Friday, February 21, 2014

Until You Have Kids

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. I traded a cold for a bout of the stomach flu, and at 36 weeks pregnant my energy is already pretty low. A nagging but bearable ache in my ribcage became much less bearable overnight; I rolled out of bed yesterday morning (and these days, “rolling” really is the best word for the action that gets me from reclining to upright) to excruciating starbursts of pain on my right side, pain triggered by coughing, calling to my husband in a loud voice from across the house, blowing my nose, or bending at the waist. Even clearing my throat produces a twinge.

On top of all that, I had to meet my accountant about getting my taxes started. She praised me for my honesty as we went through my meager list of possible deductions. She told me that I’d be surprised by the crazy things people try to claim, and I confessed to her that I don’t have the courage for that kind of creativity. I left her office sort of wishing I did.

I came home from the tax appointment panting with exhaustion and discomfort, and my dogs—as ever—raced to my side. I paused in the kitchen long enough to fill a glass of water, then returned to the living room and dropped onto the couch, the dogs following me the whole way, tails wagging, faces lift. Seated, I was joined by Martha, who looked at me keenly, nosed my face a bit, and then pawed my arm. I accommodated her by scratching her chest. Bishop, at my feet, leaned against my shins. I scratched his head with my free hand. Those are the actions: wagging, looking, pawing, sitting. Here’s what was happening inside of me, as I played my part in that transaction: I was relaxed, comforted. I believed—whether this was true or not—that the dogs saw my pain and exhaustion, and it caused them anxiety. I won’t go so far as to say that they were trying to make me feel better, but in communicating to me what they recognized—“I see pain, I don’t like this”—they did make me feel better. They reached out to me physically in a way that soothed and reassured, even if they were guided by instincts and self-interest rather than altruistic intent.

Dog lovers are all too quick to bloviate about what our dogs “sense,” “understand,” or “feel,” a habit, I know, that wearies everyone else. I used to have a friend who would give me a hard eye roll each time I spoke lovingly of my dogs; love, to him, wasn’t an emotion one should bestow upon an animal, and there was no greater ridiculousness to him than treating an animal like a person. That’s a common sentiment, I think. Some people have an angrier version of the stance than others, but many are affronted at the notion that a dog (or a cat, or a parakeet, etc.) could occupy so central a role in a person’s life. Those people, it seems to me, see love as a kind of finite supply, a big wheel of cheese, and by giving a lesser creature some of that cheese (ha!), a more deserving human isn’t being fed.

I find myself thinking about this subject of love—love for dogs, love for people, and whether one kind of love can really ever cheapen or diminish another kind—for the obvious reasons. In a few weeks, my husband and I will have our first child. In the ten years we’ve had Bishop, our enthusiasm for him, and later also Martha, has been met frequently with the advice, “Just wait until you have kids.” We’ve gotten it from all quarters—folks in our parents’ generation who’d no sooner let a dog live in the house than they’d move themselves out to the barnyard, sure, but also, and more troublingly, from people a lot like us: people who lived for years with only pets, in some cases loving those pets well enough to even have professional studio photographs taken with them, only to realize, once their “real children” were born, that a dog’s just a dog. Silly us. We’ve actually been deranged for the last five years and had no idea! Thank God this child arrived to restore our sanity and realign our misplaced priorities.

That attitude is the cousin of another I encountered in my child-ambivalent years, articulated this way by one person: “I didn’t really finish growing up until I had children.” Or that comment’s cousin: “I didn’t know what love was until I had children.” I’m walking around with a fully developed, viable fetus in my womb, a to-be-baby the size, one website tells me, of a head of Romaine lettuce, and I’ve suffered and sacrificed to get him to this stage, and I feel love for him already, and I don’t doubt that the relationship I have with him will be powerful and unique, unlike anything I’ve experienced before. But I’m 34 years old. I’ve lived nearly half a life. If I’ve spent all this time not knowing what love is, kidding myself about powerful connections with my own parents, brothers, a 17-year relationship with my husband (who always makes me think of this quote from Winnie-the-Pooh: “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you”), and yes, even my dogs, how terribly depressing. And no, I don’t think mid-March ushers in my actual adulthood, or that my childless friends are children. And no, I don’t think I’ve been practicing love on my dogs all this time the way I once practiced motherhood on my Cabbage Patch doll. I don’t want to be the person who could stop giving a damn about her dogs because she had a child. I don’t want to be that kind of role model for my son, either.

I don’t think I could have set out to become a parent if I didn’t believe that my child would survive me. I wonder if any of us could. And so that’s one kind of love: a love that assumes, perhaps stupidly and tragically, that its object will always be there—that, the day I die, my child’s heart will still be beating, and the knowledge of that will give me hope and solace as I go on to whatever is next. Bringing a dog home, for most of us, is another kind of entanglement, strange and wonderful and deeply sad in its own way. We almost always expect to survive our pets. Our lives contain theirs. And yet some of us give ourselves over to that loving, knowing it will end in heartbreak.

Bishop, who will be 11 this year, is showing his age. A black cocker spaniel, he has the breed’s characteristic hearing loss, which I blame myself for—I should have cleaned his ears more often—and dozens of warty bumps all over his body, benign growths that appeared in the space of a little over a year. His chin is gray, and the insides of his ears. He’s had several bad teeth removed (and I blame myself for those, too). And his behaviors have changed some. He’s anxious, adamant about routine. He won’t snuggle as much as he used to, preferring the floor to the couch or the bed, sometimes rising in the middle of the night to pace, pull tissues out of the bathroom trashcan, and let himself outside to bark at the property across the fence from ours. I remember how he reacted when we brought Martha home as a puppy six years ago; he was surly, depressed. I wonder if the baby’s presence will have the same effect on him. I wonder if he’ll live long enough to occupy a place in our unborn child’s memories. I want that fiercely, for the both of them, for me.

My husband and I were married for four years before getting Bishop, and those were good years, love-filled years. Getting Bishop only deepened that love. We shared in the joy and the risk of taking care of something that needed us, and that sharing bonded us even more strongly together. It happened again when we brought Martha home. How funny to watch the household dynamic subtly shift—I had my loyal dog, the dog who put me first in his affections, and now Brandon had his, and the dogs had each other. Bishop might not deign to cuddle with Martha, the way the cute animals on Buzzfeed are always cuddling, but the two are a pack, nonetheless, and each seems lost if the other is temporarily taken away to the vet or groomer.

In a few weeks, the household dynamic will change again. I don’t kid myself that a son is the same thing as a pet (though I often greet Bishop, coming home, “Hello, dog son”). But neither do I think my son will profit if I siphon off the love I’ve been nurturing for these two animals for 10 and 6 years, in order to love him “better.” I don’t think it works that way. In fact, I imagine that seeing the dogs sniff the baby and tentatively lick his hand, as they’ve done with my good friend’s new daughter, will only endear them to me more. And when my boy is big enough to pet the dog, to be taught kindness and respect toward an animal, to learn to value an innocent creature in the way that my husband and I value them—well, you see where this is going.

Bishop will need us even more in the next few years. I’m anticipating that difficult changes are ahead, difficult emotionally and practically. I look at the stairs up to our bedroom differently. I run my hand across Bishop’s back, counting the warty bumps, and remember that I’ll have to tell the groomer to be extra careful, there are new ones this time. I wake in the middle of the night to see him at staring at the bed, unsure of how to spring up in the darkness, and I hunch down, lifting with my legs, to get him back up to the foot of the mattress. By the time I return from the bathroom, he has jumped down again and settled into a pile of dirty laundry. Two hours later, I’ll awaken to the sound of his toenails clicking downstairs. Two hours after that, as dawn light filters through the window, I’ll awaken again to him jumping into bed, finally, content until Brandon rises to take his shower. None of these changes is easy on me, but they’re harder on him, and I owe him all the love and care I can give him, in his suffering more than ever. They say, “A baby changes everything.” But a baby cannot change that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

All the Words

It has been almost a year since I last posted to this blog. I didn’t deliberately take a hiatus, but time passed, I didn’t feel moved to write about my life (and most of this blog is, in some way, about my life), and here we are. It’s a sunny afternoon in late January, and I’m trying to find some words. The Internet tells me that the baby in my belly, at 33 weeks, is the size of a pineapple. 

“Some words”: that’s the key here. What overwhelms and stymies me is the need to find all the words, all the words to describe the good and the bad of this last year, of momentous life experiences like a pregnancy, a book release, the loss of a friendship, a trip to a foreign country, being unwell, being so anxious that I was, for weeks, nearly immobilized. I’m not much of an essayist. Other writers could take these experiences and find truths bigger than themselves in them, make art, but all I can think about is how enormous life is—how enormously wonderful and terrifying and strange—and to blog about it is the smallest possible act, comic in its smallness, and I’m not sure how to do it. I don’t want to lay myself bare here, because I’m not brave enough; but I don’t want to be breezy and dishonest, either.

So here are some words, some moments—disconnected, out of context. A portion of the bigger truths, cowardly narrow, but at least as honest as I can make them:

The movement of a baby at 33 weeks is legible. I can conceptualize the scale of the creature I’m carrying. Sometimes, when I lie in bed, after waking or before sleeping, he seems to swim sideways, and some part of him surfaces like a fin. The first time I felt him move, at 18 weeks, I was lying alone in my childhood bed at my parents’ house in Kentucky. I wasn’t sure if it was him, or if I was kidding myself. I stared up at the ceiling light fixture, a milky white glass with blades of yellow wheat extending to the four corners. The same fixture that had been there when my parents bought the house almost 40 years ago, so far as I know. The sensation was of a guitar string being softly plucked from an impossible distance deep inside me.

There was a moment at the end of my trip to France that reminded me of nothing so much as an afternoon in my early childhood. A girl—I don’t remember her well, and she wasn’t in my life for long—had come to stay for the day at my house. We played easily and happily together, and I felt for her that easy love of those single-digit years, that tender, unguarded affection that hasn’t even considered the possibility of rejection. Her mother came to pick her up at the end of the day, and I wept and wept. I didn’t think I could bear the loss of her. So there was a moment for me in France like that, when I had to say goodbye to a person I’d known for only a couple of weeks, and all I could do was weep and weep into my husband’s shoulder, sitting on a train, barreling through the dusk.

Hypochondria is what happens with a rational, analytical mind turns its powers to a dogged pursuit of irrationality. The last line of defense is always, “Well, perhaps X isn’t wrong with me, but I would not be feeling this way if my body weren’t trying to tell me something.”

How changing the dishwasher reminds me of you: First it was the mug you gave me. I would have to decide if I wanted to use it for my morning coffee, and why not, it’s a perfectly good mug. Not too big or small, well-insulated, and the color (pink) means that I can see if I’ve put the right amount of cream in my coffee, which is tricky to tell when I use the dark blue mugs. So I use it, and then I put it in the dishwasher, and then I have to unload the dishwasher, and so each time I do that I’m thinking sad and bitter thoughts. And now the mug is tucked back out of reach, so I hardly use it, but simply opening the dishwasher takes me to the same sad and bitter place, which is rough, because unloading the dishwasher, especially the glasses, is one of my least favorite household chores, anyway.

Not this past spring, but the year before, I was photographed by the Google Maps car. I knew it happened because I saw the car drive by. So I forgot about it, and then some months passed, and I thought to go on Google Maps and check to see if I was there, and yes, there I was, backpack hanging off of one shoulder, arm raised mid-stride. In the next view, when the car has gotten ahead of me, my face is blurred. In the third, I’ve spotted the car; you can see a hesitation in my step, a recognition in my face, even through the greasy wash that has rendered me anonymous. Every now and then I go back and click through the succession of photos, oddly proud, oddly unsettled. What a beautiful day it was, and I hardly ever wear a color like that, but frozen-in-time me is in a gauzy pink floral blouse.

In Boston, she bought us all dinner at the very good seafood restaurant, the one that would be in the backdrop of all of those terrible photos of the finish line of the Boston marathon. She did it in memory of her father. I didn’t have the words then, either. I sipped my excellent martini and wished I could say what I knew in my heart about goodness, her goodness, but it would have just embarrassed her, anyway.

She—another she—delivers a chocolate chess pie to my doorstep, because of a joke I made on Facebook. Again, there aren’t any words. I haven’t been hungry like the world tells me I’m supposed to be, I have never in my life been this indifferent to food, but the pie, still warm, is exactly what I want and need.

I go get the pregnancy test because my right breast is lumpy. I think, either I’m pregnant or something is wrong. It turns out I’m pregnant, but still, I think something is wrong. So the first ultrasound I get is not of the baby but of the breast, that uncertain terrain—it feels as if a hot, dense thumb is pressing up from under the skin. I go home from the first visit with a yellow sheet, a carbon copy, a list of options careening down the page toward devastation, and the one checked is “Probably Normal Tissue.” A month later, at the follow-up, I have advanced to “Normal Breast Tissue.” On the ceiling of the exam room is a backlit picture of a tranquil garden, like the kind you see at a Chinese restaurant.

They let me hold their sweet baby for a long time, I think it’s at least an hour. I love them, and I love her. Her hot weight is balanced on my hard mound of stomach, her soft cheek on my collarbone. We are at the kitchen table, eating cake. We all laugh because her little hand is resting in my cleavage, but that, too, feels like a gift.

Songs he seems to like: “Mr. Blue Sky,” by Electric Light Orchestra; “You Make My Dreams Come True,” by Hall and Oates; “Take On Me,” by A-HA.

Sometimes the worst moments are the best moments, when we’re lying in bed, and I’m tucked under his arm, and the scale of the love I feel seems proof of its fragility. I don’t know why I deserve it, and I don’t know what guarantees I can hold on to it. We met when I was seventeen—half my life ago. In another seventeen years, our son will be the age I was then. I don’t know how to process this. I don’t know how anyone manages.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ode to the Coin Laundry

My parents didn’t get a washer and dryer until years after I’d married and moved away from home, and therefore many hours of my childhood were spent in coin laundries, and yesterday—-for some reason—-I found myself getting nostalgic about them.

I’m pretty certain that my mother doesn’t share that nostalgia. When she finally got her own washer-dryer set—-a hand-me-down from my grandmother, whose home was sold after she was moved permanently to a nursing home—-she reveled in the convenience. And no wonder: the ritual of washing clothes, all through my growing up, had been exhausting. Once a week, on Saturday morning, Mom would gather up the entire family’s clothes into five or six garbage bags, and Dad would load them in the bed of the pick-up truck. We’d drive to the laundry, unload, and Dad would go to the attendant to swap bills for quarters. Then, more often than not, he would leave for home or to do the grocery shopping, sometimes with my brother, and Mom would start staking out washers and measuring cups of powdered detergent.

From The Book Rack website
We went to several different laundry facilities over the years, but the iconic laundromat of my memory—-the one we kept coming back to—-was in a small brick-clad shopping center with a diner on one end and a grocery store on the other. One door down was a used bookstore called The Book Rack. I spent much of the time my mom was washing clothes hiding out in that dark, musty store, whose front room was filled with romance novels and comic books, its second room with mysteries, and where, as a pre-teen, I finally found the courage to venture into the recesses of the back-back room, a closet, really, with a cardboard cut-out of Hannibal Lecter on the wall and several shelves of beaten-up paperback horror novels. The Book Rack’s proprietress—-and she may still be there, for all I know—-was an elegant looking woman with large glasses hooked to a chain and hair that had been sprayed into romantic curls or a puffy chignon. She was always kind to me, patient with my browsing (which was more like long sessions of simply sitting in the floor and reading), despite the fact that I had no compunction in those days about entering places of business with blackened bare feet.

The next door after that was The Family Dollar. Now, our visits to The Family Dollar were always a matter of some controversy in our family, because my mom had a predilection for going there and buying items my father regarded as “doodads” or junk, and she was also a soft touch when it came to her kids’ desire for doodads and junk. One of my most vivid memories—-and perhaps this is why I thought of the coin laundry—-is of convincing her to buy me a novelty Valentine’s Day item that I can’t easily describe in a few words. It was a hollow plastic fox, covered with synthetic fur, lips painted a garish red, with arms that had been molded so that there was a little round opening where a vial of smelly cheap perfume was nestled. “Don’t tell your dad I bought it for you,” she said. I agreed. Then, weighted with guilt, I confessed to Dad as soon as I saw him.

And this is one of the associations I have with the coin laundry: hours alone with my mother, hours during which my mother exerted, however tentatively, her agency to spend cash and time as she liked, the two of us occasionally making plans and pacts that, at least in theory, excluded my father. My parents were, even by the standards of 1980s Kentucky, an old-fashioned married couple, one the cash earner and unilateral money manager, the other the full-time homemaker. My mother didn’t (and does not) have a driver’s license, and so there weren’t many opportunities for her to go to a store or a restaurant alone, unless she walked, and even then she wasn’t really alone, because my brother and I were with her. So I suspect that she enjoyed on some level the solitude of the work, the rhythm of wash and dry, the long stretches spent in a hard plastic chair, warm in a patch of sunlight, reading a book and drinking a bottle of diet soda and listening to the somersaulting clothes. She clearly liked the time spent among other women, too: the attendant, the other regulars. The coin laundry was a place where I saw black mothers and their families and later Mexican mothers and families. Whatever trepidations got expressed about race at home, at the laundromat, the interactions were friendly, casual. Women chatted about the weather and passed empty carts around. They warned one another about the dryer that wasn’t putting off good heat. And though I don’t remember much rowdy play among the children, we stood together eyeing the contents of the candy machines, invested dimes hoping that the plastic egg with the advertised “good” toy would roll down when we turned the crank. We sat in the lounge area together, eating Paydays and bags of Lance Nip-Chee. We sized one another up, filing away our observations for later consideration.

The laundromat, with a few rare exceptions, was a neutral place, an in-between place. It was a place where we all waited and bided our time. Some days that waiting felt like boredom, and other days it felt a bit transcendent, in a falsely floral-smelling, mote-caught-in-a-golden-sunbeam sort of way. The coin laundry of my memory exists always in summer, so that the plate glass windows are saturated with white light, the aisle in front of the dryers steamy, and everything is always revolving: the washers and dryers, the lazy ceiling fans, the wheels on the metal carts. If my feet aren’t bare, they are sweating in a pair of pale blue jelly shoes. I go to the RC machine, open the little glass door, and test a couple of bottlenecks to see if this is the day I get lucky and one slides free. It doesn’t, but there’s a puff of cold air from the refrigeration system, and I press my face into it.

When I help, it’s with the folding, and usually with the towels, working at a fraction of my mother’s speed. I tuck the towel under my chin, pull the end up. She sets me to washcloths, and I make little squares and stack them in a slanting pile at the edge of the table. When we’re finished, she piles the clean clothes back into the garbage bags, we lug them to the door, and wait for my father to return in the pick-up truck to take us home. If the weather is fine—-and in my memories, it always is—-my brother and I will ride in the back of the truck with the bags of clothes, but we have to promise to keep our bottoms on the floor of the bed, and we can’t sit on the wheel wells even if everybody else gets to.

There’s a point here, but it’s one that I may not have the skill to make. And it’s something like this: I am grateful for those steamy, in-between, light-filled Saturdays at the laundromat, and I wouldn’t have had them if we’d been another kind of family. The laundry was what I think Heaven ought to be like: clean, glowing, and luxuriously dull, and everybody is getting along, and the smell of chicken fried steak is wafting in from next door. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Old Lady Trouble

I was 25 when I published my first short story (the first I’ll claim, at any rate, and the story that would eventually lead my first book). I was 28 when I found the first line on my face.

Allow me to pause there for a moment. On this day—the day I discovered the line—I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready to go to work, and there it was: a fine curve etched around the corner of my mouth. What I remember feeling, strangely enough, was a kind of tentative delight and pride. I was in my second year of full-time college teaching, and my young looks had seemed more than once to be detrimental to my ability to win students’ respect and trust. Such a little line—and troubling, perhaps, that it seemed to have appeared basically out of nowhere—but it symbolized what I’d spent my late teens and 20s hoping to achieve: wisdom, distinction, and a legitimate claim, finally, to my nearly decade-old marriage. I’d spent years pretending I had the right to be a wife and, later, a college professor, and this line meant that I could now stop the pretending. Adulthood: I had arrived.

The delight didn’t last long. In the next couple of years, the bathroom mirror kept greeting me with surprises: drooping eyelids, a crease on the other side of my mouth to match the first. The skin on my neck began to pucker. I went out and bought eye cream and collagen cream and a tube of Retinol. For my 30th birthday, I booked myself a facial. But the creams, the facial, the various spells I cast in an attempt to stave off the inevitable, did nothing. And finally this spring, I looked in the mirror one day to see—all at once, as if I’d suffered a terrible scare in my dreams the previous night—three coarse gray hairs springing jauntily from my line of bangs. Did I smile serenely and reflect on how my hair now told the true story of my wisdom? No, I started sobbing, and I called my mother. (Proof, of course, that age and maturity do not have to go hand in hand.) Then I plucked those suckers out and flushed them down the toilet.

This is, of course, not just the story of getting older—it’s an old story, a cliché. Most of us on the flipside of 30 could tell a version of it. 

But I started by mentioning that I published my first story at 25, and so bear with me as I return to this fact, considering this same trajectory of years through that other lens. My career, like my marriage, has in some ways (ways that weren’t obvious to me during the living of them) been on a fast track. Not an extraordinary fast track in the vein of, say, Karen Russell, but fast enough that the blurb on the cover of my first book credits me with “a wisdom beyond [my] years,” and I’ve been identified as a “young writer” about as often as I have a member of the other clubs to which I’ve belonged: “Kentucky writer,” “Southern writer,” or “woman writer.” The Young Writers Club is a nice one to belong to. It means your promise still exceeds the empirical evidence of the quality your output. It means, for some, getting singled out for special opportunities and designations, such as The New Yorker’s 20 under 40, Granta’s Best Young Novelists, or the NBA’s 5 under 35. Also, unlike other Young Clubs—Young Actors, for instance, or Young Popular Musicians—the literary world affords us a fairly long, leisurely membership. When I see Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney getting mocked online for trying to rock like they did when they were in their 20s, I give thanks for being part of a creative sphere that will give 91-year-old Elizabeth Spencer two standing ovations after a reading, and in which 81-year-old Alice Munro can release a short story collection to genuine awe and excitement.
But there are still some facts that can chill the blood, like these from from a 2010 New York Times essay by Sam Tanenhaus, “How Old Can a ‘Young Writer’ Be?”:

Unsurprisingly, in youth-obsessed America, writers have often done their best work early. Melville was 32 when “Moby-Dick” was published (after the successes of “Typee” and “Omoo”). The writers of the lost generation found their voices when they were very young: Fitz­gerald (28, “The Great Gatsby”), Hemingway (27, “The Sun Also Rises”). Faulkner lagged slightly behind. He had just turned 32 when “The Sound and the Fury” was published. Then again, it was his fourth novel.

Or the recent news of Philip Roth’s retirement from novel writing, including Roth’s claim, “I am seventy-eight years old, I don’t know anything anymore about America today. I see it on TV, but I am not living it anymore.”

I have different categories of fear about getting older, being a not-so-young writer. The cheapest fear is the fear of missed opportunities, the crass, scrabbling, unsavory yearnings of not the writer but the entity that is being marketed. It’s like graduating from high school without a Senior Superlative. (I didn’t get any of those, either.) If I wasn’t on someone’s Hot Young Thing list, have I missed the chance to be a Hot Not-So-Young Thing?

The more significant fear, which is the writer’s fear, is that I’m losing something, some abstract, wide-eyed audacity of the kind that got The Sound and the Fury out of Faulkner and The Sun Also Rises out of Hemingway by the time they were my age. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a better writer now than I was when I was 25. I’m writing better-crafted stories than those that appeared in Girl Trouble. I’m more purposeful, I’m smarter, and I have better habits. I’ve lived more. When I write now about the failings and pains of the body, I have some firsthand experience to cite. I’ve had time to identify some of the prejudices I took for granted then, to examine them and take them apart, and that’s a good thing, knowing that my default characters have been white, or heterosexual, because it never occurred to me to consider the perspective of a person of color or a gay person, or it did but I didn’t have the courage to try it. I wrote on this blog a while ago about how most of the stories in Girl Trouble fail the Bechdel test, or pass it on a technicality, and that’s information I’m glad I’m now armed with. Not because I want to be a more politically correct writer, but because fighting my default mode has given me new and exciting creative opportunities. 

And yet perhaps there’s a downside to all this self-awareness, self-analysis. When I was a 20-something graduate writing for a workshop deadline and an audience of one professional and about a dozen other mostly young writers, I didn’t spend much time second-guessing myself and what I professed to know. I hadn’t read enough to compare my work to that of others, much less publishing writers in my peer group, and so I told stories that had been told thousands of times before as if they hadn’t, my ignorance giving me a brazen sincerity. I was so earnest! I find it hard to muster that kind of earnestness now. 

The story in my first book that people seem to react most strongly to is called “Parts.” It’s a very dark story, narrated from the first-person perspective of a woman, a mother, whose only child was murdered violently by two young men, one of whom escaped prosecution. The story lingers on difficult physical details of the daughter’s suffering—the degree of burns she sustained in a fire—and takes as its literary touchstone Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, a play that is itself often cited for violence so extraordinary that it is almost inadvertently comic. I was consciously toying with that reputation, of course. In fact, the project was fairly ambitious in the sense that I was trying to write sincerely about a sensationally violent crime, using Titus as my tip of the hand but still (because I truly loved the play) making an argument for its right—and mine—to stare slack-jawed at disturbing material.  

In those rare cases that I hear from a fan of Girl Trouble, “Parts” is usually the story cited as the one that made the person cry, that the person had to share with a friend or a spouse. Each time this happens, I think about the fact that the story has long been the one in the book that makes me most uneasy and even embarrassed. It’s the story that for years I didn’t have the courage to read aloud (and have still only read from a few times), that I revised heavily after the book was accepted for publication, even though my editor didn’t ask me to. The qualities about it that unsettle me are undoubtedly the ones that appeal to those who love it. It’s not worthy of this comparison, but I find myself lumping it in a category with the story “Lawns,” by Mona Simpson (published, from what I’ve been able to piece together, when she was 27), which, when I was teaching from The Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories, was the selection I could depend upon to hook my raw, earnest 20-year-old charges. 

I don’t think I could write a story like “Parts” now. (I could barely write it then.) The volume is turned up too high. The version of me who wrote that story was young, strong, and relatively unencumbered. Her father hadn’t yet had a heart attack. She didn’t have any physical markers, however small, of her own impending mortality. That me had an easier time connecting with big-scale, Shakespearean tragedy than with the everyday sadness of a gray hair. That me had more in common with the teenager I’d been, smoking cigarettes and swinging at night with her best friend at the city park, talking in lofty, dramatic fashion about the loss of childhood, than with the woman who is about to see an orthopedist about her aching hips. 

Which is not to say “Parts” is a bad story, or an immature story. And that’s the sadness here, the question: If that’s a very good story, and I can no longer write it, am I still any good? 

Well, I’m not getting on here to announce my retirement, and so I assume I can be, in a different way, and that an evolution in writing style is a think to be celebrated and not lamented. I can miss the writer capable of a story like “Parts” just as I miss my young firm neck, but I’ll ultimately be happy to pass my Young Writer mantle along to some other whippersnapper, with the hope that by the time I do I’ll have settled into a rich next writing phase with its own rewards. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kentucky Fried

Blogger, Kentuckian, and all-around nice person Amanda Hervey let me share a post today on her site, A Lovely Place to Land. Since Amanda's blogging interests tend to focus on family and home, including home improvement/craft projects, cooking, and reflections on being a parent and a wife--roles she takes on in addition to working on a novel and freelance writing--I thought it would be appropriate to use her generously offered real estate to talk about food, specifically a cookbook of family recipes my mother assembled for me. Along the way, I discuss my feminism and how I've come to reconcile my earlier notions of what that meant with the pleasure to be found in cooking and sharing food.

Speaking of which, I just came off a rare and delightful weekend in which my husband, who has been very busy lately with work and setting up his backyard woodshop, spearheaded two major cooking projects. On Saturday, he used a recipe from a cookbook I picked up for a quarter at a book sale, Maria Polushkin's The Dumplin Cookbook, to make homemade gyoza. Reader, they were the bomb. And this cookbook, published in 1977, is pretty awesome, too--very easy to follow, and delightfully all over the place, with recipes from around the world united in their essential dumpling-ness. Good stuff.

Yesterday, he tackled fried chicken. For over two years now we've owned a Lodge cast iron frying skillet that we got specifically for the purpose of chicken-frying and have only used once or twice, and never to tackle bone-in chicken. You could say we kept chickening out. (Ba-dum-bum-ching. I'm here all night.) But we had some buttermilk left over from a couple of my cooking projects, and so we thought we'd get a two-fer, chicken and biscuits, out of what was left in the jug. Brandon took charge of the chicken and sweet tea. I covered the red-skinned mashed potatoes and biscuits.

Chicken frying in our honking Lodge skillet.

Final plate.

It's going to be a rough New Year.

Monday, October 15, 2012

New short story

I have a short story, "Who Cooks For You," up this week at Five Chapters. Check in each day between now and Friday for a new installment.

Monday, September 17, 2012


I met Pete Levine in 2006, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. We were both there as scholars, and Pete was in the same workshop as my roommate, Rebecca Kanner, another scholar. None of us had published more than a few short stories at the time, and now Pete has this fantastic book of stories, The Appearance of a Hero, Rebecca’s novel The Sinners and the Sea is due out next year, and another scholar from that year, Jamie Poissant, just reported scoring a two-book deal. Shannon Cain, who shared a bathroom with Rebecca and me, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 2011 for The Necessity of Certain Behaviors. In other words, lots of good things have happened in the last six years for good people, and Pete—who kindly agreed to the Q&A below—is the best of people.

The Appearance of a Hero is a collection of stories united by Tom Mahoney, a handsome, charming young man who has a magnetic quality that makes him an object of fascination for the book’s various point-of-view characters. The book is obsessed with Tom, and yet Tom is really not the point; rather, he’s the common factor that allows Pete to write about work and wealth, fatherhood, the diminishment of youth’s promise, adult friendships, and the ways in which men and women in their 30s settle into relationships very different from those that were characteristic of their passionate 20s. The Publishers Weekly review describes Pete’s characters as “emasculated by modern life,” and I have to admit that this isn’t a theme that would normally have captured my interest—in fact, I think it reduces the book to something less subtle than what Pete actually offers. The Appearance of a Hero is deeply humane, careful in its treatment of both male and female characters, and never did I feel that it was some kind of lamentation about the lot of contemporary men or manhood.

HGJ: I've been trying to form a theory about a quality that the book has, a sort of old-fashioned interest in a certain kind of masculine ideal, and I can't seem to get my thoughts ordered to my satisfaction. The book obviously references Gatsby--the cover design, with the crisply folded shirt, is a nod to that comparison. But it also reminded me, in turns, of the Russell Banks story, "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," and maybe a little of Bret Easton Ellis if Ellis had a soul. And--this is the most half-baked part of my thinking--I thought there was even something kind of Victorian about the approach. I kept thinking of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and how you had this one man frankly admiring another man without the central point being homoeroticism. A certain earnestness, if that makes any sense. So I'm wondering how you came to be interested in building a book around Tom Mahoney. And--this is the harder question to frame--does this idea of earnestness resonate with you? I can see how another writer could pursue a similar project to this and be much more cynical about Tom and the admiration he inspires, but this doesn't strike me as a cynical book at all.

PL: You’re right on with all these points. I’ll try to get to all these good questions. In the first place, the origins of Tom—that was personal. Guys I know or knew. I was trying to capture on the page what I’d experienced first-hand. That is, trying to distil the essence of a certain kind of person who I think we all know.

To me, it’s not that Tom is perfect, though like the character “Ron” in the Banks story, he seems that way. Like Ron, he has a light and he’s unaware of the light and how it affects people around him, how it ushers him through life.

Earnestness is the right word. I think of Tom as earnest, but so too is the affection others feel toward him. But they really can’t speak of it. The book observes and records this but doesn’t describe it, or at least not much.

There are parts of the book that are homoerotic, but I intended them to be that way. Women examine each other: how they look, how they dress, what they admire about each other, and men do too, but they can’t admit it. Tom is an object of desire, and himself desires other men, albeit in a non-sexual way.
I once had a professor observe the same Victorian quality you describe when talking about Jekyll and Hyde—the idea of men enjoying the company of other men. I wanted to explore that. By centering on Tom, who’s universally attractive—an ideal, as you put it—to both men and women, it kind of gives license for both the characters, and the book, to examine how men fawn over each other. Bromance is a goofy term, but kind of apt, too.

I recall a Friends episode (yep, just brought up Friends) where Chandler and Ross are expecting an old buddy from high school or something to visit. If I remember correctly, they called him Gandalf because he was so cool and powerful (I just confirmed this online, I was right: He was the party wizard.

And it’s not very highbrow, but look, that’s what Tom is, or what people think he is. And that was the spirit I was trying to capture, examine, as well as subvert.

HGJ: So do you think there are fundamental differences between the ways men connect and the ways women do?

PL: Women have this ability to talk with such openness. If something’s up, they talk. If there’s a rift, they talk it out, examine it, unpack it, and at the end, they tell each other how important they are to each other. And I’m not trying to suggest that the guys in the book are these Carveresque-Joe-6-pack types who are completely unable to express their feelings toward each other, but there are some obvious differences. This inability informs some of the drama in the book, and in particular, Tom’s relationship with his dad.

HGJ: Did your Tom Mahoney stories just start to accumulate, or did you set out to write a linked collection?

PL: They just accumulated. In fact, this is funny—the name of the document I sent out to agents was “The Tom Mahoney Stories.” Real clever. There were some that got cut, some that got added, and some new ones.

HGJ: One of my favorite devices in the book--you use it several times, in the stories "How Does Your Garden Grow?", "Our Hero David Katz," "The Northernmost Point," and "Princess," perhaps also in small touches elsewhere--is when you have a character telling a story within the story. It even gets more complicated than that a couple of times. In "Princess," which begins as a man telling Tom the story about how, in his youth, he and a couple of other fathers take their daughters on a camping trip, you even have stories within the story within the story: a campfire ghost story, a story of one character's past sexual exploit. What do you like about his device, and why did it seem right for this book? 

PL: What I like about the technique is its intimacy. I really like the feeling of a narrator telling you a story as if you're there with them. I think the books I like best do this. There's someone talking to you, and it helps to orient me as a reader. I have a harder time with big, historic books in which the narrator seems really distant. 

In those stories you mention, it felt natural to keep burrowing deeper, having stories within stories (and, as you point out), adding even another layer sometimes. It made the writing feel very easy, casual and natural for me. It's how we speak and tell stories in real life. 

I didn't use this technique on purpose. I wrote the stories separately, not knowing they were going to all be in the book, nor in the order they ended up. But in the end it made sense, because the idea of Tom was the idea of a guy who everyone had a tall tale about. 

HGJ: I thought your approach to point of view in the third-person stories was often pretty gutsy and surprising. There are stories here that are told in more conventional limited third person perspective, such as "Havasu" and "Code Pink" (if I'm recalling correctly), and then there are other stories, such as "La Jolla" (a story about a friendship that develops between a wealthy couple in late middle age and a young couple just starting out) and "For the Reception to Follow" that are more broadly omniscient. How did you make these calls? When you were writing your omniscient stories, did you ever feel that you were having to unlearn some of the MFA workshop truisms about POV "violations"? 

PL: I'm laughing. You know, I wasn't doing this technique when I was in grad school but I could totally see someone getting called out for it. In any case, it's been some time since then, so I don't have those voices haunting me, telling me what I'm supposed to do and not do (you're right about having to unlearn certain things). 

So, it wasn't something I was worried about as a technical matter. But it was something I was aware of and played with, as you point out. I wanted to give different characters time on the page, be in their heads, and so, as in the story "La Jolla," I dipped in and out of everyone a little bit. 

It was very much the idea of the "camera" panning around, zooming in and out. In that story you mention, you had one scene where two guys are passing a football back and forth, and so the football served to move the lens around, and therefore, the POV. Or in another scene, where two women are jogging, the characters' physical locations allowed me to make that move. In the story you mentioned, "Code Pink," which is a more traditional third person POV, the viewpoint begins with Tom's father in his car and ends with an image of the car--a source of his strength and also a symbol.

Again, as you know, it's not so much something you're planning or strategizing in the writing, but something that you notice later.

HGJ: I think I’m fixating so much on the technique as used in “La Jolla” because, though you’re able to get in the older couple’s heads at various points in the story, why they take such a profound interest in the younger couple is only hinted at. So accessing them doesn’t solve certain mysteries—and yet, I was happy to have had the access. Why did omniscience seem like the right move for that story?

Same thing—I wish I could say that this was a decision I made but it was more organic than that. But thinking back, though the story is really about a young couple trying to start a life in a new city, and an older couple that tries to sap their youth, the omniscience allowed me to avoid making villains out of the older couple.

The time spent in this older couple’s heads is time concerned with their admiration of the younger couple’s youth and light—how they perceive the kids, as they call them. And since that struggle for youth is central to the story, it seemed important that I let the reader hear them in their desire for it.

HGJ: What was your experience like finding a publisher for this project? Was there ever pressure on you to turn this into a novel, or even just to package it as a novel, the way other linked books of stories--A Visit from the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge, for instance--have been marketed as novels? 

PL: Well, certainly the fact that the book was a collection of stories was a big hurdle for all the publishers. No way around it. Not desirable. 

But at the same time, the book did get published. So who knows? Fortunately, my publisher never asked me to try to package the book as anything other than short stories--not a "novel in stories" or whatever (BTW, I did not know that Olive was positioned as a novel, though I think I knew that A Visit From the Goon Squad was). There is this sense that you want to call a book anything other than stories, even if that's what they are. 

I guess my experience told me that things were not as bad I'd been led to believe (i.e. don't even bother trying to get a big publisher interested in a collection), but at the same time, I have to confess that a lot of the old truisms about collections were retold to me, only this time, rather than a writer or blogger or teacher saying it, it was an editor. Despite all of that, though, there were still editors who seemed genuinely interested in working with the book and honoring the form. Hope that's worth something to your readers.

HGJ: What’s next for you?

After I submitted the manuscript for this book, I wrote a number of stories about Tom that picked up where the book left off, as well as some unrelated ones, and I hope to place them. As far as something bigger, a novel, for instance, still TBD, though I do feel as if I have a lot more to say about Tom’s life, filling in some gaps and history.

But what’s next for me, Holly, is hopefully some sleep! Every time I sit down to write, my newborn pipes up. So we gotta teach him to sleep, and then I gotta sleep, and then we’ll see where the work is.