now, these two pull me toward a beastly comfort that is too delicious, and too abundant, to deny. 

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