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Archive for the ‘Peregrinations’ Category

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“Your Golden Hair, Margarete,” by Anselm Kiefer, 1981 (via http://www.safran-arts.com/42day/art/art4mar/art0308.html)

This is yet another post touched off by a post by Eric Schliesser on the NewApps philosophy blog … He discusses a two-part article in the New York Review of books by Mark Lilla about several films and books on the Holocaust, and considers Lilla’s contention that “Every advance in research that adds a new complication to our understanding of what happened on the Nazi side, or on the victims’, can potentially threaten our moral clarity about why it happened, obscuring the reality and fundamental inexplicability of anti-Semitic eliminationism.” Eric’s insightful discussion got me thinking about the moral implications of trying to represent the Holocaust in literary writing, e.g. fiction, memoir, etc. Following on that, I offer this little anecdote that I have been thinking about for a long time:

When I was spending a year as a student at the University of Hamburg in Germany, the year after I finished college in the US in the mid-1990s, I met an older German man at church who wanted to talk to me about his experiences as a soldier during the Third Reich. It was a little strange explaining to the people at the Mormon church what I was doing in Germany. They met a lot of Mormon American girls my age who came to be au pairs, and they always assumed I could only be another au pair. I finally managed to convince some of them that I was a real student, and that I was studying real subjects like history and theology and Semitic languages.

When this man heard that I was studying history, though my focus was the Greco-Roman era, he assumed I was there to study recent German history. He promised to set aside some time for me so I could interview him about his days as a soldier. I didn’t want to interview him, but I also didn’t want to be impolite. He seemed so determined, and I sensed that he wanted to talk about it, and perhaps at the same time it was hard for him to offer to talk about it, and so rejecting the offer might wound or humiliate him.

On the agreed-upon afternoon, on a dark, cloudy winter day, I went to see him in his cramped, dimly-lit Hamburg apartment where he lived alone. The furnishings were typical older, lower-middle-class hamburgische, from the fifties and sixties, worn dusty rugs and lampshades and curtains. I think he sat in an armchair next to a little side table with a lamp that provided most of the little light there was. I brought a notebook and a pen to pretend to take notes. To my relief, he didn’t seem to expect me to have any questions; he just started to talk.

Since I didn’t take any notes, at least not that I still have, I can’t guarantee how reliable my memory of his story is. But here are a few things I remember, loosely paraphrasing. He started off by saying, “I never liked Jews, when I was younger. I heard a story about a Jewish boy who seduced a girl and got her pregnant, and then wouldn’t marry her. And always after that, I never liked Jews.”

Under the Third Reich, there was a plan for the Jews. From what he understood back then, the plan was just to resettle them, to give them their own place. It even seemed like it could be a good thing for them.

He talked about how the years of the war, when he served as a soldier, were some of the happiest years of his life. “Those were my glory days.” He was young and handsome back then, and there was excitement and camaraderie in the army. But because of the history, because of the terrible things that happened as a result of the war, it was considered wrong to remember those years as happy. This seemed hard for him, to feel forbidden to remember his happiness as happiness, to have to be ashamed of having been happy.

He never knew about any of the camps, he said. He believed the Jews were being given transportation by train to their new resettlements in other territories. Once, he saw one of the trains go by, packed with people who were waving their arms out the sides. He had even thought, back then, perhaps they were waving because they were happy.

Then he said to me, in a near-whisper, “But afterwards, I heard that they were sent to camps. I heard … they even gassed them …” As if this were news that he still had trouble grasping, fifty years later. As if it were up to him to explain the fact of the death camps to me and confess their existence, as if I wouldn’t have read about this over and over again in high school history classes and seen the documentaries and the movies and read the articles and books. As if there still might even be some shred of hope that it hadn’t really happened.

And then perhaps we talked about other things for a while, and probably I thanked him, and left.

It’s not much of a story really, these few little sketchy details of a strange, long-ago conversation, and yet I’ve thought for nearly twenty years since that sometime I should try to write them down. And then I never have until now, because it strikes me as something that might seem to others completely random and trivial – just one little drop of a story in a vast sea of millions of terrible stories. Does it offer any insight into the Holocaust, or the nature of evil, or guilt, or innocence, or willful ignorance, or rationalizations? Is it worth sharing, and how can it be my place to share it? I’m not a Jew, I’m not a German, and the Holocaust happened decades before I was born. I have no direct connection with it. And yet I have this one story where it came to me unasked-for and unwanted and stood before me and tried to explain itself just for those few minutes in those few words of one old man.

Simply by telling a story like this, the story of another person trying to explain himself, a person who may have seen me as an outside judge with a kind of power to absolve him though listening and understanding – am I guilty in this of trying to understand and explain the inexplicable? I still don’t know. I thought perhaps in the act of finally writing it down, I might better understand what it meant to write it down. What having written it down makes clear to me is that I did feel sorry for this man, for his guilt and shame and confusion, for his good will and his past happiness, and his determination to confess and tell me things it pained him to say. Also, that I was simultaneously horrified by some of the things he said. Also, that the story helped me go a little ways toward understanding him and imagining myself in his shoes. Also, that perhaps I might have absolved him if I could have. The project of trying to understand him, and through him to have a tiny window into how the whole horror happened, does not feel immoral to me, it feels like a worthwhile thing to try to do, however flawed and inadequate my telling is. But then perhaps I’m only trying to ease my own guilt, as he was. I don’t know.

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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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Moonshine

Moonshine, via Mark Oldman (http://www.markoldman.com/)

(Quick announcement first: I’ve added a new section on Mormon-interest books to my “Recommended” page, in case anyone’s interested.)

So, the weekend before last, Amandine and I drove down to Knoxville, TN, so she could spend some time with her dad. The drive was long (8 1/2 hours), but I dulled the pain somewhat with one of those portable DVD players you hook on to the back of the passenger seat, so Amandine could watch videos. (Her hands-down favorites: Barbie in The 12 Dancing Princesses and Angelina Ballerina.)

Once I dropped Amandine off at her dad’s Friday night, though, heaven awaited: a weekend all to myself, my first since Amandine was born nearly three years ago. (Amandine seemed pretty excited about it too. She was all: “Okay, Mommy, you can go now.”) I stayed at the St. Oliver Hotel in downtown Knoxville, right on Market Square. It was pretty close to my ideal as far as hotels go: historic, with charm and character, clean, cozy without being kitschy, and not too expensive. All the rooms were furnished with antiques, but there was no chintz and lace like in some stuffy Victorian B&B (the kind I never get to stay in, because they tend to be child-hostile)—instead it just looked cool and chic. And my room had real wood floors, even in the bathroom!

Saturday was a nearly perfect day. I slept well, woke up early, got dressed, and went downstairs to the library room, where the hotel had free wi-fi, to check my e-mail. After that I stepped outside, and market day on the square was already booming, with farmers and artisans setting up their stands. I wasn’t hungry for breakfast, and the coffee shop wasn’t open yet, so I sat on a park bench and people-watched in between working on novel revisions. Then I found I was hungry after all, so I went and had flapjacks at Trio Cafe, which were very good (if only they used real maple syrup, though; my Canadian connections have spoiled me for the fake stuff. I had to make up for it by smearing the pancakes with a whole ball of butter …).

Next stop was Coffee & Chocolate for a chai latte, more people-watching, and more work on novel revisions until the early afternoon, by which point I was hungry again. Then to Tomato Head for a nutritious and fortifying lunch of carrot soup and chorizo-avocado enchilada. After that I was in a bit of a food coma, so I went back to the hotel for a short nap.

Through the afternoon heat and into the early evening I stayed in my hotel room and had a particularly successful revising session. I finally managed to rewrite a scene that almost every one of my critiquers had said was a missed opportunity, and which I had felt intimidated about attacking.

It’s a peculiar sort of pleasure, but a genuine one, to spend almost an entire day in the company of  one’s own imaginary novel characters. A bit like being around a group of delightfully well-behaved children who go around saying one absurd, adorable thing after another—at least, when your characters are clever likeable people rather than, say, depraved evil villains.

At 7:30pm I had a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants in the whole country, RouXbarb,* headed up by chef Bruce Bogartz. (Other favorite restaurants: Buck’s Fishing & Camping in DC and Boulevard in San Francisco. All three of these I’ve liked better than wd-50 in New York.) Since I was eating solo, I was seated at the “chef’s table,” which is sort of like bar seating, but in a u-shape so it’s easier to talk to other people. Being a shy yet sociable sort of person, I appreciated this setup. At one point, back when I was single the first time around, I trained myself to enjoy eating in restaurants by myself. Since then, I’ve known I can always do fine with my own little table and a book, and as often as not I end up in conversations with people at other tables anyway. But the chef’s table was still a nice accommodation—sort of the restaurant equivalent of a youth hostel atmosphere.

I had the chicken liver appetizer, the watermelon salad, the scallops, and the white-chocolate banana pudding. Everything was amazing, especially the chicken livers, which were sumptuously crispy and perfectly complemented by the sweet-tart tomato jam and cheesy grits. It’s a BYOB place, and I hadn’t thought to bring anything to drink, so the bartendress poured me a glass of house red, looking sorry that I wasn’t getting anything better. Then some of the other people at the chef’s table invited me to share a glass of some really nice wine they had brought, and the bartendress was greatly relieved.

Meanwhile, Chef Bruce kept leaning over from his post in the kitchen, greeting new guests, teasing and hassling the regulars (of which there were many), and making colorful remarks. Upon learning why I’d come to Knoxville, he declared I ought to be drinking moonshine. I laughed it off, but later in the evening a mason jar was set down on the counter in front of me, containing a clear, cold liquid, alongside a couple of chilled shot glasses.

“We don’t have a liquor license, so you’ll have to pour it yourself,” I was told.

Intrigued, I screwed off the lid of the mason jar and poured myself a shot. I asked my newfound friends at the table for advice as to whether I was supposed to sip it or just knock it back. The consensus opinion was that I should take a sip first so I’d know what I was getting into, and then knock it  back. So I took a sip, and ended up sipping all of it, because it was actually not bad-tasting at all. It was the sort of drink that wakes you up, too, instead of making you feel sleepy, so fortunately it gave me renewed energy for tackling my banana pudding.

No longer a moonshine virgin, I came back to the hotel, read a few chapters of a book (Allison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, which I picked up randomly in a used bookstore and ended up enjoying a lot), and went to sleep.

Sunday afternoon I went to pick up Amandine from her dad’s house and heard about her many adventures, which included making cookies, swimming, drawing, and playing with power tools, apparently.  Then we headed back to DC. So it was a short trip, but a successful one all around.

In moonshine’s honor, I leave you with this nostalgic video to contemplate:

*I wrote a fuller review of RouXbarb a couple of years ago on TripAdvisor, after the first time I went there (it’s the one entitled “So good it made me want to do backflips”).

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Hazelnut Tart at wd-50

Hazelnut Tart at wd-50

Happy Fourth of July!

Some good news to share: Starting next month I’ll be joining the ranks of the (fully and gainfully) employed. I’ve accepted an offer from a federal government agency and will be going back into my old line of work as a program analyst (subject, of course, to background checks and paperwork, etc. etc.) So, this Independence Day I am lucky enough to celebrate the prospect of going back into public service and also being a little more financially independent. I’m excited about the job, which is going to involve research, interviewing, writing, and analysis on all kinds of interesting topics, and even some travel.

And now, of course, all the usual disclaimers and caveats will apply: this blog isn’t and won’t be intended in any way to reflect the views of my new employer.

Thanks so much to everyone who encouraged me and kindly  passed on opportunities, tips, advice, and references during my job hunt. I can admit now that it was slightly scary to be looking for work in the middle of such a difficult economy, and all that kindness and encouragement helped me keep my chin up.

Since I wrote last, a whole adventuresome weekend trip to NYC came and went. Two weeks ago Amandine and I went on a road to trip up to Westchester County, north of New York City, to see my little sister graduate from her medical residency program.

Google maps said it would take five hours to get there, which I thought might just be doable with an almost-three-year-old in the back seat. Of course, I didn’t count on being stuck on the DC beltway for an hour in traffic on the way out, or missing the turnoff to the Jersey turnpike and getting totally lost driving around small towns in rural New Jersey … or getting stuck on the Washington Bridge on the way through NYC at 11:30 at night for 45 minutes during which Amandine woke up and cried nonstop … yeah, so in the end, seven hours give or take. And not a very fun seven hours.

But the Westchester Marriott, where we stayed with my parents, was nice, with a tasty steak and eggs breakfast the next morning. We spent the day visiting Sleepy Hollow (of headless horseman fame), the Rockefeller mansion called Kykuit, and Phillipsburg Manor. I don’t recommend trying to tour the inside of the mansion with an almost-three-year-old, but Amandine had a great time playing outside in the fountains and wandering around the gardens, which are full of cool modern scultures.

Then in the evening was the big graduation ceremony for my sister at another hotel, with dinner and dancing afterward. To everyone’s surprise, after Amandine had spent the whole day yawning and being cranky, as soon as the DJ started the dance music, she grabbed my hand, pulled me out into the middle of the ballroom, and started tearing up the dance floor. I’ll post the video on Facebook. Meanwhile, this will at least give you the flavor of it:

The next day my sister and parents went to a Broadway Show in the afternoon, while Amandine and I meandered down to Central Park. It was really hot and miserable, but they had sort of a splashpark section in the middle of it, with sprinklers and waterslides, so even though we weren’t prepared with swimsuits, I let Amandine splash around in it to cool off a little. I wish we’d gone to the Met or something more air-conditioned instead.

Then in the evening we went to a restaurant called wd-50, which looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but is actually on a list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. The chef’s name is Wylie Dufresne, and I think this constituted my first brush with the so-called molecular gastronomy style of cuisine. I had a beautiful red cocktail that involved lychee and rose flavors, and in the spirit of adventure ordered the smoked eel appetizer. For a main dish I had the skate (fish) with salsify (obscure vegetable), wild rice, and butternut squash.

It was certainly all very inventive and clever and wonderfully presented, and some of the flavors were intense and pleasing … but somehow, the dishes I had just didn’t, well, taste all that amazing. I mean, it was okay, and goodness knows, it certainly wasn’t bad. But with the smoked eel it mainly tasted like, well, chunks of smoked fish. Which is not a bad taste by any means, but you know, it’s smoked fish. And the skate was actually kind of rubbery. I’ve never had skate before, so maybe that was how it’s supposed to be. Maybe all the subtleties were just lost on me.

But the dessert. Now the dessert blew me away. It was a little disk of hazelnut torte, with thin layers of cool, silky, intensely rich coconut cream and chocolate ganache. The idea of combining coconut and hazelnut was very original, I thought, and worked beautifully. But the kicker, the truly mind- and palate-blowing bit, was a slightly bittersweet chicory foam on the side. I mean, if that didn’t beat all. You know, chicory. A bitter vegetable. With a superrich, tiny, cold hazelnut tart. And it was delicious. The delicate hint of frothy bitterness was the perfect thing to compliment the cold chocolatty nuttiness. It was genius. So that saved the dinner for me, and saved wd-50’s reputation in my mind.

On the drive back, I took a different route to avoid NYC and that terrible bridge, through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This only took five hours, but when we were still two hours from home the air conditioning in the car stopped working, and it was 92 degrees outside. So again, that was not too fun.  But it was worth it to see my sister and have a little adventure.

Before I go, a few quick movie reviews:

Eclipse

Thankfully, this was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. I actually thought the first movie in the series was surprisingly well done. And then New Moon was such a disappointment, full of every imaginable cliche and silliness, complete with a flash forward of Bella running in slo-mo through a field of flowers in a flowy dress with syrupy music playing. It was so bad it was laughable. So I was wary about Eclipse, but thought I’d give it a chance. And they did better this time. Bella was less annoyingly grim, it was funnier (the scene with Bella telling her dad she’s still a virgin was priceless), and the Edward-Jake tensions and rivalry were funny, too.

Letters to Juliet

This is another one I had low expectations for. It looked totally sappy and brainless in the trailers. But I ended up enjoying it. Of course, the film’s contention that people who love each should want to spend every waking moment together was silly, and personally I wouldn’t have complained about traveling through Italy eating cheese and truffles and going to wine tastings with Gael Garcia Bernal. But the whole film was easy on the eyes (both scenery and people), and kind of refreshing in the way it managed to sneak in bits of intelligent dialogue and characterization in between the typical by-the-numbers rom-com moments.

Good Dick(on DVD)

I know, what a name! I fear it’s going to attract the totally wrong sort of traffic to this blog. But I had to mention it because this was a great, great little film. It’s about a guy who works in a video shop, his fellow misfit coworkers, and a mysterious, reclusive young woman who comes in every afternoon and rents an armload of softcore porn videos. The story is moving, funny, and original, and the acting was well-done. (Although, Mormon friends, I don’t think this is one for you, unless you are on the far-liberal end of the spectrum.)

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Columbus, OHAmandine and I are in Columbus, OH, this weekend visiting friends. It has been a pretty low-key visit so far, mostly just hanging out, chasing Amandine around, eating, and reading. I figured I might as well take advantage of not having a job yet to get a little traveling in before I start work.

The most exciting thing we’ve done so far was the Columbus Race for the Cure yesterday morning—it was fun to walk around the downtown area (my friend and I were both pushing strollers, so it was definitely a walk, not a run) and see all the buildings, hear the bands play, and get high-fives from all the biker-dudes and -dudettes who parked their motorcycles on the sidewalks and revved their engines for the last stretch. Afterward we had brunch at a place called the Northstar Cafe, which I really liked.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about some of the similarities between writing and parenting. The friend I’ve been staying with was a single mom for several years, and so is full of constructive tips and advice about how to manage. In general, as a parent, one gets all kinds of advice from all directions, sometimes conflicting or contradictory. Be more laid back. Be less laid back. Be stricter. Don’t hover, or your child will be too dependent on you. Do hover, or your child will end up kidnapped.

Likewise with writing. You have your anti-adverb people, your show-don’t-tell obsessives, your pro-purple prose people, and so on. There are people who profess to love your writing, and people who, given half a chance, will stab at your pages bloodthirstily* till your manuscript is soaked with red ink.

The trouble is, with both writing and parenting, I have blind spots where I need advice. There are places in my manuscript where I know that I don’t know whether or not there’s something deeply wrong with it. The only way to get a better sense of the major flaws is to get input from other people. It’s frustrating, because often when I look at other people’s writing, their mistakes stand out glaringly to me, and these turn out to be the same mistakes I’m making with my writing.

And with my daughter, I have a sense of where my faults as a parent lie (tendency to be a pushover, absent-mindedness), but it’s hard know the best ways to counterbalance them so as to make sure I don’t accidentally ruin her life and render her forever socially inept. Having so little experience at parenting, sometimes it’s hard to gauge when your countermeasures go too far (e.g., being extra strict to balance one’s pushover tendencies, or being extra attentive to make up for one’s absent-mindedness).

And then, with both writing and parenting, sometimes your critics disagree with each other, and sometimes their criticisms just sound wrong. So where you have these blind spots, you end up having to do a complicated triangulation between other people’s opinions and your own instincts, paying careful attention to what’s coming from which source.

I wonder if the best writers—and the best parents—are the ones with the fewest blind spots, or if even the best ones still need outsiders’ perspectives, but have just gotten very good and quick at doing the triangulation on those outside opinions to measure them against their own judgments. In any case, I’m hoping I can improve over time both at having fewer and smaller blind spots and at making the best use of other people’s advice. I’d love to hear what others think  …

*Take that, anti-adverb people!

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Fragonard "The Reader"

"The Reader" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806)

 

Since I’ve been here in Tucson, my work ethic has flown out the window. I had grand ideas of doing tons of revisions on my novel, finishing my line-edits on a friend’s novel, and possibly writing the first draft of a short nonfiction essay.

Ha.

Instead I’ve given myself over to what I do best in the lazy atmosphere of vacation life here at my parents’ house: an orgy of reading and watching movies. Here’s what I’ve gotten through so far.

Books

This turned out, surprisingly, to capture and keep my attention pretty handily, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I thought it would be one of those plodding, depressing dirge novels, but no. Instead it starts out a bit like chick-lit, with the heroine doing an internship at a Vogue. 

One thing I didn’t like was that the heroine comes across as kind of a cold, self-absorbed, unsympathetic person, so the book suffered on the character-likeability measure. Also, the part where she goes full-on crazy seems to come out of the blue and is never really made comprehensible. One minute, the character seems sane, and the next minute she’s clearly got something very, very wrong with her. It seems some sort of development or transition is missing. Maybe that reflects the real experience of this type of mental illness, but from a literary standpoint, it felt like a flaw in the narrative.

This was really good. Beautifully written, with lots of philosophy and thoughtfulness, which I loved. On the negative side, I thought there were some plotting and timing problems. There are three major characters, and the third (Ozu) comes in very late in the book; I’d have liked to see him make his entrance earlier. Also, the first two characters (the concierge and the little girl) don’t become acquainted with each other until the book is two-thirds of the way through or more; I wanted more interaction between them, and sooner.

Other issues for me: the ending seemed a bit contrived and, I’ll admit, too sad. I’m not against sad endings per se, but if they come across as having been contrived especially to elicit sadness, that’s bad. It felt a bit manipulative to me. And lastly, I don’t think the assessment of phenomenology was very fair. In the book it’s characterized as “a fraud.” Sadly, I can’t say I understand phenomenology myself, but my impression from reading bits of it here and there is that it has to do with much more than just losing interest in the real reality behind appearances. It strikes me more as a method of almost zen-like attentivenss to phenomena, a kind of worshipfulness even. Which could actually have tied in well with other themes in the book, so it was sort of a missed opportunity in my view.

I haven’t seen the movie, but wanted to read the book ever since I found out Kirn was an ex-Mormon, which I learned when the people over at Main Street Plaza gave him an X-Mormon of the year award. So, the book. I didn’t like it all that much. Again, there was the character-likeability problem. The guy was so self-absorbed, shallow, and materialistic, that it took a fair bit of effort to care what happened to him. And then the ending was very vague and literary (in the pejorative sense) so that it left me all confused as to what actually happened.

After that, I was ready for something lighter. I’d been wanting to check out Maeve Binchy’s writing for a while already. First off, she’s Irish, and I like Ireland (my ex-husband and I spent two weeks in Connemara and Kerry on our honeymoon, and I still have fond mem0ries of that trip). Also, any author whose books take up a whole shelf in the library and bookstore must be doing something right, you’d think. The sheer volume of her writing was intriguing. And third, I’d seen this movie Circle of Friends a while back and wondered if the book was better than the movie (the movie was somewhat eh, but the plot seemed to have a lot of potential).

Anyway, the book was a lot of fun. As expected, it was light and full o’ Irishness. Beyond that, it was funny and hard to put down. (I feel like books generally ought to be hard to put down, regardless of how literary they’re intended to be. It’s a lot to ask of someone, to read a long book you’ve written, so writing a page-turner seems the least an author can do.) The characters were likeable, too. The only negatives that bear mentioning are that in spots the prose is a bit “telly” rather than “showy” (writers of fiction are constantly, constantly being told to “show, don’t tell”), and that the last quarter of the book does drag a bit.

The funniness was a happy surprise. I’d been promised Roddy Doyle would be hilarious, and in my opinion the books I read by him (The Commitmentsand The Snapper) did not live up to that hype, so it was all the nicer to approach this book with no particular hype in mind and yet find myself giggling and laughing through whole pages.

Movies

  • Bright Star(on DVD) – This is the Jane Campion pic about the Romantic poet John Keats and his all-engulfing love for obscure seamstress Fanny Brawne. I had high hopes for it, as I’d read some very positive reviews. Sadly, I found it kind of boring. My favorite parts were Fanny’s clothes, and the way she compares fashion design to writing poetry in the beginning.
  • Where the Wild Things Are(on DVD) – I had no high hopes for this, having read some negative reviews, but I did want to give it a shot. I liked maybe the first third of it, and then it started to seem a lot like this spoof I’d seen where the monster are equated to a bunch of bored, unconventionaler-than-thou hipsters. But I did think the beginning part did a good job of capturing how hard it can be to be a kid, the fact that it’s not all sunshine and light and goofing around.
  • Crazy Heart – I loved this. Loved the music, loved the characters, loved the dialogue, loved the emotional complexity, the refusal to oversimplify, really just loved it top to bottom. The ending could have been cheesy and cliche, and maybe was a bit cliche (we come back years later and find that everyone is doing much better), but not enough to spoil the overall wonderfulness of it.  I guess it helps that I’ve had a soft spot for country music ever since I had a college roommate who was into it. We always used to belt out Garth Brooks‘ “I Got Friends in Low Places” together and another song about this farmer who comes home to find his wife with “nothing but her apron on” … ah, those were the days.

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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).

Before:

Cousin Itt

Before: Note similarity to Cousin Itt

After:

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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