Friday, December 20, 2019

Demi Moore, Saeed Jones, Sharon Olds, and Le Divorce

Hello there.  C'est moi, the lady of the house, who marks days by the number of Costco pizzas we've heated.  It's nearing The Big Day, by which I mean Christmas, of course, a day we normally spend traveling and/or exchanging gifts with my in-laws whilst wrapped in fleece blankets.  Enrobed in them, if you will (see last post's picture of Ellis and I reading under one). 

True story: when Tim and I first started dating, we spent a Christmas with his family, and his parents thought there was something wrong with my health because I wore a blanket around the house like a toga.  Writing that sentence makes me see that it is a weird thing to do and reminds me of a grad school professor who made fun of me - lovingly - for wearing a hat and down coat in class, at a school on the coast of North Carolina, in the spring.  And while a former babysitter coined a phrase for this habit of mine, calling it our "blanket culture" and taking up the, ha, mantle herself in our home, my point stands.  Tim's parents worried the first time they spent a week with me, wondering if I was hearty enough as a person.

Well, I am and I'm not, it turns out. For reasons I can't quite identify, I feel like I can't catch my breath lately.  Oh wait, I live with a two-year-old, which is like sharing a small apartment with a roommate who's on drugs.  There have been few reprieves this fall, but one was reading Demi Moore's memoir, Inside Out.  Was I surprised by how much I liked it?  I was.  I kept wanting to google things like, ghost writer demi moore, because the voice was so consistent and clear, something that's hard for even a seasoned writer to accomplish, but something that felt super impressive for someone who never mentioned liking or reading books, although I'm sure she does and, also, it's not like you have to be trained in literature to understand your own story. 

Anyway, I was genuinely curious about different facets of Moore's life.  I wanted to know how she met and married Bruce Willis (who is a Pisces! never would have guessed that) and how the heck she ended up with Ashton Kutcher, who doesn't come out looking so great in this book (shocker).  Organized chronologically - with a weird frame about Moore falling apart after the dissolution of her second marriage - a lot of Inside Out was spent on Moore's childhood, which was anything but ideal.  The narrative sort of sped up once she started getting acting roles, and I found myself almost mourning as we left the slow pacing of her early years.  

I appreciated her ability to examine why she and Willis broke apart as partners, something she identified, on her end, as an inability to really open up to him.  He had his own flaws in the marriage (as we all do?) but Moore doesn't go into them, which feels both appropriate and maybe a reflection of the health of their relationship, even after divorce.  When she said that one of the things she's most proud of is their divorce, by which she meant their devotion to their children and their efforts to keep acrimony out of the mix, I genuinely teared up.

In fact, I teared up a lot reading this book, and I think that's one of the things I enjoy most about memoirs, how they sneak up on me and burst my hear open.

I devoured Saeed Jones's beautiful memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives.  I've been a fan of him for awhile (who doesn't admire someone who goes by The Ferocity as a twitter handle?!).  I mean, he seems very smart and also has good hair.  Kidding!  I don't follow people based on hairstyles - Pauly Shore would be my hero if I did - but I do, secretly, admire Jones's hair. 

Anyway, he writes like a mother and his second book is awesome. 

I read My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, by Ben Ryder Howe, a former editor of the Paris Review, about opening a deli with his wife's family, and it was hilarious and smart and full of heart.  It's also about in-laws, a topic I love to see handled well.  I love mine, of course, but let's face it.  Families are an endless source of humor.  I know someone, in fact, who was asked to swing by a random farm and pick up a dead goat on the way to Thanksgiving this year.  (They declined.)    

Finally, and perhaps dovetailing with themes of family and divorce, I checked out Sharon Olds's book of poetry called Stag's Leap, which she wrote after her husband left her, after thirty years of marriage.  Owee.  Just typing that sentence blows a hole in my chest.  These poems are as moving, unnerving, and wondrous as any meditation on loss I've read in awhile.  I found myself reading them biographically, that is, to find out the story behind the divorce, but of course what's more important is how beautiful the poems are themselves, how masterful a poet Olds truly is. 

I have to admit, sometimes I'm irritated by some of her older poems.  She writes about sex a lot and, historically, her husband's body featured in them heavily.  Reading this collection about losing the man she worshiped her whole life - at least that's how it felt to me on the page, in my memory of reading her work as a younger woman - was sort of a fascinating experiment.  I kept ping-ponging between my own relationship with how-much-to-tell and how-much-to-keep-private, my own separations of art and life.  I found myself wondering, at times, if the blurred lines in Olds's work caused any of her current predicament.  It's a very human question - did I cause this pain and suffering? - and also, I think, not the right one.  I mean, who cares what caused her current situation?  It's none of my business.  Also, sometimes some things just happen. 

As a writer, though, someone who wants to convey the truth of my life while also respecting the people in it, I found this exploration somewhat potent.  And so, this poem from the collection blew my mind.       

The Easel
by Sharon Olds

When I build a fire, I feel purposeful -
proud I can unscrew the wing nuts
from off the rusted bolts, dis-
assembling one of the things my ex
left when he left right left. And laying its
narrow, polished, maple angles
across the kindling, providing for updraft -
good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning
his old easel. How can that be,
after the hours and hours - all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness - modeling
for him, our first years together,
odor of acrylic, stretch of treated
canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft,
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
What if someone had told me, thirty
years ago: If you give up, now,
wanting to be an artist, he might
love you all your life - what would I
have said? I didn't even have an art,
it would- come from out of our family's life -
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.

Mic drop from Sharon Olds. 

Monday, November 18, 2019


Oh man.  I have been under a waterfall of germs this fall.  Ellis had pneumonia, and still has it.  Samantha had bronchitis, on Halloween no less.  Tim had something that plunged him into the saddest dry cough at 10pm every night.  I finally forced him to go to an urgent care where someone looked at him, found nothing, and prescribed antibiotics and steroids anyway (they worked). 

I've been in and out of losing my mind with all this nursing of other people, picking up and dropping off kids at schools, pretending to care about real dinner, and finding time to exercise and write (egads).  I'm fending off the urge to just set a bomb in our basement, where an avalanche of baby clothes, books, and old toys live.  Maybe I haven't been 100% successful at staying sane, but I haven't run away with the family savings or painted a room hot pink and declared it off limits to everyone but a miniature poodle - although that sounds sort of awesome.  I think I'm probably doing great, all things considered. 

My desk has been piled high with books I dip in and out of, which isn't my favorite way to read.  I've written about this before, but I like to commit to a book.  It helps ground me at the end of a long, tedious day, but I haven't really felt that commitment lately, and it's no commentary on the authors whose books I've picked up.   

I read There, There by Tommy Orange, which is full of beautiful, sometimes quiet insights.  I really respect his writing, and I'm so happy for all the attention he's getting.  (He won me over with this video, in which he says he doesn't like to hear anyone read for a long time, even his favorite authors.) I have a hard time with multiple narrators, for reasons I mention above, but I loved his characters and their names were so evocative. 

I tore through Alexandra Fuller's newest book, Travel Light, Move Fast.  I opened it one night to see if it held anything for me, and looked up hours later, three-quarters through the thing.

I am in the middle of another one of Fuller's books, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which is a little harder to hold onto, I think.  It's about her mother's life and sometimes feels a little family-treeish.  That said, Fuller's family tree is pretty fascinating, and I never tire of glimpses into her childhood on various farms in Central Africa, picturing her mother among piles of books and towers of unwashed tea cups.  As much as I loathe chaos in my own life, I sometimes drink it in happily when it's on the page.

Speaking of chaos, I picked up David Shields' coffee table book, War Is Beautiful, an examination of how front-page photos in the New York Times glorify and sanctify war.  As soon as I heard about the book, which Shields mentioned on one of my favorite podcasts, I leapt to find it, to hear someone else say things I've often felt about "the paper of record."  I don't know if I'll ever forget, after college, picking up the Times and reading their serious reportage about the search for "weapons of mass destruction."  I was twenty-one years old, trying to find any foothold in the adult world I could, and shocked to see the publication offer itself up as a vehicle for what felt like, to me, blatant fabrication.  It comforted me to read someone as scholarly as Shields say what I've always felt, that the Times is less an objective look at our world and more a deeply subjective, highly masculinized presentation of some of our worst biases. 

In the intro, Shields writes:  ". . . even when taking an editorial position against particular government actions, the Times, though considered 'liberal,' never strays far from a normative position . . . Throughout its history, the Times has produced exemplary war journalism, but it has done so by retaining a reciprocal relationship with the administration in power . . . it knows precisely what truth the power wants told and then prints this truth as the first draft of history." 

I've also been reading Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City by Brandon Harris, which is exactly what it sounds like: an account of a young artist trying to live in one of the most expensive cities in our country, at a time of explosive gentrification.  It's a verbose, fascinating look at class, race, and creative ambitions, and I'm really enjoying reading it in the car when Ellis falls asleep on the ride home from somewhere.  

In other narratives of glossy places, I picked up Liz Phair's memoir, the (unfortunately titled?) Horror Stories that has a great cover, but I haven't had a chance to crack it yet.  I read Ali Wong's book, Dear Girls, and absolutely loved it.  I haven't watched any of her comedy specials - or live stand-up for that matter, because I am married to my house and car, obvs - so I had no idea how raunchy her comedy could be, but something about her jokes folded in with her genuine thoughts on family and parenting had me choking back tears and laughing out loud on the same pages.  I stayed up last night watching the movie Wong wrote, produced, and starred-in, Always Be My Maybe, and want her costume artist to please come to my house, stat. 

On that note, Tim and I have been watching Queer Eye and weren't sold, at first.  I found the rainbow typography and the black and white dance interludes somewhat seizure-inducing, but I'm having fun now.  Of course, there are problematic things about the show, like how well do these people sustain these changes?  One week isn't long enough for me to properly change my sheets, much less every facet of my life. But no matter what my hesitations, Jonathan Van Ness is my WOOBY. (No frame of reference for a wooby?  Please watch this Mr. Mom clip, then come over for a screening in which we discuss what, if anything, in Mr. Mom holds up.) 

The real stunner of my month has been The Art of Self-Defense, a film by Riley Stearns that is so well-written, so archly performed, it may just be brilliant.  I was howling throughout it, even when I knew what was going to happen.  Go watch Jessie Eisenberg do his weak nerd thing and Alessandro Nivola roast masculinity in socks and sandals, and if you skip the bonus infomercial about Sensei's life advice ("Pardon my French, I'll speak German") you're missing out on nirvana. 

I also watched the David Crosby documentary, Remember My Name, and was shocked by some of his declarations, such as that few can harmonize like he and Graham Nash did, other than the Everly Brothers or maybe the Indigo Girls.  At some point in the film it was revealed that Crosby is a leo, and those declarations - and more importantly, that mane of hair! - started making more sense.  I actually made a list of those declarations, but I'm sparing you here, saving it for my academic paper on how Cameron Crowe is starting to look like Werner Herzog's long lost son.

Okay, that's all.  Someone please send an exterminator for the germs in my house, and a pillow I can wrap around my head until February.  If the holidays go anything like the rest of my fall has gone, I'm gonna need some backup.   

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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Van Halen, Pam Houston, and the Slippery Slope of Summer

If you told me a month ago I'd spend any amount of time reading a book about Sammy Hagar, I'd have said you were CRAZY.  Then I went on a Van Halen bender, courtesy of a book called Runnin' with the Devil, by their former manager, and suddenly needed to know everything I could about all things Van Halen. 

For reasons I can't quite explain - and don't wish to, exactly - I will probably always lean David Lee Roth in the Van Hagar wars.  And while I did make it through a whole book by Sammy Hagar, in which he somewhat convincingly points to reasons why he was the superior front man, Roth's silly videos for California Girls and Just a Gigolo played on repeat in my childhood. 

I don't know why I'm leading with 80's arena rock here.  I read lots of quality - literary! - books this summer.  In fact, I reconnected with my inner sloth and I'm better for it.  Some mornings, I caught up on petty rock star feuds with a mug of coffee while the bambinos watched Dora and built forts off the sofa.  (And yes, there's a broken shelf over there now, which we "fixed" by propping it up with lit journals.)


Sometime into my third Van Halen book, I realized that I could look up not only the current retrospective accounts I was reading, but also books published in the 80's, after the band got huge.  I could keep this party going for decades!  Then I picked up a collection of Best American Essays in Tim's office.  After reading only one essay, my spirit sort of sighed with relief and settled back into sanity. 

Before I fell down a Van Halen rabbit hole, I stayed up reading Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band one night.  I opened it merely to see if I would like it.  After finishing it several hours later, I looked at the clock, which read 4 am.  Woops!  There was something in the writing that worked for me, I guess.  

I don't really know why I picked up Girl in a Band.  I probably felt like I should know more about Gordon and Sonic Youth than I do.  But my favorite parts were the times she threw shade on Courtney Love, for whom she produced an album, and her tender remembrances of Kurt Cobain, for whom Sammy Hagar has strong feelings, too.  In his memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, Hagar says: "Drugs kill people.  People think drugs are what made Jimi Hendrix great.  No, drugs are what killed Jimi Hendrix.  Kurt Cobain could have been saved.  The people around him let him go, for some reason.  They had to have seen that coming." 

That sort of fanatical groundedness - calling BS on the excesses of the music industry - was, I suppose, one reason I survived a whole book about Sammy Hagar. 

In addition to revisiting dubious role models of my youth, I spent part of the summer reading two books by Pam Houston, an author whose book Cowboys Are My Weakness I was given right after college. I was staying at a friend's house and her mother, having just finished it, handed the book to me  and said, "I think you might like this."  It was happenstance, it seemed, but was probably the first book of short stories I'd been given, as a gift.  Something about it felt like a benediction, and I spent a night or two in my friend's cozy guestroom reading the book.

I haven't always identified with Pam Houston, who has held jobs as a river guide and back-country guide, like many of the narrators in Cowboys.  Tim and I used to joke about her book called A Little More About Me, because it was just too fun to say, "Well, who asked?" whenever we saw the title
.  (We are obnoxious.)  Similarly, I remember seeing the cover of Houston's Contents May Have Shifted and somehow conflating the book with A Little More About Me.  I didn't think there was much for me in Contents, but one morning I reached for a stack of books we'd recently gotten at a library sale and cracked it open.  From the start, the prose was haunting, nearly electric.  I kept coming back to it and spent weeks reading it like scripture, hypnotized and barely retaining it, but washed by its seriousness and elegiac reaches. 

Contents May Have Shifted
is broken into geographical sections that loop and weave and it's really quite beautiful.  I went right into Houston's most recent book, Deep Creek, the same day I finished Contents, and was treated to a similar tone and pliancy with white space. 

There is something so soft and forgiving in Houston's life and work now, far from those tough, cowboy-crazed narrators that made her famous.  I'm in awe of the discipline it takes to record her life as lovingly as she does.  I'm also grateful someone is recording the sounds and light of Colorado's high country, a space I find beautiful but rather lonely, a space I'd much rather read about from a cozy bed, frankly.  Plus, the cover of Deep Creek, with its dog in a creek bed looking across a green meadow, should really be a poster.

I am not someone who struggles with the passage of time, normally, but living life in the shadow of academic schedules sometimes gives me low-grade panic.  It's always been my worst nightmare to live in a rush but thankfully, it's been a summer full of beach trips and sleeping in and late nights for me and it's been healing. 

Ellis knows how to say "ant problem" although, thankfully, there isn't much of one in our kitchen anymore.  Samantha helps him dress and get into pjs, and the two of them entertain each other (and squeal like alley cats fighting over toys) all day long.  A man stopped me in the store to tell me that when he closes his eyes, he sees his 50-year-old son at Ellis's age, and it feels like two days ago that his son looked just like Ellis.  His son was down the aisle and didn't seem as charmed as I was by his outgoing dad.  I guess 50 years of it has grown thin.  All of it made me happy - the older man's enthusiasm, his grown child's indifference to his father's joy.  What will my children ignore about me, if I have the good luck to grocery shop with them when I'm 80?  And what will I brag about then, recalling these days?         

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

American Animals

Sometime in March, I scrawled a note to myself to see Boogie Nights.  Later that day, picking up holds at the public library, I discovered it in Tim's pile.  We watched it later that night and I felt like I needed three months to recover.  I also discovered, with Mark Wahlberg's full head of hair that, in the right light, with the right angle, he almost does it for me.  I think that means we should all be wearing wigs, all the time.  

After reading my last post, a good friend called it "borderline sacrilege."  Apparently, Reality Bites is one of those movies she quotes with her partner all the time, and though I absolutely stand by my own experience of watching that film as an adult, her reaction threw me into a bit of a panic.

One of my biggest fears about talking openly is of being a jerk and/or crapping on someone else's joy.  The internet is full of cranky opinions.  I never want one of mine to make someone feel bad about something they like or, worse, something they made. At the same time, if I don't like something, I want to be able to say so in a fair and, hopefully, intelligent way.  Do I sound defensive? Ha!  I'm just trying to figure out how to be a good citizen - on the internet, and in the world. 

All this hemming and hawing is an appropriate segue to a film that got mixed reviews when it came out, a movie called American Animals about four college students who stole books from a special collections room at a private college in Kentucky.  An exploration of a true story, American Animals is one part-documentary, one part-fiction.  Using moody imagery and a deliberately overlapped mix of interviews and narrative, it operates as a heist movie with added, real-life gravity.  I loved it.  Tim said it caught flack for being a film about white boys pushing against the limits of their privilege, and while the emotional substance of the film is a little thin, I could not stop thinking about one of its most successful images - the famous pink flamingo from James Audubon's Birds of America, lit up inside a giant glass case inside the special collections room.  I also just appreciated the film's stylish cinematography.  It plays with genre and perspective, as well as veracity in story-telling, and feels like the director is winking right at you, which really worked for me. 

I've watched a few other things, like Maudie, which I liked.  It looked saccharine but was, in fact, pretty moving.  I also can't stop thinking about Call Me By Your Name, for some reason, which I watched last year and loved.  Maybe it's all those summer scenes: the sun in Italy, the bikes and the stone pool, but I'm craving a re-watch.

I'm reading Tonight I'm Someone Else, by Chelsea Hodson, a collection of essays so intense I vibrate when reading it.  When I started it, I couldn't stop sending passages to my friend Amelia, basically reading the book aloud, via text. 

I finally saw The Favourite, which I dragged my feet about because I found The Lobster so disturbing.  Once upon a time, I was on the fence about Rachel Weisz, but after seeing her in Youth, the Paolo Sorrentino film that followed his 2013 masterpiece, The Great Beauty, I'm for her. Youth is less compelling than The Great Beauty, and maybe not as good as The Young Pope, Sorrentino's 2016 HBO series starring Jude Law as - what else? - a young pope, but I'm not sorry I saw it. If anything, Sorrentino has a casting problem.  He gets big American stars but doesn't use them in the best way.  Meanwhile, some of his Italian actors are deployed with perfection.  If you can find a more likeable playboy than Jep in The Great Beauty, I'd like to see it.

To sum: if you can work flamingos on screen, as Sorrentino does in The Great Beauty, or a kangaroo inside the Vatican, as he does in The Young Pope, you've won me.

And now it seems we've come full circle, what with a second flamingo anecdote.  Wishing you magic and mystery in your daily lives, and all the wild animals your dreams can hold.