Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Reads of 2014

I don't read as much as I used to. This morning I finished reading the manuscript of my friend and client John Connolly's next Charlie Parker novel, A SONG OF SHADOWS (coming to the UK in April 2015, in the US sometime in early summer), and that brought my total to 115 for the year. It is possible, but not likely, that I'll finish Lisa Unger's CRAZY LOVE YOU before the end of the day, but I wouldn't do that just to boost my number.

About half of my reading this year was work-related: manuscripts, review copies, books I read for conferences (I moderated two panels at this year's Bouchercon, which accounted for about a dozen books), and books I read in my capacity as a judge for the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. One of my 2015 resolutions is to do more pleasure reading; too often this year, when I wasn't working, I was destroying my brain with a video game and calling it relaxation. It's true that books are competing not only with each other, but with Netflix and YouTube and Candy Crush, and I've been as guilty of that as anyone else.

In making my list of favorite reads of 2014, I've deliberately excluded my clients, even though they published great books this year, too: The Wolf in Winter by the aforementioned John Connolly, and Conquest by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard; Terminated by Ray Daniel; Suspicion by Joseph Finder; Desperate by Daniel Palmer; and Fatal Impressions by Reba White Williams. (All of these clients, by the way, have equally good books coming out next year — and so does Lisa Lutz, whose forthcoming How to Start a Fire may be my favorite among all the books I've ever worked on.)

Alphabetically by author, then, here goes:

Alison Gaylin, STAY WITH ME (2014). Stay With Me completes Gaylin's trilogy about Brenna Spector, a private investigator cursed with hypermnesia, an ability to remember everything that's ever happened to her in precise detail. Over the course of three books — and her entire career — Brenna's been trying to find out what happened to her teenaged sister, Clea, who disappeared when Brenna was only a child. That search has damaged every other relationship in Brenna's life, and is now threatening Brenna's connection with her own teenaged daughter, Maya. I was awed by how well Alison (who's a friend) brought this story to a heartbreaking, profoundly satisfying conclusion.

Donna Johnson, HOLY GHOST GIRL (2011). Donna's agent sent me this book, saying he thought it sounded like just my kind of thing, and he was right. Holy Ghost Girl is Donna's memoir of growing up in a tent revival community, as the daughter of a woman who became the organist for (and later mistress of) Brother David Terrell, an apocalyptic preacher. Donna remembers the practical details of that nomadic life in a way that reminded me how quickly almost anything can start to seem normal, if it's how you live every day; but what impressed me most was her extraordinary generosity of spirit toward the adults who raised her, even Brother Terrell. Brother Terrell is a weak, sinning man, but one who also seems to have access to a realm of the spirit most of us can't reach. These things are not mutually exclusive, Donna shows us, and having seen examples of that in my own life, I continue to ponder that mystery.

Stephen King, MR. MERCEDES (2014). You know what? Being popular doesn't mean that something's not good. I expect to see this book on next year's Edgars shortlist. Retired police detective Bill Hodges can't let go of his unsolved cases, especially the apparently deliberate mass murder of a crowd of people lined up for a job fair, run down by a man in a stolen Mercedes. When the murderer starts to taunt Hodges, the retired detective has a new series of clues to pursue, and a new lease on life. This book blew me away. As much as I admire Stephen King, I was surprised by what this book showed me about the genre I work in. I have already pre-ordered the sequel, FINDERS KEEPERS.

Frank Langella, DROPPED NAMES: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them (2012). When I'm exhausted or burnt out on fiction, I read celebrity memoirs. I binged on them this spring, recovering from gallbladder surgery, and I have a stack I plan to go through this weekend. This one, a series of anecdotes — some very short, some longer — about the dead famous people Langella worked with, played with and slept with, is the literary equivalent of a whole can of Pringles. For the most part, he's kind, although some of the stories are sad, and a few have real barbs. I loved this book so much that when I finished reading it, I bought the audiobook so I could listen to Mr. Langella tell me the stories himself.

Laura Lippman, AFTER I'M GONE (2014). 2014 was an embarrassment of riches for me, as I got to read two full-length Laura Lippman novels —this one and the Tess Monaghan coming next year, HUSH, HUSHas well as Laura's bibliomystery, "The Book Thing," and another e-book novella, "Five Fires." AFTER I'M GONE was my favorite of these, as well as being an objectively impressive book — a true ensemble story, about what happens to a family of women after the man of the house (husband, father) disappears. What appears to be the central mystery — what happened to Felix Brewer? — ultimately turns out to be irrelevant. The real story is, as the title suggests, about what happened after he left. Among other things to love about the book, the early chapters on Felix's courtship of his wife, Bambi, evoke memories of Herman Wouk's classic MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, a favorite of both Laura's and mine.

Liza Palmer, NOWHERE BUT HOME (2013). This year's winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction is a magical book about food, forgiveness and love, three topics that preoccupy me pretty much constantly. Aspiring chef Queenie Wake returns to her small Texas hometown and accepts a uniquely difficult job: preparing last meals for the death row inmates at the nearby state prison. Each meal becomes a meditation on Queenie's own past, including the alcoholic mother who taught her to cook and the high-school hero who was the love of Queenie's life. It's a beautiful, loving novel that feels like a gift and will make you want to eat chicken-fried steak.

George Pendle, STRANGE ANGEL: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (2005). You know what they say about stepping on footnotes before they start to multiply? I discovered this book through a mention of John Whiteside Parsons in GOING CLEAR, Lawrence Wright's fantastic history of Scientology. Before he founded Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard spent some time in Pasadena, living in a group house of Aleister Crowley's disciples headed by John Whiteside Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; in fact, Hubbard's second (bigamous) wife had been Parsons' sister-in-law/girlfriend. The story only takes a page or two in GOING CLEAR, but I had to know more. This wonderful, expansive biography by the author of THE REMARKABLE MILLARD FILLMORE (which I also recommend) deserves to be a movie — and is going to be, if all goes well. The Satanic bedhopping isn't even the best part of the book: the most fun are the stories of Parsons and his friends blowing things up in the San Gabriel mountains, and that turning out to be Science.

Louise Penny, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT (2012). I had spent a few years away from Penny's Three Pines series, after THE BRUTAL TELLING, which broke my heart, and its sequel BURY YOUR DEAD, which enraged me (and which I still consider a cheat, and which still makes me want to bite someone). This book, however, went a long way toward bringing me back into the fold. Artist Clara Morrow's professional triumph, a solo show at the Montréal Musée d'Art Contemporain, is ruined by the discovery of a dead body in her garden that night. The dead woman is a childhood friend of Clara's, and her death sets off a chain of events that shake Clara's world to its core. A TRICK OF THE LIGHT is not only a murder mystery but a brilliant story about women's lives, women's friendships, and how women discover their own value at midlife.

Alex Stone, FOOLING HOUDINI: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind (2012). Probably my single favorite book of this year, this memoir of Alex Stone's life in magic becomes a discursive history of the art form. The thing about "magic" is that it often involves feats of skill, strength or technology that are just as amazing as the illusion the magician is offering; they're just complicated, and tedious, and hard to explain, and the audience would rather have the illusion. I like things complicated, and the obsessives who populate Stone's book are my kind of people. I'll reread this book in a month or two, and expect to get new things out of it then. If you're giving this book as a gift, pair it with Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy.

Joakim Zander, THE SWIMMER (2015). I got an early copy of this book through sources I cannot divulge, but the person who gave it to me said, "You know how everyone's supposed to be 'the new Le Carré?' This guy is the new Le Carré." I read this book in a single sitting. A veteran CIA operative abandoned his baby daughter decades ago; when, as an adult, she becomes an international target for reasons that seem unrelated to her parentage, her secret father does what he can to try to save her. The lines between hero and villain are fuzzy here, if they exist at all; as Steinbeck once said, there's no good and there's no bad, there's just stuff people do.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On having it coming

We all got it coming, kid. 
—William Munny, Unforgiven
Someone I loved hit me once.

I can tell you exactly when and where: Sunday, January 22, 1984, in a service hallway in the Flour Mill apartment complex in Georgetown. I was a sophomore in college. One of that year’s leaders of Mask & Bauble, our theater group, was hosting a Super Bowl party. Washington’s team lost ignominiously to Oakland that year, 38-9, but I left before the game ended.

The person who hit me was someone I’d had a romantic relationship with, but at that point we hadn’t been dating for almost a year. He was seeing someone else, and so was I, but our breakup had been more than usually complicated, with some long-term repercussions. I was only 18; he was only a couple of years older. We’d been avoiding each other, but I’d gone to that party knowing it was likely I would see him, because I wanted to see him. Sometimes it works that way.

I don’t remember why or how we wound up alone in that hallway, but I’m sure it was because I wanted to talk to him, and he wanted to avoid a scene. I don’t remember what I said to him. What I remember is an open hand striking my cheek, and a small popping sound because my mouth had dropped open as I realized he really was going to hit me. Not hard — he didn’t knock out any teeth, he didn’t leave a mark. And I remember what I thought:
I guess I had that coming. 
Yesterday my friend Sue Lin and I had breakfast at a funky coffee house in downtown Baltimore, and she gestured to me as we sat down. “Do you see what that girl’s wearing?” she asked.

I almost gasped. A very young woman at the bar was wearing a Ray Rice t-shirt. She was flirting energetically with the young man beside her, whom I assume was her boyfriend. It was hard not to leap to conclusions about her, about them, even (or especially) when she pulled out her card and paid for their breakfast. During breakfast I saw her turn a couple of times on her barstool and look over her shoulder, as if she expected people to be reacting to her shirt, as if she were wearing it to make some kind of statement.

They left before we did. I suppressed the impulse to jump up and intercept her on the way to the door. What could I have said to her? What should I have asked? I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

If you haven’t seen the video of Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend out, don’t watch it. What it shows is Ray Rice and his fiancée having an argument before they get on the elevator, and it continuing once they’re in the elevator. She’s a slender woman; he’s an NFL running back. She flies at him, apparently scolding, and he cold-cocks her with a punch to the face. She goes down like a deflated balloon, and she is out. He drags her out of the elevator, then picks her up at the waist like a blow-up doll and drops her, still unconscious, immediately outside the elevator door while a hotel security manager looks on.

The Ravens have suspended Ray Rice indefinitely, but that wasn’t what happened first. What happened first was a press conference at which Janay Rice, having married the man who punched her, apologized for her role in the incident.
I guess I had that coming. 
Even now, I’m ashamed of my own behavior when I think of that January afternoon. To do that young man justice, years later I got a handwritten note from him, apologizing — for the slap, presumably, and for other things. I would like to say here, 30 years late, that I’m sorry for the damage I did him, too.




Nobody has that coming. Nobody. Not in an elevator, not on a football field, not in a hockey rink, not on a playground. If you strike someone in anger, you are disqualified from further play. You leave the field. You apologize, you make amends, you get whatever help you need to learn more appropriate ways to manage your anger.

So I guess what I want to ask that girl I saw at Spoons yesterday — what I would ask her, if I ever see her again — is, “Do you think you have it coming? Do you?”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On human nature, nationalism and self-determination

Scots are voting on independence today. I'm not a Scot, and I don't vote in the United Kingdom. I have no opinion on the referendum, nor am I entitled to have one. But the debate has stirred a lot of thoughts in my distracted brain.

Above the auditorium entrance in Georgetown's Intercultural Center, which houses its School of Foreign Service, is a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist:
"The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build the earth."
As a 16-year-old college freshman more than 30 years ago, I believed that. I wanted to do that. I saw that the division between our side and theirs was artificial and unsustainable, and I believed we were moving toward a new era of communication and peace.

This is why it's always young people who lead revolutions.

It's not cynical to say that human beings can't be trusted to do the right thing, it's history. The gift and curse of our creation is free will: we are capable of great goodness and great evil, but mostly we incline to indulgence and expedience. As an old boss of mine liked to say, we are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. That's not a moral judgment, that's just biology. We breathe, we excrete, we eat, we reproduce. We fear darkness and danger, so we band together, and then we fight with each other because no group allows every member to get everything they want (Yeats on Ireland: "Great hatred, little room"). But because we are human and not rats, we yearn for meaning and we dream of freedom.

Teilhard wrote about nationalism in the wake of the Great War, where he had served as a stretcher-bearer at the first Battle of the Marne, and the battles of Champagne and Verdun. After the war, he got a doctorate in geology, and he spent most of the rest of his life doing paleontological fieldwork in China. What he learned and what he found gave him a mystical insight into the universality of the human condition, over both time and geography, and an understanding of the futility and wasted energy of national boundaries.

Because the first thing that nationalism does, Teilhard understood, is dictate who does and doesn't belong to a group. We are Us; you are Them. We celebrate Us, we reject Them, like that "Simpsons" episode about the old enmity between Springfield and Shelbyville. If you believe, as Teilhard did, as I do, in an omnipresent and all-forgiving God that created us all, there is no Them. Who would be Them? Who does God call "Them"?

Do away with nationalism, then, but it leaves us still with the drive to self-determination, which is not only a human desire but also, in this post-Eden exile, a human obligation. Especially now, in 2014, when our religions seem to be failing us and our governments and public institutions have become too large and complex to be held accountable in any meaningful way, we crave some sense of agency over our own lives. Or at least I do, which is why I have been self-employed for the past 15 years, and why I moved to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and why — or at least one reason why — I never married. It's not a noble thing; it's not so far removed from my three-year-old self, who snatched away utensils, washcloths, and items of clothing from adults with a shove and "By myself!" It's the teenager's manifesto: You're not gonna tell me what to do, man.

The problem with insisting on independence, I have found as I approach my sixth decade, is that people will give it to you. Cooperation and collaboration take time, energy, compassion and compromise. It is, in the short term, often harder to do something as a team than on one's own. It's just that teams can do more, for longer, without tapping out every one of their members.

My big lesson, after almost five decades on this planet, is that it's a lot harder to be a good team member than it is to be a solo operator. The mistake people make — or at least, the mistake I made, and continue to try to correct in myself — is thinking that belonging to a team means that the team comes first, and that the team's interests override its individual members'. The best teams balance the needs of the group with the needs of the individuals, and operate on a constant cycle of feedback: What do you need? What do we need? How are we doing? What are we doing? It's hard, and the bigger the group, the harder it gets.

So maybe Scotland has the right idea: take it down a notch. Make the group smaller, so that we all listen better. Can we get to a point where no country's big enough to marshal an arsenal that will destroy the world? That's probably naive. It's certainly romantic. But I watch today's election with fascination and hope. Whatever the outcome, it would be nice if it meant everyone listened to each other a little more closely.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Freelancing and the Law of Diminishing Returns

diminishing returns, also called law of diminishing returns or principle of diminishing marginal productivity, economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output.

Encyclopedia Brittanica

I could give you anything but time.
Elvis Costello

It's Labor Day, and I'm working. I worked yesterday, too. I worked Saturday. This is the nature of things when you have clients instead of employers, and when your clients pay for prompt attention and rapid response. If I want to take time off, even a day, I have to let clients know in advance; I've learned this by making the mistake of not letting clients know in advance. A lot of what I do is not especially time-sensitive — does it make a difference, really, if you get manuscript edits back on Wednesday instead of Monday? — but some of it is, and some of the work I do is not the kind you can leave for 24 hours at a stretch without some kind of backup in place. I have no backup. That's also a common issue for freelancers. 

I'd hoped to take a week off in July. I announced it to my clients well in advance. I had plans, or at least plans to do nothing, for at least five days and maybe as long as seven. But then one of my clients got an offer, and in turn made me an offer, neither of us could refuse. I figured I'd find a week to take off in August. 

Instead, this August was the busiest I've ever had, in 15 years of freelancing. I turned work down in August. I'm still catching up. And I am exhausted. 

A friend said to me yesterday that I work all the time, and it was meant as a personal criticism, not as a compliment. I admitted it. How could I deny it? I've gotten myself into a spiral I don't know how to break, though I see that it is unsustainable. I feel so anxious, all the time, about so many things I can't control. The only reliable remedy I've found for that anxiety is completing a task for a client, and the only sure motivator for me is an external deadline. So I keep the to-do list full, and I move from task to task, and I am so tired and distracted I put my phone in the dryer yesterday. (I heard it thunking before any damage was done.) 

I need — I need — what do I need? It's more than a single day off, but I don't know what. 

A Facebook meme is going around about the Ten Books that Have Stayed With You, and I posted my list last week after Erin Mitchell tagged me. One of the books I always include on that list is Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My mother gave me a copy for Confirmation, and it ranks second (only behind John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things) as the book I've most often given other people. This morning I pulled it out again, and found this:
I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact — to borrow from the language of the saints — to live "in grace" as much of the time as possible.
If I could find that place, I tell myself, I would not need to be so busy. If I were not so busy, I tell myself, I could find that place. 

I have no answers to this. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Social Media and My/Your/Our Terrible Summer

The other day I did something I hadn't done in much too long: I read a daily newspaper, on paper. I was meeting friends at The Tombs for an early dinner, and for once in my life I got there before they did. I had a beer at the bar, and picked up a newspaper lying by the register.

Once upon a time, all bars used to have at least one newspaper on the bar, for patrons who were drinking alone. You see it less often now, because of the assumption that people at the bar are otherwise occupied, watching one of the many screens on the wall or looking at their phones.

Since the paper was there, I read it. And it felt like taking a long bath, or going for a walk, or having enough oxygen after a run. It felt like a luxury.

I haven't subscribed to a daily paper in about ten years, which embarrasses me. I pay for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Portland Press-Herald online. I get daily news summaries emailed to me from Bloomberg Business Week, The Boston Globe, The New York Post (for the horoscope) and something called Trove that I don't even remember signing up for. I follow Slate, Vox, Politico, FiveThirtyEight, The Wall Street Journal, The Texas Tribune, Romanesko, RTE and at least half a dozen publishing newsletter/blogs on Twitter.

I am a news junkie. And whether it's booze, pills or news, addiction kills.

Everybody agrees that this has been a terrible summer, terrible to the point of absurdity. War in Gaza, war in Syria, war in Ukraine, war in Iraq — and those are just the wars the global media are reporting. Ebola in West Africa. Refugee children at the U.S. border, being treated like criminals. Ferguson, God help us, exposing the ugly truth that some people sincerely believe we're not all equal citizens in this country. Robin Williams' death. The Hachette-Amazon dispute. I could keep adding things to this list all day, but let's move on.

The one constant through all of this has been my Twitter stream, which I made the mistake of downloading to my phone four months ago.

"Doesn't it seem to you like people are crazier than they used to be?" I've had that conversation with at least half a dozen friends in the last month, in almost exactly those words. People are losing their ever-loving minds. But why? Are things really so much worse than they've been? Are they worse than the summer of 2002, when we were (or at least, I was) looking at the sky for strange planes and jumping at unexpected noises? Are they worse than the summer of 1998, when Congress was getting ready to impeach the President of the United States? (And God, doesn't 1998 sound great right now?) Are they worse than 1968, which I barely remember except for the smell of smoke from downtown Norfolk, and my mother crying in front of the television?

I don't know. I only know that it feels worse, and I've decided that Twitter is why. Facebook too, but Twitter more so.

I love Twitter. For people who work alone at home, like me, Twitter is a constant online cocktail party. I keep the Twitter window open on my computer all day — it's open now, with a tab telling me there have been 62 new posts since I last checked it. I justify that by saying it's part of my work, because I do help some authors manage their Twitter feeds.

But I'm realizing that Twitter is a big part of the anxiety that's infected me this summer. Twitter is a constant emergency, and it's all too much.

Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist, published a study several years ago that found that most people can maintain meaningful social connections with a maximum of 150 people. This is not a Western phenomenon; this is a global pattern, whether you live in Greenwich Village or a village in central Asia. Relatives, friends, co-workers, connections — 150 people is about the limit of how many names, faces and relationships we can take care of.

I follow just over 1,000 people on Twitter. I have 572 Facebook friends. How can I pay attention to 1,000 conversations at once? How can I be a friend to 572 people? I don't even know who some of my Facebook friends are; they're aspiring authors who sent me friend requests in my early Facebook days, I think, or friends of friends, but now they're in my news feed and it would feel unkind to drop them.

It has to stop, because it's making me crazy. This summer has not been bad for me personally. I've had a lot of work, I've seen family and friends and baseball and some great movies, I have a ridiculously good cable TV set-up and a view of the Washington Monument from my living room window. I have a rooftop pool, for God's sake! Which I've used exactly twice this summer, because the pool doesn't have wi-fi, and God forbid I detach myself from the electronic tether.

Let me be clear: this is my problem, and I've written this all out because I suspect I am not alone. I am not saying that social media or the Internet is bad — they're obviously not. I'm saying that I have been binging on social media and the Internet like a teenager on Boone's Farm, and it needs to stop.

The first step is taking both Twitter and Facebook off my phone, which I'm doing right now. The next step is to shut the Twitter window (41 new posts since I checked it!). I'm going to subscribe to the paper Post again, and make an effort to get more of my news from print and less from Twitter. I need that distance, that space. The step after that . . . I don't know. Ideas, suggestions?

Yes, I realize the irony of blogging to request help with my Internet self-discipline. Send me a letter. I'll email you the address.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Real Housewives of My Existential Crisis

On Saturday afternoon, through no deliberate choice of my own, I wound up watching several episodes of "The Real Housewives of Orange County." Although several smart friends and people I admire a lot love these shows, I'd never seen one. I remember when Bravo used to be a specialty cable channel for the performing arts; you could probably make the argument (and I'm sure someone has) that the Real Housewives shows are another type of performance art.

But the show upset me, and two days later, I'm still trying to figure out why. I can't figure out what the shows or their participants want from their audience. Are we supposed to mock them, or judge them? I don't want to do either of those things. Are we supposed to plunge ourselves vicariously into their artificial drama? I don't want to do that, either. I felt as if just watching the show, and trying in the process to understand or relate to or sympathize with those women, corrupted my soul and made me a worse person. That’s not an exaggeration.

I can’t stand back and mock them; they’re creatures in such pain that they need to act out their lives for television cameras, and create artificial drama with strangers the producers have thrown them together with. What is their use on the planet, what is their value? How do they think that being on TV will improve their lives, and why would they have sought out that experience? How are we supposed to know which of the emotions they show on screen are real, and which are only for the benefit of the cameras?

I’ve worked very hard to make my own life as drama-free as possible. I got a lifetime’s worth of drama before the age of 25, and I don’t need any more, thank you very much. Where are these women’s children, and what is their life’s work, except to be immortalized on these TV shows? It makes me feel horrible and scribbly inside, and I don’t know what to do with it. I was already feeling horrible and scribbly.

My friends who love these shows might say, “Don’t take it so seriously,” but these are women who want to be taken seriously — aren't they? — who yearn for connection and meaning and psychic weight. Which is tragic. It’s all tragic, and the tragedy overwhelms me. If I want to be overwhelmed by tragedy I can watch “Intervention,” which at least is not asking me to laugh at it.

Do you watch "The Real Housewives"? If so, why, and what do you get out of it? Am I over-thinking this, or do I need to watch more to understand its true cultural significance?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughts for a Rainy Tuesday

The most-visited post on this blog, by a huge margin, is this list of Five Practical Reasons Not to Kill Yourself. I closed it to comments a long time ago because I got tired of depressed people trying to convince me to give them permission. The whole point of the blog post was that I don't give myself permission.

I didn't know Robin Williams, and I'm not sure I even know anyone who worked with him (which is a little surprising, because he worked with a lot of people, and I know a lot of people, so those groups might have overlapped). His brand of humor was one I had to take in small doses, because it was so transparently manic, and mania scares me (I feel the same way about Jim Carrey). But he was an extraordinary actor, with an almost unmatched gift for disappearing into a role the way few movie stars can. And the most casual observer could see that he noticed everything, and felt it all deeply.

Last night on social media I had a brief exchange with someone who was trying to argue that depression (or, presumably, bipolar disorder, which was Robin Williams' ailment) had to be seen as an existential disorder, not a medical one. He said you couldn't see depression in an autopsy, therefore it's not an illness, and we do harm by framing it that way.

I don't have enough formal education to be able to dispute that, and I wasn't interested in arguing with a stranger in 140-character chunks. But I will say here what I know to be true about depression, from my own experience and from my observations of friends and family members who struggle with it.

It's not reality-based. That is, depression is not a rational reaction to a chaotic world, as this guy was implying. Sorrow, grief, anxiety, yes — all those things are reasonable reactions to a world in which governments bomb children, police terrorize people in their own American neighborhoods, and people win arguments just by shouting loudest and longest. Depression's something else. Depression is shades of gray and the absence of joy. It's irrational fear, magical thinking, compulsive behavior and the need to punish oneself for daring to exist, much less trouble anybody with some stupid request for help.

It's not really emotional, except when it is. This is the hardest thing to explain to people who haven't been depressed. Depression is not "the blues." Everybody gets sad sometimes, and some people feel really sad, with reason, for a really long time. Depression isn't grief. In the worst bouts of depression, simple sadness would feel like a breakthrough, because then at least I'd be feeling something. Anger is welcome, because anger (at least for me) is a sign that I'm coming out of it, that I care enough about anything to get pissed off. Sometimes I try to make myself angry so I don't get depressed. If you know a rageaholic, that might be their issue, too.

It is not something you can reason your way out of. Pep talks don't help. Everybody who suffers from depression and lives eventually figures out tricks to manage it (and this is why I recommend cognitive behavioral therapy — they teach you this stuff). I make lists and agree to external deadlines: when everything is terrible (when I am terrible), being able to complete even the most basic task is something that helps. The anxiety of knowing that a client is waiting for me to complete a task is usually enough to get me out of bed in the morning, to move me to the computer, to make me leave the apartment and get on a train or a plane. But not always. And that's the last point I want to make:

Depression is not something you can fix on your own. Last week I went to my doctor to ask for help, for the first time in years. I've been treated for depression, on and off, for most of my adult life — but I thought I was better, I thought I could handle it, I didn't have decent insurance, and for all those reasons and more I stopped the treatment. I told my doctor this and she, in the kindest possible way, got a little exasperated. "If someone had told you, when you were 21, that you had Type One diabetes," she said, "you wouldn't stop taking your insulin just because your blood sugar was under control."

Some day, when medical science knows a lot more about the brain, they'll be able to sample brain tissue and say, "See, this person had too much [fill in the blank] and not enough [this other stuff], and that's why —" But until then, the science of brain chemistry is still very much a trial-and-error process. I'm about to start that process again, and I admit it scares me. I've also learned that doing things that scare me is another tool that helps manage my depression.

If you hear I've gone bungee jumping, you'll know why, and I hope you'll come along if you want. In the meantime, I recommend this and this if you want further reading.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

On Treasures and Treasure Houses

I was on my own today in New York City, on my own with no particular place to go and no particular person to do it with, once I’d fed the three bulldogs I’m looking after for my friend Megan. I was in danger of being paralyzed by choice when a friend suggested The Morgan Library — which is what I always suggest to people who have an afternoon free in New York City.

The Morgan Library is an extraordinary place. It is built around the personal collection of a single
man, J. P. Morgan, who was quite possibly the wealthiest man on the planet. (Among other things, he bought out Andrew Carnegie, launched U.S. Steel, and bailed out the U.S. banking system in 1907.) Morgan was curious, energetic, and acquisitive. He had the money to buy the things that interested him, and he was interested in almost everything. Once he had more than would comfortably fit in his own mansion, he asked the architect Charles F. McKim to build him a separate library next to his house, a library that would include a personal office.

“Do you figure it’s haunted?” I asked the security guard who was standing at the entrance to Mr. Morgan’s office. The office is large, but not inappropriately so — no larger than most other executive offices I’ve seen, and smaller than some. It’s dark, with red walls, dark wood and only as much light as would have been available in 1906, although the City had electric light from the mid-1880s. It’s comfortable, and decorated with the pieces I assume he liked best: among other items, a extraordinary 14th century Spanish polyptych, a 15th-century portrait that looks a little like Ian Rankin, and a portrait of the man himself.

“Oh, I think so,” the guard said. “He didn’t live very long after this library was built.” Morgan died in 1913, less than seven years after the completion of the Library. He was 75, on a trip to Egypt and Rome, and his doctors had described him as depressed. (Some have speculated that Morgan's rival, Andrew Carnegie, suffered from what would now be called bipolar disorder; I've never heard that about Morgan, but the man had earned his exhaustion.) He left his collection in the hands of his son, Jack, with the direction only that they be "permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people."

I sat for a while in the original library room (seen above), which has beautiful Art Nouveau skylights, and I thought about how everything, taken to an extreme, becomes the opposite of itself. J.P. Morgan, the richest man in the world, bought as many of the world's intellectual treasures as he could. He bought cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, Thomas Jefferson's correspondence, Jane Austen's portrait. He bought Mozart's handwritten scores and as many copies of the Gutenberg Bible as he could get his hands on (three, two on paper and one on vellum). He bought ancient cylinder seals and fine Gothic metalwork. And he saved it all so that it wouldn't be destroyed, and so his countrymen would be able to come and see it, and study it, and use it to move forward so we wouldn't have to reinvent everything all over again. His extreme acquisitiveness became an unimaginably generous gift.

A case in the original library holds about a dozen examples of late incunabula — the last books created truly by hand, before the invention of movable type. Before movable type made printing (relatively) easy, it took months or years to create a book — so the books that were created were only those deemed critically important for human enlightenment or salvation. Naturally, most of those books were religious documents: bibles, Torahs, the writings of St. Augustine, prayer missals. But the Morgan Library also has a fabulous Italian encyclopedia/dictionary, because the other natural thing to do is to write down all the things you know so future generations don't have to figure these things out for themselves.

What good is that, though, if no one goes looking for the information that's been collected and recorded? Humans have learned how to do great things in our 50,000 years or so of "behavioral modernity," but every few generations, we've also done a great job of forgetting things our ancestors knew. We don't know how the Pyramids were built, or Petra, or Machu Picchu, or Mesa Verde. We haven't been able to recreate Greek fire. Here in the United States right now, we're letting our bridges and highways crumble, and some of our cities fall to ruin. We're bickering about the causes of climate change, but meanwhile doing nothing to defend ourselves against its undeniable effects.

Worse, we're assuming that because the Internet is a giant storehouse of all human knowledge, we don't need to learn things the way we used to. I'm not talking about Common Core (which I don't know much about because I don't have kids in school). I'm talking about my own habits. I don't take notes the way I used to. I don't even pay attention the way I used to, and I certainly don't learn things by heart the way I used to (although you can still try me on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" after a drink or two). I spent fifteen minutes dithering over a book this afternoon (The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald) because I couldn't remember whether I'd read it or not. I feel like I should have read it; maybe I'll get 30 pages into it and realize that I have. The part of my brain that should remember doesn't any more, because I keep a reading log in Excel. (I bought the book, because that's what J.P. Morgan would have done.) 

The advent of print killed the bardic tradition, and the advent of keyboards has killed the art of penmanship. Thomas Jefferson wrote a beautifully legible hand, which you can see at the Morgan Library. Are computers killing memory? Is the Internet killing libraries?

J.P. Morgan had the world's knowledge in one single building. Theoretically, I have the world's knowledge in the MacBook Pro on my lap. I am not sure I'm better off. I certainly don't have as nice a view.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The View from Room 820

Because objects in motion tend to remain in motion, it should not have surprised me that the gallstones that brought me to the emergency room 10 days ago would continue to wreak havoc. Last week was spent trying to find a balance between extreme discomfort/nausea and a medication level that would let me get my work done, as well as shuttle back and forth to the doctor's for tests and scans. The tests got worse, not better, so when I saw the surgeon at a previously-scheduled appointment yesterday morning, he said, "I think we're going to admit you."

"Look, you're in the penthouse," the hospital auxiliary lady said when she showed me to my room. It's true; I'm on the top floor of the Virginia Hospital Center, with a wall of windows that looks out onto a nice suburban neighborhood. I can see trees and the highrises of Ballston, though it's been pretty gray since yesterday.

The Virginia Hospital Center is rated one of the nation's best hospitals, with good reason. It used to be Arlington Hospital, but was rechristened 10 years ago after a massive renovation/expansion. The buildings are big, clean and shiny, and the staff have been nothing but kind. I'm in a private room, with wi-fi and cable and an IV drip that beeps if I bend my arm wrong.

That said, hospitals are for sick people. I don't think I belong here, or at least I don't want to believe that I do. I spent about an hour (at least, it felt like an hour) in an imaging machine last night, and based on those results I think I'm having some kind of surgical procedure today. I'm really, really hoping to be home tonight, even though my bed at home is not adjustable and the hospital has better cable. I have no big insights from my hospital experience, except the obvious ones: nurses are great. Patient care assistants are great. Twelve hours is probably too long for a shift. Hospitals smell weird.

The one really good thing about all of this is that I have health insurance. God forbid this should have happened last year, when I didn't. 

Thanks to everybody who's called or emailed to express concern. I'm in good hands and should be home soon, tomorrow morning if not tonight.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Gall of It - and March's Reading List

Let the record show that March 2014 was a crummy month for me and many people close to me, and I am glad to see the end of it. (I did manage to salvage the very end of it with a viewing of Muppets Most Wanted in good company.)

Sometime between now and the end of April I will be bidding farewell to my gallbladder, which has become clogged with stones and is interfering with both my liver and my spleen. The medieval attribution of bad temper to those organs is justified; I am uncomfortable and irritable and generally unpleasant to be around right now. You may think it's funny to remark that you notice no difference in my usual demeanor. You may even be correct about this, but please notice that I'm not laughing.

Anyway, I read quite a lot in March. About half of it was work-related and therefore confidential, but here's the list for public consumption.

What I Read in March

Elmore Leonard, RUM PUNCH. I reread this for a book club discussion on Fairfax Public Access Radio at the beginning of the month. I'd thought I remembered it pretty well, but realized that I was remembering the movie Jackie Brown, not the book it was based on. The book is sharper and more violent than the movie, and the central character is not Jackie but Max Forster, the bail bondsman played by Robert Forster in the movie. I hadn't realized that RUM PUNCH itself was a sequel to THE SWITCH, which I haven't read. Anyway, RUM PUNCH is a great novel about midlife and how we decide where to make our stands, as well as being a highly entertaining caper novel.

Alma Katsu, THE TAKER. Alma was the guest author on the radio show I participated in; I'd met her a few years ago at the Virginia Festival of the Book, but am embarrassed that I didn't get around to reading her first novel until now. It's a great historical fantasy romantic epic, in the tradition of Interview with the Vampire and Outlander. Lanore's passion for the young man she can't have drives her from colonial Maine to Boston, and into the arms of the dangerous Adair, who is not what he seems to be. I'm looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.

Lawrence Block, THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS. You cannot go wrong with a book about Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and semi-reformed burglar. The latest in the series works on a couple of levels; as a classic whodunit in the tradition of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe (an influence the book openly acknowledges) and as metafiction about the business of bookselling. The theft of a Colonial American spoon turns out to be related to the death of an elderly socialite, but it's much too complicated to explain here, and I'd be depriving you of the fun of reading the book.

Serena Mackesy, HOLD MY HAND. Bridget Sweeny, fleeing her abusive ex-husband, takes a position as housekeeper for a vacation rental property in a remote part of Cornwall. The townspeople warn her about the house, but no one tells her why. Odd things start happening, and Bridget's daughter Yasmin makes a new invisible friend as the house's history forces itself inexorably into the present. Great reading for a blustery winter's night; I do love a good ghost story.

Donna Johnson, HOLY GHOST GIRL. Superagent and eminence grise Dan Conaway, who represents Donna, thought I'd love this book, and he was right. Donna Johnson's mother ran away to join a tent revival when Donna and her brother were tiny, and the children spent their formative years traveling with Brother David Terrell and his followers. As the years passed, Donna came to understand that Brother Terrell was not only her mother's pastor but her lover — and eventually the father of two of her sisters. He thoroughly enjoyed the material benefits of his ministry, and ultimately served time in federal prison for tax fraud. But — and this is what makes this book so compelling — he was also, as far as Donna could tell, a man of great and genuine faith who appeared, at times, to carry miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit to his followers. Donna bears witness to all of this, with an awe-inspiring compassion.

Jo Wood, IT'S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL. I admit I bought this because it was a Kindle Daily Deal, and I needed something mindless. Jo Karslake was a 22-year-old model when she hooked up with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, and the two were all but inseparable for 30 years until he finally left her for a teenager. The book reads like a book-length People magazine feature, which is not a criticism; it was exactly what I wanted, but weeks later I can barely remember anything about it. I did finish it with the conviction that no one in their right mind would want to be a Rolling Stones' wife or girlfriend.

Declan Hughes, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. It's been much too long since we had a new novel from Declan Hughes, and this book won't be out in the US until the summer. You should pick it up, once it's out. It's a standalone, a novel of domestic suspense that taps into the deepest fears of midlife: that we're wrong about everything, from the plans we've made to the people we love and even what we thought we knew about ourselves. Claire Taylor comes home after a week away to discover that her husband, children and belongings are gone, and the family dog is dead in the yard. A day later, a man's dead body is found in the yard, and Claire's husband Danny is the prime suspect.

Gavin Edwards, LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM. Halloween is central to the plot of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, and it's the heart of this book as well, a nonfiction look at the short life and terrible death of River Phoenix. It's strange to think that was already 20 years ago. The Los Angeles Edwards describes had already changed by the time I got there in 1999, and it's obviously changed even more now; some of it lingers, though, and some of it will repeat itself as long the entertainment industry exists. Edwards places no blame, but shows us River Phoenix as a young man in an environment he had no tools to manage. After reading this book, I want to watch the movie Dogfight, which Phoenix made with Lili Taylor in 1991.

Spencer Quinn, THE DOG WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I recommend the Chet the Dog books for whenever you're alone and doped up in a hospital emergency room; this is the fourth in the series. Chet, the narrator, is so cheerful and pure of heart that even when things go bad, there's always the possibility of a treat, a game of fetch or a good patting. Chet and his human partner, Bernie, take a job as bodyguard for a single mother who's not telling them her whole story, but wind up hunting for her young son when he goes missing. Late in the book we meet (briefly) a young dog who might turn out to be connected to Chet, so now I have to track down books five and six to find out who this puppy is. Until I can get another dog of my own, Chet and his friends are a happy substitute.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Five Things I Had Forgotten About Virginia Beach

I'm back in Arlington today after eight days in Virginia Beach, which was probably the longest stretch of time I've spent there since I left for college in August 1982. We moved to Virginia Beach when I was seven and I left when I was sixteen, but it's still the closest thing I have to a hometown. My two brothers live there, Mom's grave is there, Dad still keeps an apartment at Chicks Beach. Since Mom's death, though, holiday gatherings tend to be at my sister Peggy's, outside Richmond, and it was usually too much for me to drive the extra 90 miles from Richmond to Virginia Beach.

Now, however, it's 200 miles door to door from my house to James and Sara's, so there'll be a lot of the Southside in my future. In fact, I'll be there on April 12 to see Bruce Springsteen, and I expect to be back a lot over the summer. (Summer traffic is a nightmare, but my work is flexible enough to let me travel at off-hours.)

The City of Virginia Beach has transformed itself in the 30+ years since I left. For one thing, its population has nearly doubled. Construction is constant, a little overwhelming. Most of it looks shoddy, houses of siding and polymer shingles next to my childhood neighborhoods of red brick. (Brick is cheap in Tidewater Virginia, or used to be. The land is clay, and ships from all over the world carried bricks as ballast, and left them behind when they sailed away with tobacco, whiskey and hams.) The whole south half of the city used to be farmland, and some farms remain, but most of the farmers sold out; the money was too good, and everything was cheaper in North Carolina anyway.

Not everything has changed, though. The Virginia Beach SPCA is exactly where it was when my Girl Scout troop visited it, out on Holland Road; back then it felt like a trip to the country, and now it's right off a major intersection. The Willis Furniture sign is still a landmark on Virginia Beach Boulevard, welcoming visitors to the gracious neighborhood of Thalia. The planes over Dam Neck are still deafening, and I still wonder how anyone lives in that flight path. (Lots of people do.)

And a few things I had forgotten, and was glad to remember.

1. Virginia Beach is huge. It used to be Princess Anne County; they turned the whole thing into a city. It's 497 square miles, of which about half is land and about half is water. By comparison, the entire state of Rhode Island is just over 1,200 square miles. "Around the corner" in Virginia Beach means about five miles away.

2. The Virginian-Pilot is a damn fine paper, especially its military coverage. My brother and sister-in-law still get home newspaper delivery, and I had forgotten what a luxury that feels like.

3. It's not all Navy. The Navy is the single largest employer in Virginia Beach and its sister communities of Norfolk, Chesapeake and Portsmouth (Hampton and Newport News too, but they're on the other side of the bridge). If you don't work for the Navy, chances are good that you work for a Navy contractor (as my brother and father do), or for an organization that serves Navy personnel and their families. But the serious money in Hampton Roads isn't Navy, or Navy-related. It's real estate, and some of it goes all the way back to the bad old days. The powers that be in Virginia Beach were there before the Navy and will be there after the Navy is gone. I can't say whether that's good or bad, but I went to school with some of them. It was a good school, with an honor system and a weighty sense of history.

4. Virginia Beach has a lot of churches. A lot. My brothers and sisters and I fought a lot as kids, and my mother would quote her own mother: "See, how these Christians love each other." Well, the sheer number of independent churches in Virginia Beach is pretty good evidence that no matter how much humans might love the Lord, the first thing they're going to do is fight about it. It's kind of impressive that so many individual communities can support so many places of worship, but it's hard not to remember the Tower of Babel when you drive past a whole row of them.

5. Pollard's chicken is still the best. No contest. When I was engaged, we were going to have Pollard's cater the wedding reception. I may never get married, but maybe they can cater my funeral.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When Kindness Becomes a Commodity

Greetings from Virginia Beach. I've spent the last week down here with family — cancelling my trip to Left Coast Crime, which I'm sorry about, but this was more important — because we're all dealing with the usual life-cycle issues that any big family goes through from time to time. (And while I mention that, fierce congratulations to my cousin Christine and her husband Patrick, who welcomed their third son into the family earlier this week. At last count, I had 21 first cousins; I have lost count of how many first cousins-once-removed I have, but it's somewhere in the dozens.)

My brother James and his wife, Sara, are mourning the death of her mother, Linda, after a long illness. Linda lived with James and Sara in the last years of her life, and we took her into our family as she took us into hers. She was kind and funny and optimistic almost to the very end, and her faith was awe-inspiring.

The last couple of months of her life were terrible and terrifying, as so many cancer deaths are. Sara and James, their daughters Gina and Kristan, our brother Ed, our sister Susan and others saw to her needs, drove her to and from doctors' appointments, and in the end sat by and watched, pushing the pain pump so that she could die in peace, surrounded by people she loved.

Last night James and Sara got a condolence visit from Angela, one of the hospice nurses who had tended to Linda in the last months. This lovely woman came on her own time, after a full day's work, partly to mourn but partly to celebrate Linda's struggle, which Linda believed (and I believe) would end in a homecoming. Sara and Angela talked about one of Angela's colleagues, who had also been a great help, but has quit the hospice service because she just couldn't do it anymore.

"I don't know how you do it," said James. Angela (I swear I'm not making that name up) must hear that all the time, but it's true, because the hospice service here is nearly overwhelmed, and will be increasingly so as the baby boomers age. The nursing shortage is more than a decade old, and although the situation had improved a bit over the last decade, it's about to get a lot worse — a lot worse.

Because let's get serious: could you do that work? I could not. It's hard to imagine who in my circle could, although I know a lot of wonderful people. It's hard enough when it's someone you love; if you've been through it, you know how courage and compassion can fail, how helpless you feel, how exhausting it is, how frankly scary all of this can be. Life is the biological imperative; most of us don't go easily.

It's none of my business how much Angela earns, but apparently the median income for hospice nurses is about $60,000. That's not poverty level, but that shames me. It should shame all of us. No, you can't buy compassion — but God, shouldn't we be rewarding the people who do the hardest work of all, the work that makes us (well, me) shudder and pretend that reading books for a living is work, too?

I have no answers, but this is a conversation we need to be having. Forget missing aircraft, misguided foreign military operations, the latest celebrity divorce, or your outrage about whatever kind of sex people you don't know might be having or not having. We all die. We don't get a choice about that. Who is going to help us on that final journey, and how are we going to pay them?

Many years ago, in a conversation with a friend about my grasshopperish attitude toward money and financial planning, he said, "I'll tell you this: Stephen Spielberg is not going to die in a public hospital ward."

We cannot outsource compassion and care, but we can do a better job of rewarding the people who do it for a living.

Thank you, Angela and all your colleagues. And Linda, safe journey home.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Clean and Clear

This is me.

I don't allow my picture to be taken unless I absolutely cannot avoid it, and this has been true for many years. I feel — yes — shame about what I look like, about the weight I've put on and about the reality of time passing.

I had a short window of about four years, maybe five, in which I was aware that I might be somewhere on the spectrum of what other people considered "pretty." It was intoxicating, though I knew better than to trust it. People who knew me back then will remember my disgusting habit (which embarrasses me to think about, even now) of watching myself in a mirror. Was that me? Was that person me? I didn't know, and I still don't.

Nor have I ever trusted in Cinderella-type transformations: in fancy clothes and/or makeup, I am still my schlumpy self, and always was. I never really had a waist, even when my rib bones showed through my skin. I have Irish legs that drop piano-style right to the ground, without ankles. My feet are absurd, Lego-style rectangles, and the best manicure in the world cannot make my hands look like anything but an aging child's. My hair — well, we've discussed my hair.

For many years, the easiest thing to do about all of this has been to ignore it. It's especially easy in Maine, where common sense calls for as many layers of clothing as you can pile on, and nobody pays attention to what anybody wears, in any case. And I lived — for nine years — in an apartment that did not have a full-length mirror. (No, of course I didn't buy one. Why would I buy one?)

I knew I'd need new clothes when I moved back to D.C., but one of the more painful surprises of moving back to the city has been the omnipresence of mirrors and other reflective surfaces in public places. Conveniently, the loss of peripheral vision means I'm not catching my image out of the corners of my eyes, but sometimes it's just inescapable, and head-on is even more disconcerting. Who is that woman? Do I know her?

Lent started this week, and I began it with something else I haven't done in at least 10 years: I went to Confession. And yes, it was terrifying, but only before I stepped into the stall. Once I sat down with the priest, it was easy, because he was glad to see me and I was glad to be there. The pastor of my church is an older man, a funny man, a man who has seen and forgiven much worse sins than mine — and a man who understands that his job, on behalf of the God we both believe in, is to say, "Welcome home."

So it felt like a strange coincidence — and yes, I'm getting to the point of all of this now — that on Wednesday, the incomparable Laura Lippman posted a photo of herself without makeup to Facebook and Twitter, in order to tell Kim Novak that it was okay to look the way you're supposed to look. She challenged everyone to do the same, and the response has been and continues to be overwhelming.

Erin Mitchell has assembled many of the photos into a video here. Take a few minutes to watch it, and realize what I did: we look like ourselves. It didn't even occur to me to judge how my friends in this video looked, I was just so happy to see them all. I've bookmarked that video and I'm going to watch it whenever I need a little help. Thank you, Laura, and thank you, Erin.

Posting my own photo (above) felt like going to Confession. It cleared me and freed me. No, I don't look the way I wished I did, but it's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I can change it if I want to, and maybe I do; I've just finished a three-day whole-foods cleanse that I'll probably adapt for the rest of Lent.

I might even buy a full-length mirror this weekend. (And as I type that I think, but that's just crazy talk.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

February's Reading and a New Word

Lent started this morning, and I learned a new word: metanoia, which in a religious context means "repenting," but in the original Greek means "a transformation of mind."

Despite some recent evidence I've seen to the contrary, I don't believe that human beings are naturally lazy or incurious. Look at any group of kindergarteners; they are busy and they want to know why. Where and how do people lose that? What beats it out of them?

I am busy and I want to know why, although I admit to laziness when I think I can get away with it (seldom, when one bills by the hour). This year I want my reading list to reflect that; last year's reading was too closely tied to my work and my personal preferences. But books, if we let them be, are the most powerful tool of mental transformation available.

I still have to read a lot for work, and thus February's list doesn't include a few things I read for clients. But it's more eclectic than usual, and I'm happy about that. Here's to metanoia, not just for Lent.

What I Read in February

Greg Herren, FASHION VICTIM. Although I prefer paper books (hardcover or paperback), I'm not above the temptations of cheap or free downloads. I'm mildly embarrassed that it took a free download for me to read one of Greg's books, because he is a hilarious and thoughtful person and rather intimidatingly prolific. FASHION VICTIM is a romp, a light-hearted mystery that introduces magazine writer Paige Tourneur, who has secrets of her own. The next best thing to a weekend in New Orleans.

Chuck Wendig, BLACKBIRDS. Chuck Wendig is another prolific author whose books I hadn't read yet; I meant to read this last year, but finally got to it because it too was a cheap download. (Yes, I bought from independent booksellers this month, too.) It's the first in a trilogy about Miriam, who can see how people die. Most people have it coming, as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven, but when Miriam meets a rare good guy and realizes that his imminent death may be her own fault, everything changes. I am impatient to read the second and third books in this trilogy.

John Straley, COLD STORAGE, ALASKA. The advance readers' copy of this book traveled in the front seat of my car for most of November and December because it was always the book I was going to read next. When the hardcover arrived, I could not put it off any longer, and I was glad I didn't. Cold Storage, Alaska is a tiny fishing/canning town on the Alaskan coast, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Miles McCahon, the town's physician assistant, has mixed feelings about his brother Clive coming home after a prison term. Clive's showing up with a strange dog and a lot of unexplained cash doesn't make Miles feel any better. People might compare this book to Carl Hiaasen, but Straley's voice is his own, and his view of human nature is far more loving and generous. COLD STORAGE, ALASKA made me homesick for Maine.

Dorothea Benton Frank, THE LAST ORIGINAL WIFE. I wanted to like this book. I really did. I loved the first chapter, in which we meet Leslie Carter, who is contemplating ending her marriage of 30 years, and has no compunctions about asking a well-preserved stranger for a referral to her plastic surgeon. Leslie's husband Wesley deserves to be left, no doubt, but Leslie herself is so one-dimensional and self-absorbed that I didn't care whether she'd find true love with her high-school sweetheart. And a howling timeline error — ten missing years — told me nobody read this book very closely before it was tossed to the public. Books like these give fuel to every jerk who looks down on "women's fiction."

Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood, SPARTAN GOLD. Since I don't take vacations, this book was a great substitute. Professional adventurers Sam and Remi Fargo stumble upon a German mini-submarine in a Maryland swamp, which turns out to be linked to a relic of a broken wine bottle that may have been part of Napoleon's lost cellar. Of course an international supervillain has been searching for this lost cellar, and will do anything to track it down — so Sam and Remi start a chase of their own, from the Caribbean to the Riviera, with Ukrainian strongman Hadeon Bondaruk and his henchman on their heels. I learned a lot from this book, and it was perfect airplane reading, as it let me imagine I was flying to Monaco instead of to JFK.

Dyan Cannon, DEAR CARY: My Life with Cary Grant. I love celebrity memoirs, and I refuse to call them a guilty pleasure. I just want the celebrities to remember something interesting. This charming memoir is fascinating and not a little sad, and would be even if the two people involved hadn't been movie stars. Dyan Cannon was 23 and, by her own account, oddly innocent when she met Cary Grant, who was 58 and had already been divorced three times. Their age difference was so extreme that it took her a while to realize he was courting her, and then even longer to realize he had no intention of marrying her. When she made it clear that she wanted to be married, he agreed, but they might have been better off going their separate ways. Cannon is direct and honest about almost everything, including Grant's LSD use and her own drug abuse, but her casual references to "purging" made me wish she'd been more open about her eating disorder, if that's what it was.

Frank Langella, DROPPED NAMES. Yes, I read two of these in one weekend, immobile on the couch with a sinus infection. It was all I could handle. This book is a feast of anecdotes about Langella's encounters with some of the most famous people of the last century. He met everybody, and slept with a lot of them: Noel Coward, Rita Hayworth, John F. Kennedy, Yvonne DeCarlo, and on and on. With one exception, everyone he talks about in this book has died; even the last survivor, Bunny Mellon, is no longer able to contradict him. But Langella is insightful, even as he's being brutally honest. His portrait of Anthony Perkins is loving (though coy; he hints at experimentation with men, but confesses nothing), and his description of his flirtation with Elizabeth Taylor is wistful and compassionate. He also makes no bones about being a complete monster in his own right — but what a life, what a book.

Saira Shah, THE MOUSE-PROOF KITCHEN. I read this book in one long insomniac night, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Anna, an ambitious London chef, is married to Tobias, a scattered but talented composer. Their first child is born with birth defects so severe that both Anna and Tobias consider leaving the baby at the hospital, and never bringing her home at all. Instead, they buy a ramshackle farmhouse in rural France, and try to make something out of their shattered dreams. Saira Shah herself has a child with profound disabilities, which makes any criticism I have of this novel feel like criticism of the author's own parenting, although Shah has emphasized in every interview that she and her partner are not Anna and Tobias. The book sometimes feels almost too honest, but Anna and her family are saved by the intervention of characters who feel a little too much like "magical natives," and I'm not sure I bought the ending. Like all good books, it told me things about myself I might not have wanted to know.

Laura Lippman, AFTER I'M GONE. I was a fan of Laura Lippman's books before I met her, and am grateful to call her a friend. Even so, this is quite possibly her best book, which is saying something. Small-time gangster Felix Brewer disappears on July 4, 1976, but this book isn't about that. It's about what happens after he's gone — to his wife, Bambi; to their three daughters; but most of all to his girlfriend Julie, who disappears herself ten years later, only to be found in an advanced state of decomposition in 2001. Sandy Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective who works cold cases for extra money, decides to look into what happened to Julie, and Lippman takes us through the 30+ years of the Brewer women's lives without Felix. Every character here is starring in her own life story, and the truth turns out to be something that happened while they were doing that — in fiction, as in film, as in life, so much is about whatever you happen to be looking at, at any given moment. No, I'm not going to explain that any further. Just read this book.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

It's Only a Car

I need to get rid of my car.

This is not a surprise. By the time I left Maine I had already stopped driving at night if I could help it, and the availability of public transportation was a major reason for moving back to the big city. I love public transportation. Last Friday I took the Metro, cabs, and a shuttle bus to get all over the city, as my car sat unused on the lowest floor of an underground garage. I go days without even thinking about my car, though I'm still paying to insure it and it costs me $100/month to park it. Giving up the car should be a no-brainer.

So why isn't it? Why can't I even talk about getting rid of my car without starting to cry?

Foolishly, I thought I'd skipped my midlife crisis, or had it early by running off to Los Angeles in 1999, and then to Maine in 2004. I was always precocious that way, and congratulated myself that I did not need to have a midlife crisis, as I had never envisioned my life in terms of the goals that other people work toward (spouse, children, career, home-ownership, etc.), and therefore felt no corresponding anticlimax. I had gone from one career to another without any plans at all, I told myself. As long as I stay healthy I'll never have to retire, and I've never kept score the way most people do anyway. Yay me!

But here it is, and here I am, and here is this car, the last car I'll ever own, my own personal memento mori.

It's kind of stupid that the car is what's brought me here, because I never even wanted to drive. My Grandmother McLaughlin never learned how, which has become something of a family legend. I mean, she was a 20th-century woman; she died (much too young) in 1971.  I never got the chance to ask my mother, but would like to ask my aunt and uncles exactly how that worked. Even with deliveries, wouldn't she have been trapped at home? Or was she agoraphobic (one of several tendencies that run down multiple branches of my family)?

I wasn't agoraphobic, nor am I. I just didn't want to drive, and when I was 15, it seemed absurd that anyone would expect me to. It still seems absurd that we ask 15-year-olds to manage control of a multi-ton moving object. Sixteen is a ridiculously young age for a driver's license, and most American drivers (including me) get their licenses with the bare minimum of physical and mental skills required to operate an extremely dangerous piece of machinery. I was not, am not, a skillful driver. I have managed not to cause anyone personal injury. That's not a high standard.

My first car was an impulse buy, in my mid-20s. I was living in the outer suburbs, and needed a car. A friend in the Foreign Service had a colleague who was leaving the country and needed to sell her car cheap. I got what I paid for: a 10-year-old brown Mercury Lynx that had never been maintained and died on the street about three weeks after I acquired it.

My next car was a new car, and heavy with symbolism. It was a Saturn, the union-built model from Tennessee that was supposed to save the American car industry. I bought a four-door sedan, because I was dating someone I thought I might marry, and it seemed practical to buy a car that would eventually accommodate a car seat. The relationship ended within weeks of my buying the car; although breaking up wasn't my idea, in retrospect I think the car showed me that I didn't need him. That car lasted seven years — longer, or at least more stable, than any romantic relationship I've had — and took me across the country to Los Angeles, where I sold it to a friend because everyone knows you can't drive a stick shift in L.A.

The current car, the Blueberrymobile, was purchased new in Santa Monica after a legitimate, well-reasoned search (assisted by my cousins Sheila and Moira). The travails and triumphs of that car are well-known to longtime readers of this blog. Suffice to say that although I have not always been the most responsible owner, the car has gotten me from West to East, from North to South, and has earned a good long rest.

The car is just a car. But it's also my personal history, my independence, and my optimism. Giving it up means acknowledging that I will, in the foreseeable future, become less mobile, less independent, less free and eventually dead. This is not a tragedy; this is life. I've been extraordinarily lucky to have everything I've had for as long as I've had it — and most of all I want the dignity of not being the last to know I need to get off the road.

So: For Sale. 2000 VW Beetle, approximately 156,000 miles, one owner. Any reasonable offer considered.

Friday, February 07, 2014

My Month of Women's Fiction

Somewhere in the third week of January I became aware that except for my clients' work, everything I'd read since the beginning of the year was a novel written by a woman. Nothing about this was deliberate; these just happened to be the books I wanted to read, and they all just happened to be written by women.

Reasons for reading are as numerous and varied as humans themselves. Whatever other motives I might have, entertainment always comes first. I no longer finish books I don't enjoy — that's a privilege I claim in middle age — so although I enjoyed some of these books more than others, you can take this as a set of recommendations.

What I Read in January

Rebecca Chance, BAD ANGELS. "Rebecca Chance" is the glamorous alter ego of novelist Lauren Milne Henderson. Lauren writes crime, while Rebecca writes what she calls "bonk-busters," epic novels of love and money in the tradition of Judith Krantz and Jacqueline Susann. It had been way too long since I'd read a book like this, and it was perfect for New Year's Day: a Christmas-themed romantic thriller set in a Canary Wharf apartment that houses people recovering from plastic surgery. Fabulous, darling.

Louise Penny, A TRICK OF THE LIGHT. I'd stopped reading Penny's Inspector Gamache series after a book I felt did not play fair with its characters or the reader. I returned to this book because the story revolves around my favorite character in the series, the middle-aged artist Clara Morrow, whose professional triumph is obscured by the murder of a woman who turns out to be a long-estranged friend. Penny settles for no easy answers here, and the murder mystery is secondary to the more complex mysteries of envy, love, professional jealousy, addiction, forgiveness and redemption. It was good to be back in Three Pines.

Joanna Trollope, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. This book almost got a blog post all by itself, and I may yet come back to it. This is the first book in The Austen Project, a contemporary reworking of Jane Austen's novels by some of today's best writers. Trollope's always an entertaining read, but even her skills can't disguise the failure of The Austen Project's premise. The financial and social pressures that drove Austen's characters were entirely different from those today's women face. In simply importing Austen's story to the present day, Trollope makes her characters (with the exception of Elinor) behave in ways that challenged belief and tried my patience. That said, I'm very curious about what Val McDermid does with the second book in the project, NORTHANGER ABBEY.

P. L. Travers, MARY POPPINS. "Saving Mr. Banks" sent me back to this book, which I'd loved as a child. It's as good as I remembered it, especially the sequence in which the infant twins lose their ability to talk to the birds. That made me cry when I first read it, and I still grieve over my own lost ability to converse with birds.

Joelle Charbonneau, THE TESTING. The first book in Charbonneau's trilogy for young adults introduces Cia Vale, who desperately wants to be one of the handful of students chosen for higher education in a future society devastated by war. Only the strongest and most intelligent can pass The Testing, which involves more than Cia can imagine. Yes, it has a lot in common with THE HUNGER GAMES, but Charbonneau's dystopia is interesting, and the story speeds like a rocket.

Joyce Carol Oates, THE ACCURSED. Another book that could have a blog post to itself, the story of one doomed year in the life of a prominent Princeton, New Jersey family during the time of Woodrow Wilson's presidency of Princeton. I started this last summer, but could not give it the attention it deserved, and had to return it to the library before I could finish it. After I downloaded a copy when it went on sale for Kindle, I spent every free moment for a week finishing it. Stephen King called it "E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle," and I can't describe it better than that. It is an epic, sprawling historical novel about class distinctions and suppressed desires and Jungian monsters, and I'd take a class on it if anyone wanted to teach one.

Alison Gaylin, REALITY ENDS HERE. Gaylin's first novel for young adults is the story of Estella Blanchard, half-sister of the famous Blanchard sextuplets and co-star of one of TV's most popular reality shows. When Estella gets a Christmas present that seems to be from her father, who died ten years earlier, she is overwhelmed by the thought that he might still be alive. Her quest for the truth shakes everything she thinks she knows about her family, even behind the scenes. Estella is a terrific character, and the descriptions of the mechanics of the TV show are fascinating.

Charlotte Jay, BEAT NOT THE BONES. The very first winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel was this second novel by an Australian writer whose real name was Geraldine Halls. BEAT NOT THE BONES is a deceptively simple book about a young widow's trip to New Guinea in an effort to prove that her husband, New Guinea's Chief Anthropologist, did not commit suicide. Her quest for the truth takes her deep into the jungle, to discover truths as horrifying as anything Joseph Conrad ever wrote.

Susan Wittig Albert, THE DARLING DAHLIAS AND THE TEXAS STAR. A charming cozy mystery set in Darling, Alabama in the 1930s, just as the effects of the Depression settle in. The Dahlias are the town's gardening club, and the Texas Star is a daredevil female pilot whose arrival in town wreaks havoc in more ways than one.

Joshilyn Jackson, SOMEONE ELSE'S LOVE STORY.  Single mother Shandi Pierce falls in love with William Ashe after they are held up at gunpoint in a gas station outside Atlanta. William's mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, and Shandi thinks he holds the answers to all her questions. As it turns out, she may not be asking the right questions, and the answers she gets will be not the ones she wants but the ones she needs. A lovely, lovely book about people stumbling toward redemption. I can't explain how or why this felt like exactly the right book at the right time, but it did.

Sue Monk Kidd, THE INVENTION OF WINGS. I didn't read this because Oprah's chosen it for her Book Club 2.0, but I understand why she did. It's a gorgeous historical saga about the lifelong bond between Sarah Grimke and Hetty, the slave girl given to her as a personal maid on Sarah's 11th birthday. Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, were real-life pioneers of the abolition movement. THE INVENTION OF WINGS imagines the journey that took them there, while also telling the story from Hetty's point of view. Brilliantly constructed, beautifully written, inspiring.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Saying Yes, Saying No and the Tragedy of Humanity

I say yes a lot. It's overcompensation for a temperament that is pathologically change-averse, and would gladly go nowhere and do nothing and stay in my bedroom reading the books people sent me until I ran out of food. (I do run out of food on a regular basis, so at least I'd go out sometimes. Although now I live in Peapod country, so maybe not.)

Saying yes has been a mostly winning strategy. It's gotten me into a certain amount of trouble, but it's also let me have a pretty fabulous life. I know a lot of interesting people and I've watched, if not actually done, a lot of interesting things. I told my boss 25 years ago that I wanted to learn as much as I could about as many different things as I could, and I've been able to pursue that goal pretty well.

Over the past week, however, I've had a few too many reminders that you can't say yes to everything, and it's not a good idea to try. Adulthood is all about knowing when and how to say no, and what to say no to — because if you can't do it for yourself, the universe will damn well do it for you.

I didn't know Philip Seymour Hoffman, except in the way that we all knew Philip Seymour Hoffman. Because didn't you feel like you knew Philip Seymour Hoffman? I did. He was close to my own age, and he looked like someone I might be related to. He talked like someone I might be related to, about things I cared about and was interested in. He felt like a member of my tribe, the group of people trying to figure out how and who to be in this world.

Yesterday afternoon, like everyone else, I wanted to believe that the news of his death was a hoax. A cruel, horrifying hoax would be better than what the truth turned out to be. A 46-year-old man died, leaving three small children and a partner and a world of people who loved him but could not give him whatever it was he needed.

Humans are small, and the universe is vast beyond our imagination. We have such a narrow window on things, and such a short time to be here. The Internet Movie Database says that Philip Seymour Hoffman played 63 different screen roles in less than 25 years, and that doesn't count his iconic stage performances or the plays and movies he produced and directed. He said yes to everything. In doing so he got to live so many lives that were far, far from the reality of his daily life — but he lost his footing in the life that mattered most, the daily struggle to connect with the live human beings who had the right to expect his presence and his engagement.

It's hard to know whether addiction was the cause or the effect of that, and it doesn't really matter. Addiction might start as a yes to a new and interesting experience, but continue as an easy way to say no when you don't know how to do it otherwise — to step out, to turn off, to shut down, to absent oneself from care a while. The drug says no, so you don't have to.

I turned down a project last week for the first time in a few years. I wasn't right for it, and it wasn't right for me. I might say no to a few other things this week. Saying no terrifies me because it feels like holding myself separate from something (or someone) that might need me, and if no one needs me, why am I here? But this is the constant battle, this is the fight of humans on this planet — the quest for that point of equilibrium at which we can say yes to enough to connect, while saying no to enough to stay whole.

Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn't find that point. Maybe none of us can. But today, while I travel up to New York City, I might watch Magnolia again.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union

My first January in Los Angeles, I asked one of my cousins where people were getting together to watch the State of the Union address. She said something like, "People watch the State of the Union address?"

Last night, for my first State of the Union in the DC area in 14 years, I went to pub trivia with Claire and Zach and their friend Tristan, and I read the speech online this morning.

The problem is, we agreed over bacon cheese fries and Irish beer, that the President is never honest about the true State of the Union. If he were honest, the speech would have gone something like this:
My fellow Americans,

The state of our union is baffled, angry and sad. We don't understand why we can't have everything we want even though most of us spend at least four hours a day watching TV, and another two playing Candy Crush. We look around and see obnoxious young bro-types earning six figures while our friends who are teachers haven't gotten a raise in five years, and we live in fear of our own job skills becoming obsolete and unnecessary.

You elected me because you hoped the country could be different and better, but you forgot the part where that meant its citizens could be different and better, too. It's just easier to blame everybody else, and the government is being torn apart between people who think it shouldn't exist at all and people who think it's capable of doing far more than it can. And nobody wants to pay for it.

It's easier to be outraged than to be empathetic. It's easier to point to other people's shortcomings than it is to look at what each of us could be doing differently as individuals. The ugly truth of life in a human community is that stuff tends to go to the people who want it most and are willing to fight dirtiest for it. We know that's true about ourselves; our founders knew it, too. That was why they set up a government that was supposed to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Well, we're doing pretty well at providing for the common defense. I guess. Nobody can agree on what "promoting the general welfare" means, and as for the blessings of liberty — well, explain to me the logic of a political party that wants government out of people's business, on the one hand, but insists on setting rules about who individuals can marry and what women do with their bodies, on the other. Explain to me the rhetoric of "saving" children yet unborn while cutting off support for their food, shelter and education once they're here. I don't get it. I really don't. Everybody counts, or no one does.

Our Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to worship, but some people seem to think that only applies to one religion. I'm here to tell you that the Constitution protects your right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you believe in that, and it is not the business of any government organization to make anyone uncomfortable about what they do or don't believe.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people is what our country is supposed to be about. Government is not supposed to be something separate from us. It's a citizen's republic that requires everyone who cares about it to participate. It's not a perfect system, but our government is not the enemy, and we have the power to change it if we want to.
Some people are never going to like me. They might have good reasons, they might have bad reasons, but that's just the way it is. It's probably true that I wasn't ready to be President, but let's be honest: who is ready to be President? Can you name one single person who's really equipped to handle this job — with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, who's only equipped because he spent eight years learning how? It doesn't matter whether I was ready five years ago. The country was ready for me and what I represented, and that's a hopeful thing. It's still a hopeful thing. And here I am, and I'm what you've got, so deal with it. Let me do the job I was elected to do.
Democracy is messy — or, to be more precise, participatory government in a federal constitutional republic is messy. Change takes time. It's actually for the best that change takes time, because change is always traumatic, and meaningful change always means that somebody has to lose something. It's going to hurt, but isn't it better to take the pain now than leave it to our children to suffer even more? 
So my fellow Americans, what I ask of you today is to stop yelling. Stop assuming that everyone who disagrees with you is stupid or greedy or unpatriotic. Our neighbors are not our enemies. We're all Americans. Let's remember what that's supposed to mean.

God bless us all, and God bless the United States of America.
Of course, since I myself spent last night drinking beer and arguing about the correct spelling of "Mohandas," I recognize that I have become part of the problem.

As it was, we came in second, and got $20 off our bar tab.