Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad + Me + David Byrne

Have you read A Visit From the Goon Squad? I just did, in roughly three sittings, the last one soaking up the second half of the book. Jennifer Egan is new to me, despite the fact that this looks to be her fifth book. Goon Squad is the winner of untold prizes, including the Pulitzer. Having finished it twenty minutes ago, I'm still processing why I loved this book so. I hate to do that Film Treatment thing where you smash together two authors to give people an idea of what something is supposed to be like, "Poltergeist 2 is basically like Cape Fear meets The Night of the Hunter." This book could have been the baby of Mary Gaitskill and Italo Calvino. Hard to imagine, but rings true to me.

The time markers threw me off from time to time. Goon Squad winds its way back and forth through the decades, intertwining lives together, like in some warped rock and roll time machine. You meet characters, and then their children and their children's technology, and then jump back in time to regain a foothold on why it all mattered so much in the first place. Egan's language is so poetic, and each chapter stands alone as a short story. It didn't surprise me to read the acknowledgements and see that many chapters first appeared in Granta, the New Yorker, and other magazines of fictional record.

I know nothing about the music industry. My greatest claim to fame is dating a couple of guys who were in bands that would play at the QE2 bar in Albany in the early 1990s. We wore a lot of black, but I leaned more toward the vintage dress with combat boots combination; a fashion era aptly covered in Goon Squad. That said, I was relatively squeaky clean compared to Egan's characters who smoked pot and downed ecstasy pills like they were Tic-Tacs. I could drink a few watered down rum and cokes at the Palais Royale, but it was generally with my nearest and dearest restaurant pals after a long shift, with Patsy Cline crooning in the background. Not sordid, in other words.

My real musical Brush With History crashed into me one day in 1995 or so due to an acquaintance's out of town emergency. Heather, who worked at Rykodisc (or was it Rhino?), a label David Byrne was affiliated with at the time, was supposed to show up at his home in Chelsea to help him get his equipment to the Supper Club for that evenings' show. I was an Editorial Assistant at American Heritage, which was in the neighborhood at the Forbes Building on 5th Avenue and 12th Street, and since she couldn't be in town she called on me to pinch hit and act as if I was someone who worked for her label. My boss Richard Snow gave me the afternoon off so I could go and be an imposter (yet another reason he was my best boss, hands down, ever). I showed up at Byrne's doorstep on, I believe it was 21st street between 8th and 9th Avenue, rang the doorbell, and he promptly answered. I told him I was sent by Rykodisc to help him get settled at the Supper Club. He asked me to follow him downstairs to his studio, and then he picked up a guitar and played a few chords. "How does that sound to you?" he asked me. ME! I can't remember if/ how I came up with words to answer him. "It sounds great!"? "Wow!"? I'm sure I said something brilliantly articulate like that. I helped him plop some guitars in the trunk of a yellow taxi cab, but he'd inadvertently locked us out of his house before we'd packed everything he needed, and so we had to make our way to his office on 12th street so he could pick up an extra set of his house keys. The whole time we were in the cab, he would say these random things that sounded like Talking Heads lyrics: "Look at that bicycle hanging on that pole!"

Only when he began to ask me about people connected to Rykodisc did I dissolve into a puddle of transparent awkwardness. I'm a terrible liar, and I couldn't figure out how on earth to answer his question, "So, how is John doing?" What if John had been in the hospital? What if he'd moved to Africa? Who the hell was John? In that panic, I told him I had to confess something; I don't work for Rykodisc, but was actually an Editorial Assistant at American Heritage magazine and I'm helping out a friend who was in a bind.... It probably wasn't even a big deal to him. It's not like I was threatening in any way, probably wearing some heinously garish red lipstick and some prairie dress; scary in one way, but not in an I'm Going to Murder You in a Taxi Cab On the Way to the Supper Club Way. Once we got there, I helped him carry a few pieces of light equipment, and he invited me to come back later to hear his rehearsal and see the show for free.

For a few years, I'd see Byrne in small clubs when I'd go out to hear music, like at the Mercury Lounge. When I stopped going out so much I'd still see him, but he'd be riding his bicycle; still handsome, but older, with a beautiful crop of silver hair.

The other night, when we were holed up in Upstate during the hurricane, I showed "True Stories" to Jamie . It held up for me, and got most interesting for Jamie when the laziest woman in the world got to be fed by a robotic fork while she watched infomercials from bed.

This Jennifer Egan book has sent me on quite the nostalgic spin-out; I'm sure it will do the same for you. Going back to the book, I'd like to add that there is one experimental chapter involving a sister and her brother who has autism that was one of the most moving and spiritual, though sparse, pieces of writing I've come across, ever. I was thinking to myself that the Pulitzer committee must have been taken by the sheer modernity of this novel until I got to that chapter, and at that point for me brilliance settled in and didn't leave. Reading it threw me back in time to yet another place and sensation, predating my David Byrne encounter. I was in college, and I'd read something (what?), when suddenly, everything that I'd been studying came together like a thousand crystals forming into some beautiful lucid object. Everything made sense, and was exciting, and clear; the way moments leading up to poems feel.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Changing the Season Guard

Ms. Irene brought with her a hard-core cleansing of seasons. Leaves ripped off of trees, many losing their birthright foliage. Along with her other random spoils: a crushed child, and other loss of life; ripped off rooftops; countless flooded homes and crushed bridges; toppled trees, millions without power and many of them friends, humming into the void of their Facebook pages for small comfort at 5:45 a.m. while children still sleep, oblivious, their computer batteries on the wane. My family got off lucky in New York, we got off lucky in Lake Kinderhook, and we got off lucky in Philadelphia.

I woke up thinking about the season turning. It turns violently and softly. It's sudden and it seems to takes forever. If you're not watching carefully, it happens at once. The natural markers of the season changing are peeking through, so I'll try to soak up Harvest-y things like boxes of utility tomatoes to haul down to the city and pecks of new apples which have just come in. Time to process the old mealy ones, Golden Farms; your cold storage can only do so much for a year.

It's odd to spend days in grayness and then emerge into a sun spilled morning. At this moment, birds are chirping and everything seems sharper. This summer has been such a gift. I'll never forget it. Part 1, the Paris swap, and part 2, the Upstate meandering to visit friends while Jamie was parked either up at his worm and fishing farm or firmly rooted in the back seat of my car. Jim, on the other hand, came back from Paris to work, work, work. I've missed him on my Taconic travels, but I know it's also healthy to miss him.

The pressing in of Jamie's school schedule will give us some structure beginning next week, and my schedule will largely follow his. With his mainstreaming, there will be some changes from last year. For example, I used to bring him downstairs every day at 7:25 for the bus. Now, we'll hit the pavement on our scooters at 7:30 to have him to school on Bleecker Street by 7:50. While it's fun to zoom along the sidewalks with him past Washington Square Park and into the West Village, walking to school also presents a valuable time to connect. Jamie likes to talk and walk, an insight that could be valuable when he moves into his adolescence.

I'm getting ready to pack it in and hurl us back into the city. I guess one way I can cope with the end of summer is to crash into the minutia that needs tending to: syllabi updated and printed before tomorrow; pick up a new pair of uniform shoes for Jamie; write a random feature about a publisher in Milan who I know virtually nothing about yet.

A bientot, sweet Summer! Till we meet again!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bodice Rippers: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sounds like a bad joke: What do you get when you put together the vicar, the farmer, and the other hot guy with good prospects that haven't panned out yet? I don't know the punchline, but Miss Fancy Day, the heroine of Thomas Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree" (mellow-compared-with-Tess-and-Saint Jude) might be able to answer that question. Whoever produced the BBC adaptation of his most subtle book needs to get slapped upside the head with a handful of, oh, a batch of dewey heather or something.

My guilty pleasure has always been a good bodice ripper, preferably based on 18th or 19th century novels. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton. My husband, bless his soul, has put up with every predictable romance scrolling across our TV. There's usually long dresses, up-dos, a good ball scene, and cute men overly dressed in foppish peasant/farmer/aristocrat clothing which is wet from the spontaneous rain storm that always hits right before the mid-point conflict. In the happy stories, the smart heroines (Lizzy Bennett, duh) end up with their guy. In the sad ones, they of course end up destitute and without their children, or in other ways dead altogether (Tess).

There's also always one hot sister who's heartbroken, a crumbling house that can't find enough wood to fill its drafty fireplaces, a poor family down the street who makes our heroine seem nobel when she delivers them a meal, a la Jo March in Little Women, or Emma Woodhouse. In the good adaptations, the extras seem natural. In the bad ones, like "Under the Greenwood Tree", they look like they've been plucked from the local watering hole and asked to put on a hat and fake beard. Oh, and speaking of watering holes, there's always a sad drunk character who is beyond repair but for brief bouts of wisdom. And there's also a sickly person, like some sneezing Auntie (like in every Austen novel) or hypochondriac father or neighbor who gets a terrible cold that's revealed in a long letter to loved ones. Letters that were mailed from far away places, like the next county over. A scorned lover who's pathetically homely, and usually a man of humble origins who needs himself a wife, a la Mr. Collins. There's also permission given to marry, because of course woman can't make up their own minds on such matters. Oh, why? Why? Why?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Remembering R.I.F. Day

When I attended Wood Gormley Elementary School in Santa Fe in the late 1970s and early 1980s, every year (or was it bi-annually?), people who ran the R.I.F. (Reading is Fundamental) van would show up to our school library with a box of books nearly four feet wide and as tall as myself (I was the second tallest girl in the class; Martha Cooke was the first tallest). To come to school and find out it was R.I.F. Day... Wow. To reach into the box and pull out a shiny paperback was an event that would have the school yard buzzing at recess.

I grabbed for the usual 3rd and 4th grade fodder like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but one day ended up with an Encyclopedia Brown book. It didn't turn out to be as prized a possession as Harriet the Spy, which I emulated with close detail, often walking around my downtown neighborhood with a little notebook and stubby pencil taking down notes "spying" on people. Oh why couldn't I be blessed with poor vision so that I could wear glasses like Harriet's (which hello, are the same that Harry Potter wears!). Encyclopedia Brown was new, though, it was mine, it was free, and I didn't have to return it.

I was curious to see if R.I.F. was still on the radar and it is, despite an ominous guillotine that looms large in the background. The statistic that pops up on their homepage says there is only 1 book for every 300 children in the United States living in poverty. When I clicked through that stat to their action page, I learned that in March, Congress cut federal funding to this program. Is it R.I.P. for R.I.F.?

Studies have come out saying that the "print environment" at home is an accurate predictor of literacy success. I can't imagine that this comes as a surprise to anyone. So to you librarians out there who fight tirelessly to keep R.I.F., the excellent First Book program, and others like it alive, I offer a belated Thank You all these years later. I know you're also fighting for, like, your jobs.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Musee de la Vie Romantique

One place I can't shake from my post-Paris brain is the "Musee de la Vie Romantique", or "The Museum of the Romantic Life", a tiny museum in an old mansion down the street from Pigalle. The museum is the converted home of the accomplished French portrait artist Ary Scheffer, who frequently played host to George Sand and her sickly boyfriend Chopin. Ergot, the heavy and seemingly unbalanced focus on the feisty Ms. George Sand herself (a brilliant watercolor landscape artist in her own right).

Walk into the front parlor and you're greeted by jewelry cases full of historic bibs and bobs. It's like shaking out your glamorous Great Grandmother's junk drawer from the end of the nineteenth century, to find costume jewelry, snippets of hair (how Gothic, no?) and old faces decaying and gazing from lockets. The fading faces always get me. There are these long-gone souls staring out at you from a tarnished locket, whose lives I'm not familiar with, but still it's as if they could leap out and ask for directions. If they were alive, I might buy them a cup of tea at the adjoining Salon de The.

On the last day of my cousin Lori's visit, we meandered down the hill from Monmartre and found our way to the museum an hour before it closed. In the garden, green iron outdoor tables are surrounded by various rose bushes, and tea is served up strong in lovely old China teapots and delicate cups and saucers. Because it's Paris it rained on and off, but overgrown trees protected our buttery crumbles and Earl Grey before the sun opened up again.

I love how the museum is barely visible from the street, and how you have to approach it by walking through a little cobblestone driveway. I also love how the permanent exhibit is free, so I felt able to go and stare at the mold made from Chopin's hand a few times over during different visits (to the left of his hand you can see a curled piece of George Sand's hair in a see-through locket). His hands were small and delicate and quite beautiful, and with his Nocturnes playing on a loop in the background, I could almost imagine holding onto it for a few minutes.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dividing up Brain Time

A summer epiphany:

Like most other writers I know, I have to do some sort of rudimentary writing for cash. I want to work on more meaningful projects (not that making a living isn't meaningful) and so I'm going to attempt to no longer hand over clear morning energy to that sort of writing. I can save that for long stretches of afternoon lulls or burned-out nighttime hours. Morning should be for essays, my blog, a novel, a poem, and for reading and thinking. Not for describing groovy wedding favors or cool places for kids to go.

So here's a raised cup of coffee to the little ladybugs and slugs and things in Arnold Lobel's "Grasshopper on Road" who carry signs in fields that say "Morning is Tops!" I can be like Grasshopper and agree to like both morning and afternoon, but let's give Morning its due and not clutter it with the formulaic stuff.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Couch Surfing

I have this big birthday coming up next Spring, and in the happy wake of it I've been reflecting on how lucky I am to be inhabited by a free spirit. I love driving around aimlessly while blaring Pete Doherty albums.

Yesterday, I left Jamie at his Geepie and Granddad's place for his annual "camp" week where he sleeps in a tent by Lake Kinderhook, eats ice cream every day from a waffle cone, and digs up as many worms and slugs and centipedes as he can get his grubby hands on. After spending the night I left him to his bliss (which at the moment of our goodbye involved being snug inside of his new 4 person Coleman tent), and hit the road, taking this rare opportunity of unscheduled time to see friends for a few days.

I pulled off the Thruway at exit 20 headed toward Saugerties when my car suddenly smelled like a rotten egg had exploded. After conferring with the sweet Toll Booth minder, I made it to Steyer's Car Repair one mile down the road, and Mr. Steyer himself took a look and informed me I need a new alternator and battery. The alternator overheated (?) and fried my battery, so it's apparently a lucky thing I made it that extra mile.

But no worries! I'm in the land of Old Dear Friends who are each in their own way tucked away happily in the Catskills. I got a lift from a Steyer to Howard Johnson's where I sat at the old bar and had a cup of coffee, waiting for Kait to pick me up. It was so gleaming and empty and quiet, I felt like I was dropped into an old Edward Hopper painting that hadn't quite come to life yet.

Last night I crashed at Kait and Paul's beautiful homestead, which is perched right under a mountain and over a creek. I had a beautiful dinner with her and her Mr. Oh My God He's So Gorgeous 15 year old son, Jesse. Seriously? I remember holding him when he was just days old, and now he's donning cute glasses and talking about different musical genres, including his passing Jazz phase. After dinner he left us to our silliness which dragged on with way too much after dinner Bailey's, but c'est la vie. Bailey's didn't feel too great at 3 a.m., but I woke up next to a giant snoring Rottweiler named Bosco so that was... a comfort?

Car should be on the mend this morning, so more adventures to come.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Disoriented in New York

I woke up at 3 a.m., because my body thinks it's 10 a.m. When I went to the bathroom, I thought I'd flush by pressing the silver push button thing on the top of the toilette, but in my sleepy state didn't find it where I'd grown used to it. When we landed in New York last night, we'd been awake for nearly 24 hours. Jamie was a trooper like I'd never seen, until the very end when he was furious that I'd left a water bottle on the plane and there was no fountain to be found-- or kiosk to purchase a new one--anywhere within a mile of Customs at J.F.K. Where were the Evian vending machines that dotted the platforms of every Metro stop in Paris? Or the 100+ green "Wallace" fountains that rise up from the landscape of Paris parks, medial strips, and sidewalks, that were donated by the English philanthropist Richard Wallace back in 1870-something because so many Parisians were dying of nasty water-borne diseases like Cholera?

I new I'd be extremely sad to leave Paris, and I was, but there was honestly too much packing and cleaning to do to allow myself to wallow. That process wasn't exactly helped my our deciding to ditch Paris on the last two of three blue-skied days for the beach in Normandy. Leaving a foreign city after a beautiful trip used to feel final, somehow. I think my progression of not wallowing too much in the leaving part This Year is a sign of a healthy progression into Next Year thinking. I probably would have benefited from a good cry. Maybe I just haven't had it yet.*

Last year I had to come home in August, leave NYC again, and return once more, to find its edges not too abrasive. This year, my antidote to these rough edges of returning to New York may be to pick up a hearty history of the city, a la Luc Sante, to grease the wheels back home that had gotten me so fired up in Paris. I think I'll shoot my old buddy Richard Snow an email and ask him for a recommendation. For starters, I could pull down from my bookshelves "Here is New York" by E.B. White, a little treatise on my storied hometown that's always described as "elegant" or "succinct". I could also ditch my coffee maker and pick up one of those whistling stovetop espresso makers that I used every morning.

(*Postscript: Good cry nearly happens at our Key Food, where every vegetable is mysteriously wrapped individually in plastic.)