Archive for June, 2010

Recalculating

June 25, 2010

Relocating isn’t easy. My first day at college, a friend of my brother’s dropped me off in front of my new dorm on his way to work. When the people arrived to unlock the building, they found me waiting with my suitcases and boxes. By the time the other students showed up with their parents and started carrying in their stuff, I had already pretty much moved into my single (singles are the norm at Hampshire, even for first-year students). Freaked out at being away from home by myself for the first time, and too afraid to speak to anyone, I shut myself in my room and cried.

Moving to Rhode Island three years ago was almost as scary as those first hours of college. I was long past 18 and hardly alone, and in the intervening years I had successfully relocated several times. But any time you move to a new place, it’s a challenge. You have to find your way around, figure out where you’re going to buy your food and get your hair cut, sort the good guys from the bums among the local politicians and, most importantly, make new friends.

After three years, I can find my way around well enough to turn off the GPS before we reach the reconfigured highway interchange and it starts furiously recalculating. I have not one but several grocery stores: the one where I buy bread and bagels, the one that carries fair-trade coffee and happy meat, and the one I go to for pretty much everything else. I’m not totally thrilled with the guy who cuts my hair, but he’s nearby and fun to listen to. Local politics is easy: our state senator and local rep are good guys; everyone else belongs in jail. We’ve made lots of friends, in large part through the synagogue we joined right away. (Those first few months, when I was supposed to be praying, I’d be sitting in my pew, silently counting the number of my fellow congregants about whom I could state at least one fact. When I lost interest in the game, I knew I had arrived.)

But there’s one aspect of my life here that still makes me feel as self-conscious as a newly-minted college student. Unlike when I moved to Pittsburgh and L.A., in Rhode Island I’m not in school and I don’t have a job. And unlike when I moved to Burlington, I don’t have any kids in tow. For the first time in my life, I’m free to do what I had always wanted to do: write fiction full time. When I first arrived, the prospect was as terrifying as it was thrilling.

It wasn’t the thought of spending my days writing that worried me. I had been working on my novel one day a week for about eight years, and I was looking forward to finally giving it my full attention. But without the convenient cover of student, librarian or mother, I would be presenting myself to new acquaintances with my embarrassing, audacious secret identity unmasked. And what do you do? They would ask. And I would have to answer I’m a writer. And sound as if I meant it.

(Sure, I had written stuff before. I had even visited schools and library conferences and so on as a Visiting Author. But before now, writing had always been what I’d done when I wasn’t doing real things, like shelving Papal encyclicals in my Catholic high school library or making tuna melts for my kids.)

As with the other aspects of starting this new life, I have managed. First I learned how to say I’m a writer with a straight face, and then I came up with a sound bite to answer the inevitable follow-up question, What is your novel about? (My sound bite: “It’s two parallel stories: one tells what happens to three adult children after their mother dies, and the other is a fanciful story about how their grandmother came to America. It starts off as separate threads, but by the end they come together. It’s called LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR.”) For long time, I would tell people I was still trying to finish it, and then I would say I was looking for an agent.

Now that I have an agent, the process is pretty much out of my hands, and my job is to write something else. I’m working on it. Which means that for many months now I have been diligently writing every day, having new ideas and starting new projects, losing interest and starting new ones, then returning to the old ones, all the while hoping that one will take. It’s not an easy place to be. But all I can do is keep plugging away and look forward to the time when I’ll feel as comfortably ensconced in my new work as I do when I’m exiting onto 195 and I tell the GPS, Don’t bother recalculating. I know where I’m going.

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Back to the Beach

June 18, 2010

I was going to write about summers in Truro this week, but then I realized Father’s Day is coming. So I’m writing about my dad at the beach. He died in August 1994, at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. That fact would be enough to permanently connect him with the beach in my mind. But I’d rather focus on happier associations.

Beginning when I was a teenager in the early 1970s, my parents spent three out of every four Augusts on the outer Cape. (The off years were election years, when Daddy coordinated the New York Times’ political convention coverage. The Republicans met in August.) We didn’t own a place, but rented. After trying out several places, my parents returned year after year to the same house, up a one-lane sand road in Truro. Blueberries grew near the steps, and the sunny deck where we hung out our wet towels offered a modest view of the bay. Sometimes we went to the bay beach, especially when the tide was out and there were young children around to hunt for sea creatures. But the preferred spot was Balston Beach, on the ocean side.

My mother could sit for hours just watching the waves, and would go into the water once or twice each afternoon. Daddy wasn’t a swimmer. He only went in if it got really hot, and then he would jump the waves as if trying to escape them, his arms stiffly angled at his sides. He didn’t like going barefoot, and would keep his sneakers and socks on until he was safely sitting in his chair with the blanket spread beneath him. In an olive drab musette bag from Marine Specialties in Provincetown, he carried his wallet and his keys, and something to read; he liked Dick Francis and Ross McDonald. As he read he would eat peanuts, burying the shells in the sand. And at some point, on most days, friends would arrive on the beach and position themselves around my parents.

These were classmates of my father’s from Harvard, colleagues from the Times, friends of friends they got to know over the years, people they socialized with back home, and folks they only saw in August. My dad’s job at the Times made him the go-to person for insights into current events. Working at the paper also gave him access to another valuable commodity: a seemingly endless supply of jokes.

In one of Daddy’s favorite jokes, a construction worker opens his lunch pail day after day, only to be disappointed by a peanut butter sandwich.

“Why don’t you ask your wife to make you something else?” His buddy finally asks.

“Who’s got a wife?” The first man replies. “I make it myself.”

In another joke, bystanders watch a desperate mother toss her baby from a burning building. A wide receiver emerges from the crowd, lunges, and catches the baby — then triumphantly spikes it. To tell this joke, my dad would stand up and act out all the parts: the terrified mother, the falling baby, the heroic wide receiver.

August still means Balston Beach to me, and Balston Beach means my father. As much as the light on the water, the sound of the surf, the spray of foam rising around the boogie board, when I think of Balston Beach, I picture my father in his element: surrounded by a circle of admiring friends, triumphantly spiking an imaginary baby into the sand.

Happy Father’s Day.

You Are What You Read

June 11, 2010

How do the books we encounter as kids influence our reading later in life? Jessica Freeman-Slade recently asked this question in the [tk] reviews blog – a source of smart essays on reading by a handful of women who work in publishing. Freeman-Slade traces her own love for Vladimir Nabokov’s word play back to the tongue-twisting poetry of Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll, and connects says she learned to enjoy the introspective plotting of Ian McEwan and John Updike by absorbing the psychological insights of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume.

The post got me thinking about the books I loved as a kid, and the ones we read as a family when our children were little.

I was four or five, the last sibling yet to enter school, when my mother went back to school to become a librarian. Mom’s interest in children’s books happily coincided with mine. I no longer recall many of the specific books we read, but I do remember the stillness that surrounded us as I sat beside her on the sofa, the softness of her arm against my cheek and the rattle of ice cubes in Mom’s Diet Pepsi filling the pauses in her speech.

One book that has stayed with me is Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder. Mom loved poetry, and had happy memories of summers at camp in the Adirondacks. Time of Wonder is set farther north, on the coast of Maine. But his atmospheric paintings of that rugged landscape doubtless struck a cord with her, and his liquid language stirred us both. I blame Time of Wonder for my propensity to produce dreamy texts in which the language is lovely and the landscape is the protagonist – the type of picture book my agent gently tells me will never fly in today’s market.

As much as I loved being read to and making up stories, I didn’t really become an independent reader until the fourth grade. In 1966, Edgemont School was K-4, and the library comprised one classroom, plus a walk-in closet with the books for the oldest students. The first time the librarian ushered me into that closet, I was thrilled. That’s where I found Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, which taught me, in turn, that I could trust any book with illustrations by Garth Williams. I didn’t know Garth Williams’ name, but his style was instantly identifiable. I’m pretty sure it’s what led me to Charlotte’s Web and A Cricket in Times Square.

Crispian had a little kitchen upstairs in his two-story doghouse where he fixed himself a good dinner three times a day because he liked to eat.

And when I had kids of my own, Garth Williams’ imprimatur led me back to Margaret Wise Brown’s trippy Golden Books, which my husband and I both loved as children. One of our favorites: Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself. Mister Dog (aka Crispin’s Crispian) is a shaggy brown mutt who takes himself for walks and buys himself bones. One day he meets a boy and invites him home, where they settle into a cozy domestic arrangement.

“Crispin’s Crispian was a conservative,” Brown writes. “He liked everything a the right time – dinner at dinner time, lunch at lunchtime, breakfast in time for breakfast, and sunrise at sunrise, and sunset at sunset. And at bedtime – At bedtime, he liked everything in its own place – the cup in the saucer, the chair under the table, the stars in the heavens, the moon in the sky, and himself in his own little bed.” (Shades of Good Night, Moon, which Brown wrote five years earlier).

For all our progressive politics, within the privacy of our home, we were fairly conservative, ourselves. Meals were regularly sit-down affairs at predictable hours, bedtimes happened at set times, and so on. We loved Mr. Dog’s orderly universe, and we also loved how the book turned the predictable paradigm on its head by having the dog take care of the boy.

When it came to reading books to our kids, we were all about challenging the dominant paradigm. We loved Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s hilarious The Stinky Cheese Man, in which the narrator breaks through the fourth wall to challenge the conventions governing of the very book the reader holds in her hands. Ditto Louis the Fish, written by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski. “One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish,” this surreal tale begins, in brilliant deadpan. “Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon.”

Reading aloud didn’t end for our family for the kids could read to themselves. As parents, we enjoyed revisiting books from our own childhoods, like the Little House books, whose how-to details and enthusiastic descriptions of food (especially in Farmer Boy) particularly appealed to Sam. And we were glad for the excuse to discover new children’s books, such as Brian JacquesRed Wall series, Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard books, and anything by Roald Dahl. David, who remembers his father reading the Sunday funnies aloud, loved sharing the comics with our kids. A particular favorite for all of us was Calvin and Hobbes. We loved Watterson’s loopy blend of realism and fantasy, his instantly recognizable characters, the strips’ warped logic and metaphysical puzzles.

It would be silly to suggest that our kids are the way they are because of what they read when they were little. But it’s hard not to see the pleasure Sam takes in creating things with his hands and remember his fascination with the DIY spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And when Sophie discusses philosophy with her father, it’s tempting to think that Bill Watterson deserves at least partial credit. And as they both begin planning their own marriages, I remember all those times we read together as a family, and can’t help but think that the sweetness of those hours worked its way into their blood as surely as the rhythm of my mother’s reading voice worked its way into mine.

Neighborhood Watch

June 5, 2010

Before writing this post, I solicited ideas for topics, and was thrilled to receive several. I think I managed to at least mention them all. If you find yours, leave a comment and let me know!

The house across the street just went on the market. The couple who lives there have retired, and they’re moving closer to family. For weeks, our cul-de-sac has been clogged with their contractors’ trucks. Earlier this week, a flock of real estate agents descended for a preview. Yesterday the sign went up. Now we’re wondering who our new neighbors will be. We’re not looking for new best friends. We just hope they’ll be easy to live with.

I’ve moved seven times since I graduated from college, and one thing those moves has taught me: neighbors matter.

The first place I lived on my own was the walk-out basement of my landlord’s home in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, where I was attending library school. When I showed up to see the place and told the landlord my name, he beamed and said, “Landsman.” I’d never heard the term before, but I could tell what it meant: that he was glad to have me as a tenant, because we were both Jewish. As it turned out, that’s as far as the friendliness went.

Mort and his family lived right above me, but in the nine months I lived there, we didn’t have much to do with each other. Sometimes, late at night, I would hear someone playing Pong in the room above mine. When I fried onions, Mort would call up and tell me to turn the fan on. “Your fumes are killing us,” he would complain. Once I came home from school and found a note on my toilet. “Please make sure the toilet isn’t running when you leave the house,” it said.

After library school, I moved to Los Angeles to live with the man who is now my husband, and was then a grad student at UCLA. David and I started out in Venice, in rented rooms over our landlord’s garage. Bars covered most of the windows on the street, and more than once we awoke to police helicopters hovering overhead, searchlights sweeping the alley outside our bedroom. The walls of the corner Laundromat were tagged by the Crips. Sometimes we heard people shouting in the night, but because neither of us speaks Spanish, we couldn’t tell sure if they were fighting or joking.

On the other hand, Sam and Maddy were ideal landlords. Sam kept the property spotless, right down white-washing the stems of his rose bushes to match the walls of his house. When I rammed a post in the garage with the car, Sam didn’t charge us for the damage. And when David visited his parents in London, Maddy invited me into their home for dinner so I wouldn’t have to be alone. David and I still use the covered Pyrex casseroles Sam and Maddy gave us for a wedding present.

We moved to Burlington, Vermont, when our daughter was two and I was pregnant with our son. We bought a raised ranch on a suburban street straight out of Family Circus. The neighborhood teemed with young families like ours, and parents pinch-hit for each other with hardly a thought, as our kids ran in and out of each other’s houses and played in each other’s yards, trick-or-treated and built snowmen together, and carpooled to school. If we had stayed there, the neighbors we grew so close to ten years ago would still feel like family.

But when Sophie and Sam were teenagers, we moved downtown. Our new home was so close to David’s office at the university that when the letter carrier dropped his mail off at work, she could tell him what she’d left at our house. Our next door neighbors were classical musicians. We loved listening to her practicing her harpsichord, and sometimes shared a glass of wine with him across the backyard fence.

On the other hand, the neighborhood was “in transition,” with owner-occupied family homes like ours vying for dominance with student rentals. Each fall, David and I introduced ourselves to our new student neighbors and made sure they understood the city’s noise ordinances. Just in case they didn’t, we kept ear plugs in our bedside tables and the police department’s phone number on our speed dial.

Student noise was on our minds when we relocated to Rhode Island, three years ago. We came down to house-hunt during Brown’s Spring Fling. At 10 pm, the partying was raucous. Starting at the university, David and I walked until we could no longer hear the music, and there were no more red plastic beer cups on the sidewalk. Anywhere beyond that point would be an acceptable place to live.

We ended up settling in a different area altogether — a more affordable neighborhood, a bus ride away from David’s work, but closer to the water. Our street has just six houses, with Narragansett Bay at one end. In the evening we can sit on our porch sipping gin and tonics, smelling the salt breeze and listening to the mockingbirds. We still can’t quite believe we get to live here. Tracking the tides is supposed to be something you only do on vacation, as I did all those Augusts on Cape Cod, growing up. This last month, as the horror in the Gulf has unfolded, the migrating sea birds and the play of light on the water feel particularly precious.

The restful beauty of this place wouldn’t be possible, though, if we didn’t also have good neighbors. Bill snow-blows our driveway. Diane brings over buckets of perennials from her garden. When Bob washes his car, his son Jackson scrubs his tricycle. Richard stops to discuss the progress of swan family in the cove. Liz waves from her porch, where she sits working crossword puzzles. There isn’t one door on this street that I would hesitate to knock on in an emergency.

But none we have never shared a beer with any of these people, and don’t know how they feel about the mid-term elections or the situation in Gaza, let alone the Galarraga-Joyce controversy. And I wouldn’t want to. Clear conversational fences make good neighbors, as the saying sort of goes. Besides, why should I discuss politics or exchange personal confidences with the people I happen to pass in person? That’s what the Internet’s for. If I feel like venting a frustration or celebrating a feat, I’ll go to email of Facebook or Twitter. If it’s really important, I’ll pick up the phone. But if I need a band-aid, it’s good to know that I can go next door.