Tag Archives: New York Times

That pile in the basement …

Longed-for warmer temperatures have graced us this past week, eliciting the usual assortment of cliched remarks about the flora and fauna (crocus, daffodil, spring beauty, snowdrops, forsythia, redbud, chipmunks, baby rabbits, robins, wrens).

I undertake my version of spring cleaning: open the windows and let the breeze amass the swirling dog fur and dust bunnies into one massive fluff ball in a corner; hook up vacuum and suck up mass. I tidy and I rearrange; I sort my books and I file my papers. I stop and drink coffee and browse thru’ the Sunday paper.

In the March 20th New York Times “Museums” section, I stumbled upon Golden Age of Discovery … Down in the Basements by David Wallis. Who knew?, but some of our capital-C, Capital-I Cultural Institutions share my lowercase-d, lowercase-g domestic goddesses struggle of staying on top of STUFF.

Of course, what they discover when they go to their basement archives includes Picasso sculptures, rare war helmets of indigenous peoples, and notes from Famous People of History. I find adolescent journals, my grandmother’s account books and timesheets tracking my hours on a federally-funded redevelopment project.

ledger enlargedI’ve tossed the timesheets, but my Grandmother’s account books, with their tidy columns and itemized rows of expenses: they tell me a lot more than she ever chose to share, or I ever know to ask, about her daily life. She, too, struggled with the tension inherent in running a household and creative work. There are entries for groceries, laundry, coal, magazines, stamps. Charmingly, under “miscellaneous” there is, twice-monthly, 35 cents for roses; every three weeks or so is one dollar for “H’s candy” — her husband must have harbored a sweet tooth. There are no entries for weaving supplies though the outstanding feature of her house, when I was a child, was two huge looms. She traveled with a smaller table-top loom. She wove placemats, table runners, samplers, towels, decorative coasters, scrabble tile bags, chair coverings, bookmarks, napkins. You name it, she wove it.

I still use, daily, one of her woven bookmarks. I have always enjoyed it, and find it elegant. No polyester junk, but for-real, finely-patterened silk and linen threads. Having seen her careful accounting for the very real expenses of her daily life on this spring day, and the lack of any such entry for her artistic life, the bookmark becomes dearer.

Some of Gram's weaving

Some of Gram’s weaving

The work we do for love, the work we are privileged to do above and beyond the grunt work of daily necessity: that beauty lasts, to be held and felt and loved. On a breezy spring day, in a basement crowded with life’s leavings.

Let’s look for the treasures in our archives basements. Find whatever we’ve forgotten, whatever scraps of paper and memory may unexpectedly reconnect us, remind us, restore us, return us: to ourselves.

Is good writing enough? Depends on your bifocals …

Boston T

Boston T (Photo credit: Premshree Pillai)

I have loved James Salter‘s books for twenty-plus years. I read Light Years,  Solo Faces, and A Sport and a Pastime in my early twenties, commuting on the T. The sentences! The imagery! I was rapt. I babbled on about him to anyone who would listen. Once, if I’m not mistaken, I missed the social cues of a total stranger who commented on the jacket design but was, in retrospect, probably trying to connect with me on a more, ah, visceral, level.

And this past spring, his novel All That Is was released. It came out before my birthday; I put it on my wish list, and it was the first gift I sat down to savor.

His sentences: still gorgeous. Imagery, check. Felt like I was “in the book?” Not so much. I’m well past the mid-point of my life; my most strident days are, at least for the moment, in the past (though I’ve also learned to never say never ‘cuz then next thing you know your veggie husband’s going all carnivore because carbs are bad and the auto-pilot grocery shopping that used to take twenty minutes morphs into a meander through the meat department, truly a foreign land for a former vegetarian). But I could not relate to Salter’s characters: primarily men, who bed women, who find their physical satisfactions in women, who strive for things that strike me as — dare I say it? — superficial. No amount of gorgeous writing can sustain my interest in a story that I don’t connect with. At least not this year.

A writer I respect noted that because Salter is from a different era, we thus have to grant his work some leeway vis-a-vis our standards of equality, etc.  Despite his sexist-by-today’s-standards representation of the world, my colleague continued, he’s one of the great writers.

Stack of Books

Stack of Books (Photo credit: KristinNador)

This set me to puzzling. I agree that those from different temporal and geographic points in human civilizations cannot be held to the social mores and standards of our own. Nonetheless, the idea that great writing can be such solely because of its  craftsmanship unsettled me. Can a book that leaves me completely cold be “great” for me? Do I have to be wrong about its qualities? Or are those of us who write, and who read the recommended Works of Great Literature just fooling ourselves into imagining there’s an objective standard by which Literature can be judged? That if one doesn’t like author X, it’s because we don’t get it, rather than that perhaps author X isn’t, in all circumstances and in all their works, Great. And what the heck: who’s great all the time? Not me. Glass houses and all that.

My puzzling led me to decide that I don’t quibble with the quality of Salter’s writing. But I’m done spending time with authors who build worlds where women, non-Caucasians,  young men,  hippies, potheads, whoever — don’t resonate with me by page one hundred. And I will give any author a hundred pages: I liken this to the point made by David James Poissant in his essay, “I Want to Be Friends with Republicans” (Nov. 3 2013 New York Times.) It takes time to get to know someone, and we’re all more than One Issue. I read to immerse myself in other worlds, and I have been surprised more than once by initially-offensive characters whose authors lead me to places of unexpected wellsprings of empathy within myself.

Small Beauties

Small Beauties (Photo credit: ecstaticist)

We find meaning where we see it, and just because someone else resonates with an essay, poem, novel, or short story doesn’t mean we will, or that we should. We should seek meaning for ourselves, connections between ourselves and others, sustenance for ourselves — sustenance to carry us through  whatever tedium our daily labors entail, sustenance for us to give thanks for the thousand small beauties inherent in our lives.

I don’t care, anymore, if, for you, it’s Great Literature or formulaic romance. I do care that we find our connections wheresoever they are, and that we even aspire to such seeking.

And this leads me to an unpleasant discovery: in the darker corners of my soul, I want my interpretation of what stories should do to be Right. To be The Way to Interpret Literature. I don’t want to allow that your Favorite Great Writer might be mediocre to me. Oh! My hypocrisy hast bitten me squarely on my rump yet again!


Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen (Photo credit: Angela Radulescu)

With this conundrum in the forefront of my mind, I browsed my bookshelf for guidance. I found it in Anna Quindlen‘s succinct, slender book, How Reading Changed My Life:

Reading has as many functions as the human body, and … not all of them are cerebral. … And if readers use words and stories as much, or more, to lessen human isolation as to expand human knowledge, is that somehow unworthy, invalid, and unimportant?

Nope. Whatever eases your journey is worthy, valid and important. I wish for you today at least a haiku’s-worth of beauty and connection. Or a limerick’s-worth, if that serves you better.

Vanity, thy name is … self-absorption

I lived in Boston for four years, between college and grad school. Near the end of that time, my roommate asked if I didn’t think, in the coming  years, that I would tire of my Saturday morning ritual of brunch and reading the New York Times cover to cover. I had probably been waxing irritatingly rhapsodic about the pleasures of the crossword, pancakes and coffee at Johnny D’s.

The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot remember how  my twenty-something self answered. But after enjoying brunch this past Sunday AM with my 11 y.o., and then reading all of the NYT on our front porch with the dog curled beside me,  my answer is No. This sequence of earthly pleasures does not bore me.

Perhaps it’s not tiring because of its irregularity. Perhaps it’s not tiring because although the generalities are the same, the particulars (where brunch is eaten, what brunchy-foods are consumed; the current events, scandals, and books reviewed in the NYT) are not the same. Perhaps it’s not tiring because my personality prefers sameness to novelty. Perhaps it’s not tiring because I like to perceive myself as a foodie with literary tendencies: a sort of vanity.

No matter the reason I choose, it’s of my own making: it’s whatever story I choose to tell myself. And for decades I have told myself that my kinky, curly hair is ugly (this post touches on my neurosis during the Farrah Fawcett era), an encumbrance to be minimized.

Boing boing curls!

Then aforementioned 11 y.o. emerged onto the planet with curlycurlyRED hair. Had it on day one, has it now. As it grew, its fuzzy frizziness developed into what a friend describes as boing-boing curls. H’mmm. I wondered if my hair — cut short for convenience and to minimize use of Very Expensive Curl Suppressing Product post-shower —  would do the same. My hair stylist (a veritable hair genius, Doty at Inside Out Salon) thought it would, and after eighteen months of haircuts that were more trims than cuts, it has, in fact developed those boing-boing curls.

It’s also attained enough length to try a “keratin treatment.” I splurged and asked Doty to do it. What the heck. It would wear off in five to six weeks and Doty assured me it would loosen my curls.

Curls begone …

A keratin treatment has several steps; the most relevant is the final one, where the hair is flat ironed. When Doty finished, I didn’t recognize myself. While it was fun having straight hair for a day, I was unsettled to discover that when I looked in the mirror, I saw a boring, brainless American consumer. I’ve conflated my wild hair with creativity and discernment.

Even more interesting to the writerly side of myself was the reaction of my friends when I washed my hair and the stick-straightness vanished, replaced by the looser curls Doty predicted. “Oh!” many (not all) of them said. “The curl came right back.”

To my eye, the curl had not come right back. The curl was very different. The curl was loose, almost lank. The curl had to be enhanced with a curling iron. The curl wasn’t kinky, but smooth. The curl was lovelier, doggone it! But this vanity wasn’t affirmed  by my friends. They saw curl. (See end of post for side-by-side photos of curl.)

Fascinating!, and both humbling and liberating. All that effort, and the day after, not many folks can tell the difference. H’mmm. No one *cares* what I look like. I am reminded of John Gregg’s welcoming comments at Vermont Studio Center in 2011: most of the people in the world are working for pennies a day. They DO NOT CARE that you are here at the studio center, agonizing over the composition of your painting or your essay. You are free to do what you will; perhaps it may further human peace or understanding, perhaps it will never leave the four walls of your studio. But if you have the privilege of time to engage in creative playwork (to change your hair texture), do so without self-censorship, and without expectation that anyone else out there gives a rat’s ass (will notice your smoother, softer curl). Do it because you love it, because it slakes your thirst, because it keeps you sane.

And do it because it calls us to examine our assumptions about what appearance indicates. Tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, baseball caps, heavy makeup, age, skin color, gender — I hazard to guess we all have our own ideas about what a person with any one of those characteristics is “like.” And I hazard to guess that our ideas only skim the surface of the totality of their humanity, emphasis on surface.

Of course initial impressions are important (see this article about “the Naked Face” by Malcolm Gladwell for interesting info about how quickly we can register others’ intentions) but engaging with each other is more important.

pre-keratin curls

Let’s practice suspending judgement. Let’s practice talking past our hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, and clothing choices. Let’s practice seeking the glimmer beneath our surfaces. The most interesting stories lie beneath.

post-keratin curls … but does it really matter?