Monday, November 21, 2011

Scoring Superpowers

So here I am, once again scoring those state essay tests, this time written by fifth graders. After weeks and weeks of reading about the difference between clothes in 1899 and clothes today (apparently: skinny jeans) we finally came to the question that I had been waiting for seemingly forever: “What superpower would you like to have? Write a paragraph that describes how you would use that superpower to do good.”

Well! If you know me at all, you know that this is the type of thing I could talk about forever and to be honest I did spend quite a bit of time doing just that with the two guys sitting next to me. For days and days we considered the possibilities. Now as I see it, the only superpowers worth considering are flying and invisibility. And to be honest, I’m not even sure what’s so great about flying really, but there are those (like my younger daughter) who would choose this above all else. As for me, all I ever wanted was to see and hear things I was not supposed to see and hear, though I discovered recently when talking it through that this also meant I wanted to take things I wasn’t supposed to take. I was reminded that I had to do good with my superpower. This stopped me right in my tracks.

But here’s the thing: There are many kids who also seem flummoxed by the fact that they have to do good with their superpower and they end up getting derailed, such as the kid who wanted arms that shot fire so he could…put fire in fireplaces so people wouldn’t have to buy matches and fire lighters. Uh huh. Or the kids whose aspirations weren’t so high (“I would press a button on myself and a jet pack and a shopping cart would come out. I would go to the store a lot faster. Then I would be done shopping a lot faster.”) or didn’t really want superpowers so much as moderate assistance: night vision, keen hearing, the power to learn.

Many of the kids write about using their superpowers to stop bank robberies, but somehow they all conjure up images of early-twentieth-century bank robberies what with the black robber masks and the old fashioned stick-em-up talk (“There has been a hold up! one man shouted as he ran down the frost covered street.”). Which is pretty much the way we all think about bank robberies, I suppose, unless of course you think of this.

I spent most of the day struggling with the illogical responses of these fifth graders (Wait, he wants to be invisible so he can hold doors open for people? Can’t he just do that anyway??), but occasionally being impressed by their altruism, such as saving extinct animals by turning into an extinct animal and fighting off hunters (Um, wait, couldn’t he get shot too?), or their extremely high aspirations (wanting to be able to go back in time to both stop the attack on the Twin Towers and flirt with the Hannaford’s cashier over and over again).

Unfortunately, having watched way too much science fiction (so?), I am always looking for the catch, the way that the superpower attempt to do good would end up backfiring and causing worse problems (such as interfering with the prime directive, or, um, something like that). What if by trying to stop animals from going extinct you end up causing an overpopulation with devastating results? What if when trying to control the weather, you cause a terrible drought when you simply wish for more sunny days? What if the Hannaford’s cashier just never gets to go home?

It must be the fact that you have to do good with your superpower that is throwing everybody off, right? I mean, of course I would do plenty of good if I were invisible! Just after I was done seeing and hearing and taking things I shouldn't be seeing and hearing and taking. Perhaps if the kids were told they could use their powers for evil, the essays would have been better written?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

(Not) Reading Cookbooks

My earliest memory of my aunt is of her melting sugar on the stove in my grandparents’ old summer farmhouse in western New York. I was probably around four years old and it seemed to me that what she was doing was a little bit magical. But actually this was something kind of ordinary in that house, what with my French grandmother pretty much constantly whipping up Hollandaise sauce or ratatouille or something else that would take hours to prepare and minutes to wolf down. There was hardly a moment when someone wasn’t cooking something and this is still true of my aunt today, who I can only picture in the various kitchens I have seen her in, including her own.

Were cookbooks used? Very likely, but I hardly remember anyone looking at one. Somehow my grandmother always seemed to know how many eggs went into a soufflĂ© and when precisely it needed to be taken out of the oven. Which is why I have always had a kind of wary relationship with cookbooks. I love reading them, don’t get me wrong. And how else are you going to make anything that you don’t already know how to make? It’s just that I hate having to cook while constantly reading and referring back to something. (This is strangely the opposite of how I am in my non-cooking life, in which I try to read while doing other things, such as walking down the street.) I think it’s the fact that I am so easily distracted while cooking that reading a recipe ends up distracting me further, if that makes sense. And then there’s also the very worst word you can encounter in a recipe. That word is meanwhile. There you are, following along, and suddenly you read: “Meanwhile, shuck 60 oysters” or “Meanwhile prepare the marinade and let it sit for two hours.” At that point, you realize that you have simply lost control of the whole procedure.

It would make sense, I suppose, to read an entire recipe before trying to make something new. I know there are people like that out there. Are these the same people who actually read all the directions before playing a new board game or trying to work a new digital camera? I think those might be the people that have what you might call patience. As for me, I might skim a recipe for cooking times, but sometimes the ingredient list is really all I get through before starting. But then once I have perfected something, all I eventually need to look at is the ingredient list, which is exactly my goal.

But the cookbooks themselves. Oh, I read these just like regular books: for the stories! The stories of how when you add balsamic vinegar to roasted fennel something amazing happens. Or how a triple mousse cake is supposed to come gorgeously together with just the tiniest bit of gelatin. Or how when you make David Chang’s ginger vinaigrette you will want to drink it straight up. Or how at the age of 8 someone’s French grandmother made her practice separating eggs until she got it just right (okay, this would actually be from my own personal cookbook, if such a thing were ever to be written).

I guess my point is that there is reading and there is cooking. And I love both. But, and this hardly makes any sense at all and yet I'm afraid it's true, not at the same time.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Last House

I wrote this story at a temp job around 15 years ago. This is the best use of time at a temp job that I can think of.

Charming was the man, of course, I was just this guy who’d landed a pretty decent job at the palace, taking care of all the details, fulfilling his every whim, you can imagine, but for a while there, for a while, things were really happening. I have to say, the most exciting time of my life was that search, the search that took us all over the land, weeks it took, months, he was not going to give up, not ever.

Of course all he had to do was show up at these houses, just show up, and every woman in there, young and old alike, would swoon, literally swoon. The man had it going on, let me tell you. While I’d be there on my knees, trying to jam all manner of peasant feet into one tiny delicate slipper (made of glass! Glass! Do you know how hard it was keeping it in one piece just bouncing around on my horse?), Charming would be standing there, always so polite, graciously declining just about everything these women were offering him, even the poorest of them all, who you knew hadn’t even had a decent meal probably in weeks. The things they tried to give him! Blankets, ribbons, rusted silverware, even an old sickly goat at one place. This guy’s a prince, and still they all wanted him to take the very best object in the house, and I’m sure you can imagine that many times this would turn out to be one or more of the daughters of the house.

Man, there were some beauties to be seen on this journey, and, rich or poor, they’d always make some effort to be decked out in their best clothes, clean or not, once word had spread that the prince was searching the land for the perfect one he’d met at the ball, the one who hadn’t left her name (more work for me, of course). Anyway, some of the offers these girls made him—or worse, the girls’ mothers!—well, just don’t get me started! Now of course, I wouldn’t have minded taking his place in any of those activities—you know how they’ll sometimes have some poor unlucky bastard stand in for a prince if he has to fight or something?—but do you think he ever offered me the chance? Not even once. As for the women, do you think they even saw me with a prince in the room? No, I was just the one they’d glance at briefly as I knelt at their feet, before they’d turn their gaze right back to the man, who’d just be beaming at them royally.

Now let me tell you about their feet.

A lot of the poorer women never even wore shoes, of course, but just the same they had to be trying on that precious slipper like everyone else. The soles of their feet were always rough and dirty, but there was an incredible strength there too, in the veins that pulsed across the skin, in those terrible, magnificent calluses. Usually, lost in their own reveries, they wouldn’t even notice as my hands ran along the length of their arches, slowly, taking advantage of that moment, feeling all the work they’d ever done in their lives. On one occasion, a woman actually gasped and for a brief second I caught her eye. My hands began to shake. She looked as though she wanted to smack me, or possibly, make love to me, it was hard to tell. I had to look away. Soon it was over.

The rich women were different. Their feet, though not as strong by any means, were certainly clean and quite delicate; sometimes their toenails were painted, some even wore tiny rings on their toes. That was something to see. The initial look on their faces was always the same: hopeful, always hopeful, as though I could work some kind of magic, as though it were up to me to come up with the perfect fit. Then their attention would snap right back to your man, who was always, of course, all smiles. So I took a few chances with these women too. Sometimes my hand, resting on an ankle, would slide a little upwards, nearly approaching the full-length skirt that they had so boldly lifted up to me just seconds earlier. That feeling was electric, it was indescribable, and sometimes I was afraid that I might gasp aloud just like that young peasant woman had done, though I must say the brief looks I got from some of these women were not nearly so kind. And they too made me look away.

But, as in every case, soon would come the inevitable sobbing, the pleading, and Charming would have to apologize once again, profusely and ever so sadly, and we’d be out the door as fast as we could. Weeks of this really did him in.

There was one night where, thoroughly exhausted as well as disappointed, he turned to me and said in the saddest voice you ever heard, “I shall never find her! This has all been in vain! Let us return home now.” So of course I took pity on him, anyone would have. As much as I wouldn’t admit it at the time, the thrill of it all was completely addictive; I never wanted it to stop. And I told him there was just one house left in the area. Just one left. We ought to stop by there, I said, have a meal perhaps (it looked like there might be food there), maybe rest for the night, and in the morning return home. He nodded solemnly, in that way he has, not saying a word. I guess you know whose house this one was. I led him there myself. I led him, and so ended the search forever, and my one true adventure.

Every so often I find myself thinking about what might have happened had we not gone into that last house. Would we still be riding all over the lands searching out every home for every woman living within? Would one day one of them, perhaps in an unguarded moment, have turned away from our hero and glanced back at me, and there, in my face, noticed what would have been a perfect fit? And there would I have found the wife that has long been denied me?

Fortunately there is a lot at the palace that keeps me busy these days, and I don’t have much time to think about anything except the happy couple’s happiness. Who knows if their life is as blissful as they hoped? They seem pretty content, they have a lot of time to themselves to do whatever it is they do. This might be the secret, you know, but who except a royal family can afford such luxury? As for me, what I have are the memories of a time when anything seemed possible, when the future seemed wide open, and the tedium had all but lifted from my life for good.

So the last house. Do you want to know about the house? It was a simple cottage, clean and well-kept. The door had a knocker on it; in fact, it was the nicest thing about the place, intricately carved, old but still functional. We stood there and waited, me balancing the delicate weight in one hand, reaching up to the door with the other. The prince, he just simply stood, an almost beaten man, hands at his sides. I had to knock three times before someone came to the door.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Well, How Did I Get Here?

Today I received an award for this blog here, or really what I should call an appreciation, from my friend Hope, whose blog, Unmapped Country, is always worth reading.

And the award comes with some rules, which is to thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them in your post (see above), to share 7 things about yourself (an excuse for another list!), and to pass this award along to 15 recently discovered blogs and let them know about it.

So now, 7 things about me:

1. I am really good at ironing shirts, but I hate to do it.
2. I am 5’6 ½” but I pretend I’m 5’7”.
3. When I was a kid, I once rode on the shoulders of a clown while he was riding a unicycle. Clowns don't scare me.
4. This.
5. I have a literary crush on J.D. Salinger, which is almost too obvious to mention.
6. I wish I could draw well, but really I'm terrible at it.
7. One time (maybe 15 years ago) I bought a falafel at a cart somewhere around 23rd Street in Manhattan. What do you want on it? Everything? the guy asked me. Sure, I answered. Now I have no idea what “everything” was, exactly, but to this day, I have not stopped thinking about the most perfect falafel of my life.

As for fifteen blogs to recommend, well. I must always give props to the wonderful Li'l Blog of Lists, which includes my favorite list of all time, plus a list I once wrote myself and was generously allowed to post there. And if you're a fan of SZ, as you should be, you might also greatly appreciate Vegetarian Astoria, which will not cover the neighborhood schwarma scene, but will, I am told, feature falafels at some point. (Sooz, do not forget the loukoumades at Telly's Taverna, which they might still give you for free on weeknights!)

And then there's also the fabulous Catherine Newman, whose writing I have admired for years and years and who I once had the pleasure of meeting in Cape Cod, of all places, and who shares with me a great appreciation for this commercial, which, if you also were living in NYC in the late 1970s, needs no explanation.

But I think all the rest of the blogs I read are probably ones that you already know about or that someone is always sending you links from or something so I won't list them here. And I'll probably be back again soon writing about something that I'm reading or that I read a while ago or something that has nothing to do with reading at all. And I'll get in some Salinger too. I mean, it was his own character Buddy Glass who said: "I don't really deeply feel that anyone needs an airtight reason for quoting from the works of writers he loves, but it's always nice, I'll grant you, if he has one."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ten Songs I Wish Were Actually About Me

Sometimes when you are trying to get work done and your mind is all over the place, it helps to make lists like the following. As I learned years and years ago from my good friend SZ.

1. Stephanie Says - The Velvet Underground
Actually Lou Reed spent a lot of time listening to what women said and then writing songs about it. As for Stephanie, the people all call her Alaska. Damn, that girl is cold!

2. Perfect Skin - Lloyd Cole
Not only did she look like Greta Garbo at the age of ten, but she’s got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin.

3. The Element Within Her - Elvis Costello
If only for the line, “But back in the bedroom with her electric heater. He says, Are you cold? She says, No but you are…” Yeah, she’s pretty damn sharp. I wish I had said that.

4. Foxy Lady - Jimi Hendrix
Well, really it’s just this: Foxy lady, I’m coming to getcha!

5. Short Skirt/Long Jacket - Cake
I am certain my fingernails shine like justice, though my voice may not be like dark tinted glass. Yet.

6. Debra - Beck
Not only would he offer me a fresh pack of gum, but he’d pick me up late at night after work and say, Lady, step inside my Hyundai. Who would say no to that?

7. Janine - David Bowie
Aw man, remember when Bowie wrote gorgeous songs like this? I mean, like a Polish wanderer he travels ever onward to her land. Lovely. And were it not just for the jewels, he’d close her hand. Not sure about this, but it sounds good.

8. Tiny Dancer - Elton John
You must have seen her, dancing in the sand.

9. Greetings to the New Brunette - Billy Bragg
“I’m celebrating my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo.” That pretty much says it all.

10. Hey Hey What Can I Do - Led Zeppelin
Do I really need to explain this one? Something about being in the bars with the men who play guitars. Well, actually you know what I'm talking about.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Got By In Time

When I was about eight years old, I had this plan to give my Barbie doll a perm. I’m guessing that this was probably the only Barbie I had left with a reasonable amount of hair since all the others were unfortunately suffering from my poor attempts at haircuts. (This terrible skill at cutting hair would follow me into adulthood. Can you just trim my bangs, my younger daughter has asked. To which I must answer a horrified, No!) Looking for something that would help the perm set, I came upon my mother’s bottle of patchouli on a tiny shelf in the bathroom. There were many bottles on that shelf, but this one was unfamiliar to me. The strong smell of it was so shocking I couldn’t imagine it as anything but medicinal. I was sure it would do the trick.

Some hours later this would result in my mother yelling at me for using practically an entire bottle of her very expensive oil on a doll's hair. For what reason? she demanded. I thought my explanation made perfect sense, but apparently she did not. In fact, she just could not believe what I had done. I should point out that in all my life I had never known my mother to wear patchouli and the three-quarters-full bottle of it remained in the bathroom for years until one day it was just simply gone. My Barbie’s perm, unfortunately, never took.

But meanwhile. That faint smell of patchouli that never really went away worked its way into my sense memory, winding its way through the various food co-ops of my life, until one day many years later I found that I did, in fact, like it. Which is maybe the way anyone comes to like patchouli when they didn’t plan on liking it, you know, gradually and unexpectedly. I’m not saying that I would ever wear it or anything (I mean, really now), but I have been known to burn patchouli incense and thus both horrify and confuse my children. What is that smell? asks my older daughter, horrified and confused. Oh, don’t you like this? I answer, knowing that of course she doesn’t, but also knowing that as she heads down the winding path of food co-ops in her own life she will at least be familiar with it.

You think I’m going somewhere with this? Well, now, let’s just see. A couple weeks ago my friend Kate told me how she had just finished writing a novel. And I reacted the way I always do at the thought of something like that: utter astonishment. I could never write like that, I always tell people who think that I am actually planning to write a novel someday, though I’m not. I could not keep going on one story like that. And Kate surprised me by saying simply, Well, of course, you read a lot of short stories, don’t you? I think writers who like short stories the most write short stories. And there it was, the best explanation I’d ever heard. It’s true. I love short stories. I read books and books of them, even though everyone wants to talk about and read novels. I read novels, too, of course, but I think I might actually like short stories better. Is that possible?

What I like best actually are books of short stories in which the same characters show up in different stories, and I consider Alice Mattison and Edward P. Jones the masters of this. Right now I’m reading books of Amy Bloom’s short stories and I feel like I’m wolfing them down like a bag of potato chips that you don’t even remember opening and I end up having to go back and reread most of them. And the story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter, which I read twice in a row recently because I liked it so much. The thing about stories is that half the time with a really good one it feels like it’s over too soon. But isn’t that kind of the best thing about them? It’s like leaving the party when it’s still going strong, or, you know, like The Jam breaking up at the height of their success. The best kind of short story invites you into a world and then ends with a snap and you are left longing, but only in the very best of ways. This is why I always keep reading them and also why I keep trying to write them.

So now I need to tie this back to patchouli, right? Well, let’s just say that short stories have also worked their way into my sense memory throughout my life and now I can finally admit a kind of preference for them. And I will keep on reading and reading them. And, oh yeah, writing them too.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I Think My Spaceship Knows Which Way to Go

For a long time I’ve suspected that being an astronaut would just be a total hassle. All that equipment you have to wear all the time in such a small enclosed space. Plus the lack of gravity would really get to you, I thought. Really it must be exhausting. And it turns out I’m right, of course, but the thing that I guess I wasn’t considering is that astronauts don’t really care. I’m reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, and the part that I’ve been thinking about for days, the part that probably explains everything about astronauts, is that back in 1962, people at NASA were considering a “one-way, one-man” expedition to the moon.

“It would be cheaper, faster, and perhaps the only way to beat the Russians,” insane Bell Aerosystems engineer John M. Cord is quoted as saying. So basically what this would entail would be sending a man to the moon and then eventually sending a spaceship to pick him up in a few years once they figured out how to do it. And, you know, no worries about supplies or anything! Why, they would send module after module to provide him with all the stuff he might need! On the moon. Hmm. I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.

But here’s the part that gets me, the part that I have been thinking about for days, the thing that really separates ordinary people from astronauts: someone, more than just one person really, would have volunteered for this mission. Basically there are people in this world that would be willing to be sent to the moon for an indefinite amount of time where they’d just be, you know, hanging around for a while. And really you’d just have to wait there until first, someone got around to coming up with an actual solution (Oh god, just put that return lunar module stuff on my desk. I’m just swamped with work! I’ll probably get to it when I get back from my vacation or something.) and then the months, if not years, of testing on earth, while you were maybe just playing a whole bunch of solitaire.

As for myself, I don’t even really like to carry a bag if I can help it. You know, I just throw my money and keys and things in my pocket and that’s that. And I get kind of queasy these days just watching my daughters ride a carousel. And, don’t get me wrong, I don’t always enjoy the company of people, but I think that basically when it comes down to it I tend to like the occasional conversation.

So I wonder if maybe that is the one real distinction between people on earth, not male or female, gay or straight, Dave Matthews fan or not. It may all come down to: would you be willing to be sent to the moon for an unknown number of years with a good chance that you’d be up there just kind of waiting for some “scientists” to come up with a way to get you back? And maybe trying not to panic too much or get a little too, you know, antsy? I mean, that's maybe all it comes down to really. Well, that and people who like relish and people who don't.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Summer Day

This morning I took my younger daughter to her swim lessons at the lake we’ve been going to for I think seven summers now. She’s been doing these lessons for the past two weeks, but today was the first time I took her. Usually, in past summers, it was me taking my girls to these swim lessons, and so today I planned to approach it antisocially as I have been doing the past couple of years, which involved sitting way over to the side at these picnic tables and reading The New Yorker or whatever book I would be distractedly managing to work through the entire summer. But when I got there today I noticed that the picnic tables were not shaded as they usually were, but blazingly right in the sun. This is not the kind of day to be messing with sun. I took my magazine over to the shaded benches where all the other moms were talking about things their kids said and soccer tryouts and that sort of thing and I tried to read in my usual distracted way. I squinted way out at the dock where my daughter was practicing dives and I could just make her out.

Then I noticed someone sitting all alone at one of the picnic tables the way I used to do, not even minding the sun, and reading a book. I was immediately interested. Then I realized that I actually knew this woman, that we had talked over the years, mostly at picnic tables at this very lake, and I headed over there. As I approached I saw the name Mary Oliver on the book she was reading and I knew then that I was heading for something good.

The book was called A Poetry Handbook, and in it Mary Oliver kind of guides readers on how to write poetry, but in such a beautiful and graceful way, as she can’t help doing. And so this woman and I talked about Mary Oliver and poetry and Mary Oliver poems and writing in general (she too is a writer) and it was then that I began to realize that the knotted feeling in my stomach that I had brought to the lake with me was slowly unknotting. I have noticed something like this happening to me a couple times before in the past year, but the first time was last summer where at this huge retrospective Picasso exhibit at the Met, I literally felt something just lift up and out of my body. I mean, not to get all clichĂ©d and everything, but it was a feeling of transcendence. When we got through the Picasso exhibit, I told my friend Alisa that I needed to go back to the beginning and go through it again, and so she went off to look at medieval paintings, and I lingered there, noticing, always noticing, the lightness that had come over me.

And so here at the lake, talking about the Mary Oliver book, it was happening again. I know that I’ve said this many times before, and even here, but there’s that line from Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” that I can’t stop thinking about: “I don't know exactly what a prayer is/I do know how to pay attention…” Which, exactly.

After a while of talking, our kids came out of the lake, and I said to this woman, this almost friend of mine, Hey, do you want to get together sometime? My question kind of took us both by surprise, and she said, Sure, that would be great. Before I left, she told me to look for this other Mary Oliver poem that I didn’t know called “Wild Geese.” I think you’ll like it, she said.

Here’s how it ends:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Scary Stories

One day when I was about 13 or 14 I stayed home sick from school and somehow came across the book Rosemary’s Baby on the bookshelf in our hallway. Several hours later I was to be found frozen in bed having read the book in its entirety and too terrified to move. The important thing to know is that it is a book about devil worshipers, and you’d think by then I’d have learned my lesson regarding this topic, but clearly I did not. Even now I’m not sure I can think of a scarier book.

I don’t know if it’s the devil-worshiping topic itself that was so terrifying to me, though there was that (and strangely being raised by atheists somehow failed to make me doubt the devil’s existence). But the one part that really stuck with me, and it's a theme you'll see again and again in scary stories, was the fact that Rosemary goes to her doctor and explains the whole story to him and you think that finally someone will believe her, but the doctor simply leads her back to the devil worshipers who have convinced him that she is simply crazy and needs their care. It’s like that short story, “I Only Came to Use the Phone” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which ends up doing the same sort of thing. I mean, take look at the title. A woman’s car breaks down and she gets a ride on a bus that’s going to a mental hospital. She gets admitted as a patient and no one believes that she isn’t. She is ultimately forced to stay there forever. Now, that’s scary!

But just the other day I found myself rereading Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which I’d first read about 12 years ago. I totally remember the experience of reading it on the subway and looking around in horror and wondering if maybe I had to stop reading it because it was so disturbing and creepy. It wasn’t scary exactly and yet, had I been alone in bed reading I might have remained there frozen for some hours. Yet reading it the other day was a totally different experience. Really I just took total pleasure in its creepiness. I could say that it starts like all Paul Auster books, but since that was the first book he wrote I guess I could say, It starts like all the Paul Auster books that would come after it but at this point it was still quite unique, in which an ordinary guy who just had some tragic event occur in his life finds himself in an extraordinary circumstance. And eventually he is plunged into madness. So it isn’t exactly scary, in the true sense of the word, but there is much to disturb the reader. At least there’re no devil worshipers in that one.

But what has gotten me thinking about all this is that right now I’m reading (and by reading I mean at the exceedingly slow pace of like five pages every three days, which is how I read books in the summer) Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. You probably know Shirley Jackson from her famous story “The Lottery,” but it’s almost a shame if you do because everything else she wrote is just so damn funny and purely a joy to read. But is it scary? This is what I keep asking myself and, to be honest, complaining about to my entire family. This book is so much fun to read, but it’s not scary. The quote from the New York Times Book Review on the cover says, “Makes your blood chill and your scalp prickle.”

Well, no, it doesn’t, really. Sure there are parts with doors unexpectedly locking and mysterious writing found on the walls of the house. But really I find myself more pleasurably distracted with things that the character of Eleanor thinks, to calm herself: “I have red shoes, she thought—that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side and crack my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons.” And really there are some scary things going on in the house, like a room that is suddenly covered in blood or an area next to the nursery that is unspeakably cold or the fact that Hill House itself seems to be alive. But it hardly seems to matter. So this makes me wonder: am I no longer so easily scared? Or is it just that I can no longer be scared by stories? Or is it that the last ten pages of the Jackson book are so terrifying that when I (finally!) get to them I won't be able to speak for hours afterward?

Coming soon: answers to these questions.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Assigned Reading

So now we’re reading tenth grade essays, in which the students are asked to write about a character in a work of literature that has to stand up for something. Thus, there are about 1,000,000 essays on To Kill a Mockingbird (set in the “sleepy, prejudiced town of Maycomb County”) and The Odyssey (“After the suitors were done mooching Odysseus’s food and drinks and servants, they started trash talking him behind his back.”) and Romeo and Juliet (who stood up for love! Love!) and Of Mice and Men (for a reason I can’t quite determine since often it’s the fact that George stood up for killing Lenny). Occasionally there are the science fiction ones, in which you are thrown directly and without warning into Middle-earth since you obviously know what they’re talking about (you don’t) or the Twilight ones (which are, without exception, terrible, and which are also, without exception, written in that big round girly handwriting).

But the essays I have liked most turn out to be the ones on The Catcher in the Rye. (Man, it always comes back to Salinger for me, doesn’t it?) Partly for the observations (the fact that Holden smokes so much is always commented on, which I find hilarious) and partly because it reminds me of what a great book it is and partly because it reminds me of my hometown. My favorite quote so far: “He makes it back to his hometown of New York City where he finds phones at every turn.” Yup, that’s exactly right.

And of course this makes me think about the books we read in high school. Despite the fact that I went to one of those sciencey high schools in New York, English was always my favorite subject, though I can’t say that any of my English teachers there were as good as my aforementioned seventh grade one. I recall Mr. Casella talking about something something transcendentalism in The Grapes of Wrath, which to this day I don’t really get, and the part in The Great Gatsby (a book I truly loved) where F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the ash heap in Flushing Meadows, which eventually became the site of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Though actually the thing I remember most about that book was the look of surprised delight on Mr. Casella’s face when, after calling on my friend Loraine, she shrugged and said, Well, like, you know the way daisies are like, white on the outside, and like, yellow on the inside, so, like Daisy was like pure on the outside, but really not on the, like, inside? Did he really fall for this? Could he not see this high-level thinking was pretty much impossible for anyone but a writer of Cliffs Notes, whose insight Loraine had sought five minutes before class? He could not. Because wouldn’t you want to believe that a student could actually come up with something like that on her own? And Loraine, smarty though she was, had a way of talking that was truly admirable in its teenagery-ness (Wait, do you, like, like him?), which also added to the appeal, I suspect.

The unfortunate thing is that some otherwise amazing books seem much less so when they are assigned by a teacher, which is why I suspect I never read another Steinbeck book or even Dickens, after slogging through the first (!) 800 pages of David Copperfield and then just giving up. It’s not that I disliked any of these books. I think it’s just the fact of being assigned books that always threw me off, which is something I’ve addressed here before. Due to some kind of gap in my education, I never developed any particular respect for authority, which was somewhat evident in high school. (My physics teacher called me “fresh” and wanted to fail me based purely on my bad attitude, but could not because I had passed the physics Regents. Rock on, state tests!) So my point is that once a book was assigned, I always read it, but there was something kind of ruined for me, which I think happens to a lot of kids. If you go back, say, years later, and read all those assigned books for the first time or even reread them, you will truly love them. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that teachers should not be assigning these books. It's just that, perhaps unfortunately, the best books we read are often ones we’ve chosen ourselves.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

It's a Sky Blue Sky

“They looked down on me, thinking I was some jerk to believe in the Lord Christ.” This is the first line of an essay I read yesterday written by a seventh grader in M___. The question this year on the big state test asks the kids to think of a time they were proud and then write about it. The young man quoted above was proud that he did not fight the kids who taunted him, but rather quoted at length from the Bible, which he considered a greater victory, though I think it’s safe to say that the other kids probably considered him even more of a jerk afterward.

So what are seventh graders proud of? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that many of them talk about winning some kind of baseball or basketball or soccer game, which almost always includes a detailed play-by-play of the action that my coworker Jenni likened to the Phil Rizzuto section of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” There are also dance and gymnastics competitions and trying out for cheerleading. (Everyone at my table hates the cheerleaders.) There are unnecessary descriptions of simply everything: “I walked up to my friend, whose eyes were like pools of blue-green water.” But then sometimes you get that Bible-quoting kid or the boy who was proud of holding his breath for two minutes and thirty seconds, and who pointed out that the worst thing that could happen would be that he’d black out. His goal is to reach three minutes. Perhaps the best thing about these papers is how the kids throw in random vocabulary words that are almost always used awkwardly. These are the sentences we quote to each other all day long: “The time I was supercilious was a benevolent day.”

And this got me thinking about actually learning the word “inevitable” in the seventh grade. One day I didn’t know this word and the next day I did and suddenly I couldn’t imagine how I’d never known it before. We had this great English teacher, who may have been all of 24 at the time, who gave us extra credit anytime we saw one of our vocabulary words in real life. We just had to write down the sentence it was in and show it to her. And at the beginning of every class there were always kids rushing up to her with scraps of paper scribbled with sentences containing words like “balderdash” and “harried.” And most of us did exceptionally well on the vocabulary tests that year too. It was, you know, inevitable.

But back to today’s seventh graders, who sometimes write about Justin Bieber and sometimes about learning to do ollies on their skateboards and sometimes just want to make things perfectly clear: “My jaw dropped all the way to my blue crocs that were in style then.”

Of course, I'm sure it's no surprise that reading these all day can be tedious and that sometimes we skim them (especially the sports ones, oh man, the sports ones), but that sometimes there is that seventh grader that shines as brightly as the daisy yellow sun in the cornflower blue sky. Wait, someone will say. Listen to this! And we'll all marvel at the fact that some kid out there will go on to do great things, even though most of these essays leave us generally discouraged about the youth of America.

But here, the last line of a baseball essay about the last game of the season, in which a girl pitched a winning game against a team that included a mean girl named Angelica, who had been taunting her all season: “I remember the hoots and howls of the crowd when I threw that changeup and the look on Angelica’s face when she swung five seconds too early.” We all know that look. Sorry, Angelica.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Paper and Pens for Everyone!

For about five minutes today I thought I would see David Sedaris at Proctors Theater in Schenectady in a couple of weeks, but that thought was quickly dashed when I saw the ticket prices, which started at $95. Which isn’t to say that David isn’t worth $95 (I mean, he probably is), but I think my problem is the idea of the ticket price. Did I think the tickets would be $12? Um, maybe. And also, I did wonder what exactly we would be seeing for $95. The only other time I have been to Proctors Theater was when I took my daughters to see The Nutcracker there some years ago and there was, in fact, a live horse onstage pulling a carriage. I’m not drawing any conclusions here exactly, but maybe there is more to this show than just David standing in front of a lectern and reading from his latest book. Even though David standing and reading is pretty much all you’d need for a good time. (However, David being pulled onstage by a live horse might actually be worth the so-called price of admission.)

I know that David has to make a living and all and I’m not arguing against that, but it makes me wonder if I’m not going because of the ticket price (and I think I have mentioned that there were times when literally the only books I could read were David’s), then who else isn’t going? And we can all imagine who is going and how David’s fabulous chain-smoking mother would have hated them all. But then it occurs to me that maybe someone getting paid lots of money for being funny and a good writer is exactly right. I mean, if you have something worthwhile to offer shouldn’t you actually be rewarded for it? Shouldn’t David get to live a life of luxury simply for being a kind of human antidepressant? Maybe.

I mean, we all agree that J.K. Rowling was well-rewarded, right? Here was this poor, single mom who could only write in the few hours when her daughter was napping, and yet somehow, during these few hours, she managed to write all of the first Harry Potter book. (For this alone, I think she should have been rewarded. Most of my own writing ends up happening when I should be doing something else. Like right now I should be researching the Civil War, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But first.) So suddenly J.K. Rowling is rich and famous and we love her story, we all just love it. Because her books are fantastic and she worked so hard to get where she is! And then there are other authors, no less talented, who had a much easier ride. And we wonder if maybe they should have struggled more or shouldn’t be getting quite so much money. It’s like when your favorite band gets signed to a major record label and you immediately decide that they’ve sold out. (Is this an apt metaphor for these modern times? What exactly is a major record label?)

But think about the best books you’ve ever read, how they’ve stayed with you forever. How someone was able to take mere words and turn them into pictures in your mind. Shouldn’t everyone who ever did that for you get to live in a nice big house with maybe a lifelong supply of paper and pens? (I mean, actually I think that everyone should, if they so choose, get to live in a nice big house with a lifelong supply of paper and pens, but that is precisely the direction our country has been furiously heading away from.) Though, of course, this line of thinking leads me back to the idea that David Sedaris should be for The People and maybe his tickets could be a little less pricey. Is my love and devotion simply not enough for this guy? I mean, really.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Based On No Recommendations

Sometimes you find a book and it will be exactly the right book to read exactly when you need to be reading it. Or like a few months ago when a friend suggested I read Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts/The Day of the Locust, which were both not only perfect but were exactly what I needed to be reading at that time. And this I have to say is rare for me actually since, and I have to be straight up about this, I don’t like book recommendations. Probably the worst thing someone could get me as a gift is a book. That’s truly insane, but it is the truth. I might read about a book and then want to get it, but when people I like and respect tell me about good books they are reading, well, it has almost the opposite effect. It feels like, and maybe this is the problem, homework. Yeah, fine, force this book on me and I will suddenly have no interest in it. However, I can easily be tricked into reading something in a much more subtle way.

Once many years ago my friend Rachel told me about how she saw some high school kid reading Brideshead Revisted on the subway and what thrilled her was how he had a huge grin on his face the entire time he was reading. This made me read the book. Or if a book (City of Thieves by David Benioff) is just lying on someone’s coffee table, say, and I pick it up and the person says, Oh my god, that book was fantastic! I will say, Oh really? And then a few weeks later take it out of the library. (Note: that book was fantastic.) And sometimes an approach like, Well, I really liked this book, but whatever, works wonders for me.

It’s not so much that I don’t want to read what other people are reading. Except try as I might I could not get into The Corrections. And I don’t feel like reading those Girl with the etc. books. Or the Twilight books because, well. And since there is always the panic with every single book I read that once I am done I am certain that I will never read another good book again, you’d think that I would like book recommendations. But I just usually need to get to books in a very round-about way. So that it seems like I’m the one who decided to read the book without any outside intervention.

The strangest (and possibly unrelated) thing about all this is what I end up reading when I have to kill time in a bookstore. An entire store of books to choose from and I will end up reading, oh, I don’t know, Kathy Griffin’s autobiography (Brooke Shields is really nice!). Or some graphic novels that I always mean to buy but never do. So you could say that left to my own devices I don’t always make the wisest choices. But they are my choices! And usually when someone has lent me or bought me a book, I will either try to read it and fail or put it aside for a long time and eventually read it when I am good and ready. I can’t fight this weird resistance to book recommendations. But I do always take note of everything everyone else is reading.

Because really it’s just the approach that matters. I think this is because the most vivid memory I have of this sort of thing is my mother, for some reason uncharacteristically low key, handing me the book The Catcher in the Rye one day the summer before high school, and calmly saying, I think you might like this. Just that simple sentence, as though it hardly mattered at all. And it seemed to me that there was no reason at all not to read it. And so I did.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Really Knocks Me Out

The very first author I wrote to was Judy Blume in what I think was the sixth grade. Like pretty much all girls my age I had read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret so many times that I could practically recite the entire book by heart (“We moved the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up.”). Although I will say that though Judy Blume’s books appealed to me because they were just about ordinary kids, I was also drawn to the great Paul Zindel, whose books were always set in Staten Island and whose main characters were always miserable and lonely and freaks of some kind. Anyway, after writing to Judy Blume, I was greatly disappointed to receive from Judy a very friendly but unmistakable form letter, since of course being so busy she couldn’t possibly answer every fan letter she got, much as she wanted to. What made this even more of a crushing blow was that another girl in my class had written to the much-lesser-known YA author Paula Danziger and had received a handwritten letter in green ink! With drawings and everything! So disappointed was I by Judy Blume’s response that I didn’t write to another author for years. But then when I did, it was a different story entirely.

You know that thing that Holden Caulfield says in The Catcher in the Rye? “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” This is pretty much the reason I started writing to authors again.

Way back before the internets were invented, this was more of a challenge than it is now, but it turns out that I was usually up to the task. Which is why, when I happened to look through an old Manhattan phone book (thanks, Dad, for never throwing things like that out!) about fifteen years ago, and found David Sedaris’s address on Thompson Street, well, I figured that was reason enough to write. And he sent me back a lovely typewritten letter from France, which is where he was living at the time, and in addition to a bunch of other things he mentioned how the day before, while taking a walk in the woods, he saw a fox and screamed like a girl and ran. (Oh David, may you never stop screaming like a girl.) After this, well, I have pretty much always tried to write to authors that I particularly like, sometimes for the mere fact of thanking them for their great writing. It’s not like I’m writing to authors regularly or anything. Just, you know, maybe once a year or so. But take note, Judy Blume, you were the first and last author to respond with a form letter!

And now we come to my most recent experience of writing to an author, an author I once dared to disparage on this very blog. What happened was that I was pretty sure he wasn’t very funny, even though much of the literary world seemed to be certain that he was. And then I read something recently he wrote and I found it funny! This was kind of startling actually. I went in so sure I would hate it and I didn’t! Either I had been wrong all along or his writing was now completely different. I have no idea. Though I’m not sure if I should spend too much time pondering why the complete turn around. (I mean, wasn’t it the great poet Madonna who said “life is a mystery”?) Thus after this transforming experience, I figured, well, I’d been going around knocking this guy for some time (though it is safe to say he had no idea) and I decided to come clean. So I wrote an email to him apologizing for thinking he wasn’t funny when he was in fact funny! And he wrote back very graciously accepting my apology, saying he was funny enough. Which just confirms the fact that authors really like being written to. I mean, despite notable exceptions, you might even say that authors write for an audience. And of course, if you think about it, people who spend a good portion of their lives writing are probably the sort of people that are going to write you back.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Not Actually Reading

What happens when you mean to write a blog about reading and you’ve stopped reading for a time? I mean, no, that’s not right. I am always reading something. It’s just that I haven’t read an actual book in a while. How did this happen? It’s kind of hard to figure out, but it’s the truth. Just recently I could not keep up with the New Yorkers arriving seemingly every two minutes and now I’m practically racing down to the mailbox every thirty seconds to see when the next one is here.

This is new for us, by the way, this having the mail arrive in our actual house. We have a mailbox in what might be considered our vestibule (if I knew actually what a vestibule was and I only think I do) and every morning our mailman drives up in his little almost-truck with the steering wheel on the wrong side, sits in there for a while, sorting the mail and smoking, and then actually delivers the mail into our vestibular mailbox. We have a little wire thingie at the bottom of our mailbox in which we can leave our letters to be mailed, and he just takes them away! But see, before this, for ten years we’d had to go to the post office to get our mail because where we lived did not have actual mail delivery.

Now where we lived previously, in North Chatham, the post office was just across the street from us in what was once the parlor of what was once Alberta’s house. It was Alberta’s house for a long time and Alberta was the postmaster for a long time too, but now it’s just an emptyish house with a post office inside it. And for a long time I liked having a post office that was inside an actual house, but I have lately discovered that having mail delivered in my own actual house is even better. Even so, this has very little to do with why I haven’t been reading books lately. I want to read books, don’t get me wrong, but I keep forgetting to buy books or take them out of the library and then the evening comes and there is not a single book to read. And all our old books are still packed up in their 60 plus boxes, just in case I was interested in rereading anything, which I might have been, if I had access to them. So then I just read various things online, and somehow hours go by, but really it's just not the same.

Yet sometimes you kind of need a small break like this. You need to get all distracted and even bored and restless and then, when it’s time to come back to books, you will remember why it is that you keep reading them and writing about reading them. As long as books are around, you will always have something to do.