Thursday, December 31, 2009

New

Oh here we go, another sheaf of months.

You're supposed to learn something. That's the consolation prize for the incipient wrinkles and the extra flesh on your hips, for the softening of your corneas and all those dead cats. Here I am, standing at the cusp of new year-

Who am I kidding? I'm not standing at the cusp. I'm skulking. Or crawling. Crawling toward the cusp. Crawling away from the cusp, facing backward. Actually, crawling is really too active. I'm sitting at the cusp. In a fetal position. With my head between my knees. Rocking.

Anyhoo, the cusp, etc., and what have I learned? For what precious knowledge have I bartered the last twelve months, paying out day by reluctant day?
  • That particular sensation of mild self-loathing mated with existential confusion is, in fact, dehydration.
  • Bedbugs suck.
  • If you scribble solemn, heartfelt New Year's Resolutions on a scrap of paper and then place that scrap, with ceremony, in a safe place, you will forget a) what you resolved and b) the location of the place you had the temerity to think was safe. Both by July.
  • Part of you is still in high school.
  • People die. Also they lose their minds and their hearts; they forget you.
  • Morning keeps coming around.

Monday, December 28, 2009

#12: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

My mother likes memoir. For years, I have taken this as a sign of dullness, soft-mindedness, just general momliness. Mothers always like memoir. It gives them other lives to hit you over the head with, to brandish in front of your nose and say: Look, here, this is they way you should be doing it.

I loathe memoir. Mostly because it is less fiction-like than fiction. Or, to put it more baldly, because it is not fiction, but has dug through fiction's closet and is wearing its clothes. How presumptuous, to dress up your life in narrative! A person writing memoir is making a statement that her life deserves a capital-S story. This makes me dislike her right up front as self-aggrandizing.

Plus my mom likes memoir and I am ten years old.

Mature, tough-minded woman that I am, I shoved memoir all the way to the back of my list for My Year of Reading Dangerously and tried to forget about it. Uck: memoir! About a dead baby, no less! Thus it was that I picked up novelist Elizabeth McCracken's slim memoir of stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, a mere four days prior to end of the calendar year.

And sped through it. After that murky, mucky Julia Glass novel, McCracken's book was like a draught of cold water. McCracken can WRITE. This is a relief. Moreover, her motives in doing so are pure, or at least purer than the motives I impute to the archetypal memoirist, whom I imagine blowing hot words into a sorry balloon of a life. For McCracken, words are needles: swiftly and methodically, she lances a period of overwhelming pain.

Less memoir than dissection, An Exact Figment probes period of approximately one year during which McCracken gave birth first to a stillborn boy and then to a live one. The book feels in no small part like an autopsy: Why? McCracken demands of her memory. Why this way? Why that next? Why this particular configuration of days? Her prose is knife-sharp and woundingly lovely.

There's a magnet on my refrigerator, a picture of an aproned, glamorous woman in a 1950's kitchen. Oh my God, she says, my mother was right about everything.

Needless to say, the magnet was a gift from my mother. She thinks it's hilarious. I've never seen the humor. I came very close to giving the magnet away or shoving it drawer, but in the end I kept it on the refrigerator to remind myself that sometimes -not very often, mind you, only occasionally after the pigs have flown a full circuit around the chimney and the moon has turned a brilliant turquoise- my mom is on to something.

Shhhh.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

#11: I See You Everywhere

The really scary thing is that sometimes what you're afraid of happens. Sure, mostly the car doesn't crash. Your library books are where you left them and you grab, effortlessly, the bar of the trapeze.

But sometimes -only sometimes, enough to give your fear a frisson of reality but not enough to have it do you any good- you slide off the road. You left Anne of Green Gables under the seat on the bus to Camp Digeridoo at Lake Lemon, and your hands clench midair.

In such cases, it is important to remember that fear, realized, is the exception. 98% of what you're worried about never comes to pass, and the rest of the shit that happens to you is stuff you weren't smart enough to dread. Still, when that 2% of your nightmares solidifies into just exactly what kept you up at night, it sucks.

I was afraid Julia Glass was overrated. When I added her novel I See You Everywhere to my list for My Year of Reading Dangerously, I had been tracking the book-world buzz over the unexpected nomination of her earlier book Three Junes for a National Book Award. I was afraid that Glass's critics were right, that she wasn't National Book Award material. I was afraid that her novel would be tepid, like tea from a twice-dunked bag.

Make that tea from a thrice-dunked bag. A four-times-under-the-water bag, a bag so thoroughly abused it releases no color, but floats to the top of your cup like a white, sad, overweeningly dead teabag-shaped jellyfish.

Say you are a book. You are permitted to have a) a good plot or b) good writing. If you are exciting drivel, I will read you. If you are glacial but lovely, I will read you. In an ideal, fairy-princess, castle-in-the-sky world, you are possessed of clean prose and masterful plotting and we will retire to bed together and be very happy. But you are not allowed to be BOTH boring and stilted. No no no no!

Louisa and Clem (short for Clement) are sisters. One is beautiful and brave; the other is smart and scared. They fight. They chase men. They feel sorry for themselves and housesit and edit art magazines and regret not pursuing their pottery and...ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. Whoops, sorry, dropped off there.

The most maddening thing is that every single potentially interesting scene -the sisters fighting over the same man, a maiden Aunt striking out on her own- HAPPENS OFFSTAGE. I wanted to howl. I wanted to seize Julia Glass by the shoulders and shake. I wanted to sweep aside the interminable phone conversations and the poorly-drawn cleaning-out-the-barn scene and the scene where Louisa sits on the beach and thinks- and drag the meat of the story back where it belongs.

Alas, I'm not the author. If I were, I'd refund myself the seven hours of my life I spent slogging through my massively mediocre novel.

Don't read I See You Everywhere. Read a better, older young adult book by Katherine Patterson called Jacob Have I Loved. It's about two sisters. One is beautiful and brave. The other is smart and scared. Their names are Louise and Caroline.

Gosh, now, this is starting to sound familiar.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

#10: Downtown Owl

OK, I'll confess: I'm scared of books by men.

Yes, I realize I shiver in my boots before the literary output of half of the known world. Yes, I understand that my prejudice limits my reading list largely to this century and the last, given that -with a few notable exceptions- pre-20th-century writing was the province of men. And, OK, I'll admit I've read some awesome books by men. I think Rabbit Run is a masterpiece, and I'll read pretty much anything Michael Chabon writes.

Still, I approach the work of male authors -especially young male authors- with trepidation. Men can be so...maximalist. Many a male author likes to set his hunting cap for the biggest game he can think of -the BIGGEST IDEAS; the MOST ENCOMPASSING THEMES; life, the universe, and EVERYTHING- and then proceed to hound it to death over the frozen tundra of 900 swooping, posturing, chest-thumping pages. It's like the novel is his territory and he's going to make sure he pees all over it.

(David Foster Wallace, I'm looking at you.)

I am not a maximalist. I like small, densely drawn worlds in which nothing much happens yet everything changes. It just so happens that most of the people who inhabit these worlds, who jolt them to life with words, are women.

Which is why I selected Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl for My Year of Reading Dangerously. Klosterman is a man. He is not an old man. And his biography is less than reassuring: He's worked for Esquire, for starters, and the title of his previous novel, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, smacked of urine in print.

Fortunately, I was (mostly) wrong. Downtown Owl, a portrait of a fictional North Dakota town on the eve of a blizzard, is profoundly concerned with the small. Small lives, small town, small time. Klosterman is a detail man: the book is a less a narrative than a galaxy of specificities. These are at the very least entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny:

"John S. Laidlaw was a football coach, a pheasant hunter, a two-pack-a-day smoker, a notorious cheapskate, a deeply closeted atheist, and an outspoken libertarian. But he was also an English teacher, and -were it not for his preoccupation with convincing female students to have intercourse with him inside his powder blue Caprice Classic- he might have been among the best educators in the entire state of North Dakota. He was certainly the finest teacher in Owl, even when you factored in the emotional cruelty and the statutory raping."

If I'd been smart, I would have guessed Klosterman's obsession with detail from the exactingly detailed title: Downtown Owl, with it's hidden howl (ow ow ow) and its double connotation of town square and down-and-out.

Sometimes, Klosterman's cataloguing of the very small gets in the way of his unfolding narrative, as when all dialogue, in its specific hilarity, begins to sound the same. Klosterman writes largely from the perspective of three Owl residents: an indifferent football player named Mitch; Julia, who moves to Owl to teach history and finds herself the center of male attention purely by dint of being female and alive; and Horace, one of the coffee-swilling oldsters at the cafe. A few extra voices are thrown in, but as all the voices are distinguishably Klosterman's, it doesn't much matter.

Still, Owl is a joyful, nosy, and very occasionally lovely little book. "All great books seem boring until you've finished reading them," Laidlaw tells his students. Downtown Owl is not a great book. It's far too engrossing for that.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Here We Come

Sometime deep in December, after the midpoint of the month but before the darkest day of the year, I go caroling. I do it every year.

It's not something I would ever do on my own: I'm scared of knocking on doors. Every Halloween, I made my little brother precede me up the steps. During school fundraisers, I scraped together my allowance money and bought the depressing tins of caramel corn myself. I'm a grown woman now, but every time I do a home visit for my job I stand on the stoop and wait a few seconds, hoping.

Still, I go caroling. A group of my parents' friends began doing it twenty-five years ago, long enough for me not to remember the first time I polluted the close and holy darkness by yelping the annotated version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (reindeer!). Since then, bellies have slackened. My father has grown an unexpected shock of white hair. Several couples have divorced, and their children have gotten married. More than one person has died.

This year, the house hosting the pre-caroling party is overrun with little girls. Little girls chase each other up and down the stairs and fall over each other in their efforts to reach the candy. Little girls pull each others' hair and wind in and out of the legs of the adults, most of whom are deep into the cider bowl.

I make the kind of desultory small talk you make with people who have known you since you rolled on the floor howling. They look at you with cloudy eyes, unable to shake the double vision: you now and you yanking their daughter's ponytail; their son in the dark of the winter back yard making out with your best friend.

We warm up inside with Jingle Bells, which everybody knows, and move on to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which everybody has forgotten. No matter: we're off, trundling into the night which is chilly or icy or unseasonably warm, which is snowy or rainy or moon-perfect clear. Some people open their doors with frozen smiles. Others light up. A few hide, even though you can see, through the slats of the blinds, their heads silhouetted against the glow of their flat-screen TV's.

We do more than five houses and less than twelve. Everyone tries to sing harmony at once. When part of the group walks too far ahead, the carol splits into uneasy canon. We can't see the song books in the dark; our breath fogs the air.

It's never entirely fun, the caroling, but it is important. The rest of the year, our children don't kiss. We don't pull one anothers' hair and our neighbors' doors are always shut. It's quiet in the back yard and quiet in the streets and we're too busy to keep track of where we're going, let alone what to sing when we get there.

The cure for this is simple. Knock hard. Yowl Good King Wenceslas at the top of your lungs. Wait to be let in.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's Snowing Elsewhere

I've been tracking the storm on radar. There it goes, a wide green weal, slinking across the Mid-Atlantic. The Eastern Seaboard is lit up like a Christmas tree with warnings: red for blizzard, orange for severe winter storm, pink for snow. I wonder who chose the colors, and why. Maybe his daughter's favorite sled is pink. Maybe red is the color of the extra blanket he digs out from under the bed when it's cold.

I've also been following the storm on the Internet. On Facebook, pictures of snow blanket the Newsfeed. Ice was on A's road home. B put chili in the crockpot and her feet up on the couch and is watching the white come down. J, in Boston, is making a last-minute run to the grocery store ahead of the front. C is thrilled.

My mother-in-law sent pictures. A record, where she lives:


It's snowing here, too. The faintest drizzle, a few white flakes that might be rain. The roads are clear, and it was warm enough for me to do a quick three miles running down the back streets under the grey. There's a pot of stew on the stove. There's tea. Three library books, boiled wool slippers, and snow, hard, elsewhere.

Enough.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Infinity Scarf

For my birthday, my friend K gave me The Infinity Scarf. It's a big knit loop of fabric with the name "Infinity Scarf" attached. I stuck the loop over my head and set about trying to figure out the name. Thus far, my theories are these:
  • You can twist the thing into the sideways figure eight of infinity if you try, though why you would do this, only to stare at a make-shift sideways eight you've constructed out of scarf and cannot easily transport, is beyond me.
  • Marketing ploy
  • You can wear it in an "infinity" of ways, though in this case infinity probably breaks down to about nine. Nine is a smaller number than infinity, but is still disturbingly ninefold. I suppose you can wear the regular scarf in a whole lot of inadvisable ways, too, but the Infinity Scarf multiplies your options.
Options are confounding:

OK, I confess: I adore the thing. It's warm, and I can probably pitch it like a tent should the need arise. In short, I love it and I never would have bought it, ever, not in a million years or in the event of the Rapture. And isn't that the definition of the perfect gift? Thanks, K.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Roll With It

There's a new bakery in my neighborhood. It has a brave little sign and a punny name. There's a chalkboard for pricing, and a small glass case behind which huddle scattered cookies and three lazy susans of cinnamon rolls. There's coffee, and occasionally some bread.

I want this bakery to succeed. I want it at least as much I wanted that scruffy guy in high school French to ask me out, but less than I wanted not to be in high school French at all. But I worry about the bakery. It's the neighborhood, see.

My neighborhood is a university town without the university. The university decamped in the early part of the 20th century; what was left of the town succumbed to the advances of the ever-expanding metropolis. Today, there are boarded up buildings and prostitutes and grocery stores with security guards. There's also a community council, a lot of young families, and a small commercial strip with a variety of independent businesses. Can you say gentrifying?

Since I've moved here, stores have flared into life and burst, like stars. A few, like the new pizza joint, have stayed. The neighborhood is off the main drag. It scares people who are scared of black people and/or the down-at-the-heels types who frequent the plasma center. Most of the people who live in the neighborhood work downtown and aren't around during the day. In short, it's just not QUITE a great place to do business.

Two months ago, the tiny grocery store closed. A gift boutique, two sandwich shops, a dog bakery, and an art gallery all bit the dust. I really really really really want the bakery to succeed. Even if they only ever make cinnamon rolls, I want to be able to buy them.

I hate wanting. Want is a terrible burden. I feel a leaden responsibility, as if I singlehandly have to eat enough cinnamon rolls to keep the lights on. I will eat more cinnamon rolls than is prudent. I will start dreaming of cinnamon rolls. Soon I will come to resemble a cinnamon roll, round and soft and sticky-sweet. I will eat so many cinnamon rolls they will have to roll me out the door and transfuse my plasma. Good thing the plasma center is handy.

I'll let you know how this goes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Yes, And...

Here's what I wanted to be when I was nine: good.

Yeah, good. Good in preference to happy, good in preference to smart, good as opposed to an incipient lawyer or dentist or dancer or fairy princess or whatnot. Good especially in preference to becoming President of the United States, which I had divined was the proper ambition for little girls, but which interested me about as much watching paint dry.

While doing long division. In my sleep. I mean, the president was a wizened, wooden-looking white guy. Who wanted to be that?

Looking back, I blame Little Women. I first read Little Women at the vulnerable age of six and proceed it to slam it down monthly for three years thereafter. If I could have injected it intravenously, I would.

Everyone in Little Women wanted to be good. Good was where it was at, even if, in the process of sublimating parts of yourself into sublimity, you croaked, like Beth. Meg figured out how to be good. Amy came around. Even Jo, who began the book so gloriously far from goodness, straightened herself out, and at the end of the novel she received her reward in the form of a wizened, wooden-looking white guy.

Problem was, I was not good at being good.

I tried, I really did. But every time I turned around, there I was: self-interested, stubborn, and fond of getting my own way. I was kicked out of two preschools and gave my parents fits. By elementary school I had acquired a veneer of civilization, but underneath I was the same. I beat myself up about my lack of goodness for years, and then I accidentally read Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was like methadone. Kierkegaard told me I only had to hold myself accountable for my second impulse -not my first. I was free. I was -damn it!- good.

I laughed! I sang! I frolicked! And then I settled down to flagellate myself for various other shortcomings, including my overbite, my anxiety, and the degree to which I self-flagellate.

Which is why, every so often, I read Oprah Magazine. Oprah Magazine has nothing on 12-step programs: it is cheerier, more hopeful, and has better layout. Oprah magazine keeps me on the straight and narrow. It tells me what to read and what to think and steers me forcibly back toward a nuanced understanding of morality.

Martha Beck is the life coach/personality guru. She is odious and I hate her. This month she ordered me to swap conjunctions. Instead of saying "yes, but," I am to say, "yes, and."

I don't get enough done,
I tell myself.
Yes, and I booked that concert, I tell myself back.

I don't try hard enough at work, I tell myself.
Yes, and I worked late on Wednesday, I tell myself back.

I eat too much cheese, I tell myself.
Yes, and?

Substituting "Yes, and" for "yes, but" allows for constructive self-criticism but stops you short of self-abuse. It embraces complication, subtlety, and the very real possibility that things are not all one way. I loathe that Martha, bless her annoying, self-righteous little self, is right.

Yes, and thanks.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Friends & Strangers

I've got a fan. At least, I assume he's a fan, because otherwise I have no idea why some random guy who works for a hospital in Northeastern XXXXXXX would want to friend me on Facebook. I don't have many -OK, any- connections in that part of the world.

But I did give a concert there the night before last, and my name was printed in the program, along with where I went to school and the city I live in now. That performer bio may seem like a joke, but it contains the truth, and the truth is a powerful thing. If it doesn't set you free it sure as heck makes you searchable on Facebook.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I've joked about wanting hordes of early music groupies, but now that I'm presented with a single mildly enthusiastic cyber-fan, I'm mostly just unsettled. You mean those people in the audience are REAL? You mean they have lives and agendas and wants, and those lives and agendas and wants can intersect with mine?

It's more than that. I'd somehow convinced myself that, in going onstage, I was exposing only a small part of myself. The ankles, maybe, if ankles had pitch and rhythm. In no way did I think I was stripping down, offering my whole self to be scrutinized and labeled and friended, for God's sake. The music I'd take public; the rest was private.

Possibly that was naive. I mean, can you really get up and blow into a metal tube in front of six hundred people and pretend you retain a right to invisibility? Can you be anonymous if your picture is on a promotional poster? And why even try for invisibility if visibility is what powers your career?

As with this blog, I want to control what I expose and what I don't. Is that my prerogative? Is it even possible?

Accept? Ignore?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I Am Here

Yeah.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Grrrrrrr

I'm flying into a "special weather statement" tomorrow morning and am practically incapacitated with fear. Why do we fly, anyway? Isn't the ground good enough? I like the ground. It is nice and for the most part stable and it grows lovely things, like trees. And beets. I like beets.

The difficulty with fear is that it's there even when you know it's doing you no good. There's nothing I can do, at this point, to avoid tomorrow. All the nausea and the shaking and the dread is window dressing, superfluous to the bare facts that I will fly and there will probably be weather and so it goes. But the fear is so present, so dehumanizing. It's an animal that's crawled inside my gut and made its den. It reeks. It growls.

How do you run the varmint off? I'm taking suggestions.