Thursday, August 23, 2018

Happy Birthday, Ellis

In the words of one of our house painters, this summer just flew by.  I wish it was full of trips to the beach and fabulous outings, but the truth is, I spent much of it at various doctor's appointments, driving to the pharmacy for strep throat medications, and battening down the domestic hatches (see also: house painters). 

Predictably, in all this boring chaos, I haven't found a good reading thread, at least not one worth mentioning.  I finally read Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer, a book that Tim couldn't believe I wanted to read, since it's about alpine climbing, a rather testeronic pursuit, and also because it features a disastrous season on Mount Everest in which 12 people died.  The first half of the book was somewhat riveting, about the various adventure guides and their clients who were climbing Everest the same season Krackauer was assigned to write about them for Outside magazine.  But halfway through the book, when a deadly storm rolls in and people start misplacing tanks of oxygen and getting altitude sickness and dying, I felt a hollow pit in my stomach and wanted to stop.  I finished the book, but with a growing uneasiness.  

Looking up Krakauer on the interwebs, I was reminded of a book I once wanted to read - The Wild Truth, written by Candice McCandless - sister of Chris McCandless, whose dramatic story Krakauer explored in his 1997 Into the Wild.  Published in 2015, The Wild Truth reveals the violence in the McCandless home, violence that compelled Chris McCandless to leave home and walk into the Alaskan wilderness, unwittingly toward his death, to begin with.  I haven't read The Wild Truth - or Into the Wild, for that matter - but the former looks pretty interesting.  I loved the film version of Into the Wild, but boy are there some big issues with Sean Penn, full stop.  I find it difficult to enthusiastically consume anything Penn is involved in now, but I got into Emile Hirsch for a minute after Into the Wild, and I adored him in Milk, which used to be one of my favorites, starring yet another problematic Hollywood male, James Franco, in addition to Penn. 

When I looked up where Hirsch has been lately, I saw this article, discussing a physical assault by Hirsch on a film executive at the Sundance film festival, for which he did time (albeit not very much time).  I bring it up as an accountability factor, less I unwittingly sing the praises of people who, uh, still have some work to do. 

Like Sherman Alexie, another artist with some skeletons worth discussing, whom I bring up because I wrote about him praisingly here

In other news, I've been listening to a book by Barbara Leaming called Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story.  Somebody please check my brain.  In a million years, I never thought I would be interested in Jackie as a subject, not because she isn't a worthy one, but I just didn't think her life interested me much.  However, I stumbled upon the audio version at the library and, after an immediate revulsion to the narration, told myself to give it a shot, and was hooked.

In terms of questionable male figures, the sexual habits of JFK could make the most libertine among us blush.  His wife's devotion to him despite his flagrant infidelity disturbs me, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the two of them played each other - her for personal security, and him for political gain. 

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book is how little useful support she had in the wake of her first husband's death.  Importantly, the book covers how little doctors understood about post-traumatic stress disorder and how it wasn't until veterans returned from Vietnam, screwed-up en masse, that we started to understand the condition.  Jackie talked to a priest, and doctors prescribed her medications, but the book at least doesn't discuss any therapies that helped her to really process the trauma of holding her dying husband's body in her hands.  As time went on and she did not get "better," there were a lot of people around her telling her not to dwell on the past, including her own mother.  I find that incredible, and super sad.  Also, does this mean I have to watch the Natalie Portman biopic, Jackie?

Sometime this spring I read The Color of Water, by James McBride.  Billed as "a black man's tribute to his white mother" in the subtitle, the book is beautifully written, and felt like an important read for me.  I read McBride's 2016 Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, when I was pregnant with Ellis, and found the writing equally luminous, not to mention impressive considering the author's concurrent career as a musician.  But The Color of Water moved me because it chronicles a woman raising eleven children through the grief of losing two beloved partners, and also because it made me consider my philosophies about education.  Whereas McBride's mother is fanatical about educating all her children, sending them to the best, often Jewish, schools in New York City, I tend to be wary of overemphasizing formal education in a child's social, artistic, and psychic development, a privilege this book made me take a good, hard look at.

Speaking of being pregnant with Ellis last summer, I have often been so grateful not to be hugely pregnant this one. Not that raising babies outside the body is anything but arduous. A local liquor store often rotates letters on their sign and they put up in August: Uh-Oh, It's Leo Season.  As the mother of a Leo and the daughter of one, that one made me laugh.
I watched The Graduate at the start of July and drank in its lush everything - casting, cinematography, direction, soundtrack - but I was newly disturbed by its problematic plot points.  I also watched Blackfish, which I've been meaning to see for years.  Everyone warned me how upsetting it was, and maybe it's my inner Pisces, but I found it almost satisfying.  I've always been freaked out by Sea World.  To see the lives of such powerful animals explored within the dubious ethics of captivity and corporate investments fascinated me.  Plus WATER, SO MUCH WATER, COUNT ME IN.

Finally, it's totally unfair but I blame my restlessness lately on Richard Yates.  I watched Revolutionary Road with Tim before we were married and hated it.  I found it depressing, and shrill, and grim, and unimaginative.  Tim kept insisting the book had virtues the film enthusiastically disowned, and we had such a pretty copy of it (before my and Ellis' powers combined rumpled that thing up something awful), so I gave it my best shot.  Friends, it is rare when a book puts me to sleep.  I am a night owl.  Any flickering light - in my mind or my headlamp - is an excuse to blow past bedtime while telling myself the lie that coffee will make up for it in the morning.  But I learned quickly, if I want to fall asleep, I only have to open up that depressing book and read three pages about infidelity and suburban ennui, and rage between spouses and the shape of women's boobs (COULD YOU JUST NOT, FOR ONE PAGE, WHITE MALE WRITERS?), and I hit the Zzz's faster than Ellis does in a spin around the block with a Jackie book blaring.

I guess what I'm saying is: more pretty book covers, fewer body descriptions, Mr. Yates.  However, there is no denying the deftness of the man's prose.  For all my complaints about dreary plot and shallow hearts, the prose is truly wonderful.
I don't know how to follow that, one of Sut Nan Bonsai's clearest pans, which I blame on myself and my lack of attention span this summer.  How about this?  Ellis turned one.  ONE.  It's not just myself who cannot believe it.  One of our favorite librarians agrees with me, the one who chides me that I never take Ellis out of the stroller (because he's SLEEPING, is she CRAZY?  Does she bonk sleeping dogs over the nose with rolled-up newspapers, too?).

Happy Birthday, Ellis, my beautiful, powerful, affable little Leo.  I love every gap in your teeth and your fascination with book pages, your willingness to take fake medicine from Samantha's doctor kit daily, and how hard you make us all work for that marvelous chuckle of yours.  

P.S. For more on PTSD, I recommend this luminous On Being episode, How Trauma Lodges in the Body, with Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School. 

Or, just ask me about my two c-sections!  Wink, wink.


  1. Aww, it was really fun to read this and think of you all.


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