Archive for March, 2010

Tucson Sunset

Tucson Sunset, by Saghuaro Pictures, via Wikimedia Commons

Amandine and I are in Tucson on vacation again. We left on Tuesday and it was kind of an eventful day. Shortly before getting in the car to head for the airport, I got an e-mail from a literary agent I’d queried about the new novel, requesting the full manscript. That was exciting, because I’ve only sent a handful of queries out. And since I’m still working on making the book better, mainly the only reason I was querying so early was to get a jumpstart on refining my query letter, and also to keep me motivated through the editing process. Knowing you might get a partial or full manuscript request at any moment makes it pretty urgent to get the book in good shape quickly.

So, the agent still might not like my full manuscript, but at least this says positive things about my query letter and the overarching concept of the book. And meanwhile, I’ll keep looking for ways to improve it.

Not long after that bit of excitement, I fell down some stairs and sprained my ankle pretty badly.  I howled in pain at the top of my lungs. My two-and-a-half-year-old Amandine was the only one else home, and she was playing up stairs. She came down and said, “Mommy … you … okaaaay?”

Regaining some of my composure, I said, “Yes, sweetie, Mommy’s okay, she just got an ouchie on her foot.” Amandine gave me a big consoling hug. It was very cute.

We rode to the airport and I was walking on the injured foot just fine, but during the 5 1/2 hour flight to Phoenix, my ankle started to swell up and ache and throb. I got some ice to put on it, but by the time the flight got in, I couldn’t put any weight on it at all. The airplane staff put me into a wheelchair and with Amandine sitting on my lap I got wheeled to the baggage claim.

We were supposed to stay overnight with my sister in Phoenix before going on to Tucson in the morning. But through a weird coincidence, my sister had also sprained her right ankle, about half an hour before I sprained mine. It was like we were both on the same telepathic sisterly-klutziness wavelength. So, since neither of us could drive or walk, my mom had to drive up from Tucson to pick Amandine and me up at the airport.

Back at my sister’s house in Phoenix, we spent the next day with our injuries iced and elevated, with my poor, sweet, long-suffering mom chasing all the kids around. Then we left for Tucson.

Yesterday the big event was getting Amandine’s hair cut at the mall. We opted for the Christopher Robin style, and she is now even more unbearably cute than before (she was starting to bear a startling resemblance to Cousin Itt from the Addams Family).


Cousin Itt

Before: Note similarity to Cousin Itt


Christopher Robin

After: A Christopher Robin coiffure

That is about as exciting as life gets around here, which is probably a good thing.

Before I close, a quick shout-out to a writer friend of mine who just had a great story published in Word Riot. There’s even a podcast! Give it a listen, it’s good stuff.


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Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"

Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"

(With apologies to William Blake, this is a post I’m writing specifically to submit to this Humanist Symposium thingie for bloggers I just learned about—the next one will be hosted April 4th by Letters from a Broad, a blog whose author is also a novelist.)

Given the phase of music enthusiasm I’ve been going through lately, I thought I’d link to and discuss a few songs I like that deal with the experience of being an unbeliever in a believing world:

First Song: The Virginian, by Neko Case


When I was young, I knew a girl
Who wouldn’t love God as a test
Or gamble with her happiness
And so led astray
So she did turn
Her father would say,
‘You’re only a guest of the master’
But passion was her Sunday best
And she fell away

She fell away
She fell away
She fell away from the side of the Lord
And she was free to do what she wanted
With clouds of her own
Na na na na

When she grew up, she fell in love
She thought it was all that she wanted
She knew how it felt to be haunted
And he ran away
Picked herself up
And said through her tears
Don’t waste anymore of your time
You’ll spend it all standing in line
They’ll turn you away


Oh but superstition
And your heart’s permission
‘Cause you’re good enough, good enough, good enough
To make it alone
Then when she died
She didn’t ask God
To take her back into his graces
She’d taken on to many shapes
And too many were strange
And as they lay her in to the ground
Her spirits, they all flew all away
The sun shone so bright on that day
You thought it was spring


One of the many interesting things about this song is the connection it draws between the spiritual and the romantic. It seems to me that in many cases, part of what draws people to religion is a longing for intimacy. The relationship with God is a love-relationship—no one knows you so intimately and loves you so unconditionally as God. Psychologists and occasionally philosophers talk about romantic love as an impulse to submit one’s will to another, to have the self subsumed in another self, to have the borders between self and other fall and merge into one another—it’s a means of transcending one’s solitary, solipsistic existence. At the same time, it’s a flight from freedom and independence, from the necessity of having to choose for yourself and take sole responsibility for your existence.

Of course, the trouble with God as a substitute for human intimacy is that God seems to have intimacy issues. He tends to resemble a guy (or girl) who’s just not that into you. He never calls, doesn’t send a card on your birthday … and when was the last time you had a two-way conversation with Him? If He does appear to communicate, it’s always indirectly, by way of other people, sort of like when one of the Sex and the City girls is dating a rich business mogul who has his secretary send flowers instead of calling.

The girl in the song sees that human passion and intimacy are what she really wants. She’s not going to gamble with her happiness by waiting around for God to call; instead she leaves Him and moves on to fall in love with a real person. But then she realizes human love isn’t dependable either—ultimately she learns not to flee freedom either through God or through romance. The moral of the story for freethinkers is that leaving dogmatism behind may not necessarily open up new doors to happiness. It’s something that ultimately has to be done out of integrity and honesty and love for these things in themselves, rather than with the expectation that greater happiness will result. If a person can manage that, they’ll have no regrets even if they turn out to have been wrong on Judgment Day.

Second Song: One Man’s Shame, by William Elliott Whitmore


Don’t alter my altar
don’t desecrate my shrine
My church is the water
and my home is underneath the shady pines
Don’t underestimate the spine in a poor man’s back
when it’s against the wall and his future’s black
One man’s story is another man’s shame
I ain’t bound for glory, I’m bound for flames
Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks
Go away child and don’t look back
Sad is the lullaby from a mother’s heart and soul
when she knows her child has strayed from the fold
The parish will perish
by death’s cruel hand
and finish the job that fate began
All that static in the attic,
that’s just an old drunk ghost
His chains are rattlin’ but his end is close
Ain’t no hell below and ain’t no heaven above
I came for the drinks but I stayed for the love


Here the unbeliever is prepared to defend his own concepts of altar, shrine, church, and home, and warns others not to underestimate his strength—he’ll stand up for himself; he’s a poor man with nothing to lose. He realizes and accepts that what to him is simply his story will be viewed as a shame to others; they’ll see him as someone who’s strayed from the fold and is bound for the flames of hell. But his advice to anyone in doubt is to leave and not look back. (Presumably, to leave dogmatism behind, that is.) Ultimately, the “ghost” of religion rattling in the “attic” (our subconscious? the collective unconscious?) will be fade away … And there’ll still be drinks and love.

I just like the attitude of defiance in this song, the stance of embracing your own story even if it looks like shame to others.

Third Song: Mercy Seat, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds*


They are long, so I’ll just put the refrain—you can see all the song’s lyrics here.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.


This is a ballad about a man condemned to death. (Incidentally, Johnny Cash does a great cover of it also.) Again we have the attitude of defiance, and to me there’s also something very Socratic about it. The narrator is willing to accept responsibility for his own existence and choices, even if that means death. And whatever he may have done, he’s kept his integrity and told the truth. Like the girl in the first song, he doesn’t fear death or a Day of Judgment; both narrators have made their choices and will stand by them, come what may.

The religious believer is ideologically equipped to deal with death—she has comforting concepts like an afterlife and the promise of seeing loved ones again in the hereafter. To some, giving up these consolations and accepting the reality and finality of death may be one of the most difficult aspects of leaving religion behind. And even for the determined unbeliever, there’s a lingering uncertainty about what really happens at death. (Consider the strange story of atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience.) In The Apology, Socrates says death is likely one of two things: either a state of unconsciousness comparable to a pleasant sleep, or a chance to continue doing exactly what he’s done all his life:

Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not.

I think of this as meaning that if my consciousness goes on, I’ll still be myself, with all my curiosity and wonder about people and things around me. I’ll continue to regard my actions and decisions as I do now: as those of a fallible person who tried to be decent, live a good life, and not hurt others. Yes, a God might emerge out of the clouds in a burst of bright light and condemn me to eternal punishment, but there’s no guarantee that couldn’t happen to me here in this life, too, five minutes from now. Such a judgmental, dictatorial, punitive God would be no less a bully there than here, and I’d be no more inclined to obey Him and follow His orders.

So while I won’t exactly say bring on the Mercy Seat and the hemlock, or that death isn’t scary, fear of divine judgment is not one of the things that makes it scary and potentially painful, and that’s one of the lessons of these songs.

I’d love to hear what others’ favorite songs are.

*Thanks to my friend Denise for making me think of this song last week in commenting on the other Nick Cave song in my last post.

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Tent Revival

Tent Revival, from Rawge's Collection of Crosses, Art, and Photographs at TheCrossWeb.com

I had a religious upbringing. The religion I was raised in, Mormonism, was an evangelical kind, which means we were interested in converting other people to it.

In my mid-twenties I had an intellectual falling-out with my church and left.

Thanks to Facebook, I’m now in touch with a lot of old friends from my churchgoing years. Last week, I got a package in the mail from one of them. Included among the sweet, thoughtful gifts in the box was … a copy of the Book of Mormon signed and accompanied with handwritten evangelizing notes from her and several of our other friends.

Being the object of this small proselytizing effort was an interesting experience. Much as I love my friends, I felt annoyed, embarrassed, and even a bit insulted. At the same time, I understood the motivations behind it, because back when I too was religious, I used to do the exact same thing. I remember in college sending copies of the Book of Mormon to a couple of my agnostic friends from high school (I believe the author of The Post-Pessimist Association was one of the lucky recipients). I had underlined and highlighted key passages in a number of different colors, and penned earnest, heartfelt notes in them. I did this out of a sincere desire to share with them something that at the time I thought was gold, hoping it would make them as happy as it made me.

Now I have a pretty good idea of what it must have been like on their end: annoying, embarrassing, and slightly insulting. Why insulting? It sends the message that who you are is not okay, and you need to change in order to meet with others’ approval. Also, part of being treated like a grownup is the assumption on your interlocutor’s part that you’ve thought through your worldview options and know your own mind. These proselytizing efforts imply the opposite, that you’ve got it all wrong and need to be schooled.

It’s tricky though, obviously. Sometimes in life we do have it all wrong and do need to be schooled.

And of course, religious folks are not the only ones who go around trying to persuade others to see things their way. Atheists do it. Environmentalists do it. Political partisans of all stripes do it. And the subtext remains the same: You may have thought this through, but not enough. Your views are wrong and you need to change them. The status quo of who you are, as defined by what you think and the choices you make based on your opinions, is unacceptable.

So today’s question for the world at large is, when are these persuasive efforts okay and when do they cross the line? When are they unforgivable, and when are they imperative? When do we embrace humility and decide to just live and let live, and when do we set off on a crusade?

And now, to accompany all our deep thoughts on this subject, A Number of Religion-Themed Songs, With Varying Degrees of Irony and With Apologies to My Non-Secular Friends To Whom I Hope These Are Not Too Offensive

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Mothers and Children

Gustav Klimt, Detail from The Three Ages of Women

Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Women (detail), 1905

When I have an intimidating pile of books I want to read and am not sure where to start, sometimes I’ll go through and read the just first chapter of each book in turn. Then I’ll read the second chapter of each, and so on, until I get hooked on one and drop the others. Last week, the book that hooked me was Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. I was already tipping at Chapter 2, and when Chapter 3 started it was a done deal. (First sentence: “He should just be castrated.” And that’s before you even get to the kissing and lust.)

I haven’t seen the movie, which everyone said was good, but this is was a great read. Perrotta’s writing is close to my ideal. His prose is clean and uncluttered, and he seems to follow the principle that the story takes precedence over the language, without the language suffering from its supporting role. There is very little here that’s extraneous, either in the diction or in the plot.

The magic of the book isn’t in the level of craftsmanship in the writing, although the craftsmanship is there. Rather, it’s the sympathy every character gets. Even the repugnant characters are humanized and we feel sorry for them. And the hero and heroine conversely aren’t idealized, but I still fell hard for both of them. Compassion and liking for your own characters is something no writing class or book can teach you. Tom Perrotta seems to have both, and they elevate the book from a clever, self-aware tale of modern marital malaises to something beautiful and deeply satisfying.

Also, in a bunch of places, the writing is funny. Not guffawing, thigh-slapping funny, but funny enough to make you stop mentally every now and then and say “ha!” It’s so rare to find literary writing that’s also funny, although maybe it’s just the books I pick. I can count on one hand authors of good literary fiction I’ve read in the past decade who were funny: Tom Perrotta, David Lodge (e.g., Therapy), William Kotzwinkle (The Bear Went Over the Mountain), and grudgingly I might put Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) on there too, because whatever other failings The Corrections has, I have to admit there were some funny bits. But I think Perotta is a much better author than Franzen—unlike Franzen, Perotta doesn’t come across as trying too hard, and Franzen especially suffers by comparison on the measure of character likeability. I should have been able to like a tormented bisexual female chef, for example, but Franzen made even that difficult. While on the other hand, Perrotta arouses my sympathy (to a limited extent) for a convicted pedophile, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.

Of course, part of the problem is that I just don’t get to read nearly enough (does anyone these days?) If anyone has more suggestions for funny-but-literary authors, I’d love to hear them. A dear friend from high school who like me is an aspiring novelist recently posted on his troubles with overly serious writing. So hopefully he’ll eventually write something “allegedly funny,” as he likes to say and I can read that. But in the meantime, suggestions welcome.

Speaking of little children, last week was my daughter Amandine’s half-birthday—she’s now officially 2 and a half. So in Amandine’s honor, and in honor of all my mom friends who recently had a baby or are about to have one any minute, I thought I’d link to a few songs on the theme of mothers and children.

The Neko Case song isn’t really a mother-child song, but the refrain used to run through my head constantly when Amandine was just born and would cry all the time. I find the Madonna song simultaneously kitschy and moving, like a lot of her songs that I like. But it’s not often that pop megasuperstars sing about tender feelings for their children rather than hookups and doomed love affairs and such, so I just think it’s awesome that song exists. And the Lucinda Williams song is an amazingly good description of the ache and richness of mother-love.

Book status update: Still revising and revising and revising. Starting to trade off critiques with a few people, which is going to be helpful but involves a lot of work reciprocally critiquing others’ manuscripts. I do think the book is gradually sucking less, so that’s good. If anyone is interested in being a beta reader, give me a holler.

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