The Riddle of the Reader/Writer

I admit it, I don’t know how the Blog-A-Licious Blog Tour got started, but here we are, installment #9, and I have the pleasure of introducing Nat and Sarah, tucked between them as I am. What I like about this blog hop is that the number of participants — ten in all — doesn’t overwhelm me.  The more the merrier does not necessarily hold up when it comes to the give-and-take of the blogosphere. With so much out there, how do we pick and choose?  It’s a mix of shared hyperlinks and and dumb luck.

Now to the theme: ‘Reader or Writer — Which Would You Rather Be?’ At first I thought this must be a riddle, sphinx-like in its asking. There is, after all, no writing without reading. Then I read Pandora Poikilos’s very poignant post, and things became a little clearer.

Writing, no less than reading, is an act of discovery, the difference being that, with reading, someone else has done the legwork. The reader gets to sit back, take it all in, see what resonates. The writer, in contrast, starts with a slate begging to be filled, a temptation all its own. Asking which I’d rather be is a Solomon-like conundrum: cut the baby in half and no one gets anything that lives. It’s in the love of reading that the love of writing begins.

At this moment — a night on the cusp of summer and autumn cheered by a symphony of insects and an incandescent full moon — all I want to do is put into words what I see and hear. And recall. Just hours earlier, the see-saw was weighted in favor of reading, serendipity leading me to a Twitter link, E.B. White, in his own words, “There are too many things I’d rather do than read.” It seems that the writer who gave us the most ‘literate’ of spiders, would “rather sail a boat than crack a book.”  Which makes me think that it isn’t so much about preference as it is about making connections — the kind that come from  staring at the moon or taking a walk,  listening to the blues or surfing the Web, sailing a boat or curling up with a favorite book on a winter night. And it’s about taking risks.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work,” says White, “will die without putting a word on paper.”

P.S. As irony would have have it, days after writing this post, an article comes my way re: the growing disconnect between writers and readers:  Writers who don’t read  may seem  like an oxymoron . . . and, yet, as Buzz Poole so eloquently points out, ” Humanity is losing its ability to be alone with nothing but our thoughts.”

Without Power

Photo ©Abe Frajndlich. Reprinted with permission

Saturday, September 3, 2011:  The air  is filled with anticipation. Irene is on her way. A friend who lives in lower Manhattan takes heed:  an 8:48 a.m. train will deliver him, with his son, to the exurban community I live in, about an hour north of the city. If Irene is as fierce as predicted, he doesn’t want to be in her path. Little does he know that leaving the threatened eye of the storm will take him right into it.

Irony. It adds zest to literature. Makes a mockery of all those woulda/coulda/shoulda moments placed in our laps daily/weekly/monthly. Once in a lifetime.  The predictive tools we have at our disposal are no measure against our individually peculiar ways of dealing with all things unknown and out of our control. Yes, knowing a hurricane of such (potential) magnitude is coming allows me some time to prepare, stock up on (at least) water. I’ve lived in an area of overhead powerhead lines long enough to know that all it takes is one heavy branch or one squirrel looking for warmth in all the wrong for places to leave me in the dark. Prepared? Sometimes I’m not even sure what that means.

Sunday, September 4, 2011:  The sky  is thick with rain and wind, no letup in sight, the power already knocked out by Irene in the wee hours of the morning. Not to worry, I tell my friend over an early cup of coffee. I have a rule of thumb: if the power isn’t on within two-three hours, we’re in for the long haul. No point in (yet) waking his son, the college kid. Without Internet access, what’s a boy to do? We wait it out, keep ourselves entertained with conversation, eating, reading by daylight. How lucky am I to have an iPad, backlit and fully charged. My friend, a very gifted photographer, points  his camera to the world outside, from the world inside. We have buckets positioned beneath scuppers, collecting rain for the necessary flushes. Showers? Nobody cares right now. We’re in the thrall of Irene, captive, maybe even a little captivated. We talk about alternative plans — what if the power isn’t on by nighttime?

The day passes, and, like a miracle, the sun comes out. The college kid has a craving for grilled chicken, and it’s a craving we can easily accommodate.  We have friends, too, who by luck of being on a different part of the electrical grid, have power but no cable. Wouldn’t they like some company, a DVD at the ready?

Anticipation. At its worst, it skips like a broken record scratched with anxiety. At its best, it suggests hope. We leave our friends, go home, make our way through the dark house. Collecting candles, lighting them, settling down in the living room. Talking. Laughing. Two men, a college boy, and me. It feels a little like camping out, albeit with (almost) all the comforts of home. Life could be worse, my husband says. It could be the dead of winter, not a beautiful summer night.

Monday, September 5, 2011. We wake up, still no power, my friend and his son ready to head back to a city hardly grazed by the storm. I could have said what I was thinking before they came up — namely, that if Irene is as bad as projected, they might not be able to go back Monday a.m. Mother (often) knows best, even if she doesn’t say it. Fortunately, by afternoon, there are trains from a larger hub (White Plains). Even if all’s not really well, there’s something to be said for a little relief.

Hurricanes. They used to have only female names, and no one could really say why, except to assume it had something to do with a volatile, fickle nature. The joke: whoever heard of a himicane? Now there’s no gender bias, and we’ve had our share of male names  (Floyd one of the worst in recent memory). And yet I can’t help thinking about all those women with the name Irene and the power it held, almost mythical, for at least a few days. I’m thinking, too, how many times, in the course of the three days I would be without power, I turned on the light switch in the bathroom, surprised more at the reflexive action than the result it did not bring.

The Big Screen

The last time my husband and I bought a new TV was 1995. Thirty-six-inch Sony, pre- flat-screen/high-definition days. We had just moved into a new house and the size was predicated on the room, coupled with the design aesthetic of my husband (a designer by trade). I have a very strong memory of the salesman trying to sell us on an even larger TV with this pitch: you never have to leave home.

Little did he know he had the wrong customer.

I love going to the movies – the smell of popcorn the minute you walk into the theatre, the scramble for the perfect seats (or whatever is available), the settling in once the lights start to dim, the enveloping darkness, the shared escape from the world as it exists to the one that lures us with technological wizardry, three dimensions (even more these days) captured on a very large flat screen, a blurring of lines between observer and participant. I can still remember the sense of awe that carried me through The Ten Commandments, the mesmerizing hold of Lawrence of Arabia, the tension that gripped my body the first time I saw Jaws. Used to be a more majestic experience, I admit. Double features. Glorious movie theatres (the Loews the king of them all) with bathrooms the size of NYC apartments. Not so much anymore.

And yet, even with state-of-the-art home entertainment systems and DVDs and the immediate gratification of streaming a film, up close and personal on your laptop the minute it’s available, very little beats the cool relief of a movie theatre on a sweltering summer day or the inviting warmth on a frigid winter night. Doesn’t take a Don Draper to tell you why Hollywood makes most of its money on summer blockbusters and winter holiday fare.

Say what you will, Mr. Salesman trying to sell me on private screenings in the comfort of my home, some movies demand being seeing on a very big screen. And I’m not just talking about the stupendous 3-D experience of Avatar, which may have raised the bar in movie making but was proof positive – based on the mediocre copycat follow-ups – that it takes a certain vision and art to know when that extra dimension is best left out of the cinematic experience and when it is oh-so-wizardly employed, as in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” Just the word – CinemaScope – suggests something a little larger than life. Give me My Man Godfrey or Casablanca or Strangers on the Train on the telly anytime. E.T.? I’ll take it (especially once the boxy outdated Sony is replaced by the affordable flat-screen LED we’re holding out for) but nothing will ever beat the experience of watching it at an outdoor screening on a summer night. And it wasn’t just the ‘bigness’ of the screen. It’s the shared experience of it all, the reminder of the time when we didn’t have everything at our beck and call.

I’d be the last person in the world to romanticize the waiting in line, the overpriced candy, the scramble for seats, the smirk you can’t resist when the seat you got – dead center, unobstructed view – becomes less than ideal once the six foot man sits squarely in front of you. And I’ll be the first to applaud that sensation, unabated joy, of sitting in a packed movie house, everyone simultaneously laughing out loud.

The Rich Get Richer . . .

I thought I was making a difference, my little contribution to stimulus spending, when I walked out of Ann Taylor with a spiffy little cardigan and tank top. The fact that I got the ensemble for a price that made me feel like a thief is beside the point. I love a bargain, sure I do, but I don’t like the feeling I get at seeing racks of summer items on sale when the season has barely gotten off the ground. Not a full-scale depression and, yet, is there a better word to bring together the personal and the political these days?

I thought for sure I was doing my share, even if fiscal contraints have turned shopping into a measured affair, when I indulged (is there a sweeter word?) myself a month later, those sandals I thought about and thought about, an oh-so-perfect replacement for an old, worn-out pair. Sometimes want has a way of becoming need. Then came the harsh truth: what I spend barely makes a dent. According to a recent New York Times article, Even Marked Up, Luxury Goods Fly off the Shelves, “the top 5 percent of income earners accounts for about one-third of spending, and the top 20 percent accounts for close to 60 percent of spending.” These are the women pre-ordering Chanel coats at $9,000 a pop and getting first dibs on Christian Louboutin pumps. The men responsible for the surge in profits at BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz. Consumer confidence? For that top 20 percent it’s creeping back from whatever brief, humbling jolt it took.

I hear a voice, my mother’s: Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.

With it comes a nod of the head, the wishful thinking, the sigh. A hard-working woman who always managed to have some rainy-day cash tucked away, in envelopes at the bottom of a dresser drawer, she believed that honest work and good living would eventually pay off. Not an ounce of ill-will toward anyone better off than she was, more a simple acknowledgement: if only things could be a little easier, her personal debt ceiling kept from getting out of control. Maybe it’s true — the rich get richer, money goes to money — but that never stopped her from buying an occasional lottery ticket. You never know when you’ll get lucky.

Luck? My daughter, when we she was young, liked to engage me in a game she called ‘Jewelry Store’. She, the owner, would spread out her trinkets, invite me to make a purchase. Only problem was that anything I wanted, it seemed, was off-limits, “too expensive,” I was told. The more I persisted, the more she did her best to veer me toward another choice, the consummate sales pitch, words of wisdom — you get what you get — out of the mouths of babes.

It so often boils down to language — what you hear/the way you hear it; what you believe/what you choose to believe; the concepts and Metaphors We Live By, brought to vivid light in a classic book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It was Lakoff who opened my eyes to the political push-pull: nurturing/liberal Democrat vs. father-knows-best/conservative/Republican. The winner is the one who speaks best to the times. Terrorists at your door? Daddy will take care of things. Hungry and not feeling so great? Nothing better than chicken soup for the soul, the secret ingredient Mama’s own.

My daughter barely knew my mother, and yet something that got passed on — that thing called taking care, making sure things are just right. An aunt of mine, strong as they come, lived fifteen years after a diagnosis of lung cancer. The night before she died she got the call she’d been too long waiting for, a son in prison for more than twenty years was being released. Now she could let go.

Money can’t buy happiness (duh) and whatever piece of mind (not to mention occasional perk) it may bring is illusory, short-lived. Some say the world is divided between haves and have-nots. The greater that division gets, the worse it feels to that 80 percent making hard decisions every day about how much is too much for a new (needed) pair of shoes or eyeglasses, a crisp shirt or skirt for a job interview, every bone in your body saying this will be your lucky day. Maybe looking deeper beneath the have/have-not binary opposition would strike a chord, get to that more telling division, the one between those who see strength in numbers as a means to alleviating society’s ills and those who see it as a stock market rally. In a way that a picture is worth a thousand words, this week’s New Yorker cover says it all, three fat cats sipping champagne in a lifeboat while a ship is sinking in the background.

The more things change, my mother would say, the more they stay the same.

Every Father’s Daughter/Every Mother’s Son

A friend posts a link on Facebook, 5 Ways to Donate/The War Photographer’s Retreat. I take note for a few reasons, not the least of which is that she’s a wonderful poet and photographer herself whose son happens to be in the service. I don’t have a son in the service, but I am a mother and no stranger to the grip of anxieties that can take hold when a grown child leaves the fold even for places and circumstances that would (in theory at least) not seem fraught with danger.

My sister-in-law calls, her voice slow and thick. A good friend’s son, twenty-four years old, has died, in his sleep. He was in recovery for drug abuse, assumed to be clean. The body can only handle so much, even less, it seems, when you play with fire.

Now Amy Winehouse, all of twenty-seven. The same age, ironically, as Jim/Janis/Jim (Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix within two weeks of each other, Jim Morrison some nine months later). I was younger than they were when they died, a big fan of each, distressed at the triple loss, not just with its reminder of how hard they played at life but with its cautionary implication to a generation casting caution to the wind. When you’re in your early twenties, processing the death of individuals (forget that they’re rock stars) just a few years older than you, it places you smack in the presence of your own mortality. And when you’re sixty-something, processing the death of twenty-something-year-olds, you feel those fingers around your throat, the lump that rises. Some father has lost his daughter; some mother has lost her son.

Something has upset the order of things, something no parent ever wants to contemplate. Does any mother or father ever get past it? Or do they just go through the motions? Take Pearl, a friend of my family when I was growing up, two sons, one dead from smashing a car into a wall. Think gorgeous, in an Elizabeth Taylor kind of way, and you can see Pearl in an instant — the large, sparkling eyes, stylish clothes, incandescent smile. Until her son’s death, which triggered a downslide from which she never recovered, her best friend now Valium or whatever it was that kept the demons at bay. I can still hear my mother’s voice — It’s the worst thing in the world, losing a child — anytime we saw Pearl at any family gathering. Even if my mother didn’t actually whisper the words, I’d hear them. That’s how imprinted the notion is.

It’s exactly what my sister-in-law said when she gave me the news of her friend’s son. It’s exactly what I think when I see the photo of Amy Winehouse’s father spotted at JFK on his way back to London after getting the news.

And yet . . . we do the best we can as parents, guiding our children when they’re young, sending them off into the world with the hope that they’ll make (mostly) good choices. Sometimes it feels like one big balancing act — one day you’re on the high wire walking that tightrope between holding on and letting go, the next day you’re on the ground, safety net at the ready. In David Grossman’s exquisitely poignant novel, To the End of the Land, the main character is a mother who does what would seem counter-intuitive when her son, recently released from the Israeli army, voluntarily returns to the front for a major offensive. Rather than wait at home and risk that knock on the door from the “notifiers,” she embarks on a journey. In the hands of a gifted writer (haunted by his own son, killed in Lebanon barely two weeks before his twenty-first birthday, uncannily while Grossman was working on the novel), a deceptively simple premise – bad news can only come if you’re home to receive it – becomes a complex narrative that touches on the futility of war, not to mention the power of love and redemption.

What’s in Your Beach Bag?

I’m sitting on my deck, birds flitting here and there, a tiny fawn at the heels of her mother in the grassy patch along my driveway, bicycles instead of school buses on the road. All of which I take note of only in passing, the real concentration saved for the book in my lap. Summer reading — a phrase, an idiom, a state of mind that conjures memories of my favorite bench, one of the many dotting the middle-income housing project, Brooklyn, NY, where I grew up, me reading one of the seven or eight or ten books I got from the library. It was a defining element of the season. A break from school. Twice as many books to be checked out for twice as much as time.  The heft of them in my arms, the library binding that practically creaked when you opened a book, no better reminder of that wonderful shared experience.

So imprinted is the notion of summer reading that it speaks to a certain license, more often than not light reading at the beach, sprawled on a towel or  in a chaise. Sometimes, though, there are summers when that very same ‘license’ suggests the really hefty book, the one I’ve been wanting to sink my teeth into for oh-so-long if only I had the uninterrupted time. Maybe it’s all that daylight, a circadian shift that conjures the overriding rhythm of the school year (long gone if not forgotten), making two weeks of vacay feel (almost) like two months.  One summer it was Anna Karenina. Another summer, when I lived in Sag Harbor, it was Moby Dick. Call me crazy.

Call me curious. Or just call me delighted to join in the summer reading link-up for bloggers hosted by Jennie @ Life is Short, Read Fast and Kelly @ Reading with Martinis. Summer is, after all, party time, and this party is about the books that entice and excite, the ones we read and blog about.

 

I don’t know if it’s the power of suggestion, but something Russian has taken a hold on me.  The premise of Daphne Kalotay’s novel, Russian Winter, is nothing if not intriguing:  a Bolshoi ballerina star, precious jewels, the mystery of  of something from the past coming back to haunt the heroine. Did I mention an escape from Stalinist Russia?

 

 

 

 

A great story demands being read more than once; in his introduction to The Essential Tales of Chekhov, Richard Ford writes, “The more you linger, the  more you reread, the more you’ll experience and feel addressed by this great genius who, surprisingly, in spite of distance and time, shared a world we know and saw as his great privilege the chance to redeem with language.”  This is the summer I plan to reread the Chekhov stories that hooked me in the first place, and discover a few new ones as well.

 

 

 

 

Then there’s that other great literary heroine who fascinates me, the French one, Madame Bovary, all the more compelling (to a writer at least) for being written by an author known for his obsessive revising and all the more alluring in a new translation by Lydia Davis. Put together le mot juste with the “original desperate housewife” (so says the jacket copy) and I’m sold. All I need is a glass of good French wine (or a martini).


 

 

 

 

How can you resist a title like this?  Doesn’t hurt that I love stories alluding to mythology and Buddhist and Zen tales (even in parody) or that cover cross-cultural, intergenerational terrain.  And if the title isn’t enough, there’s the twin protagonists Moonie and Mei Ling Wong (known as the “Double Happiness” Chinese food delivery girls)  and their coming-of-age via the tales Marilyn Chin weaves together in Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen.

 

 

 

 

 

I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Hamilton when she received the 2010 Women’s National Book Association award for her work as a journalist and novelist as well as her literacy projects, including the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and the Camel Book Drive. I read her latest novel, 31 Hours, which I found riveting, and am now following with The Distance Between Us, the story of a journalist in the thick of it, the Middle East. Such is the appeal of her work, I may well end up reading all of her novels.

 

 

 

Now, lest you think your eyes are playing tricks on you, take another peek at the image at the top of the post. I admit it,  I’m a sucker for a beautiful bookmark, all the more reason to be delighted when I chanced upon the whimsical In My Book bookmarks that double as notecards. Printed on heavy-duty watercolor paper, they come in fifteen different designs, each one as charming as the next. Doesn’t every good book deserve one?

Good Company

versatile-blogger%5B2%5D.jpg (150×150) Sometimes visiting blogs is like a game of connect the dots: one link leads to another, one blog stops you in your tracks — the lure of the subject, the way the blogger spins words, the photos and/or graphics artfully positioned.  Often it’s that very blog that stops you in your tracks that leads you to another  . . . and another.

So how lucky for me to have made the delightful online acquaintance of Kelly Garriott Waite and her equally delightful blog, Writing in the Margins/Bursting at the Seams, where she graciously passed along The Versatile Blogger award to me. Now it’s my turn to continue the chain.

1.  In joining the ranks of The Versatile Blogger, I’m asked to reveal seven things about myself. So consider this the first: I take my awards very seriously. 😉

2. I have a very curious nature — and I have yet to uncover the very roots of the award. If that makes it feel a little like a mysterious chain letter, so be it.  No promises here of great wealth if I maintain the chain, disaster if I break it. Just the promise of more and more recommended blogs to check out.

3.  Sometimes I think I live to hear live music.

4. Sometimes I make a dance out of preparing dinner. A shot of vodka (or tequila). The CD player blasting — Eric Clapton or Buddy Guy. Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones. Lada Gaga. A cutting board is transformed into a rhythm section. Chicken cacciatore sings in the pan.

5. Dancing and doing yoga are ways into myself. Writing is a way out. Or is it the other way around?

6. I knew I would miss my dog when I released her from this life, but I didn’t know I would miss her this much.

7. One question I often ask myself but resist answering: if I could go back in time, what would I do differently?

So now, in the spirit of being named a ‘versatile blogger,’ I’ll do what many before me have done, namely, pass along the baton. And while the rules of the mysterious award suggest adding fifteen new blogs to the mix, I’ll stop at eight, an octave, with its implicit bringing of things full circle.  After all, versatility is adaptation at its best.

Madame Mayo With her insights into all things literary (and otherwise), fantastic graphics and podcasts, links to intriguing blogs, guest-writers she brings on board, C.M. Mayo is, to my thinking, the versatile blogger par excellence.  If you don’t know her wonderful body of work (bilingual, to boot), this is the place to find out what you’re missing.

Christine Boyka Kluge Her photographs are the embodiment of poetry; her poetry is exquisite, poignant, rich. Her thoughts on language and art qualify her as a muse.

Cheerio Road It was a visit to Madame Mayo’s blog that brought me to the zen wisdom of Karen Maezen Miller.  I can’t say it any better than I did when I wrote about her book, Hand Wash Cold: Maybe it takes a Zen Buddhist priest who also happens to be a woman ever mindful of her role as mother and wife to make a metaphor of laundry as a starting place for loving the life we wake up to.

apifera farm Again, it was Madame Mayo’s post on the way Katherine Dunn manages to bring together art, marketing, and farming that intrigued me to visit . . . and to keep coming back.

While the Dervish Dances A whirling dervish of a writer, Cathy Kozak hooked me with her Pillow Book.

Rumpus River This is just a taste, a glimpse, a docking station for what’s in store when you make the plunge to The Rumpus, with its spirited panoply of columnists, commentary, and comics.

whiskey river It’s all about spirit here, not to be confused with spirits. Everything from Thomas Merton to Kafka to Rilke to Rumi, oh so elegantly distilled.

Campaign for the American Reader Marshal Zeringue calls his blog ‘an independent initiative to encourage more readers to read more books.’ The sheer diversity of books he features continues to awe me.

Am I missing something?

My daughter e-mails me a link to a site, Better Book Titles, very tongue-in-cheek in its recasting of great works into reductive one liners, and I immediately send out a tweet: ‘Spiders Make Great Publicists,’ by E. B. White. You don’t have to be a writer to lol about this. . .

I’m getting the hang of it, the art of the tweet, the curiosity of the follow(er).  I began blogging over a year ago, nudged along by writer/friends, one in particular who spelled out  her own blog’s evolution in an eloquent post, Questioning the Blog. We often talk about serendipitous moments — you open a book to just the page that fits your thoughts today — and today she just happens to have a pithy post about Solitude.

Writers work in solitude, and they crave community. The question I ask myself on any given day is: how much is too much?  It’s only within the last year that I’ve begun moving into that fathomless online sea of networking: I belong to She Writes, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and most recently, #amwriting, lured by tweets from its founder, Joanna Harness, this oh-too-irresistible one the other day: Get Out There and Do NOT Tweet! I post to Scribd via my affiliation with the Women’s National Book Association. I write regularly for smartly.new york.

All of which brings its own rhythm to my workday.  On the best of days, there are no false starts for me. A mug of French Roast at my fingertips, I  take leave of the world outside, pick up where I left off in that other world, the one under construction, my novel. Until that tweet — is it a bird outside? or that avatar of one, a widget? — beckons with its inimitable call: you could be missing something, a vital breadcrumb, follow the links — a breaking news story, a poem someone wants to share,  inside info in the world of publishing. Do I take a break, answer the call? Well maybe a few minutes. I’m stuck anyway, a roadblock. The only way to cut through is to go around.

So here I am, caught in the chatter, voices coming and going, ships passing in the night.  Until something nudges me back, a gentle wind steering me to a quieter shore.   I admit it, I’m deeply awed, sometimes overwhelmed, by the sheer volume of voices asking to be heard, noticed, maybe even acknowledged, mine just another. And I’m equally gratified by the way in which we find one another, like-minded souls who value what that mix of serendipity and searching brings forth.

The only question now is: Do I make the plunge into Facebook?