Monday, April 5, 2021

Passing

But the Victorian manner is perhaps - I am not sure - a disadvantage in writing. When I read my old Literary Supplement articles, I lay the blame for . . . their politeness, their sidelong approach, to my tea-table training. I see myself, not reviewing a book, but handing plates of buns to shy young men and asking: do they take cream and sugar?                                                                 - from "A Sketch of the Past" by Virginia Woolf (in Moments of Being)




A few months ago, I was putting on my shoes and Ellis said, "Where are you going?" I started to answer, "I have to go . . . "
then drifted off, forgetting to finish my sentence. He did it for me. "To the Dollar Tree?" he said. It was such a sad, sweet glimpse into our lives, I wrote it down to memorialize the days when I did not leave the house, the weeks when my children refused to get in the car. Things are much better now that we can legitimately go outside for hours at a time, when daffodils push through the ground and Ellis takes the air after lunch while upright in our turquoise hammock, a cat balanced on the edge of sleep, a little Buddha in the sun. Tim and I have both been vaccinated and I'm dreaming now of cross-continental trips.   

A few weeks ago, Samantha said, "Our bathroom looks like a haunted house." I laughed and she said, "What's so funny?" She was not teasing me for my embrace of dust bunnies, but trying accurately to summarize the state of things. It really did look like a haunted house, dirt-filled corners and cobwebs around light bulbs. The day a spider tried to build its web in the middle of my shower, that was enough for us to finally clean.





This winter was a revelation. It was so cold some days that we could not go outside. Samantha's teachers led her through meditation exercises, and while I've always felt it was a little silly to teach a child to be more free, more awake to their "essential nature," when Samantha one day noticed me yelling, she sweetly offered this advice: "Maybe you could try some of my breathing exercises, Mama." I paused, ready to dismiss them as flimsy stand-ins, and then realized that she was right. I could not have a four-day yoga retreat, but a minute with my own thoughts was more than called for.

Around the same time, we started watching Mr. Rogers on DVD, and I doubled down by watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Matthew Rhys (and Tom Hanks, whose name is a bit of a dirty word in our house) by myself. I find Matthew Rhys so emotive, I could watch him sleep, and made Tim re-watch The Post just to see Rhys on screen again. This led to a re-watch of Spotlight, which I loved as much as The Post when I first saw it. From there it was on to Dark Waters, and more Mark Ruffalo, about the corporate defense attorney who went after Dupont after they covered up toxic pollution for decades.   

I re-read Gatsby, enthralled by its language, its dialogue, and its terrible plot point about Gatsby and Tom switching cars at the end. I also felt pretty bad about myself as a writer while reading and teased myself all day long: Oh yes, poor you, you aren't Fitzgerald. Tim sat through a re-watch of Redford with dewy-eyed Mia Farrow in the 1974 production, in which Bruce Dern absolutely crushes every scene he's in. Tim: "The reason he's so appealing is because he's so Bruce Dern, but he's younger and therefore mesmerizing." I disagree. There is something so handsome but rattish about Dern as Tom, I can't look away and believe I would feel the same, even if I didn't know his later work. We then lobbed the name "Bob" around the house for days, as if we were bffs with Redford. While watching, I said, "Is Redford a terrible actor?" Tim said, "Yes, but he's trying less than someone like Costner, so you don't notice it as much."

I remembered the article Tim had once mentioned, "Was Gatsby Black?", in which an academic reads as if Jay is passing as a white man, an idea I found pretty fascinating. Then I got to the end of the book and realized how much it is, in fact, about the Midwest. What seems to be about New York and east coast greed and elegance in fact leads you to this passage at the end:

"One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went further than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening. . . .When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows . . . That's my Middle West - not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns . . ."

Here's the end of that paragraph:

"I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all - Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life."

When I read those lines, I forgot all about the passing-as-white theory. While so much textual evidence is there - if not authorial intent - I found myself recasting the narrative in a caul of Midwestern literature and couldn't go back. 







Also, near the last page of Gatsby, I marveled at Fitzgerald's outrageous use of an adverb: "On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone."

Raspingly?!?!? I'm embarrassed when I use the word "quietly" to indicate the volume with which a character says something. It seems I've been missing all the fun.

I'm having trouble recalling all that I read this winter. I've been enjoying Jerald Walker's How to Make a Slave and Other Essays and was so happy to discover The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, by Anna Malaika Tubbs, as Malcom's mother was committed to the mental hospital here in town (from the book, it sounds like against her will). For a town rife with writers and liberal leanings, I frankly don't hear enough about this dark chapter.

I started Zadie Smith's pandemic-themed thoughts, Intimations, and love her description of how her art is, basically, "something to do." In an essay of the same name, she examines the internet fever of baking banana bread when the lockdown began and writes: "The something that artists have always done is more usually cordoned off from the rest of society, and by mutual agreement this space is considered a sort of charming but basically useless playpen, in which adults get to behave like children - making up stories and drawing pictures and so on - though at least they provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs."

She accuses herself of being unable to sufficiently fill time without access to her old hidey-holes, and from there goes on to other entertaining thoughts. Her summation made me laugh and also think of the derision that our capitalist structures have for the time, patience, anxiety, and spiritual deaths necessary to create art. The more time that passes since I read Eula Biss's On Having and Being Had over Thanksgiving, the more I recall and appreciate her examination of capitalism.

"Every year," Biss writes, "I'm required to fill out a form for the university that lists my contributions and accomplishments. What I want to report is that I've done absolutely nothing of value and that is my accomplishment." 




On the topic of Biss and class privilege, we watched The White Tiger, based on the book by Aravind Adiga, and loved it. I also devoured Danielle Evans's first collection of stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which I accidentally checked out on Ellis's library card and thereafter received notices that this title was ready for my three year-old. I re-read Sally Rooney's Normal People nearly a year after I read her first book, right before Michigan went into lockdown. My mother was visiting when I started Conversations with Friends, and I toggled between slices of birthday cake and Rooney's addictive pages. A few weeks later, a friend recommended Normal People after Ellis got the flu, Tim came down with a mysterious illness, and Samantha went online. I liked Normal People even more the second time around and promptly fell into a puddle of obsession with its adaptation on Hulu, in which I'm still happily splashing.

Someone dressed themselves in our house recently, saying, "Sparkles go with sparkles!" a statement made while sweeping grandly into the room and also one with which my twenty-year-old self would have definitely agreed.  Sometime during our Mr. Rogers heyday, Samantha watched an episode in which the host explored public escalators in a mall. "Mr. Rogers is so lucky he doesn't have to wear a mask," she said, 100% serious.

Here's a picture of me laughing at an attempt to take my picture next to some sea oats. The desired photo didn't turn out, but I got a great shot of my toupee. Finally, my friend Thisbe's new book is out. It's a collection of stories called How Other People Make Love and I can't wait to read it.





Wednesday, January 27, 2021

N is for Netflix

These days, Clarissa believes, you measure people first by their kindness and their capacity for devotion. You get tired, sometimes, of wit and intellect; everybody's little display of genius. 
- The Hours, Michael Cunningham




I read The Hours for the first time, and it struck me how faithful the movie was to the book. I saw the movie first a few years ago, and it has the most amazing flood scene in a hotel, which I watched and rewound over and over when I saw it. I read a Cunningham story in graduate school that felt so beautiful to me then that it hurt. Reading The Hours, I kept thinking, how does someone get to be so good? I loved it.

French Exit, the novel by Patrick DeWitt, entertained me royally this fall for days. I had seen it at the library during its opening this summer, but didn't know if I would like the book. Would it be too clever? The author photo was unnervingly great. (The library has closed again for safety, though employees still run books out to cars while in masks, after being texted by their masked patrons. The whole thing is a miracle run by people I consider angels. I can hardly think of a service for which I'm more grateful.)

French Exit is about an upper crust New Yorker whose money has run out; her morose, unemployed son; and their cat who is actually her reincarnated husband.
I was not only up for the task of reading it, it's fair to say I worshipped at its feet. It employs kooky, ensemble tropes to wondrous effect in its second half, when the protagonist and her son (and their cat) move to Paris, where they live freely in a friend's apartment. The ending is a little morose, if I'm being honest with myself, but I looked the other way since I had loved the rest of the book, its whole tone, its arch humor, and its surprising, disciplined moments of heart.



After French Exit, I became obsessed with one of Dewitt's earlier novels, The Sisters Brothers. It is also a film but I am frightened to see it, because it stars Joaquin Phoenix. (Remember his 2020 Oscars acceptance speech? I worried he might cry while talking about cow milk.) It seems French Exit has also been made into a film, starring Michelle Pfieffer no less, and while I'm sure it's good, I can't imagine it exceeding the poetic, western-slash-depressive's diary that is The Sisters Brothers book.

After finishing The Hours, I buckled down for Mrs. Dalloway but found myself drifting quickly to academic writing about Woolf. I also found myself studying Woolf's use of semicolons, thinking, "Where does she get off!" Haha.

I read Robyin Crawford's memoir, A Song for You, about her friendship with Whitney Houston and finished it in one night - a night that Tim kept waking and finding the light still on, much to his confusion. I read Eula Biss's new book, Having and Being Had, which sometimes felt more like a self-flagellation than an examination of life under capitalism, but I always like to hear her think about writing, how she pits income against writing hours in her life. I'm not sure I hold the same theories about art, or life for that matter, but I always find her process fascinating.  

Samantha and I read a kids series called The Squatchicorns, by Ellen Potter, which was very cute and entertaining enough that Ellis sat through many pages without pictures. We started on The Little House books after receiving a copy of Little House in the Big Woods as a Christmas present. Samantha was a big fan and it was sweet to read together, but I got a little tired of reading about Pa's gun. I was joking so much about the ubiquity of that topic that, when a few strands of lights on our Christmas tree went out, Samantha said, "And then Pa got his gun and fixed the lights." I pretty much died laughing.

A week or so later, Tim heard her reading an alphabet book to Ellis, and she said, "N is for Netflix" instead of "nest," which was pictured in the book. Please email us for copies of our book on parenting!


I'm listening to a few podcasts featuring women and no celebrities, but for some reason I really loved this episode of Homophilia with Isaac Mizrahi. I think I like Mizrahi's intensity, his New York accent, and the way he embraces his eccentricities. Plus, I love hearing him talk about film, and the need for a deep education in cinema when he was younger. I could listen to him rave about classic films for days. At one point he says something like, "Was that a rant? It was. It was a rant." What can I say? I'm all for big, opinionated (talented) artists who can't help but shout.  

Is now the time to tell you that, as we went into a store recently, I said to Tim, "I want to look for some driving gloves." He cackled madly and said, "Yeah, let's look for a smoking jacket for me, too." Haha! Also, how dare he? Fleece mittens slide when operate a steering wheel, thank you very much.





Ellis yawned one morning not long ago and sleepily leaned over his cereal bowl. "I'm tired from all that sleeping," he said. He also thinks video calls are a verb called "Thanksgiving," even though our only Zoom calls this year happened over Christmas. Whenever I muse aloud that I miss someone, like the friends whose past holiday cards perch in my cookbook (often near chocolate chip cookies or brownies, if you must know), Ellis looks at me and says, "But you can Thanksgiving them!" and I say, "Yes, yes I can."



I checked out a great book about Laura Ingalls Wilder called Libertarians on the Prairie, because it chronicles the life of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was, it seems, quite involved as her mother's writing partner, though that story isn't well known. Libertarians on the Prairie is by Christine Woodside, and I haven't finished it, but so far it's everything I want to know about the Little House books. I've never been sold on the rosy glow of those books, though I do like them and certainly understand their appeal, so when I read the following blurb on the back of the book, I was stunned:

Libertarians on the Prairie is a fascinating expose of the ideological underpinnings of one of America's best-loved stories. Who knew the Laura Ingalls Wilder franchise was actually political propaganda? (Jane Mayer)

I don't mean to be obnoxious but, like, who doesn't know that the Little House franchise is propaganda?? Maybe we don't associate it with libertarian leanings or economic viewpoints, but it is absolutely, chillingly American propaganda in my mind, not to mention disturbingly racist in many ways.

Anyway, I digress. The end of Little House in the Big Woods is fascinatingly zen. Wilder writes, "Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods . . . . She thought to herself, 'This is now.'"

I earmarked the passage when I read it with Samantha, and then read in Libertarians on the Prairie that Rose returned from living abroad to her parents farm in Missouri: "She would stay busy and study languages," Woodside writes. "She would try living in the present, removing the 'weight of tomorrow.'" Reading that detail, I recalled the ending of her mother's first book, whom many believed Rose edited heavily and helped shape. 







I'm done with my deep dive into Laura Ingalls Wilder in this space (hopefully?). I'll leave you with the latest from our house, where we are frequently treated to ballerina performances. Sometimes one of the dancers plays keyboard while the other entrances us with homemade moves, and performances can include coloring contests judged by one of the ballerinas herself. Parents tie, lose, come in second place - you get the idea. All's fair in love and coloring. My favorite is when a ballerina breaks the fourth wall and joins in the coloring herself.