Friday, January 28, 2011

American Wife

Owl is lukewarm about politics. When asked for an opinion about the latest hot topic or whether or not she’s going to vote, she starts looking desperately around for a fire escape. Politics, she believes, should be left to noisy people who like wearing pantsuits.

If really pressed, Owl will mumble she wasn’t a fan of the Bush administration because none of her friends were, and ever since Obama moved into office, Owl has been filled with worry. The president! Is he getting enough sleep? Does he need a vacation? What if he spaces out during a meeting? Owl spaces out during meetings all the time, but she makes up for it by pestering her coworker for a briefing and suffering mild pangs of guilt. If Obama spaces out during a meeting, millions of Americans suffer.

Presidential material?
Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife is loosely based on Laura Bush’s life, and it deals with exactly the sorts of political questions Owl worries about—in other words, what is it like to be first lady?

For Alice Lindgren, habitual people-pleaser and bibliophile, it means struggle, often times an internal one that she can not share with anyone including her husband, especially her husband.

Alice never expected or wanted to be first lady, she is a victim of circumstance. Circumstance and love, because part of staying within her marriage means allowing her husband to go after his dreams even if they are not precisely her own dreams.

Unlike Lee Fiora in Prep, Alice is completely likeable protagonist, someone who has the ability to read people, someone whose desire to please is so great she can act on what she reads, but someone who will, when push comes to shove, do the right thing even if it means upsetting her nearest and dearest—the worst nightmare of any people pleaser.  

Sittenfeld starts Alice’s story in her childhood and dumps in a heaping tablespoon of trauma drama.  Normally Owl would not be a fan, but Sittenfeld is A) following the trajectory of Laura Bush’s life and B) quickly kaleidoscopes outwards to the really interesting events that form a person’s character, in other words, the mundane.

American Wife focuses heavily on the mundane, that is to say on the ordinary events that fill most lives: living with in-laws, raising children, dealing with your spouse. However, Sittenfeld knows how a single dinner party can be fraught with enough emotional tension to fill a movie, how much venom can be injected into the politest catch phrases. When Alice takes her housekeeper to see a play, it isn’t just about going to a play, there’s a commentary on racism and classism, how little and how much power an individual has to change someone else’s life.

Sittenfeld fills each of these events with nuggets of wisdom that linger in the reader’s mind long after they’ve finished the book. Ah, yes, that! I’ve felt that. Even when she ventures into the extraordinary (living at the White House), what she must have used her imagination to flesh out, Sittenfeld’s insight rings true:

The part about being famous that nobody who hasn’t been famous can understand is the criticism. Sure, sticks and stones and all of that, but the fact is that many people have probably wished at least once or twice that someone would be completely honest with them. How does this dress or this haircut really look? What do you truly think of my wife or my son, the house I built, the memo I wrote, the cake I baked?
In reality they don’t want to know. What they want is to be complimented and for the compliments to be completely honest; they want all-encompassing affirmation that’s also true. That isn’t how unvarnished opinions work. People’s unvarnished opinions are devastating…

With that kind of incisive analysis, Sittenfeld could have had an alternate career as a highly successful therapist. Thank God she decided to write.

American Wife is also the story of a marriage, which is refreshing because most books are about the process of getting married and then end by going ‘they lived happily ever after, kthanxbye.’ After all, post-marriage is when you get to figure out, oh man, the spouse’s feet really smell—and then you have to deal because you can’t divorce someone just for having smelly feet.

American Wife is full of smelly feet moments, full of give and takes, compromises and then compromising compromises with maintaining a sense of self, a reminder that while the first lady and her husband maybe the voice and face of America, first and foremost, they are just—like you and me—ordinary human beings.

This may not be comforting, but it will certainly change the way you read the newspaper.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

True Confessions of a Slush Reader

Whenever I feel like a good dose of self-torture I submit a story to a magazine and get a blistering rejection. A few months ago, I hit upon a better strategy. Why not join the dark side and become one of the rejecters instead? In other words, a slush reader, one of the drudges who shifts through a magazine’s submission pile.

(I figured it would be easy to nab a position. I was willing to read for free. Actually publishing is filled with so many people desperate for experience I had to send out resumes and cover letters.)

When I began I made a solemn vow to read each piece with an exquisite care and tenderness. After all, I knew exactly what it’s like to spend a month holed up in the library typing, to beg everyone you know for feedback and then to revise and revise before submitting, to submit, and then to wait and wait and wait and wait only to receive a form rejection six months later.

I was going to be a different type of slush reader. I was going to be kind.

Owl is kind

That lasted until the third piece I read. Then sheer cynicism took over.

I slush read for a magazine that publishes memoirs. In other words, we receive submissions from people who take themselves very seriously. Most submitters fall into one of two categories.

(1)   Writing professors
All of them seem to hate their students. All of them seem to have the same childhoods. All of them seem to hate their lives. After reading their writing it’s easy to see why. When your ambitions exceed your talent you’re doomed to hate everything.

(2)   Trauma Victims
There are so many pieces about car accidents, accidental murders, murderous loves, and loving abuse that I began to wonder if writers were a particularly hardy stock. Then I realized it’s the other way around, trauma probably breeds writers as a form of therapy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t breed very good writers.

Kind. Um, yeah kind went out the window. It’s not that I read bad writing, writing that’s so awful it has its own sort of dignity, it’s that I read a lot of writing that passes for good writing at face value. Smoothly written, the structure holds together, but for one reason or another it fails to charm, fails to move in any worthwhile way. An almost-piece. Pieces that should have worked, but didn’t, and are somehow sadder because they are so close and yet so far away from what they need to be.

There are so many almost-pieces that their sadness overwhelms me, perhaps more so because I am a habitual producer of almost-pieces, and I begin to read each submission looking for a reason to reject, and then I'd get terribly sad and angry about rejecting. Here are seven sins that turn me into a hater.

(1)   If you can’t be arsed to follow the formatting rules, I hate.
It’s like forgetting to zip your fly when you’re wearing an Armani suit.

(2)   If you don’t proof read, I hate.
Like forgetting to zip your fly and going commando.

(3)   If you use incongruous similes or metaphors, I hate.
Don’t be the person who finished a description of having sex with ‘my socks slipped off of me like butter sliding off of toast.’ The similes and the metaphors should add richness and texture to the piece, building on the subject matter at hand, or they should be canned.

(4)   If you write about names not people, I hate.
I’m glad you have fifty billion friends and decided to reference all of them in your poem. Guess what? I don’t know who K.J. and Aunt Jackie and Marigold and Marshmallow-mallow are. I’m not going to care unless you make me care by describing their quirks. Otherwise, axe ‘em.

(5)   If you write a fantastic piece that ends with a dull thud, I hate.
Ending a sensitive essay on a cancer diagnosis that explores the nature of mortality with ‘Yeah, Buddha was right, life sucks,’ is like murdering a brilliant child. Take the time to craft the ending your pieces deserve.

(6)   If you write a fantastic piece that starts with a limp hook, I hate but slightly less.
It’s actually a pleasant surprise to find a piece picking up after a weak beginning, but the first paragraph sets up the reader’s expectations. It’s easier to forgive a weak second paragraph after a bombshell first paragraph, then to recover from a terrible first paragraph and recognize that the second paragraph is a bombshell.

(7)   If you write a fantastic piece that that has no relevance to me, I hate.
Unless a story is lush with escapism and has the works—Rock Candy Mountain, Heaven deep fried on a popsicle stick, angels on high etc.—most people read to feel connected to someone else. That means a story about your life can’t be about your life, it has to be about themes and events people can relate to. Breaking up with Susan can’t be just about breaking up with Susan. Honestly, I’d rather call up one of my friends and have a good gossip. Breaking Up with Susan is actually another story, a story that everyone can understand, the story of loving and losing. Better yet, convince me I broke up with Susan.

Occasionally there are one or two pieces that are spellbinding, pieces that make me forget they are ‘writing’ and ‘writing’ is difficult, the product of laborious hours. These slide off of the page and into my mind  effortlessly. These are the instantaneous acceptances, the reminder that yes, this ridiculous reading business is worth every minute.

If you can write a piece that makes my heart flip over in my chest, that un-peels the world so I can see the raw pulp that lies underneath, if you can work magic with pen and paper, for God’s sake, write.   (And if you can’t, practice until you can. Practice, they say, is transformative.) Ignore all the nay-sayers, the people who’d tell you writers are bankrupt people, morally corrupt, unnecessary. Write, write, write. The world needs you.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Born to Run

The first month of work my boss treated me to a lengthy discourse on the joys of running. He ended with a frightening and completely unnecessary sentence: “If I can run, anyone can.”

I would have run away screaming, only that's the problem.  In elementary school it was traditional for students to run the Dread Mile once a year. I never ran it because a seventh of the way in I’d have to be escorted to the nurse’s office and hooked up to a nebulizer. In very bad cases my mother would take me home and I’d spend the rest of the day on the couch hacking up a lung. Conclusion: Owl does not run.

Despite that I’ve always envied runners.  They prance around parks like hyperactive gazelles. I wanted to be a hyperactive gazelle too.

Due to a variety of forces including a marathoning mentor, and an ungodly love of cake a month or so later I found myself in my apartment's gym on a Friday night. I really should have had something better to do. I didn't. So I chatted up the treadmill.

Or tried to, anyway. It didn't respond so I stared at it. It stared back at me. There was mutual hatred. That should have been the end of our acquaintance, but the dude on the next treadmill was gave me a weird look so I hopped aboard and turned the thing on.

I moved my legs. It hurt. I tried to breathe. That hurt too. I got off of the treadmill and cursed my life. Epiphany: I am a chubby owl and not a hyperactive gazelle.

The gazelle fascination must have been strong because I got back on the next day. And the day after that.

Somewhere along the line I started googling running plans, bought schmancy shoes, and started picking people’s brains for running wisdom. Does anyone actually enjoy running? (Answer: No.) How do you keep running longer distances? (Answer: Willpower.) When do you stop being avian and go gazelle? (Answer: Shut up and start running.)

My imagination started running wild—marathons, the Boston marathons, ultra-marathons! I like to dream big. Unfortunately, my imagination goes a lot faster than my legs. On a good day I can run four miles. After that I want to keel over and die.

Owl's version of running
To satisfy my imagination, I feed it with books about runners instead.

The latest was Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. On whim, McDougall tracked down the Tarahumara of Mexico, an indigenous tribe full of long distance runners. And by long distance, I mean, they run a couple hundred miles for fun. The tale climaxes in a race that pits the Tarahumara against a scraggly band of American ultra-marathoners which include a garrulous barefoot runner, a girl who throws up in a potted plant, and a man named Horse who left behind everything to find himself in the desert.

McDougall knows how to tell a story.  He ends his chapters on cliffhangers and prefaces the next with a teaser trailer before zigzagging away to meditate on the art of running. His meditations are the real gold, the reason why you should devour this book if you ran, run, or have ever wanted to run. McDougall destroys every preconception or fear you may have had about running to come back to one truth: we were born to run.

When I first started running, my coworkers regaled me with a host of running injuries I hadn’t even heard of. Apparently running is tantamount to being a kamikaze pilot—instead of blowing yourself up, you blow out your legs. I began to feel like I was marked for death.

Bullshit, quoth McDougall. Humans are engineered to run. Our legs are full of springy muscles built for long distance, and our circulation systems are built to cool us down. Leg injuries only started occurring when shoe companies started tinkering with running shoes, adding features like cushioning that drove up the price, and ironically, the rate of running injuries. Our feet don't need support. They were made for running. Running shoes actually destroy our natural gait. 

According to McDougall modern runners have been corrupted by ulterior motives. We run to lose weight. We run to best our personal record, and as we run for glory or for fame, or more simply, pride, we bust our knees, shred our Achilles tendons.

“Ask nothing from your running, in other words, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined” McDougall writes. In order to run well, you have to embrace the pain, accept the exhaustion and keep moving anyway. In short running is about character. McDougall insists that in all good runners

there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding...

I keep running because it’s something I shouldn’t be able to do. Each step is like sucker punching the impossible in the gut. But as I run, exhaustion strips down all the layers of thought until all that’s left is a single voice. Mine is two years old and whines a lot. Are we there yet? Can we stop? This hurts. THIS HURTS!  

No surprise I haven’t gotten past four miles. Pure rage doesn’t take you very far. Or maybe I need to rage better?

Whatever it is, my version of running pales in comparison to McDougall’s call for people to shuck off their shoes, to run alongside one another, surrendering to their exhaustion, growing comfortable in their pain.

We’re born to run, McDougall cries, so run. Run like all hell, run like this:

Before setting out for their sunset runs, [they] would snap a tape of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” into their Walkman. When running stopped being as fun as surfing, they had agreed, they’d quit. So to get that same surging glide, the same feeling of being lifted up and swept along, they ran to the rhythm of Beat poetry.

‘Miracles! Ecstasies! Gone down the American river!’ they’d shout, paddling along the water’s edge.

New loves! Mad generation! Down on the rocks of time!

If that doesn't make you want to burst out the door and run until you fall over, you have no soul.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Taking Tea with the Dead

Sometimes I have to think about the future with one eye shut or else it gets too much for me. I used to think I’d be perfectly happy if a major publishing house offered me a book deal. But if that happened, I’d probably go comatose with panic. I’ve never tried to write anything longer than forty pages. If I did, I’d probably end up with a collection of essays on the mating habits of fruit and the decadent orgies that are fruit bowls. Then the offer would be rescinded and I'd die surrounded by grapefruit rinds and unread manuscripts. Possibly manuscript scribbled on grapefruit rind.

This is where I start getting a little teary and hysterical.

Pardon. Back from wiping eyes on hanky. Anyway. I read the blogs of up and coming authors, people who are standing exactly where I want to be, and they’re all nervous about their second book. Will it sell as well? I read the blogs of really famous authors and they worry about whether or not they’ll still be around ten years after their death. Will they be big names like Dickens or Austen?

Then I read a newspaper article about how Jane Austen has 89,000 facebook fans and the Bronte sisters collectively only have 9,000, and Elizabeth Gaskell, well, who’s heard of her anyway?

They’re dead and they’re still competing.

This is how I picture it going down in Heaven. Do not doubt that the dear ladies are in Heaven.

[the ladies are arrayed around a tea table]

Charlotte Bronte: I can’t believe you have 89,000 facebook fans. You! Your books have about as much passion as a dried haddock. You wouldn’t recognize a heaving bosom if it bit you on the nose.
Jane Austen: I’ve always found it strange that Charlotte is still in print. She writes half of her dialogue in French. Perhaps to disguise how overwrought it is?
Charlotte Bronte: Bitch! My dialogue is delicious and spicy like Caribbean chicken.
Elizabeth Gaskell: At least people know who you are. No one’s ever heard of me.

[Awkward silence]

Bronte: [hugging Gaskell] It has nothing to do with your talent.
Austen: Cranford is a gem.
Bronte: I don’t know how you managed that considering the lack of plot.
Austen: Charlotte!
Bronte: It’s a book about old ladies who sit around drinking tea.
Gaskell: I like old ladies.
Bronte: Yes darling, but most people prefer man hunks.
Austen: [Brightly] I enjoyed Wives and Daughters even though it’s 700 pages long. It such a shame that you um,
Bronte: Died.
Austen: Expired, before you could tie up the plot.
Bronte: That was a serious marketing mistake.

[Awkward silence part deux. Gaskell dabs at her eyes with her handkerchief.]

Austen: North and South is doing quite well though. I quite enjoyed Mr. Thornton. He’s fetching.
Bronte: But vanilla.
Austen: Elizabeth, don’t mind her. Charlotte prefers it if her men are cross dressing bigamists.
Bronte: [dreamily] That passage about Mr. Thornton watching Margaret’s wrists is phenomenally sexy. I shivered when I read it. I had no idea wrists could be so delicious. [Examines her own wrists]. Eliza, do you think I have attractive wrists?
Austen: Charlotte. Control yourself. Keep the inside your head thoughts, inside your head.
Bronte: Your need a good—
Austen: Pardon?
Bronte: Sorry. I have trouble with the concept of inside my head thoughts.

[Austen takes several deep calming breathes.]

Austen: It’s really a work to be proud of, Eliza. The love story is spine tingling, and your examination of the industrial revolution’s impact on, let’s see… the aristocracy, the church gentry, the factory workers, the factory owners, the peasants… is, uh, through.
Bronte: The only person she left out was God.
Austen: It does get a wee bit long. The problem is—
Bronte: The industrial revolution is over. No one cares anymore. Ow. Don’t pinch me Jane.
Austen: Consider what I chose to write about—marrying for money, falling in love with unsuitable gentlemen, dreadful mothers. Timeless themes.
Bronte: [staring up at the ceiling] God, tell me she had no friends as a child. Please.
Austen:  People will even read Charlotte because it’s like watching a carriage crash. Cross dressing bigamists. Lunatic wives. Arson. You can’t look away although it’s appalling.
Bronte: [under her breathe] She definitely had no friends.

[Gaskell looks like she’s been bludgeoned by a tea kettle.]

Bronte: Oh Eliza, don’t look like that. Come, let’s get some crumpets. My treat.

[Exeunt chased by a bear for crumpets.]

Tea with the ladies

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Back to the Real World

 Now that Owl’s holidays are over she’s reading…

1)      Various papers courtesy of her boss
Some people see their holidays as an opportunity to take twelve hour naps, eat six meals a day, and leave their laundry in the bathroom sink. Other people see it as an opportunity to go into the office and crank out seventy pages worth of papers for their employees to edit. Owl belongs to the former category. Her boss belongs to the latter category.
Owl is duly shamed.

2)      Business school application essays for a friend
Sometimes Owl’s mother looks at Owl and makes wistful eeping noises that can roughly be translated to please get your MBA, MBAs make money. Owl deflects by saying she’ll apply once she’s old enough. Post-reading essays Owl has decided to high tail it NeverNever land.

3)      The back of her shampoo bottle
Apparently, Owl’s been shampooing with hair wax for the past three months. FML.

4)      The Economist
After staying up until dawn to polish off a self-help book on how to become a CEO,  Owl spent her entire cake budget on a subscription to the Economist. (CEOs keep abreast with international events.) After two issues, Owl was filled with regret and bitterness. Each one reads like a apocalypse novel; after she finishes Owl is convinced the world is ending.  

5)      Recipes on Google
Owl can not cook. Owl misses her mother's cooking. Owl is a masochist. 

In conclusion, Owl wants another vacation.

I gave up cake for this?