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Ketchup

Photo by Gordon Joly, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I haven’t updated the blog in a few months, some catching up is in order. Here’s what’s been going on with me:

September

At the beginning of the month, I had an exciting work trip to Kansas City, Missouri. I hadn’t realized (as you probably hadn’t either) that Kansas City is actually a very cool place. My coworkers and I were there for a week, and during the days we were busy working, of course, as that was the point of the trip. But in the evenings we had some memorable meals. Kansas City is known for its barbeque, so one night we made a pilgrimage to Gates, a local chain. They are known for yelling, “HI, MAY I HELP YOU?” at you the second you walk in the door. In the spirit of adventure, I had the barbecued mutton, just because I’d never had mutton before. It was rich, fatty, and wonderful. (I am a fan of fat when it’s not (yet) on me.)

Another night we went to JP Wine Bar in the artsy district, and I had foie gras with peaches. Yum. It was as chic and the menu as sophisticated as any DC wine bar, but at better prices. We also went to Garozzo’s for red sauce-Italian one night. Hoo-eee, lots of garlic. I will never forget my appetizer of stuffed artichoke, which the waitress described as “light,” but when it came turned out to be an artichoke solidly packed to the gills with shrimp, cooked proscuitto, melted cheese, garlic-lemon-butter-suffused bread crumbs, and Lord knows what other sinful things, swimming in a big pool of cheesy melted butter. I’m not saying it wasn’t good, and I’m not saying I didn’t eat it, but it was about as light as an anvil.

The culinary highlight, though, was The American Restaurant. The restaurant was founded by the owner of the Hallmark Corporation, and the decor was a mix of really cool art-nouveau built-in architectual details and kind of odd hotel-ish furnishings.

American Restaurant

The American Restaurant in Kansas City, via CitiesAndMe.com

But the food was beyond amazing. If this place were in DC, you’d be paying $200 or $300 a plate, but being in Kansas City, it was considerably less, and hence a great value. I had foie gras (again!) with a sweet wine called Picolit, and a truly amazing poached egg, and … I just wish I’d taken notes on everything I had, because in the meantime the menu has changed and it was several months ago, so I can’t remember the many details. But there were cubed geléed things and homemade fruit leather-type things and tableside flambéed-things, seemingly incongruous combinations of things that worked wonders for each other as the flavors melded. If you’re ever in KC and you’re any type of gastronome, that’s the place to go.

I stayed an extra day and night in KC so I could do a little exploring and meet up with a friend from grad school who I hadn’t seen in ten years. Luckily for me, the day I was there on my own was a First Friday, which is a monthly event in the arts district where all the galleries and many other businesses stay open late and people gather and walk around and mingle. The morning before it started I found a nice independent coffee shop in the arts district, called Crossroads Coffee, and sat there and worked on editing my book for a good solid four hours.

As I was wrapping up with my writing and getting ready to go out to see the galleries, some musicians started playing. Normally I don’t go much to live music shows these days – they don’t fit too well with the mom lifestyle – but felt it would be sort of rude to leave just as they were starting. So I stayed and listened a bit and then got hooked and ended up staying through the whole first set – the singer, Danny McGraw, turned out to be extremely talented. I liked the music so much that I ended up going up to buy one of his CDs when he paused for a break. Definitely worth a listen if you get the chance.

INKubator Press

INKubator Press, via http://artsincubatorkc.org/

Then I hit the galleries, and the evening became increasingly surreal. There was an old-fashioned book bindery, and an “arts incubator” place with a real old-style printing press as well. I wandered down to the end of one street and found a hair salon that was functioning as a gallery for the evening, packed with art and people. In one corner, DJs were spinning vinyl records. I came out of the salon with my mind slightly blown by that, only to see a pack of about 20 men running down the street wearing nothing but diapers and athletic shoes. No explanations, just men in diapers.

I wandered in and out of more galleries and stopped to hear a few bands playing in alleys or on streetcorners or in parking lots. I stopped for a while at a drum circle in a vacant lot. There were heavily tatooed white girls, their hair in red dreadlocks or tiny braids, their eyes made up with curlicues of kohl at the corners, wearing black lingerie and giant electric-blue furry boots, dancing to the drum music with hula hoops of flashing lights in every color.

Later I wandered into a small gallery where the artist, a guy, was blatantly hitting on every girl who came in. I allowed myself to be hit on, because as a mom it’s not something that happens so frequently, so I figured why not just enjoy it? Then the artist-guy’s friend came by and the three of us got into conversation. Casanova-artist’s friend had a very elaborate tattoo on one leg that went from his thigh down to his toes, and he took off his shoe and sock so I could see it better. I mentioned that I had a daughter, and it turned out Mr. Casanova-artist had a daughter too … and a wife (ick). And then it turned out that Mr. Casanova-artist’s tattoo-toed friend and his wife (not Casanova’s wife, but the friend’s wife) had quadruplets. Yes, quadruplets, and they had them naturally – it was a one in a million chance. They were born very early, of course, and only three of the four babies survived, but the rest were healthy. So basically, they were raising triplets.

And no, I wasn’t taking any hallucinogenic drugs that evening. That’s just Kansas City for you.

Shuttlecocks at Nelson-Atkins Museum

Shuttlecocks at Nelson-Atkins Museum (via Matt Unruh, Emporia State University)

The next morning I met up with my long-lost friend from grad school, who’s now a professor at the University of Missouri, and met her husband for the first time too, which was great. We went to the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and then went for barbecue at Jack Stack’s. Jack Stack was good, but the menu is a bit meat-heavy. You can get a meat appetizer, a meat main course with a side of meat, and then for dessert, they have a selection of meat brulee, creme de meat, meat parfait, or, on the lighter side, a few scoops of meat gelato. Okay, I’m kidding, but it was a whole lot of meat.

All in all, an excellent trip.

October 

  • My daughter and I moved from the DC-Maryland suburbs into a new apartment in DC proper.

November

  • The one-year anniversary of this blog!
  • Started a new novel! (See my Writing page for details.) Have not gotten much time to work on it so far, but it’s coming along.
  • Spent Thanksgiving in Tucson, and my daughter got lots of good Grandma time in and got into all kinds of highjinks with her cousins. After Thanksgiving, I drove her down to Tennessee, where she is going to stay with her dad for six months (we decided to change to a 50-50 custody arrangement, because I was getting kind of overwhelmed with solo-parenting). The plan is that I’ll be going down to Tennessee to visit every other weekend or so. Was very excited to learn that Megabus now runs a Chinatown town bus express to Knoxville! That is going to make my life a lot easier.

December

  • Won free tickets to a really cool event at the National Geographic Society – my favorite singer Neko Case did a showing of her photography.
  • Bought an inexpensive, used piano off Craigslist. Very exciting. I played piano seriously through college, but haven’t had a piano at home in 15 years.
  • Due to peer pressure, finally caved in and joined twitter. One of these days I am going to figure out how to get one of those twitter-widget-thingies up here on the blog.

That’s all the recent news – cheers and happy holidays everyone!

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White Painting (Three Panel), by Robert Rauschenberg, 1951

"White Painting," by Robert Rauschenberg (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

I’ve been thinking about novel plots lately and what makes the difference between good ones, bad ones, and nonexistent ones. Of the critiques I’ve received on my last novel from various people who’ve read it, the most troubling one for me is that “almost nothing happens.” Of course, in writing it, it seemed to me that quite a bit happens in the story. People have conversations! They have thoughts, ideas even! They feel things, decide things, change their minds about things. To me, those all seem like things that happen.

I think what such criticisms are getting at is that, while “things” may technically “happen,” they are boring things.

Off the top of my head, though, I can think of a number of well-known novels in which nothing, or almost nothing happens. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for example, which is about a bunch of people in a mountaintop sanatorium who spend most of the book having conversations about humanism, communism, freedom, art, religion, death, life, love, and morality. Granted, one of the characters does have sex (once, and just barely), people die off every now and then, and one kills himself. Oh, and there is a seance where one of the dead people comes back to say hello.

Hmmm … actually, when you think about it, things do happen in that book. But mostly, it’s people thinking and talking.

Then there’s James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A boy grows up in Ireland, in a very Catholic setting. He wins an essay contest and uses the prize money to sleep with a lot of prostitutes. Then he hears a sermon and worries he’s going to hell, and becomes ultra religious. Then he goes to university and studies philosophy, loses his faith, and decides to become an artist. Okay, so there is some sex, but apart from that, it’s mostly thinking and talking and deciding things.

Another book I thought of in the “almost nothing happens” category is The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by French author Muriel Barbery, which came out relatively recently and which I really enjoyed. The main things that “happen” in the book are: An old concierge lady is secretly intellectual. A tween girl is secretly suicidal. A rich Japanese man moves into their building. They all eventually meet and talk and like each other. A minor character is into drugs, there are a few conflicts between dogs that live in the building and [SPOILER ALERT!] somebody dies. But the death is weird, almost as if it’s tacked on as an afterthought, just to make sure no one can say of this book that “nothing happens in it.” All the same, I loved it, and liked the other two book quite a bit too. Maybe one element of this book’s success, though, is that it came out first in France, where people study philosophy in high school, and public intellectuals have celebrity status.

In any case, I wonder: Does someone have to die or have sex in order for a book to count as having something happen in it? Can it count if people almost die or almost have sex, or if they just want to die or want to have sex? I’ve long had a theory about the stories that get printed in The New Yorker. Back when I used to read them regularly, I noticed that almost every story that made it in there had either death or infidelity or both in it. Are death and sex what make a good story? Can anyone think of a good book or story in which there are neither? (One notable exception to my New Yorker stories theory that I remember was a story, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” by J.M.G. de Clézio, who I think is French. Why is it always the French who can get away with low-plot stories?)

It makes me think of the movie Adaptation, with the script by Charlie Kaufman, who also did Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It’s clear in that movie that Kaufman is also struggling with questions of what makes a good plot. He puts himself into the movie as a writer with a twin brother. The twin brother also wants to be a scriptwriter, but takes a formulaic approach, reading books about how to write good screenplays and then writing them by the numbers. The conventional twin brother becomes successful, while Charlie’s writer character struggles, trying to preserve what he thinks of as his artistic integrity. He’s assigned to adapt a nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, into a screenplay. The problem is that the book doesn’t have a plot. As the movie goes on with Charlie searching for a story, the plot twists begin to get more and more absurd. Orlean is revealed to be have an affair and doing drugs with the main character of her book, the brother gets killed, and another character gets eaten by an alligator.

The implicit question the movie asks is: Does it really make a better story if someone gets eaten by an alligator? Really? Or do we lose our honesty that way? Is fiction ideally supposed to be a flight from reality–reality with its boring, boring plots in which “nothing happens”—or a way to understand and explain it to ourselves, to make sense of it, to put structure and elegance and coherence into it?

Of course, in real life, people seldom get eaten by alligators, and often go for long stretches without having sex. Real life can be terribly boring and repetitive. And yet real life is also full of things I find fascinating. Small tragedies that fall short of death or infidelity, moments of despair, disappointments, wanting, beauty, sweetness, mysteries, deceptions, discoveries, and triumphs. Things people need to make sense of and process. I see value in writing and reading about such things, even if fiction tends to distort them as it makes sense of them, exaggerating, extending, reshaping, and rephrasing them.

I’m still wondering if someone should get eaten by an alligator in my book, though.

(This week’s music link: In Another World, by Donna the Buffalo)

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Illustration by Sylvia Long

Illustration by Silvia Long, via http://www.sylvia-long.com/

The morning daycare for Amandine is working out great so far. She seems to like it, and I’ve been able to get some revisions done on my book. I think the manuscript is just about ready to send out to some of my friends who’ve said they’d be willing to take a look at it. Apart from that, I’ve been filling out loads of federal job applications, some of which require the applicant to write more or less a novel-length description of their KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities). So the writing stamina I’ve developed by getting novels down on paper has stood me in good stead. You can’t say novel-writing doesn’t have its collateral benefits, even if one never gets published.

A friend lent me The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I finished that this week. I enjoyed the book as much as the movie, even already knowing the main plot points. The prose style was nice in the English translation, although obviously I can’t say how well it reflects the original Swedish. It’s kind of Ikea-style writing—clean and uncluttered lines, with function taking priority over form, but concern for pleasing design as well.

Amandine, who’s going on two-and-three-quarters now, is becoming very talkative and using complex sentences. She also makes up long, interesting songs about cats and bunnies and naps and diapers. I was particularly impressed the other day when she modified the lyrics of a lullaby that I’ve sung to her a lot. There is a children’s book by Sylvia Long with beautiful illustrations and alternative lyrics to the “Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird” song, that go like this:

Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mommy’s gonna show you a hummingbird.
If that hummingbird should fly, Mommy’s gonna show you the evening sky.
And when the night-time shadows fall, Mommy’s gonna hear the crickets call.
As their song drifts from afar, Mommy’s gonna search for a shooting star.
Etc.

The author’s idea was that the traditional lyrics are too materialistic—“I’ll buy you this, I’ll buy you that.” So instead she wanted to make the song about a mother comforting her child with the beauty of the world around them and her own love. I liked the idea, so I’ve always sung that version to Amandine as a bedtime song. The other day she was putting her favorite stuffed cat down for a nap and singing the song to the cat. Except Amandine’s version went like this:

Hush lillel baby, don’t say a wook, Mommy’s gonna show you a … cupcake.

Alas, the non-comsumerist subtext has clearly not sunk in. But at least it appears my daughter is a poet in the making. At any rate, I took the hint and made cupcakes yesterday.

Some soothing music to send you on your way:

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Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel"

Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel" (via Vimooz.com)

A 5-hour plane ride with a two-and-a-half-year-old, if you’ve never tried it, is kind of an Olympics-level parenting event, and I’m still recovering. So forgive me if this post lacks the normal verve and panache due to mental and physical exhaustion.

The orgy of cultural consumption has continued unabated since my last post. I read The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta, a middle grade novel called When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage and also saw the movie Coco Before Chanel. Phew!

So, I think Tom Perotta is well on his way to becoming a favorite author for me.  The Abstinence Teacher is about a high school female sex ed teacher forced to teach an abstinence-only curriculum and a recovering drug addict who’s been saved by his conversation to evangelical Christianity. It’s a great story with a lot of compassion, heart, and humor. You get the sense Perotta is coming from a secular point of view, but in this novel wanted to experiment with putting himself in the shoes of someone who thinks in a way that’s entirely opposite to his worldview. This strikes me as an extremely worthwhile thing to do, both as a writer and as a human being.

The book did have a few sentences near the beginning, though, that were so clunky I almost stopped reading. E.g., this one:

Defying the Sex and the City stereotype of randy, uninhibited single gals dishing colorful secrets to their friends, the three women rarely spoke about anything but work and movies.

Or is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this sentence is horrible? If this had been a new author to me, I might have given up on him then and there. But since I’d enjoyed Little Children so much, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, and am glad I did, because things picked up after that. And that bad sentence was balanced by a wonderful one later on:

With three soccer-age kids, John spent his Saturdays rushing maniacally from one field to the next, driving like he had a freshly harvested liver packed in a cooler on the front seat.

*blissful sigh*

Now there’s a sentence. But Mr. Perotta, if you’re reading this, next time be sure to let me take a look at your manuscript before it goes to press so we can make sure we don’t have any horrible clunker sentences like that “defying the Sex and the City stereotype” one making it past your editor again. Thank you. Incidentally, this all goes to prove my point that no detail in writing fiction is too small to sweat over. One out-of-place comma can ruin a sentence, one poor word choice can spoil a paragraph, and one ugly sentence can alienate a reader forever.

The Rebecca Stead book was okay. I’ll talk about Committed next week, because I’m going to a book club meeting on it tomorrow and maybe will have interesting comments from other people to report on.

I liked Coco Before Chanel a lot—it’s about the life of famous fashion designer Coco Chanel before she became famous. The two major relationships she has in the film with men are both really interesting (and I must admit, I thought the one with Alessandro Nivola was totally hot). But perhaps most interesting of all was the way Audrey Tautou, the actress who plays Chanel, almost never smiles. It becomes exhausting to watch her, because you keep waiting for her to break down and smile, but she keeps up the serious expression all through. Somehow that made the movie for me, if only because it was so unusual. It was like I was almost forced to take her and the movie seriously because of her seriousness. The Chanel character doesn’t just break down all the assumptions about femininity and ornament in dressing, but also breaks down our expectations about women as inherently responsible for being sweet and smiling and entertaining. Instead her attitude is: I am who I am, what I see matters to me, I am not just here to please you.

Sorry, words are totally failing me here. But I really liked it.

Lastly, you know how I was going on last time about character likeability, character likeability, character likeability? Well, then I came across this really interesting post by a writer who likes unlikeable characters. I have to think more about this whole likeability issue and how important it is to good writing. I won’t attempt to talk more about it right now as my brain is so muddled, but I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts.

Here are some songs to send you on your way, this week’s theme being A Few Totally Random Song I Just Happen To Like:

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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

Lyrics:

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

(Refrain)

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
(Refrain)

Comments:

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

Lyrics:

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

Comments:

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*

Lyrics:

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.

Comments:

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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Persuasion

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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