Sunday, August 09, 2009

Not in Maine -- Yet

So, you read yesterday's blog post and thought I was headed to Maine today. Funny thing: that's what I thought, too, but here I am, still in PA. You see we planned on going to Maine but, apparently, our car had other ideas. I guess it just wasn't up for that 11-hour drive today, didn't fancy the idea of arriving at a cottage with which it's not real familiar, on a side of Mt. Desert Island we've barely explored, around midnight -- the witching hour.

The car is sulking, so we decided the best thing to do was to drink martinis, order a pizza, let the car cry itself to sleep, and start out tomorrow morning. I must say, I wasn't very nice to it earlier, so it has every right to be upset, but really. What a time to roll over a huge nail and get a flat tire. And I mean flat.

Especially when I was so proud of myself. There Bob was, at church all morning. Here I was at home, finishing up last minute details before we left. I decided I'd surprise him by doing a superb job of loading everything in the car (something he'd fully expected to do himself). And superb it was! I even managed to carry that particularly big, heavy box full of food and other necessities out to the car by myself. I wedged everything in so that nothing could move around. It was better than a Tetris game board.

Then, it happened. I walked out the door to cross the parking lot over to the church office to make a photocopy of something we needed to mail before we left. And what did I see? A tire, glued to the pavement, in that beleaguering way that only a flat tire can do.

You would be proud of me: I didn't burst into tears (which is what twentysomething me once did when I walked out of my apartment one Saturday morning, car loaded, to head from Connecticut down to North Carolina and discovered I'd left my interior light on, and the car battery was dead). I calmly made that journey across the parking lot. I smiled and laughed and engaged in proper "pastor's wife small talk" with those who were climbing into their cars after the service. I made the photocopy. Then I announced to Bob, while he was hurrying out of his robe,

"We have a slight problem."

In a rare moment of prescience, is response was,

"What? Do we have a flat?"

Yes, we had a flat. In the Bible Belt. On Sunday. (I know. You don't think of Pennsylvania as the Bible Belt, but I promise you, it is.) Bob managed to get the spare on (with the help of one of our wonderful parishioners), ruining, of course, my brilliant packing job in order to get to the spare, and 3 1/2 hours later, from whence did he return with the tire repaired? Dare I even tell you? It was the only place around that was available for such repairs on Sunday. Still, I am so ashamed! Wal-Mart.

Stupid, stupid, stupid car! It deserves to be sulking. It deserves to be riddled with bullets and taken to the junkyard. However, if it manages to get us to Maine in one piece tomorrow, it will be forgiven. Meanwhile, I think I hear a second martini calling me...

Good News and Goodbye

I will be saying goodbye for a while, as Bob and I take off for Maine tomorrow for three weeks (where, if all goes as planned, I will get to meet up with Dorr and Hobs for a little hiking -- after all, I named Dorr after Mount Dorr in Acadia National Park -- and exploring), and I will have very limited Internet access. I may be able to sneak in a blog post or two, but don't count on it.

Meanwhile, I have some (other) good news (it's not as though going to Maine for 3 weeks isn't good news). I got a new job. I have to admit that, although quite thrilled to have got it, I'm feeling a bit guilty. I know that in this economy, there are many out there who are in desperate need of a job and who have been trying for months and months to secure one with no luck, people who have children to feed or college tuitions to pay. Meanwhile, here comes Emily, not looking for a job, not knowing what sort of job to pursue, just biding her time for a while, and a job (quite literally) falls in her lap.

What happened is a former colleague of mine recently lost one of the editors he supervises. He sent me an email telling me so and asking if I were interested in applying. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I decided to explore further and see if it did interest me. It turns out that the answer was "yes." So, I went through the whole application process, bickered a bit over salary and vacation (because I could afford to, a luxury I've never had in the past when applying for jobs, because, well, in the past, I hadn't quite learned what I've learned since being laid off this year, which has given me the chance to figure out what's important to me and what I feel my own self worth is).

I haven't signed the papers yet, so I guess it isn't really official. However, I'm assuming, given my soon-to-be-boss's reaction, that it's pretty "official." I'll be starting this new job Labor Day week, after my long, restful vacation. Perfect.

I will no longer be a supervisor, which is kind of sad (especially since, for some reason, this year, I've had four people I formerly supervised tell me I was the best boss they ever had), but I'm excited about the subject area and working with academics again. I'll be acquiring books on multicultural and minority studies. So, any of you want to write a book for me? (Hint, hint, Litlove: motherhood around the world.)

Meanwhile, do not worry. I will continue to make my novel my #1 priority (I'll be working to live not living to work). Besides, I can't help but do so. My characters absolutely wouldn't let me.

Have a great three weeks, everyone! If you think of me, think of me high atop a mountain somewhere eating delicious, fresh-picked blueberries.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

You've GOT to Read This III: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2008. (This book was originally published in 1961.)

When I first started this mini-series of "You've GOT to Read This," I promise you, I did not expect to be bombarding you with titles every other week. I still don't expect to do so, but who knows? I also didn't expect that two out of the first three books I featured would both be recommended to me by the same person. (Maybe I need to start having a few expectations?) Here I am, though, with the second book that Bob (whose post on same you can read here) has recommended to me. Here's what his email that inspired me to read the book sooner rather than later said:

"Get thee to a book store for a copy of Revolutionary Road, post haste. This you will want to keep, so no foolin' around with library copies. Sensed it was a good book when I first read it, but never really realized how good until rereading. Should be required reading for all aspiring writers because it is crafted so well."

Here was my reply, after I obediently did as he said:

"Damn you, yet again...I went to pick up Revolutionary Road, a book I did not intend to read just yet, because I'm in the midst of about four other books that need to be finished. I was hooked, hooked (as in line, sinker, and all) by page two. I'm now on page 30, and it looks like all other books will have to wait. Man, this one is good (and will be good for my own writing, too, I can tell). I suppose I really ought to be thanking you...Nah!"

After spending a good deal of my summer with fantasies and mysteries and the supernatural, it was definitely time for some realism. Real this book most certainly is, especially for someone who spent 20 years living in Fairfield County, CT where the book is set. Granted, it was Fairfield County 1955, but no matter. 1955 or 2005, this is Fairfield County,

Anyone could see they were a better than average crowd, in terms of education and employment and health... (p. 7)

So is this,

...a part of Western Connecticut where three swollen villages had lately been merged by a wide and clamorous highway called Route 12 (p. 4)...she might have to breathe the exhaust fumes and absorb the desoluation of Route 12, with its supermarkets and pizza joints and frozen custard stands...(p. 162)

(Granted, in 2005, those custard stands are Starbuckses, but still.) So real is the book that I could reach out and touch these characters. They sat around my parents' Thanksgiving table when I was fifteen. They sat around the Thanksgiving tables at houses to which I was invited when I was 25. They sit around, elderly now, at the Thanksgiving tables to which Bob and I are invited these days.

This is a book about marriage. Specifically, it is a book about marriage and my parents' generation. This couple is a little older than my parents. It's 1955, and they already have a six-year-old and a four-year-old. In 1955, my father was still married to his first wife, who would not die until 1957. My mother and he would marry in 1959, she practically an "old maid" for that era, being (gasp!) 27 years old. My parents were a little bit different. They'd both lived quite a bit before they got married. Still, they were engaged a mere three months after they started dating and married a mere three months after that.

Bob's parents were even more similar to the couples in this book. His father (as had the men in this book) had fought in WWII (a subject, maybe, for another blog post. I am convinced that all WWII vets suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression, unacknowledged, because they were all "heroes" in a "just war"). They met and married in the 1950s, too. Stories vary, but it seems they were married within three months of having met each other.

Those of us who grew up in an era in which we discussed with our friends such things as "date at least a year [some of my friends had a "three-year rule"] before even considering marriage" or even "live with each other for at least a year before even considering marriage" find these "instant marriages" almost impossible to believe. (Okay, maybe no one else does, but I certainly do.) These days, I would lean more towards the three-year marker, if you are under the age of 25. No wonder once divorce became more acceptable in society (the 1960s and 1970s) it became prevalent enough that I was actually a minority on my hall in my dorm in college because my parents were still married to each other.

None of the marriages in this book is a "good" one. The characters certainly try, but males and females seem to be unable to communicate on a level at which they could ever hope to understand each other. They fantasize about how their conversations are going to go, how they're going to do the right thing, but time and again, they screw it up. A huge contributing factor to the problem is that they do not know or understand themselves. Occasionally, they have brief glimpses -- snapshots -- of who and what they really are. But they don't tend to stare, to linger over them. They quickly flip through the scrapbook to judge the photos of others, to note who is standing awkwardly and why or how that person never smiles.

This is a bleak, bleak book -- a tragedy in the making from the opening scene. By today's standards, every character is an alcoholic (those depressed WWII vets and the women who lived with them had to self-medicate somehow), and it's no wonder. I can't imagine anyone living with such misery without feeling the need to numb themselves.

However, despite its sadness, this book is an extraordinarily compelling read. Yates may have painted an extremely depressing portrait, but he did it oh-so-beautifully. You want to know, "How did he manage that shade of blue?" I found myself wanting to mark up almost every single page of the book, but that would have gotten monotonous after a while with merely one "brilliant!" after another.

What's interesting to me about Yates is that he could serve up such tragedy with no comic relief (and, really, I found none), and I could handle it. That's not like me. I typically want a little humor a la Richard Russo to soften the blows in my realistic fiction. I'll even take a little absurd surrealism with that humor a la John Irving to pad my falls. This book gave me none of that, and yet I am still compelled to sing its praises, to read more Yates, to learn from him as I write my own novel, despite the fact that I'm the complete opposite. Humor is the name of my game.

And learn from him, I most certainly can. For instance, I want to be able to include this sort of detail to bring a scene to life: man kept telling his wife, who chewed her lips and nodded, seeing what he meant... (p. 7)

I want to remember how effective it can be to frame a scene. That just before a couple has a horrific fight, an author might note:

On their right, in a black marsh, the spring peepers were in full and desperate song. (p. 27)

And then draw that fight to an end with:

When he was finished, the shrill, liquid chant of the peepers was the only sound for miles. (p. 29)

And I want to remind myself, being a huge fan of simile, that this is what good, workable simile is:

[Frank, the main character is reading the funnies to his two young children.] He felt as if he were sinking helplessly into the cushions and the papers and the bodies of his children like a man in quicksand. (p. 59)

Reading Yates is reminiscent of reading Sinclair Lewis, except that Yates's characters (at least in this book) seem to have done a better job of convincing themselves that they are, somehow, above it all. Yes, here they are, living in the suburbs, drinking cocktails, raising their children, keeping their lawns mowed...yet, that isn't really what they are. They engage in intellectual debate; they are "strangers in a strange land"; the "American Dream" with its nice homes and lawn ornaments is not theirs.

But, oh, look what happens to those who conform without conforming. The only one who seems honestly to be able to tell them what they are doing, who they really are, is the one they've all labeled "insane." That one, who's had all his shock treatments, is frightening, yes, and he needs to be hushed up.

If they hadn't hushed him up and locked him away, he could have told them, though. What would he have had to say? That when tragedy finally hits, within six short months, everything goes back to the way it was. Well, it's the way it was except that they all have this interesting new "gossipy" tale to tell at their cocktail parties, with a hindsight-enriched spin on how everyone really did see it coming given the couple in question. Meanwhile, the newest "Bright, Young Things" are embraced to embark on their own journey down suburbia's road.

Brilliant stuff. I'm passing on the command: "get thee to a bookstore posthaste."

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Better Than Being a Crocodile

Exercise and I are not the best of friends. As a matter of fact, if reincarnation is possible, I wonder what I must have been in my previous lives to have been cursed as a human in this life, one of those creatures for whom exercise is quite necessary unless one relishes the idea of being bedridden for years, plastic tubes sticking out of veins, while being cared for by strangers who take all meaning from the word "dignity." Why couldn't I have been something like a crocodile, which, as far as I can tell, seems to get to lie around in shallow water all day, with a mouth so big and wide that merely opening it pretty much guarantees that some sort of dinner is going to float right into it? A crocodile barely has to think to get food, and if its prey does put up a fight, well, those steel-trap jaws sure are handy. In fact, one particularly lucky crocodile I had the pleasure of observing in Belize merely had to come hang out at the dock where our dive hotel was, and it would get fed things like spaghetti and cookies (no matter how many signs and warnings were posted not to feed it). There's some reason they can move (and believe me, they can. I've seen one do it, and you don't want to be there if one starts moving towards you like that), but I'll be damned if I can figure out why, because it's not as though they have tons of predators to out-maneuver.

I guarantee you crocodiles don't need a combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching in order to live long, healthy lives. I wish I'd been lucky enough to be a crocodile. Then again, I suppose it could be worse. I suppose I could have ended up an antelope constantly having to run to escape any number of predators' dinner plates. (Watch: that's what I'll be in my next life.) Still, no one ever sees antelopes with dumbbells. What is it about human bodies that we seem to need all this extra stuff? Why can't we just sit around on chaise longues all day and be fine?

Oh well, I suppose there's no use pining over the fact that I am not a crocodile: human I am. Not only am I human, but I also happen to be the sort of human who does not feel well without exercise. I get headaches. I sleep poorly. I don't think as well.  Sad to say, I am stuck with having to engage in some form of physical movement every day, and that's where things get a little tricky: it's not easy hating exercise as much as I do while living in a body that insists on having it. It means I've had to spend a good deal of time figuring out which means of exercise are the least tortuous.

I have two categories for that: "not too excruciating" and "sometimes even fun." Swimming falls into the former category. The problem with swimming is the need to breathe, something I've never really mastered all that well. I can do it, but it isn't fun. And then, there's also the need for a pool, which usually means swimming some place where others might see me. If I could swim laps with a mask and snorkel without looking like a fool, swimming might move into the latter category. Then again, blond hair and chlorine don't go together too well.

That means I have my choice of three forms of aerobic exercise that I can mention in the same sentence with the word "enjoy" (there is no such thing as a strength-training exercise that can show up anywhere near the word "enjoy." Needless to say, I don't do much strength-training. I'll probably regret this when I'm walking around a bent and crooked old hag in 30 years, but right now, osteoporosis seems preferable to lifting weights): walking, hiking, and biking. 

I've been doing plenty of walking and hiking since moving to Pennsylvania, but I hadn't been doing much biking until recently. That's because I didn't have a working bike. Now I do (thanks to a friend of ours who came over to fix our bikes one evening). I don't actually have my own bike to ride, because, of course, my bike is the one with stripped gears that need to be replaced. I have to wait for Bob to take it over to the bike shop our friend recommended to see how much they'll charge us to fix it. If it's going to be too much, we'll order the parts online, and our friend will come back and fix it. This means my bike will be fixed maybe sometime next year.

You may, very rightly, be wondering why I have to wait for Bob to take my bike to the shop to get an estimate. Did I not mention the fact that the evening of "bike fixing" also involved margarita-drinking? Well, and you know what can happen when you mix tequila with testosterone. You end up with a boy who has to prove to his friend that he can fix a bike just as well as his friend can, or at least, he could, if he'd also spent his summers and weekends as a kid taking bicycles apart and putting them back together, instead of perfecting his pitching arm for his oh-so-realistic future with the Yankees. Add to that mix a pesky girl with all her dumb questions, and well, I don't think I need say anymore. It means I'm stuck riding the "freebie" bike that was left by former tenants at our apartment in New York. It's a tad bit big for me, but it's still a great bike. (And don't worry. If it goes on too long, the pesky girl will put her foot down and take the bike over to the bike shop herself, maybe even fork over a lot of money to get it fixed, just to make a point.)

Anyway, all this is to say that I am so enjoying being on a bike again. I'd forgotten how much fun it can be and what a fantastic way it is to burn off excess energy. Especially fun is riding around here, where there is almost no traffic (I'm more likely to encounter horses and buggies than cars) on the back roads, and where the terrain is relatively flat. I'm amused by those Lancastrians who complain about the "hills" around here, noting that they don't tend to ride bikes unless they're at the shore, where it's flat. These hills are nothing, far preferable to the "hills" that turn into "mountains" in Connecticut the minute you mount a bicycle and try to climb one. The only problem these days is the heat, which is limiting me to either very early morning rides or rides at dusk, but that's a small price to pay for pedaling along idyllic roads either lined with towering corn on both sides or offering up stunning views of rolling green hills and old farm houses. Oh yeah, and saying "hello" to a few cows, sheep, and chickens along the way, other creatures who don't seem to need to get much exercise in order to be perfectly healthy. I wouldn't want to be one, though. They don't get to ride bicycles, which I suppose means being human is also better than being a crocodile.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

An Interesting Turn of Events for The Writer

Today, one of the characters in my novel announced that she wants to go to boarding school in Massachusetts. Where the heck did that come from? Is this what parenting is like?

She's not supposed to go to boarding school; she's not even supposed to be thinking about going to boarding school. Nowhere in my outline for the book does it say, "Edie announces she wants to go to boarding school." Nor does it say, "Edie goes off to boarding school." Of course, that very vague, "Will meets with Edie," doesn't exactly say what she's planning on doing, and she's had quite a traumatic year, so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised.

But I don't want her to go. I was a nanny for a summer in 1985 and carted around the sorts of kids who go to boarding school. They were all excited that summer because it was the year everyone would be going off to various schools in NY and MA and CT. You know what their criteria was for the best schools? The ones with the best drugs (information they'd all gathered from older brothers and sisters or their friends' older brothers and sisters). Those going to such schools couldn't wait to get there. I'm not kidding. 

This poor kid's already been through much more than any fifteen-year-old should have to endure. She doesn't need to go off to a place that's going to screw her up even more. Doing drugs isn't necessarily going to ruin her, of course, but it could. She's got a fragile ego; she's ripe for addiction. The idea of sending her off to such a place scares me.

But she's clever. She proceeded to give Will (a former boarding school teacher himself) all kinds of convincing arguments that clearly show this not to be just some passing whimsy. She didn't read all the Harry Potter books and come away from them thinking boarding school life is all fun and games, a thought that crossed his mind. She's done her research, and Will's having a hard time arguing with her. Yes, to some degree, she's running away, but she's running away with a purpose. She's proving herself to be quite mature and strong-willed. Oh, and in case that doesn't work, she's already gone and got her grandmother to back her. With Gran on her side, do her parents really stand a chance?

I suppose I'm going to have to let her go. Maybe things have changed since 1985, or maybe this school is different. After all, it's one that centers around horseback riding. She's going to be busy cleaning stables and learning to jump. Maybe it'll do her some good to get away from her small town. Oh, who am I kidding? I guarantee you, though, Gran is going to have the final say (and she's the one with all the money), so I might as well just go ahead and roll over now. I just hope that Edie turns out to be as strong as I think she is and keeps her head on her shoulders.