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?


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.