Saturday, August 28, 2010

Your One Wild and Precious Life

Last night my younger daughter asked me at dinner, Could you talk to us about something interesting? Like what? I asked. Time travel, she said.

Now this, like the macabre, is a topic of interest in our house, mostly fueled by my once mentioning the book Time and Again by Jack Finney, which I read I think in high school. I'm not sure it's a great book, but the premise of it has captured my interest for years and years. Basically a guy is involved in this secret government project that involves sending people back into the past. Due to a kind of unrelated mystery the guy asks to be sent back to New York City in 1882. In the present, the guy rents an apartment in the Dakota, an apartment that was apparently empty back in 1882. He will be traveling back in time, but staying in the same space. At this point, I need to point out two things. The Dakota was not completed until 1884, but apparently Jack Finney really wanted the Dakota to feature in his book. The other thing is the ease with which the guy was able to rent an apartment in the Dakota. The book was published in 1970, which, as many may recall, was not a fine time for New York City. Back then, you really could, as I know one couple that did, even buy an apartment in the Dakota for cheap. Anyway.

The part of the story that captured my imagination the most is the fact that every time this guy goes into the past and then returns to the present he is questioned for hours to see if any of his activities in the past changed anything in the present. The idea of this is fascinating. Just the smallest thing, simply asking a stranger for the time, say, could literally change history. Which ends up happening at the end of the book, if you'll forgive me for revealing it. And my girls and I have spent lots of time talking about small, seemingly minor incidents that happened in our lives that if changed would have had enormous consequences. Which has always been my way of telling them to pay attention to things. As Mary Oliver says in her perfect poem "The Summer Day": "I don't know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention."

And so, our time travel discussion.

I think I'd want to go back into the past, I said. Maybe like Max's Kansas City in the early 1970s, I suggested, to which my husband nodded appreciatively. Then seeing the look on my girls' faces I said, Or how about visiting Laura Ingalls as a little girl? But not in the winter, of course, I added hastily. (To find out why, all you need to do is read her book The Long Winter. Note: it's all in the title.) The summer would be much better! Oh, I wouldn't want to be there in the summer, said my older daughter. Because they had to wear all those petticoats and it would be so hot! We agreed that the fall or spring would probably be the best time to go. But not the spring where they're still having blizzards, you know, I pointed out. Maybe like June.

But thinking about it now, I don't think we'd even be able to talk to Laura if we saw her because what if something we said caused her never to write those books we are all crazy about? It seems to me that even time travel would have to be about simply paying attention, kind of the way I am doing now on this summer day.

Monday, August 16, 2010

For Hilary, With Love and Squalor

Last night, driving home from our friends' house, it became obvious to me again that my daughters (ages 6 and 9) seem to share my fascination with the macabre. (Actually the last thing our friend told us as we left his house was a story about a guy he knew whose nail gun accidentally shot a nail directly into his stomach. It was the kind of story that I love hearing and then kind of wish I hadn't.)

Anyway, at one point during the car ride my older daughter asked if you could ever lose the ability to speak, and I explained about brain injuries that might make this possible. And then my younger daughter said, in this very serious way she has, Or like that story you told us. About that guy who got totally different after something went through his head. And I immediately remembered having one night at dinner brought up the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker, who, as a result of an explosion in 1848, ended up having an iron pole shoot straight through his brain and how, afterward, his entire personality changed. This story is interesting for two reasons because first, doctors studied him to learn how different parts of the brain correspond to different parts of human behavior, and second, a couple of years ago a man in a very old photograph was identified as Phineas Gage, ridiculously handsome, even with only one eye, holding the pole that had shot through his brain. But what kind of impressed me most was how vividly my girls remembered this story and how much time we have spent talking about it.

Which reminds me of these books my friend Hilary and I read obsessively the summer between seventh and eighth grade, on long bus rides to and from our Teen Travel day camp. I think the books were called Strange Unsolved Mysteries and More Strange Unsolved Mysteries, but I could be wrong about that. No doubt they are long out of print. These weren't so much mysteries as completely off-the-wall stories disguised as real mysteries. There were stories about small mysterious creatures that lived in people's walls and talked to them ("It Called Itself 'Gef'") or about dead people who came to life for a brief time in order to get things done. (I can't recall the title of this one, but basically a very pale boy goes to work on this woman's farm to earn money for his family, and each time he shows up for work he seems sicker and thinner until the woman finally feeds him a big meal, which causes him never to return. Soon after the woman is visited by the boy's mother who tells her that the boy died last year, but she called him back to earn some money for the family. The farm woman had fed him a salty meal, which as we all know causes you to remember where you came from, which in his case was a grave. We always buy unsalted butter as a result of this knowledge.)

So Hilary and I read these books over and over, passing them back and forth, exactly the same way my girls currently read Little Lulu comic books (more on this another time). The thing about these books is that they were really really creepy. But you simply couldn't put them down. I know that most girls our age were reading books like Forever, which we read too, but these unsolved mystery books spoke more to our sensibilities at this age, I think. Because when you are between seventh and eighth grade, really, what books can you relate to more than those about people who don't exactly fit in, like the, er, undead.

And I am certain that somewhere in Hilary's mother's apartment in Riverdale those books are still there, waiting. Just simply waiting for our own daughters to be old enough to read them.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

It is August

So it's summertime, which usually means that people are reading a lot more now, and I understand why, but in my case it's just the reverse. When it's winter there is nothing more I want to do than sit (huddled, really) in front of my wood stove and read and read in the hours of darkness that are the upstate New York winter. When it's summer I lose all ability to focus on anything more than the stray New Yorker article, which ultimately never gets finished anyway. I'm always bringing things with me to read wherever I go, but summer is just so distracting that I just can't get any reading done. Recently I took my daughters to a lake and brought with me some printed pages of stories from my writing group, plus a David Sedaris book, which is one of the few things I can read any time of year. There was an older couple nearby who ended up moving a lot closer to me to get out of the sun and they seemed very interested in what I was reading. So interested that the man eventually asked me if I was a scientist since I seemed to be reading something so serious looking. The David Sedaris book had an X-ray of a skull on the cover, which I thought they were referring to, and so I proceeded to explain that he was, in fact, an essayist and a hilarious one at that. But no, the man said, those pages you were reading. Yes, said his (presumed) wife. It looks like you are reading very serious material. Oh, that's just stuff from my writing group, I told them, and explained how we meet twice a month and critique each other's stories. So, the man said, smiling, you want to be a writer! I am a writer, I snapped, probably unfairly. There was more to this conversation, but my point here is that had I been reading perhaps a Dan Brown book I probably would have been left alone.

But this brings me to another point, which is that I am fascinated by what other people are reading all the time. If I see someone anywhere with a book, I feel like it's my right to know what they are reading, and I will go out of my way just to see the cover. And then, sometimes, I will even try to talk to that person about the book they are reading, especially if I have read it myself. This does not always go well. But then, see, I rarely feel like talking about what I'm reading when questioned about it because usually I don't feel like talking and would just like to keep, um, reading, which is exactly what I never think of when I start talking to other people who are reading. Once, many years ago, I was reading Don DeLillo's White Noise on the subway and a woman across from me smiled and said, Now Don DeLillo. He's a real writer. I smiled back and said, Yes, he really is. But usually it's not like that at all. It's more like, Oh, I saw that book once. What's it about? which I never know how to answer because most books aren't really "about" something. Or at least something you can sum up in a sentence or two. What is White Noise about exactly? Well, there's this guy who's a professor, but then there's all these toxic chemicals released into the air, and then. I really am not very good at this.

So when I see someone reading a book, I will comment if I've read the book before, and I will usually say something like, Oh, isn't that book so great? And I find myself quite surprised when people don't automatically want to engage in a long, long discussion with me involving what made the book so great, and what they thought about that previous book the author wrote, and the fact that the author actually grew up in Baltimore but now lives in Brooklyn and etc. etc. Because the thing that never occurs to me, until maybe right this moment, is that the person in question almost always wants to just keep on, um, reading. Which is pretty much what I always want to keep doing. Unless it's a hot summer day, of course. And there's a lake nearby.