Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Finding My Salon

Years ago, my sister Lindsay and I went to see Howard’s End together, and I remember how she and I both yearned for a salon. Not the kind at which you get pampered and have your hair cut (although those are nice, too), but the kind in which people gather to have interesting discussions. How nice, we both thought, to be a young woman (as we both were in those days) and not to have to worry about such things as trying to find a job at which you were not miserable (job-related misery being something with which we were both a little too familiar) and could earn a decent living (something we were both struggling to do). Instead, you had plenty of inherited wealth and got to host salons at your home, gathering all sorts of interesting people together for intellectual and philosophical discussions and debates. Really. Why can’t we have professional salons in this country and get paid for doing such things? I’ll gladly apply for CEO.

Around that same time, I went in search of such a group through The Utne Reader, which in those days (I don’t know if they still do) would hook you up with like-minded people who wanted to meet on a regular basis to discuss ideas in the magazine (as well as those not in the magazine). My ex-boyfriend and I attended a few of these Utne Reader salons, as they were called, but my experience was that the most interesting people (the woman who was a documentary film maker who’d had out-of-body experiences, for example) never seemed to attend on a regular basis, or they moved away just when I was beginning to feel we were really becoming friends. Instead, we were stuck with the man who clearly suffered from narcolepsy, practically falling asleep in the middle of sentences, and a few pseudo-intellectuals who really got on my nerves.

When I met Bob, this was the sort of thing he was seeking as well. I decided to try again and took him to an Utne Reader salon. He thought it was one of the most humorless, everyone-takes-him-or-herself-way-too-seriously events he’d ever attended. Needless to say, I never took him to another one, and I soon dropped out of it for good. He and I eventually joined a book discussion group that sort of filled the need, but not really. I mean, what I really wanted was a group of people who wanted to get together and talk about anything interesting that came to mind: an article read, or a movie seen, or the weird religious sect that required women practically to dress like pilgrims while the men wore jeans and t-shirts like everyone else in our society, that insisted on marching around outside the library handing out pamphlets. I wanted people with all different kinds of perspectives, people who would challenge each other, even disagree with one another (politely, of course. There were no “I-hate-yous” or “You’re-so-stupid-I –can’t-believe-I-listen-to-yous” in Howard’s End). I just couldn’t seem to organize such a group.

Now, many years later, I’m finding what I wanted. It’s not what I ever would have imagined back in those days (“Emily, just wait about fifteen years, and you’ll get what you want online.” Huh?), but I’m meeting all kinds of fascinating people, people challenging me to think, to read, to write. Litlove’s blog was the one most recently described as being an online salon, and I couldn’t agree more with that observation. She has such an open, thinking mind, and she inspires so many others to come to her “house,” where they can find comfortable couches for their own minds to wander and explore. As the perfect hostess, she’s always encouraging about what everyone has to say.

Really, though, all the blogs I read on a regular basis do this. I don’t belong to just one salon: I belong to a whole slew of them. Granted, many of them have overlapping membership, but that’s exactly the way it should be, all these interesting minds gathering in different places and constantly welcoming new members to the fold. We debate; we question; we laugh; and we also cry together.

So, I’ve found what I wanted oh-so-long ago. Now, I’ve just got to work on that plenty of inherited wealth part. Then I could spend all my time in salons without having to worry about that pesky little “earning a decent living” stuff (because, you know, even writing for salon.com won't put food on anyone's table).

Saturday, July 28, 2007

I'm Not That Kind of a Gal

I’m so excited. QC has been offered a book deal, by Hyperion no less, because some (obviously brilliant) editor there has discovered her blog and realized she’s publishing-worthy. I can’t wait till the book is published. I’ll be the first in line at Border’s to get a copy, nonchalantly telling people, “Oh yeah, I was reading her blog LONG before this was published,” despite the fact that I was about two years late to the party. I’ll take the book home, fall out of my chair, and roll around the floor in hysterics the way I do when I read Three Men in a Boat or a collection of David Rakoff essays. Speaking of Rakoff, I hope one day to hear QC on NPR’s This American Life. She’s already begun blogging some on the experience of writing the book (or procrastinating, as the case may be), and I’m looking forward to reading more (since I missed out on the whole discovering Julie Powell’s blog before the book was written thing). It’s all going to be so much fun.

Isn’t it nice that Pollyanna has taken up residence in my blog? Uh-oh, here comes The Wicked Witch. She’s shoving Pollyanna into the oven and saying to me, “Come on. You’re even greener than I am. We all know exactly what you’re thinking.” Damn her. She’s right.

I’m extremely jealous. Not because QC doesn’t deserve her good fortune: she absolutely does. I’m not even jealous because I’m aspiring to be a published writer these days. Besides, if I do still have any of those aspirations, it’s to be a published writer of ghost stories and children’s books, not of anything that resembles this blog. What makes me jealous is that I’m not the sort of person who ever has such luck.

If I were to decide I wanted to turn my blog into a book (despite recently being classified among the best of the best bloggers by both Litlove and Charlotte, honors of which I’m so proud, I plan to come back long after I’m dead and haunt people with them, forcing cursors to click on old archives), I’d have to beg some agent to take me on, probably as some sort of pity case. She’d spend all her time trying to convince me not to aim very high, suggesting I try Two Cousins Press, a little known outfit in Neverheardofit, KA. They mostly publish books on quilting, but they’re beginning to branch out a little, and my book will be a great experiment for them. Cousin #1 would agree to publish the book for 2% royalties and then, as my editor, tell me they sort of like the concept but would like my book to be far more serious than my blog. She’d proceed to delete all humorous passages from the sample pages I’d send, and we’d end up with a 98-page book that never sold out its first print run of 250.

That’s the sort of person I am, the sort who fantasizes that someone from Knopf will happen upon my blog, call me up, and say, “Have you ever tried your hand at writing fiction? I have an idea for a series of books. Do you think you’d be interested?” I’d go on to become a 21st-century cross between Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner, writing a series of books that all take place in the same location, featuring different dysfunctional members of the community. In reality I end up practically paying Two Cousins Press to publish me.

I’m the sort of person who’s had to work and fight for every promotion she’s ever gotten in the business world. You know how some people will come into a company, work there for less than a year, do absolutely nothing spectacular, and the next thing you know, they’re being promoted to VP of Nothing Spectacular, making twice the salary at which they were hired? Well, that wouldn’t be me. I’m the one putting in long hours, being whipped by my perfectionist and ethical slave drivers, refusing to “play the game,” especially when doing so requires cheating, and five years after being hired, I’m still slogging away at my entry-level position with my 3% annual raises.

I’m the sort who if she goes off and is offered a job elsewhere, making $10K more than she’s making now, has a boss who says, “See ya!” Meanwhile, the woman in the next-door cubicle, who dumps all her work on the assistants and does nothing but complain all day long about this horrible company for which she works, goes off and gets another company to offer her $5K more than she’s currently making. This company that can’t wait to see me go offers her $20K not to leave.

I’m the wife who will tell her husband that eating free range, organic eggs is actually good for his heart, that they are full of Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Despite the fact that his cholesterol levels are fantastic and that his doctor claims he’s in great shape, he’ll complain, because we happen to have them twice in one week, that we’re eating way too many eggs. Then one day, he’ll read in The New York Times that organic, free-range eggs are good for the heart, and suddenly, having eggs for breakfast every morning becomes a wonderful plan. The New York Times, that bastion of responsible news reporting, never having misrepresented anything, nor having hired journalists who just make up stories, is far more trustworthy than a silly old wife who dabbles in nutrition as a hobby.

I’m even the sort who can patronize a restaurant for years, encourage everyone to go there, be loyal to it even when some grand new place opens up right across the street. One night, it will be overly crowded, and I’ll politely wait my turn for a seat, asking for and getting no special treatment. Suddenly, some obnoxious person traveling into town from Ohio or someplace will waltz in, demand the best table, complain about the service, and have everyone fawning all over him. He’ll be scraping the last crumbs off his dessert plate just as I’m being seated.

So, yes, The Wicked Witch is right. I’m a little green these days. It’ll pass, though. It always does. Jealousy is an emotion that, contrary to what one might read in some sexy, trendy women’s magazine, doesn’t do me a bit of good. I’m pulling Pollyanna out of that oven and shoving this green monster in there instead.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Best Reads Jan. 1 - June 30, 2007

Continuing with my “tradition” begun last year of choosing my six favorite titles of the first half of the year, to be followed by the six favorite of the second half when the year’s over, I’ve gone through my book journal and had a very tough time choosing a mere six. I’m restraining myself from including the three Rose Macaulays I’ve read thus far this year, just because that would make this list too boring. She’s represented here by one book (and, man, was it hard deciding which one), but she’s definitely been my “author of 2007.” So, here you go, alphabetically by author (the librarian in me having her way this year).

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart.
Why did it take me so many years to get around to reading this marvelous classic? So much packed into so little. I found the stark, straight-and-narrow storytelling (no wandering off the path to look at things along the way here) to be very similar to Biblical prose. Not since the last time I saw the movie Black Robe (by the way, I will wander off the path here to tell you that both book by Brian Moore and movie are excellent. In fact, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies) have I been so excited by imaginings of the misunderstandings and the problems they create when missionaries arrive in unfamiliar territory. Achebe did such a wonderful job with that as well as with pointing out the similarities in the religious beliefs of both cultures. I must read more by him.

Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound
Aeschylus’s Prometheus is so wonderfully sympathetic and human. You just want to go up there and set him free. And talk about a man who knew all about human nature. Aeschylus was he. Too bad in all these years, we still haven’t learned from him (Bush, Cheney, and Rove must have been high on coke and browsing the Cliff Notes, taking in nothing, when Aeschylus was assigned to them as students).

Fisher, M.F. K. The Gastronomical Me
“Oh, oh, oh!” are the first eloquent, articulate, and revealingly informative words that come to mind when I think of this book. I’ll try to be a little more descriptive: talk about perfect food writing. The last time I was this mesmerized when reading about food was when I read Laurie Colwin years ago. To be able to wrap memories, places, and food in such wonderful little packages is a gift I so envy.

Macauly, Rose. They Were Defeated
Really, I mean it. Put this one at the top of your TBR list/pile if it’s not already there, if you find these sorts of things the least bit intriguing: witch hunts; the ins-and-outs-of the history of the Church of English; the English Civil War; Cambridge in its prime, with the likes of John Milton wandering around; strong female characters; and doomed romances you want to be doomed. 445 pages, and it still wasn’t long enough for me. (Also, this one helped distract me and get me through the devastating days right after Lady died.)

Maupin, Armistead. Tales of the City
Made me want to be young and stupid again. Made me wish my youth hadn’t been wasted on me. Made me want to live in San Francisco. Made me remember how much I enjoyed reading William Barnhardt’s Emma Who Saved My Life. Made me wish I could write novels with such precision and could be such a warm, sympathetic, and witty social critic. Made me so happy I still had five more books to read in the original series and that he’s now got a new one. (Yes, Litlove, you definitely need to dig it out.)

Wolff, Tobias. Old School
Wolff’s This Boy’s Life came out to rave reviews when I was working at the library, and it’s one of those books I’ve always wanted to read but never have. When Ian came to visit us a couple of years ago, he raved about this one, so I thought maybe I’d go with it first. Since then, many of you have raved about it as well. What a marvelous book! I never imagined all that was going to be packed into it and how many provocative questions it would raise: how much does class really matter? What, exactly, is “honor?” How readily do others forgive past transgressions in light of someone’s huge success? Are all writers, on some levels, plagiarists? And he managed to raise all those questions while providing such a sympathetic protagonist, one in whom all writers can surely see themselves. I loved his hero worship of authors and his utter contempt when they fell out of his good graces (could it be due to familiarity with such feelings?). Oh yes, and did I mention it’s also funny? Skip Prep, if you’re thinking about reading it, and read this one instead. (I’d better stop here. I could write a thesis longer than the book itself.)

So, there you have it. Here’s hoping the second half of the year is as good as the first. Last week, I was in a tiny bit of a scary slump of not finding anything that appealed, but this week I’m back in the groove, so I have a feeling it might be, especially since I’ve kicked it off with the likes of More Tales of the City, Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, and the big surprise, Theodore Dreiser’s Hoosier Holiday.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Why I Blog

Ian tagged me for this meme, and I must say, it's had me a bit puzzled, which is why I've been doing things like writing about hangovers and hotdogs instead of tackling it. (In fact, I almost ignored it for another day in favor of one on my favorite reads of the first half of 2007, but that one will have to wait.) I mean, should I pretend there are all kinds of really good, sane, altruistic reasons I blog (after all, I wouldn't really be pretending. I've got some hidden away in a dusty box somewhere that I could drag out if they're not too pissed at me to let me), or should I just come right out and say blogging has been one of the biggest ego boosts I've ever gotten in my life? Well, now that I've said it, and I haven't had to go in search of it, I might as well go with the latter.

When I was in high school, I didn't have much of a reputation for anything except maybe being one of the most quiet kids in the school. However, I was considered to be a good writer, as evidenced by the fact that I was chosen as the copy editor and writer of our yearbook; all the kids in my creative writing class praised what I wrote (although we all praised everything everyone wrote, so that's not the greatest evidence); and my English teachers encouraged me to enter writing contests. But I was in a very small school in a small city in North Carolina, not New York or Paris or something. We've all read plenty of stories of people who thought their talents were greater than they were due to a lack of any real competition.

College was much of the same. I worked on the literary magazine for a semester, but quickly became very disillusioned by the rather nasty ways in which this small group of people, all full of themselves and pretty convinced they would have been sitting around that round table at the Algonquin or something, had they been alive at the time, approached the efforts of their fellow students. I wasn't about to let them see anything I'd written, despite the fact they kept asking if I planned to submit something, and I don't think I even lasted a full semester with them. My professors praised my writing ability, which was something, especially in what is regarded as an excellent English department, but once again, this was still a pretty small world, and they were comparing me to other students. I knew full well what kind of efforts some of those students were putting into their work.

When I worked at the library, I would write tributes to retiring colleagues and humorous columns for our staff newsletters, and everyone, once again, told me I was great. Now this made me stand up and take notice somewhat, because, you know, librarians read. A lot. If they thought I could write, having all that material for comparison right at their fingertips, well, then, maybe I could start taking myself seriously as a writer.

What does someone who takes herself seriously as a writer do? Why, she joins a writers' group, of course! I did. I chose a group of women writers, thinking this would be a nice sympathetic bunch with whom I could comfortably explore my craft. I have no idea why I thought this. Looking back over my life as a "writer," with a few exceptions, it has almost always been male friends and mentors who have encouraged me most to write. I should have known it would be disastrous, and it was. You know those all-so-earnest, intellectual-poser types who wear thick glasses, not because they have to (like I do, which I don't. I wear contact lenses), but because they think it makes them look more studious and serious, and who try to make those who don't have degrees from Ivy League schools feel like idiots? Well, we had four of those in our group, and then we had me. Needless to say, nothing I wrote "rang true."

Writers are nothing if they're not sensitive. I struggled along with this group for a while, thinking all this criticism was good for me. Eventually, though, it wore me down, and I didn't stop to think something was wrong with the group. I just decided it was me and my lack of talent. You know, maybe a woman really shouldn't try to write a ghost story with a sympathetic male character and a touch of humor.

One night I had dinner with my former boss and another colleague, and they slapped me around a bit for paying any attention to what that group had to say. Without actually coming right out and saying it, they made it clear the problem had been that group, not my writing. I was once again buoyed, so when people then started encouraging me to blog, I decided to give it a try.

That first try was unsuccessful, but then I tried again, and here we are. Maybe it happened because I had absolutely no expectations, but I've now found the sympathetic, encouraging, and wonderful support group I was seeking when I joined that horrible writers' group. And in a world where the competition is fearsome (not to mention international), I'm getting praise for what I do. So, yes, my head is growing, and that's not a pretty sight, but it's worth it to have this new feeling of talent.

And then there's the other reason I blog: it's just so much damn fun.

Tagging: Dorr, Hobs, Becky, and Courtney.

Tom Brown's School Days in a nutshell: this was not one of my better choices for my 2007 children's classics challenge. I'm happy there was more to it than that awful fire scene I so vividly remember from my childhood, but it was an odd little book, never seeming to be able to quite make up its mind what it wanted to be: social commentary, a wistful look at boyhood, a lesson in morality...Still, I stuck with it to the end, and some of it is fascinating from a historical perspective.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Little Known Big Day

I have a dirty little secret, which is probably the main reason I am not and will never be a complete vegetarian: I love hotdogs. You can tell me all you want that they’ve got pig bladders or rat tails or human tongues or whatever in them, and you’re not going to get me to swear off them. If this is what human tongue tastes like, then sign me up as a card-carrying cannibal. As far as I know, I’ve been a hotdog-lover all my life, so much so that I can’t eat split pea soup unless it has hotdogs in it (a sneaky little trick my mother used to pull to get us to eat split pea soup was to cut up hotdogs into the soup). I’m actually pretty amazed we were allowed to eat hotdogs when we were kids, because my mother kept us on a pretty strict and healthy diet, but I guess even the most diligent parents occasionally have to give into ease and providing meals that their kids will eat without complaining.

So, here’s my question. How can I love hotdogs the way I do and have had no idea until Bob went online this morning and discovered it at dogpile.com that today is National Hotdog Day? That’s like a chocoholic not knowing that it’s Valentine’s Day or Easter. But I know why. It’s because Hallmark is falling down on the job. There may be Halloween cards in all the gift shops already, but I’ve seen not a single Hotdog Day card. You want to know what’s worse? This is actually National Hotdog Month. This is America, the country of consumerism! Why are we ignoring such an important month? Forget Christmas in July. Stores could be making a killing off of 31 days of hotdogs in July. I can see the giant buns parents would buy that would be stuffed with toys come July 21st by Sir Frankfurter, a jolly guy who comes in the middle of the night, carrying toys in a hotdog vendor’s cart. Sixteen-year-old boys could be enticed to give their sweethearts fake diamond hotdog pendants. Okay, maybe it’s not so odd that this important occasion is being ignored by gift shops and toy stores, but the grocery stores should at least have their banners flying. When Bob and I were at Trader Joes the other day, no one seemed to be the least bit aware that hotdogs should have been front and center for today’s big event.

It turns out that for me, though, this was the perfect day to be National Hotdog Day. Last night, Bob and I got together with our friends Becky and Mike for mint juleps and dinner. I’ve mentioned before that my tolerance for alcohol is about the same as that of your average white rat, and mint juleps are pretty potent, so I’ve learned that getting together with Mike and Becky for mint juleps and dinner guarantees a hangover the next day. I don’t really mind it, though, as long as I can sleep it off, because the fun and the conversation we have is worth it.

Thus I spent most of the morning sleeping off a hangover and watching DVDs. I was just beginning to feel like I was finally getting hungry for more than my standard hangover remedy of chocolate milk and toast with honey (have no idea why I crave these things when I’m hung over, but I do), when Bob announced we ought to go to our local hotdog stand, because it was National Hotdog Day. I wondered whether or not I was really up to it, but soon my stomach was really kicking up a fuss to be fed, so I pulled back my unwashed hair, threw on a baseball cap and my sneakers, and said, “Let’s go.”

Most of the time, when Bob and I are together, I tend to think about how much alike we are. We love to discuss the same sorts of things. We’re both huge worriers. We’re both extremely passionate and opinionated. I’m always pooh-poohing the notion that “opposites attract.” But then we do things like go to the hotdog stand on National Hotdog Day. This is when I remember, way too late, that I’m a shrinking violet, never wanting anyone to know I exist, hoping to get in and out of places barely having to say a word to anyone. Bob, on the other hand, is the friendly, gregarious, talk-to-strangers-on-the-New-York-subway-which-just-isn’t-done sort. Why, after nearly twelve years of marriage, I hadn’t realized he would feel it was his duty to inform everyone who worked at the hotdog stand as well as everyone who walked through the door that this was such a big day, is beyond me. Chalk it up to my inability to learn from experience or something.

So, there’s Bob, talking it up with everyone from the teenagers taking our orders to the two women who seemed to have spent a little too much time in the sun without sunscreen this morning to the guy who was way too old to be sporting that earring and those sorts of tattoos who had come in with a woman who looked like she really shouldn’t be eating hotdogs, and there was Emily wondering if we were ever going to get our food and be able to leave. I did leave, as a matter of fact, deciding I’d be the one to go stake a claim to one of the dozens of empty tables outside. This wasn’t enough, though. Everyone still knew I was with the crazy “National Hotdog Day guy,” because Bob knew perfectly well my embarrassment was the reason I’d left, so he made sure to wave at me from inside.

Like the hangover, though, all the embarrassment was well worth it, as the hotdog was sublime, despite the fact they forgot to put the cheese on I’d requested, and I wasn’t about to go back in and request it. And that crazy “National Hotdog Day guy?” Well, he turned back into the man who is so much like me as we sat at our little table discussing The Time Traveler’s Wife, one of the few books he and I have ever read simultaneously, and what we should read together next, because we had so much fun reading this one together.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Tragedy of Comedy

Years ago, for a book discussion group to which I belonged at the time, I tried to read An American Tragedy. I made a gallant effort but just couldn’t get through the whole thing. I’ve never been quite sure why. I’ve gotten through and even immensely enjoyed other great American tragedies written by the likes of Russell Banks, Wallace Stegner, and Richard Wright. I think it’s because Dreiser was just so earnest, and it seems to me he had a nasty way of tantalizingly dangling some hope in front of you and then yanking it away without an ounce of irony or humor to ease the pain. That’s been it, as far as reading Dreiser goes, despite Bob’s urgings for me to revisit An American Tragedy and to try Sister Carrie.

You may be surprised, then, that I’ve been reading Hoosier Holiday by Theodore Dreiser. I discovered this book when I was looking for books about Pennsylvania at the library. I know, the title and author don’t exactly scream “Pennsylvania.” However, I wasn’t doing a title or author search, and this book came up under my subject search. It’s all about a trip Dreiser took in 1916 with a friend of his, artist Franklin Booth, driving from New York City to Indiana. They decided to take a route that took them through Pennsylvania. I thought I'd give it a try. Some might say this was a pretty stupid thing to do. Why choose to read one of the most depressing writer's take on the state to which I'm moving? Would I be screaming and crying to Bob by the end of it that we'll be moving over my dead body? Not one well-known, however, for her ability to avoid doing stupid things, I crossed my fingers and took it home with me. From the cover copy and the bits of the introduction I skimmed, it didn't seem it was going to be at all like Dreiser's more tragic works.

What a joy (and relief) it’s been, and I’m almost ready to re-visit Dreiser’s novels to see if I can find in them even the slightest hint of the very funny, romantic, sentimental, and opinionated man found between the pages of this book. I’m sure he isn’t there, because if I’d caught even a glimpse of him in the pages of An American Tragedy, I don’t think I would have abandoned it until I’d reached the end. I mentioned this to Bob the other day, and he said, “Well, of course it’s different, and you’re seeing a different side of him; he’s not writing tragedy.”

This, and a comment I made on Ian’s blog recently about Shakespeare and his comedies, has gotten me thinking quite a lot lately about tragedy and comedy. There’s a reason courts of old needed jesters (wouldn't it be wonderful if American businesses employed jesters?); we all need comic relief. I mean, even in his most tragic works, Shakespeare adds at least a touch of comedy. Aeschylus had a great knack for making good use of the relief a few chuckles can bring. If you’re not going to give us an inkling of hope, it seems to me you’d better at least give us a laugh or two.

When I worked at the library, my boss, who was an extremely insightful person, once said, “Writing good comedy takes much more talent than writing good tragedy. We all cry over pretty much the same things. It’s much harder to make everyone laugh.” I’ve never forgotten her words (obviously), and it’s made me think about the courses I took in college, in which tragedy was revered. Loving comedy was treated almost as a vice. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a professor at my alma mater who would tell you that Shakespeare’s comedies are really his greater works, and yet it was his comedies that turned around the grudge I’d held against Shakespeare since he was forced on me in sixth grade, led me to see him in a different light, and eventually had me appreciating the likes of Hamlet and King Lear, which I had found unbearable in high school. Likewise, no one at my alma mater would have dared to announce that Aristophanes was greater than Sophocles or Aeschylus. So, I’m standing up for comedy. I agree with my former boss. The fact that these writers' works still have me laughing out loud so many, many years after they were written is pretty amazing.

And when you think about the great comic writers you’ve read and enjoyed, most of them are really writing tragedy. All those laughs are about covering up devastatingly depressing events in which humans find themselves engaged or mistakes we’ve all made. I was listening to NPR the other day and an author, whose name I forget at the minute, was being interviewed to discuss a comic novel he’s just written about the Iraq War. One of the more idiotic questions the interviewer asked him was, “Don’t you expect criticism for writing a funny novel about such a serious event?” I mean, I know, she had a right to ask it, because America has lost its sense of humor, but really, my first question was, “How else does one deal with such a tragic event as the Iraq War?” My second question was, “Would you ask the same question of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain?” (Actually, someone from NPR, whose recording studios must be one of the most earnest, humorless -- except when the likes of Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris are visiting -- places on earth, probably would.)

So let’s hear it for Dreiser the humorist. I wish he’d written An American Comedy instead. With his eye for detail and the absurd, I’m sure it would have been great.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Not Exactly Minding My Own Business

I’m an eavesdropper, something I’ve been all my life. In fact, I’m so bad that often if I’m out at a restaurant, I might be more tuned-in to the argument going on at the table behind me than I am to the conversation at my own table (depending on how interesting the conversation at my own table is or isn’t). When I was growing up, this habit of mine was considered rude, and I had to be very discreet to avoid being chastised for it, but I’ve decided this is an etiquette standard that needs to go the way of such antiquated standards as insisting men be the ones to walk closest to the building when escorting women down the street so that anything being dumped out of windows, like the contents of chamber pots, won’t land on delicate females. I mean, how can one possibly avoid eavesdropping when stuck in airports and on airplanes for as many hours as I have been over the past two weeks? And if you’re going to hold loud, personal phone calls in public places, you have no right to complain if others are straining to listen, nor do you have any right to complain if said phone call ends up in a blog post or in a book or a movie one day. As a matter of fact, I’d like to create some rules of etiquette for such cell-phone users to follow that demonstrate their thoughtfulness toward the poor people stuck eavesdropping on their conversations.

I used to find loud cell phone conversations extraordinarily annoying, because being an eavesdropper, I can’t concentrate on the book I’m reading when someone is telling his daughter she’d better be home when he gets there, or she’s not going to be allowed to see Ralph anymore. When I’m calling Bob for the fifteenth time to tell him my flight has been delayed yet again, no matter how frustrated I am, I’m always barely whispering into the phone, hoping I don’t disturb those around me.

Then, I got stuck sitting next to the woman in a seat on a plane that was about to taxi out for take-off who was barely whispering into her cell phone and crying. The only thing I managed to catch was, “His kids wouldn’t even say ‘goodbye’ to me.” Come on. If you’re going to whip out your phone for such a call in such tight quarters, the least you can do is speak loudly enough for those of us who have immediately decided this is far more interesting than Tom Brown’s School Days and are dying to know what’s going on. Especially those of us who never, ever cry in public places unless others are crying – those of us who catch tears the ways most catch yawns. There I was, sympathetic lump forming in my throat, and confound it (as someone in Tom’s school would say), I didn’t even know why.

Of course, she had to put away her phone once we were ready for take-off. She wiped her eyes, composed herself, and asked the man next to her if she could borrow sections of his WSJ. I hate to talk to people on airplanes, but I was dying to talk to her. The problem is, I wasn’t dying to talk to her about where she was going, where she’d been, what she does for a living, the way most gabby people on airplanes do. I was dying to ask her why she was crying. I didn’t, though, not even when the drink cart came, and I had the perfect opportunity when she looked at the label on the wine she’d ordered, snorted as she told me she normally wouldn’t drink this stuff, but then explained she needed it after the day she’d had. I just nodded my understanding and kept all my questions to myself. Perfect opportunities hate me, because I always ignore them when they make their appearances.

As soon as we landed, she whipped out her cell phone again, and there I was, trying to catch snippets of what she was saying: something about the need for the youth pastor to go visit him in the hospital. What? Here I’d spent two hours conjuring up some soon-to-be-ex-husband (I’d checked for a wedding band as soon as I’d caught the bits and pieces of that first conversation) or maybe a brother or something who even had his kids giving her the cold shoulder, when there was some young person in the hospital needing a youth pastor? Forget speaking a little louder, so I can hear you. Put the damn phone on speaker and let me hear the whole conversation, please. But I realized I deserved this, as I watched the back of my missed opportunity stepping off the plane.

Next up was the high school kid whose whole conversation I could hear during the few moments she sat next to me at Gate C26 in O’Hare airport. Until she sat down, I’d been busy figuring out that the kitchen could go right there behind the counter, and my bedroom would be right by the windows, so I could have perfect views of all the planes taking off while lying in bed, in my new permanent place of residence. Before I knew it, I was saying “goodbye” to my architect as this kid’s conversation walked through my imagination’s door without knocking and sat down in my favorite chair without asking.

She was talking to some friend about some girl she’d pissed off for not inviting her to be in a dance she’d choreographed. She explained that she wasn’t going to talk to Miss P.O.ed if Miss P.O.ed couldn’t learn to talk on the phone without screaming at her. Miss Choreographer wanted her friend to inform Miss P.O.ed that she (Miss Choreographer) had never said she couldn’t dance. All she’d done is made up a dance that was for four dancers (sorry, but Miss Choreogrpaher wasn’t polite enough to explain to those eavesdropping around her how the lucky four chosen to be in the dance had been chosen. If Miss Choreographer had been the party responsible for choosing the participants, then I would tend to agree with Miss P.O.ed that Miss P.O.ed had not been invited to be in her dance. However, she did give eavesdroppers the news that her dance had most definitely not been a rip-off of some dance on YouTube, because, how stupid would it be for 15-and-16-year-olds to be copying 18-year-olds on YouTube -- you know, there being such a huge difference between the two?).

I think Miss P.O.ed then got on the phone herself, because Miss Choreographer started explaining to this new person she’d never rolled her eyes at her and had never told her she couldn’t be in the dance. However, Miss Choreographer was most definitely going to ignore her now at practices, so don’t be surprised. Just as she was explaining exactly why she can’t be friends with someone who ___________, Miss P.O.ed must have hung up on her. She jumped up from her seat next to mine, informing her poor mother, who was patiently sitting in another row of seats near two younger sisters, she was going to walk around, as she pushed her re-dial button (her story all the more intriguing, because this oh-so-American girl's mother sat dressed in the attire of her native country: India).

I wanted to yell, “Come back!” This had just begun to get really good. I wanted to hear what type of person a girl had to be in order to be her friend. I wanted to know if Miss P.O.ed would get her way. Would she ever get to dance? Would she make up her own dances, with YouTube debuts, and exclude Miss Choreographer? I’ll never know.

But the one that grabbed hold of the romantic who’s a permanent resident at Emily’s Imagination was the guy on another taxi-ing airplane who was obviously in the beginning stages of a new relationship (I’m assuming it was with a woman, as he seemed to be about as heterosexual as they come). Listening to a one-sided flirtation is highly amusing. He was dressed in a Harley Davidson t-shirt and baseball cap, but was asking her if she liked wine, because he had tickets for a wine-tasting and jazz event somewhere (her response caused him to assure her she wouldn’t have to drink any red wine if she only liked white, thus dropping her a notch or two in my estimation). Then he joked about how she was going to think he was all “cultured.” My thought was, “if this is a blind date, and you show up dressed like that, no need to worry.” However, he was so cute in his excitement (the flight attendant had to tell him to turn off his cell phone), and he called her again as soon as we’d landed, I found myself hoping the woman on the other end was as into him as he seemed to be into her. I wanted to follow him around, spy on him, see if I felt she was worthy of him (already suspicious she might not be, you know, because of the whole red wine business).

I think you can understand now why I’m feeling the need for a few new rules of etiquette. I’d like to propose the following. Perhaps Miss Manners will include them in her next book.

1. Speak loudly and clearly, so the eavesdropper next to you can get the full story
2. Before dialing that number, turn to the people sitting around you and give all the background information they’re going to need in order to understand the conversation
3. Do not leave your seat until you have finished the entire conversation
4. When you’ve hung up the phone, invite those around you to follow you around for a few days, so you can meet the people who were on the other end of the phone

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Wives of Others

When I was single, I had one major hard-and-fast dating rule: do not go out with married men. Not that I had hundreds of married men (or any other men, for that matter) lined up, eager to date me, but if I had, they would have been turned down. Even if I hadn’t witnessed a number of friends being crushed and nearly ruined by men who were “on the verge of divorcing” their wives (most of them were still with the same wives years after my friends had moved on), I like to think I still would have been wise enough to think two things: 1. a man who would cheat on his wife would probably cheat on me and 2. that poor wife! You see, I was raised in an era in which all statistical data pointed to the prevalence of cheating husbands and the scarcity of cheating wives. I’m perfectly aware that much of the evidence that was collected to support that finding was gathered when it was more socially acceptable for men to cheat, much less so for women. Thus, results were skewed by lies. My own (completely unsupported. I should have stuck with psychology, so I could design experiments and study this stuff) theory, though, is that women probably did stray less than men, especially in the days when they needed men to support them and to help take care of the children, so were strongly vested in keeping the family together (besides, taking care of a husband, the children, and a house all by themselves was so exhausting, who had time or the energy to stray?).

Being married, on some levels, has made life so much easier for me. I no longer think of any men I meet as potential dates; I'm more relaxed than ever around them; and I no longer shy away from men wearing wedding bands. What I’ve discovered is that if I meet an adorable married man, I’m almost guaranteed to meet a woman I’m immediately going to want to befriend. In fact, the difficulties I’ve often had throughout my life in getting along with women (I’m just not a stereotypical woman. I don’t like to shop; I have an extremely high tolerance for messy houses; I don’t mind if my husband spends hours watching sporting events, because either I am watching with him or I view it as wonderful, extended “alone time;” I don’t have children and am not as crazy about babies as most women seem to be; and I can’t stand to talk on the phone, unless I’m talking with someone I never get to see, and it’s been a while since we last spoke) disappear when I meet the wives of male friends. I seem to meet women who are much more like-minded when I start with their husbands.

Let me give you some examples. I knew Becky’s husband Mike long before I met Becky. Before she came along, I hated his first wife for not treating an obviously wonderful, sweet, and well-rounded man the way he deserved to be treated (mind you, I’ve never laid eyes on the woman, but she couldn’t possibly have had any real taste). I don’t hate her quite so much anymore, though, because that relationship obviously wasn’t meant to be. I loved Becky before I’d ever met her. You would have, too, if you’d seen how giddy Mike was when he announced to me he was getting engaged, and when he said, “If I’d known this is what it’s supposed to be like, I never would have gotten married the first time.” Of course, the fact she’s English helped my empathetic heart. Poor thing was moving to this insane country, coming to work for our insane company, and embarking on her first year of marriage (not always an easy time for those of us who never planned to get married) all at once. She handled it all much better than I would have (I probably would have been on the first flight back to Heathrow after about two months).

Then there’s my friend Ann. I met Ann’s husband Vince when my former boss was wooing him, trying to convince him to move from California to Connecticut. My boss got it into his head that I needed to introduce Vince to my hometown (which I have to admit, if you’re going to move to this area of Connecticut, really is one of the nicest towns), and I was granted a day off to look at real estate with Vince, who is very friendly and a real “guy’s guy.” I quickly decided I liked him very much (good thing, because when I left that company, he took over the supervision of the editors I’d been supervising. Being a “mother hen,” I was very worried about leaving them all to flounder under some complete stranger). It was a while before I got to meet Ann, but we were instant friends as soon as we did. You know how you often feel you’re never going to have friends like the ones you had in college, people with whom you can talk about anything? Well, Ann is one of those friends like the ones I had in college.

And then, of course, there are blogosphere friends. For some reason, I actually “met” Hobs before I met Dorr and was instantly converted to reading his blog religiously. Then I began venturing over to his wife’s blog. Both of them were a bit intimidating at first, so much more well-read and knowledgeable than I, but then I met them in person, and all that faded away. I adore them both, but in real life, I hang out more with Dorr than I do with Hobs. As soon as we’re comfortably settled in PA, Bob’s and my campaign to get them to move down will begin in earnest.

Finally, I still have wives to meet. I’ve known Danny for two years now, but he lives all the way out in California, so we don’t see each other much, and I’ve never met his wife. I’m absolutely convinced that when I finally meet her, though, she’s going to be like a long-lost sister. Poor Danny won’t be able to get a word in edgewise. Oh yes, and when I eventually visit France to meet and tour cheese caves with Mandarine, I can imagine that his wife (provided she speaks English) and I will be so engrossed in conversation, I might forget to taste the cheese. If she doesn’t speak English, I’m sure I’ll pick up French in no time.

Why would any woman want to have an affair with a married man? Isn’t it much more fun to get to know and love their wives?

Monday, July 09, 2007

In Search of Pandas

Thoughts on:

Croke, Vicki Constantine. The Lady and the Panda. New York: Random House, 2005.
This was the third book for my 2007 Nonfiction Five Challenge.

Whenever I pick up a book like this one and begin to read, my first reaction usually runs along such lines as, “Man, all these people lead such exciting lives, and here’s boring old me, barely able to muster the courage to move 200 miles south.” I read a little further, become completely infatuated with a character such as Ruth Harkness, am right there with her as she boards her ship to China, and think, “That’s it. No more boring living for me. I’m going to take advantage of the brief amount of time I have on this exciting planet of ours. It’s high time I sold everything to finance an expedition to China to bring back a panda.” (Disclaimer: I would never dream of kidnapping a baby panda from its poor mother, but maybe if some special herb that only grows on mountain peaks were needed to save lives all over the world, and someone were to be offering monetary rewards to those who would bring it back, I could go collect that. Don’t point out to me that maybe the herb has a family, too.) But then I read passages like this:

The terrain was as formidable as most adventurers would face in a lifetime. Not
only were they climbing steeply at high altitude, but every step held another
obstacle: dense stands of head-high bamboo, great dead logs covered in slippery
moss, fields of knee-deep sphagnum moss engorged with icy water, and snow
slipping off branches onto cheeks and down into coat collars. The constant fog
kept everything wet, conspiring with the moss to make the footing as slippery as
if it were oiled. (p. 121)

I don’t know. I think it’s all that treacherous moss, and my tendency to slip even on dry ground that gets me, but suddenly I find I’m perfectly content to sit in my own home, surrounded by piles of books and merely reading about the Ruth Harknesses of the world rather than trying to become them. I know many might be inspired by such a passage, feel some sort of “conquering the wilds” urge or something, but I’m perfectly content to let them do all the hard work while I sip my tea.

What a remarkable woman Harkness must have been, someone I would have liked to have known. I love the way Croke traces her evolution from witty, life-of-the-party New York socialite and dress designer to a person who was transformed by a country and its people, who wanted to do everything she could to help them, as well as to help the plight of the giant panda. She’s admirable in all kinds of ways, but one is that she made her first panda expedition in 1936, not exactly a period in which most women went trekking around the world on their own (although one soon discovers “on their own” had a very different meaning in those days, when explorers had great “teams” of people, completely ignored in all accounts of the expeditions, they led with them. But, you know, all those Chinese men carrying all the Westerners' supplies and setting up the camps weren’t really people).

One of the things I loved about this book is that it has everything: biography, zoology, travel and adventure, history, romance, psychology, cultural differences. Really, you name a field or genre that interests you, and it’s probably somewhere in this book, which is extraordinarily well-written. (Oh, yes, and the pictures of the pandas are wonderful. There’s one in particular I love in which the baby panda is posed such that he looks like nothing but one big, black and white, fuzzy head.) Croke could win some sort of painstaking research medal with all her fascinating details and 60 pages of endnotes.

Reading is an occupation that rarely fails to keep me constantly amazed by my own “uh-DUH-ness factor.” When I found this book on the sale shelf at Borders last Christmas (shopping for others, of course, and rewarding myself for doing so) and then chose to read it for the nonfiction challenge, I honestly didn’t expect to learn much about pandas. I thought it was really going to be a “tales-of-remarkable-women” type book, all biography and adventure with very little about the animal Ruth Harkness was pursuing, even though my love of pandas is what drew me to pick it up in the first place.

Well, of course there would have to be details about Pandas, especially with someone like Croke writing the book. Did you know that pandas' bodies are those of carnivores, built to eat meat (their teeth have evolved to better chew plants, but their stomachs have not evolved to be better-suited to eating plants rather than meat), and yet they’re herbivores who’ve managed to survive millions of years, while other species, seemingly better built for survival, have not (pp. 73-74)? This information set me off on a tangent, wondering if humans are headed in the direction of becoming herbivores one day, since many already are, and since we haven't been around as long as they have and thus haven't had as much time to evolve. My completely unscientific study of my own friends leads me to believe that some humans have already evolved to be able to live extremely healthy vegetarian lifestyles. I, on the other hand, having a voracious appetite that only seems to be appeased by daily doses of animal fat in my diet, would end up being like the poor panda, who has to spend almost all her time eating, were I to try to live off nothing more than bamboo.

(Okay, tangent over.) On some levels, this book was difficult for me to read. I loved Harkness and her spunk and spirit, as well as her sense of humor, which comes out in many wonderful quotes, well-chosen by Croke, mostly in the letters she wrote to her friend Hazel Perkins, but I was appalled by the panda carnage. Ruth eventually becomes someone who is appalled by it, too (my guess is that she was pretty appalled by it from the beginning), but I couldn’t understand how her companion Quentin Young (isn’t that a great name?) could help her nurse and care for Su-Lin, their first baby panda, grow so attached to this one, and still go out and shoot others. And, as noted earlier, my first reaction to their snatching the baby from the nest while the mother had most likely gone off on that arduous task to get those bamboo stalks she constantly needed in order to keep going and keep her baby alive, was to feel so sorry for the mother panda. Imagine going to work one day, thinking you’ve left your baby safe and sound, only to come back to find he’s been kidnapped by aliens.

To read this book is to realize what damage can be done in the name of science. Once this rare animal was “discovered” and the quest to learn more about it was embarked on by so many zoos, teams of adventurers and explorers contributed to the demise of the species (and I’m sure did irreparable damage to other plant and animal species in that remote region of the world). As much as I was rooting for Ruth (because she was much better than some of her rivals, many seeking their own fame and fortune through the misfortune of pandas), I found myself rooting for the pandas, hoping they’d all stay hidden, hoping the mothers could keep their babies safe. Harkness’s expeditions added to the problem of endangering the species, but she eventually recognized what she was doing. The ending is marvelous, and she definitely did her part to raise awareness in the public eye, both in China and the West, about the need to protect the giant panda.

One added bonus was reading this book so soon after reading M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. Fisher and Harkness were both independent American women, traveling during the same era. They were both wildly imaginative, determined characters who suffered from bouts of depression and who lost their husbands to untimely diseases and death. Fisher’s life continued, and I know (even though I haven’t yet read those books) that she went on to re-marry and have children. Harkness never re-married. Her pandas were her surrogate children. She died at the age of 47, shortly after one suicide attempt, in what may have been a successful second suicide attempt (no one knows for sure, just that it was some sort of alcohol poisoning).

Litlove asked me, as I complete this challenge, to think about perfect nonfiction reads and what makes them such. This one definitely fits that category, mainly for being so many different types of books rolled into one, while also being so readable. I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Kevin Bacon's Got Nothing on Tina

A long, long time ago, when Kevin Bacon was still one of the guys in Animal House or someone you may have seen in Diner, I met Tina. Tina was my college roommate. Complete strangers when we first met on a hot August day, we soon discovered we both had a fondness for laughing until it hurt and that we found the same things amusing. We ended up rooming and laughing together for four years.

Tina is someone who could have written all the questions and answers for the "Silver Screen Edition" of Trivial Pursuit. This is a game I would never choose to play with her unless she were on my team. In all honesty, though, it’s a game I would never choose to play. I am a complete movie illiterate, the kind of person who’d never seen such film greats as West Side Story or The Graduate until I’d met Tina, and she started a somewhat hopeless period of educating Emily, taking me to see many, many classic films that were shown on the university grounds during our tenure there. Poor Tina. She was the Queen of Classic Movies stuck with a roommate who would announce something like “An Officer and a Gentleman is the most romantic movie I’ve ever seen.” I still remember her astonished response to that, “Oh, Emily! You haven’t even seen Casablanca?!” (A lapse that was fixed as soon as we were able, not an easy task in the days when VCRs were only just coming onto the market, and DVDs were just somebody's pipe dream.)

Tina is the one who invented what is now called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." It wasn’t his idea. Don’t believe Wikipedia, which will tell you this game was first being played on college campuses in the early 1990s. I had long since graduated from college by then. This was Tina’s game, and I’m still upset that Kevin Bacon is getting all the credit, even more so because she played it in a more interesting way (not being egotistically focused on herself). As a matter of fact, I never actually played the game. What I did was watch her play it. We all did.

Tina’s goal was not to have six degrees of separation, but to make it fun, to make it long and complicated. She poohed-poohed stars who could be linked in less than six movies. She wanted stumpers, those that obviously required a PhD in film knowledge, and we all wanted to come up with one she couldn’t solve, to discover the only two actors or actresses who could not be linked through their movies and their co-stars. I’d try to stump her (the first-grader pitted against the PhD) by coming up with such winners as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Most of my choices would elicit rolled eyes, and an “Oh, that’s so easy, Emily,” as within a minute, she’d have linked the stars with three movies.

Others (those who were at least at the twelfth-grade level) would give her really good, chewy near-stumpers. She’d think about them for a long time. She’d puzzle over them. She’d assure us she’d eventually get it. We’d all forget about it. We’d think she’d forgotten about it. Then suddenly, just as we were turning off the light to go to bed, she’d say, “I’ve got it,” and would proceed to reel off a list of ten movies, most of which I’d never heard of, that connected the stars. Of course, I was so ignorant, she could easily have just made up movies, but Tina’s not that kind of person.

Tina and I were talking the other day (I’m all excited because with this move to PA, I’m going to be within a very easy drive of where she lives instead of a six-hour-long drive), and we were reminiscing about her game. Well, we weren’t actually reminiscing so much as I was informing her how pissed I am that Mr. Bacon is getting all the credit for her game. She remembers that my boyfriend at the time almost did stump her once by throwing out Leonard Nimoy with someone, just the sort of obnoxious thing he would have done. Thank God she bested him, or we never would have heard the end of it.

I didn’t remember that near-stumper of his, but I was laughing (we still laugh!) about how I was always thinking I’d come up with some clever choices like Madonna and John Wayne, and she’d tell me they were way too easy. Well, wouldn’t you know, she’s still got it? We went on to discuss many, many other things, and just before we hung up the phone, she said to me,

“Oh, and I did this one quickly. Madonna was in Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty. Warren Beatty was in Splendor in the Grass with Natalie Wood. And Natalie Wood was in this old John Ford movie called The Searchers with John Wayne.” Eat your heart out, Kevin Bacon. I’m wondering, though, if by the time we’re 80, I’ll finally manage to come up with one that’s more than three “degrees.”

Aeschylus in a nutshell: made me wish so badly we had managed to salvage everything he wrote. If you haven’t read him since you were in school, I promise he’s worth re-reading, although very depressing to realize we human beings haven’t changed much in all these years. Also, I prefer the ones that aren’t so focused on war, like Prometheus Bound.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Interview Meme

All right. I won't do anymore memes for a while, I promise. I've got too many other posts patiently awaiting their turns in the spotlight. However, I just couldn't resist being interviewed by real, live journalist Charlotte.

1. You come from a family where humour is very important. Who is the funniest person in your family and why?

Boy, am I glad I wasn’t sitting on Good Morning, America with you, Charlotte, trying to come up with an answer to this one on the spot. Everyone in my family is funny, but we each seem to have our true specialties. Forsyth, for instance, is the one-liner-at-the-right-time pro. You know how you have all these encounters with people in annoying situations, and afterwards you think, “Man, I wish I’d said that, instead of standing there, my tongue seemingly attached to the roof of my mouth with Super Glue?” Forsyth is the person who did say that. Lindsay (no surprise given that she’s an artist) has taken the art of self-deprecating humor to levels never before reached. She rivals David Sedaris. Ian’s the person you want to invite to any dinner party you might be having if you want everyone rolling on the floor in stitches as he tells hilarious story after hilarious story. I’m the Queen of Sarcasm. My mother is the one who can find humor all over the place and is really good for getting you into a fit of hysterical giggles over the most banal situations. Maybe my father is the funniest, because he’s equally good at all five of these types of humor, although each of us excels a little more than he does in our own particular specialty.

2. If you were given the chance to meet your favourite film director or writer, who would it be? What would you want to ask him or her?

Another toughie, because I have such a hard time deciding on favorites. If the director in question can be dead or alive, I’d love to meet Stanley Kubrik, but I’m sure I’d be way too intimidated by his genius to ask him why he decided to go with the American ending of A Clockwork Orange as opposed to its original ending. I don’t believe his claim that he’d never read the original until he was almost finished with the movie. He was too smart not to have explored both versions before filming. Maybe I would believe him if I asked him and he were to expound on that answer. If the director has to be living, I’d go with Jonathan Demme. I can’t claim to have seen all of his films, but I love what I have seen, and I love his originality and stick-to-his-guns mentality. I have a billion questions for him about working with David Byrne and making Stop Making Sense, as well as lots of questions about his cousin Bobby.

3. You are about to move home. What are you looking foward to most/ dreading most about the imminent change in your life?

I’m most looking forward to setting up a new house and “doing it right” this time. I’m sure I won’t “do it right,” and I’ll end up arranging and re-arranging, just as I’ve done with my current house, but one can always fantasize when reality hasn’t yet set in. I’m also very much looking forward to long walks in farm country and lots of very fresh produce for my kitchen experiments. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m looking forward to having a husband who’s once again gainfully employed.

I’m dreading packing up this house. And I’m dreading trying to make new friends. I have a completely irrational fear, which I’ve had all my life, that I won’t be able to make any friends. This isn’t quite as bad as it was when I was younger, because my best friend is coming with me, but still. I’d like to have more than one friend, especially since that friend is soon going to be very busy taking care of others and won’t necessarily be available every time I want to watch a movie with someone or discuss a book or go get ice cream or something. It’s irrational, because I’ve never been anywhere in my life in which I wasn’t able to make friends (even as a teenaged American moving to England for a year), but I’m always convinced with every new move/job change/etc. this will finally be the place where everyone realizes what a dweeb I am, and I’ll be avoided like a fourth-grader who hasn’t had the sense to get a cootie shot.

In the both dreading and looking forward category: having a nearly-200-year-old cemetery in my back yard. I’m dying to see a ghost, so I can really believe in them once and for all. According to books I’ve read on the subject, every cemetery is just loaded with them, so chances should be pretty good that I’ll finally encounter one. But I want any ghost I see to be a friendly, happy ghost sipping tea in the cemetery or something, not some chain-rattling, headless ghost who walks up from the cemetery and appears at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night. I’ll let everyone know if either happens.

4. If I could guarantee you a no strings attached, fully paid for, holiday, on your OWN for a month, where would you go and what would you do?

Oh, I want to do a month on a freighter trip that’s traveling around Europe, reading and writing while out to sea, and exploring and eating at every interesting port of call. Of course, I’d also love to find four English-speaking families in different parts of China, and spend one week living with each of them. And then there’s my idea of getting a sleeper car and riding Amtrak all around America and Canada (but then again, I can’t imagine doing that one without Bob. We had such a blast taking Amtrak from Manhattan to Santa Fe).

5. You have a very happy marriage. What's your secret?

When Bob and I were soon to be married by his uncle (who was also a Presbyterian minister before he retired), he met with us and counseled us that communication was the most important thing in a marriage. We smugly felt, “well, no problem there.” From the moment we had our first phone conversation; to our first date in which we almost missed the movie, because we were talking so much over dinner; to that very lunch with his uncle, Bob and I had talked incessantly with each other. It’s true: communication is very important. So is the other cliché about being each others’ best friend. But I don’t think either of those would work for us if we weren’t both madly in love (emphasis on “mad,” as in “insane,” as in “ready-for-the-loony-bin,” willing to do and be things we would never dream of doing and being for anyone else we know). Of course, don’t let us fool you. There have been plenty of times I’ve huffily walked out the door, claiming he’s never going to see me again (over something extraordinarily important, you have to understand, like who threw away the top to the olive oil), only to wonder what the hell I was doing and where I thought I was going, after an hour or so of aimlessly driving around with nowhere to go (because this always happens when the library is closed). However, once such moments are safely in the past, he and I are almost always able to laugh at ourselves. So I guess the fact we both have good senses of humor also plays a big role.

This is really fun. If you'd like to play along, here are the directions.


1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please make sure I have your email address.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment, asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Panic at the Airport

It finally happened to me. I ran out of books to read while traveling. Typically, when I go on a business trip of more than two days, I take about five books to read with me. If I’m very lucky, I may manage to get through one. My business trips normally consist of days that start at 8:00 a.m. and don’t end until 10:30 p.m., after late-night dinners, and I’m usually a zombie, unable to read my own name, let alone 200 pages of a book by then. In other words, not much time for reading except on the airplane.

As I packed for my trip to San Antonio last week, I thought to myself, “Let’s be smart for a change and only bring one book.” (Someone please come to my house and slap me silly next time I have such very “un-smart” thoughts.) I’d read about 40 pages of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City at that point, thus qualifying it as a book I planned to finish (I give every book 30 pages, and if it hasn’t grabbed me by then, I don’t finish it). But I knew I more than just planned to finish it. I was enjoying it immensely. It seemed like a good choice.

I’m a math editor, though. I can’t look at books without thinking in terms of page numbers and average reading speeds. I quickly deduced that despite my glacially-slow reading pace, even I would be able to read 332 pages well before completing my combined flying time of 8 hours to-and-from Texas. And then there’s all that time in the airport, because I pay attention when the document says, “Make sure you arrive an hour before departure,” tacking on at least half an hour. You learn to do this when you've had some pretty horrific flying experiences in your lifetime. I decided to throw in The Lady and the Panda, because I had about 60 pages of it left to read, and the Aeschylus collection I had was nice and small, so in it went as well.

Well, the first mistake I made was not bothering to find out that traveling to Texas in June is tantamount to traveling to Buffalo in January (I did find out, but not until I was having a discussion with the cabbie, a native Texan, on the way to my hotel, after spending thirteen hours in airports and on airplanes waiting for weather patterns to change). If you’re very, very lucky, you just might board a plane that manages to land during the 2-hour window of opportunity in which massive thunderstorms (and I mean MASSIVE. It’s true everything is bigger in Texas) have subsided before rolling back through again. But we all know, “very, very lucky” I am not. Maybe I’m “very lucky,” because my flight to St. Louis was only delayed about an hour, and we managed to land just as the heavens opened up there, shutting down all departures and arrivals for about an hour, but that’s about as much luck as I’m allowed (and it’s probably meant to last me the rest of the year). At least in St. Louis, this sort of weather seemed to follow a pattern with which I’m familiar, rolling in and out relatively quickly. No such luck in Texas. Thus I sat, long after flights leaving St. Louis had resumed, reading, looking up every so often at the board above my gate to discover my connecting flight was leaving later still.

This is when I realized I’d made a miscalculation in my reading needs for this trip. I’d already managed to read through the four professional magazines I’d brought for the trip, since my flight had been delayed to St. Louis. I’m not one who likes to deal with laptops in airports or on airplanes, so that was it as far as getting work done was concerned. On the flight to St. Louis, I’d begun to read Tales of the City.

After about half an hour of reading this book, I suddenly realized I was reading it at an alarmingly fast rate. It was as though I’d attended some sort of speed-reading class without my knowing it. By the time I’d stepped off the airplane and into the St. Louis airport, I was over halfway through the book.

I began to panic. I put the book away, made my way to my departure gate, and once there, pulled out The Lady and the Panda. I’ve been reading this book very slowly, savoring it, writing notes in the margins, etc. This one would have to take a long time to finish. But then my flight was delayed an hour, and I’d already been reading for an hour. And then my flight was delayed another hour.

Now, you can tell me all you want that being stuck in an airplane with nothing but the fluffy airline magazine and its easy-answers-already-filled-in-by-somebody-else crossword is not the same as being sent to Guantanamo Bay. When I’m sitting at home, surrounded by more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime, I will heart-heartedly agree with an “Of course not!” However, strand me in an airport for a few hours, with a 2-hour-long flight ahead of me and rapidly-receding reading material, and I will vehemently disagree with “Of course it is!”

Thus, a trip to the airport bookstore was in order. Here, I was met with a wall of shelf-to-shelf third-rate mysteries, thrillers, and chick lit. Sometimes, I like a good third-rate mystery or thriller, but I wasn’t in the mood. And when you’ve been reading Armistead Maupin, I’m sorry, but third-rate chick lit just won’t do. First-rate, like a good Marian Keyes, maybe, but certainly not third-rate. What I really wanted was the next Armistead Maupin, but that, of course, was sitting at home where I’d blithely informed it I’d never get to it while I was away, and besides, it’s a very rare author whose first book in a series I will read and immediately want to pick up the next one with nothing in between. What a time to discover such an author.

Eventually, I turned around to find the tiny little “literature” section. I’ll quibble a little with some of the choices in this section (Tim LaHaye?), but they did manage to have the likes of Jasper Fforde and Julian Barnes. I found myself longing for my TBR list, which was also back at home, because why would I have needed that? I don’t read a whole lot of contemporary literature unless it’s recommended to me (which is happening at an alarming rate now that I blog), and I don’t tend to remember what’s been recommended without referring to my list. Stuck without it, I had to see if anything seemed familiar.

I was slightly tempted by Beverly Lewis, because she writes about the Amish, and I’ll be living amongst them soon. But I don’t know anything about her, and I was a bit concerned she might be Tim LeHaye Goes to Amish Country or something. I looked for Jacqueline Winspear, because I just read Maisie Dobbs and loved it, but no such luck.

Finally, it boiled down to two titles I recognized: The Red Tent and The Time Traveler’s Wife. What a tough choice! I toyed with the idea of buying both (just in case the one I chose wasn’t as good as everyone says it is), but my luggage was heavy enough. I ended up with The Time Traveler’s Wife.

There are probably those of you out there who are disappointed I didn’t choose The Red Tent, but I’m feeling right now I couldn’t possibly have made a better choice. I haven’t read a contemporary novel that I’ve felt was so perfect since I read The Thirteenth Tale last year (a book, by the way, I can happily say Bob is currently reading and loving as much as I did). I’m funny about time travel. I love nothing better, but I’m highly skeptical and demanding of anyone who takes on the task of writing novels about it. The editor in me is always ready to leap at the slightest inaccuracy or inconsistency. Niffenegger has done such a good job with the topic (much like Connie Willis did in To Say Nothing of the Dog, another one of my favorites) that I’ve readily suspended all disbelief and have forgotten to look for errors.

All I can say is, if I’m not the last person in the world to have read this book, and you’re reading this post and would describe yourself as someone who would like a really good, complicated love story paired with the magnificence of time travel, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed. (Oh yes, and the speed reader has gone back from whence she came. I’ve been reading this one at my normal pace. I did, however, finish reading all three of the other books before I’d stepped on the plane to come back from Texas.)