The haunting of the gaps

Photo of winter road by Jon Ottosson

Photo by Jon Ottosson

I was going through old notes for a story and found this piece I’d saved. I find it has an eerie resonance that keeps me thinking about it.

It’s from “The Couch” series in the New York Times. “A Tale of Two Twins,” by Galit Atlas, the story of Noah, who as a boy was obsessed with death and obituaries and who—it turns out—had a dead sibling with his same name born a few years before he was, whom his parents covered up.

We all have our phantoms. But as the psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicholas Abraham once wrote, ‘what haunts us are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.’ They were referring to intergenerational secrets and unprocessed experiences that very often don’t have a voice or an image associated with them but loom in our minds nonetheless. We carry emotional material that belongs to our parents and grandparents, retaining losses of theirs that they never fully articulated. We feel these traumas even if we don’t consciously know them. Old family secrets live inside us.

This feels so true. A secret, even if it isn’t yours, takes up emotional space. It can be sensed and felt. As I write, I try to imagine the invisible secrets and gaps that haunt my characters.

Random quote: Jeff VanderMeer on Narnia

I found this on Julianna Baggott’s blog during a moment when I was trying to inspire myself to write.

She interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, the author of The Southern Reach trilogy–all three books published within one year, an amazing story in and of itself. I have the first book, Annihilation, in my TBR pile.

I thought it was brilliant she asked him not about the books he loved and wanted to emulate, but about the books he hated. Here’s his answer.

I really hated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I hated that the intelligent woodland animals were so happy about replacing a dictatorship with a monarchy instead of just telling everybody else to shove the hell off.

There are books I hate–really hate–although I’m not always comfortable revealing them. And I have complicated feelings about Narnia. For both reasons, I love this quote.

Time, creativity, Bruce Springsteen

Listening to “Fresh Air” recently on NPR, I was surprised to find out that I actually had a lot in common with the celebrity guest, Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen has been in the news a lot lately. He performed at one of the Obama inauguration events, then he was off to the Super Bowl half-time show (which I happened to miss because at the time I was weeping uncontrollably during “Revolutionary Road” – another story).  And I’d been thinking about him more than I usually do because he was in the Sunday New York Times, and – as should be apparent from my previous post – the Sunday New York Times is way more important to me than is healthy.

So he was on my mind in a way that he isn’t usually. I like his songs. I especially like some of the ones on “Nebraska.” For instance,  the one that goes “Mr. State Trooper…” I last heard it in a new way because it ended one of the episodes of “The Sopranos” perfectly with its eerie, spine-tingling whoop. But, really, I don’t know Bruce Springsteen – man or oeuvre – well. I brushed up against his songs on the radio the way you might nod your head to someone in your high school – only years later, when you reconnect with some person you used to know and you’re talking about old times and his name comes up, only then do you realize, my God, that guy was solid. Like, I would have thought Talking Heads, whatever I listened to back then – X, Suicidal Tendencies – those bands would have been enough to get me through, which just goes to show you.

Anyway, why I’m so thrilled about Bruce Springsteen now totally has to do with creative process. When Terri Gross asked him how he went about songwriting, he said he just fit it into his life. Whenever he had a spare half hour, hour or so.

I was stunned. The Bruce Springsteen. And he’s writing these songs a half hour here, a half hour there.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Bruce Springsteen is probably really busy. He might be busier than I am – I mean, I have young kids and that just naturally makes a person think she’s busier than anybody else, but the truth is, I’m not doing any half-time shows.

Even before I heard Bruce Springsteen say that he got his songwriting in during his spare time I’ve been trying to see what writing I can get done in little blocks of time. Crumbs of time. I used to think I needed vast stretches – days, even. And that is why, before I had kids, when my weekends were nothing but lollygagging, Sunday New York Times, and movies stretching out before me on an endless horizon of free time, I was not that productive a writer.

What I’ve realized now is that it’s a mental game. I’m not doing my corporate job any more, I should have more time. Somehow, it feels like less time. It’s an illusion. There’s more or less time, but how much there is doesn’t matter that much and, actually, it doesn’t vary that much. If I can believe I can get some writing done in a small amount of time, I do. But if I don’t, I surf, I look helplessly at the pieces of mail asexually reproducing on our kitchen counter, I do something futzy and wasteful and throw up my hands. Really, it’s all about believing in half hours.

Writing funny

I finally figured out what I miss from the Sunday New York Times.

They used to do this thing in the magazine next to the comics (which, I’m sorry, I try to read each one but have always given up on) called True-Life Tales. It was kind of like Modern Love, in the Sunday Styles section, in that it had a similar brilliance-to-cringe ratio, say, 1:9. But I lived for that 1 in 9 chance. I guess, back in the day, when I read True-Life Tales and Modern Love I had a 2 in 9 chance of satisfaction, which is pretty significant. Every Sunday morning, I’m there with a big mug of coffee, a groggy head, and a couple of kids making a racket in the background – believe me, 2 in 9 looks great.

What I liked about True-Life tales was that it was pretty much as advertised. Normal people suffered the indignities of life and they wrote funny about the experience. I find this genre of writing incredibly comforting, I think because not only do I feel like I go through a lot of indignities but also because now I’m in my 40s I realize I could die any moment. And since death is the ultimate indignity, having a funny story about indignity represents some kind of triumph over mortality. Or at least that’s my explanation for why I like to read about petty humiliations.

The problem is, it’s not so easy to find funny writing. The New Yorker sometimes has funny Shouts and Murmurs. For instance, about five years ago they ran one that was a corporate-style memo announcing family layoffs.  Since my husband has a joke he likes to repeat about how he’s doing my year-end performance review, I found this to be hilarious.

After an especially humorless stretch of Sundays, I decided to go back through the New York Times’s archives and see if the pieces I remembered as being so funny were actually any good. And my scientific conclusion? They were. So now I’m wondering, could someone please bring back True-Life Tales? To this day, I laugh whenever I think about the woman and the angry Mailboxes, Etc. guy and I repeat to myself the awesome last line (“Have some damn respect”). Or the one about the guy in France having to wear the Speedo, his principled refusal,  his surprising reconciliation with sexy swimwear, and the sweet way he faces the real issue – which is, the memory of going on a beach vacation with his divorced father in the 1970s. Or the one that begins, “I think I may have accidentally ended up in a pornographic film.”

I realize if I’m that obsessed with funny I could be reading The Onion more often, or watching “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo” over and over again. But those are not funny Sunday morning experiences. Sunday morning – when I am thinking ahead to the beginning of the week and to the stuff not done from the previous week, when the house is trashed, when our dog has woken us up to go pee several times during the night, when we are all tired from having stayed up long past good sense the night before – Sunday morning is when I need my good news, my triumph over death, that insane Mailboxes guy and the Speedo and the adult film. So I’m just saying, New York Times, please. I’ve got the humiliation, you bring the funny. Because that stuff is keeping me alive.

at sea, adrift, wrestling with existential fear

Yes, I’m afraid things are bad. It is on all levels: malaise about life, an inability to drink enough water, sleeplessness, too much sleep, moping about the past, hatred of the past, fear of literature, fear of laundry, excess carbon, and not being able to duck a curse. I have even seen the new James Bond movie and experienced not so much lift as muddle.

This badness comes at a time when I’d thought I’d outwitted most of these things (well, maybe not my laundry) through the help of an excellent book called “The Now Habit” about overcoming procrastination. So it is also hubris that has tripped me up. Alas, today I am procrastinating again. I would write more except I think it would be just grumbling. I am going to push back from the computer and take a walk.

My life is ruined and I’m blaming “The Wire”

For the longest time my mom kept telling me to watch the HBO series “The Wire”, and I would say, “sure.” I intended to get to it someday. “It blows ‘The Sopranos’ out of the water,” she would say, and I would say, “yeah, okay.” But “The Wire” seemed – from glimpses I’d caught of it in hotel rooms or wherever – impenetrable and a bit dreary. I’m quite sure it is obvious where this is going.

So now I’ve had my conversion, and I’m a slobbering, frothing, born-again “Wire” fan. And there is no pleasure to be had anywhere, any more, ever again. Because “The Wire” was so good it kept me up late at night thinking about public schools, drug policies, and foster kids. Because no book comes close. Because by some cosmic misfortune the next movie in our Netflix queue was the unspeakably bad “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” it has made all other movies seem laughably inept and lightweight. It almost felt sacrilegious the day after the final episode, to smile or to express suburban joy at my Berkeley Volvo and the way I may drive it to excellent farmers’ markets. O, Wire, you have ruined my life!

In some ways, though, it is no joke when something grabs you so strongly and makes you story-sick with that peculiar malaise – the real world fades away, the characters feel more vivid than the people you see every day, the tragedy (well, in “The Wire” it was countless tragedies) of a character worms its way inside and coils like a parasite into your thoughts.

After it was over, I wondered also where all my worked-up emotion would go. Didn’t “The Wire” show again and again how one individual could make a difference? So what would I do after watching it? Sadly I haven’t yet figured that out.

Am I a sellout on Goodreads?

After hearing me gripe and moan about a particular book (one that shall remain nameless until the end of this blog entry), my husband was outraged to discover that I’d given it four stars on Goodreads.

“I give everything four stars,” I told him, “except for books that really wow me like the Savage Detectives.” (Of course, the Savage Detectives later broke my heart and had me in furies, but I still came back around to it like a co-dependent lover and I gave it five stars because I loved it and railed against it in the way that only grand passion can inspire.)

But he had touched a nerve, and it made me take a long, hard uncomfortable look at the ratings I was handing out. Was I really selling out on Goodreads, throwing stars at books that didn’t deserve them? I went and looked at what other people had to say about the book I’d not exactly liked. Here was one of the harsher reviews: “I’m afraid this book gets one star, a rating which I’ve so far reserved for The DaVinci Code.” Ouch. I’m not sure I’d go down to one star, but I guess I could have been tougher on it. Except that the book had brilliant writing in it, was hugely ambitious, and, in general, was thought-provoking even though in many parts I disagreed with certain choices. I guess, also, I have to admit I admire this writer a lot and don’t want to feel like a jerk one-starring a literary demigod.

All of this reminded me of the time years ago when I reviewed movies and I had given a favorable review to a Japanese movie in which nothing happened except a guy looks at the ocean. (I sincerely hope that my memory is off and this is not the one where he looks at the ocean and is also deaf and rarely talks, but, alas, IMDB research reveals it to be so.) There was more to it – he looked at the ocean *and* had a surfboard, but in any event it was not exactly the compelling drama I had implied it to be. Two friends of mine were so incensed they came to my apartment directly from the theater, ready for some film critic smackdown. (Gary and Cate if you ever read this, I know I was wrong, I still feel your pain, and, in my defense, this film was a Takeshi Kitano anomaly.)

Okay, if I could do it all over again, I would give that movie about the possibly deaf-mute ocean-gazing Japanese guy one star. Maybe I should post nothing to Goodreads but stinkers so that I can slash and burn like the second coming of Dale Peck. Then again, maybe I’m right about the four stars. Jonathan Lethem, you write an awesome sentence, you’re smart. Hats off to you, man.

The Fortress of Solitude The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Flat-out ambitious in a way that reminded me strongly of “The Corrections,” language sometimes mind-blowing but sometimes so stylized it got in the way of my connection, and a great (great) relationship at its core between these two kids Dylan and Mingus. Still, for all that, I feel a slight reservation, a coolness, so that I cannot give it a total rave. Possibly I got more fascinated by a secondary drama – centered around the idea of Jonathan Lethem writing this book and making certain choices and wondering why he did some things and awed that he had the guts to do others.

But here’s a great line (one of thousands) that made me think of my friend Chris. This is upon hearing Rick James’s “Super Freak” at the first party of the year at Camden College (a thinly veiled Bennington) after Dylan’s escape from Brooklyn:

“That easy appropriation of dance-floor funk was a first taste, for me, of something I desperately wanted to understand: the suburban obliviousness of these white children to the intricate boundaries of race and music which were my inheritance and obsession. Nobody here cared – it was only a danceable song.”

View all my reviews.

The decongestant disaster (or, the story of my reunion)

For some reason I decided that my first solo trip since becoming a mom would be to my college reunion. After nearly seven years of traveling with small fussy children, this was my big prize. Maybe I was not exactly dreaming big, but I was looking forward to it.

I’d been planning the trip for a while, and, thrillingly, it involved an overnight stay in a hotel room (by myself!) in fabulous Newark, NJ, where I would then be met by my friend Colette. We would drive up to Smith together on scenic turnpikes and reminisce and it would all be lovely.

But less than a week before I was supposed to go, I got knocked out and slammed around by a sinus infection so merciless that night after night I was lying in bed in fitful sleep, with a stash of clean T-shirts and towels on the floor next to me because I would sweat through my clothes and wake up shivering in a tangle of clammy sheets.

I did herbal remedies, saltwater rinses, and visualization exercises. Greenish, yellowish bloodied goop still poured out of my nose at a flow rate of about ten ounces per hour. And I didn’t think I’d be able to fly, especially when the emergency on-call doctor I talked to prescribed antibiotics and told me, “You’re not going anywhere.”

My regular doctor was more sanguine. He sent me home with a sackful of pharmaceutical samples and told me, “We’ll get you on that plane,” with a cheery shoulder pat. His regime involved squirting up with about three different nasal sprays and using a decongestant.

But the thing is, I never take medicine. My system is totally unused to the stuff. The decongestant alone made me so spacy that I drove to the airport, arrived more than two hours ahead of time, and still managed to miss my flight. I was, um, browsing in the airport shops. So there I was, hopped up on Sudafed and weeping into my cellphone at the San Francisco airport as I proceeded to call Grant and then my parents and in short make a thorough spectacle of myself.

It all worked out – as you can see from the picture below. I made it to my reunion and got the 80s sampler CD and the tote bag. I got to have a wonderful time with my friend Colette and all the other people who were somehow exactly as I remembered them – either that or simply more themselves now that they are older. And I did get to march in the “white parade,” which is the Ivy Day thing, and which I didn’t do back when I graduated because I was too cool for school (or maybe because I didn’t own anything white back then – can’t remember). Now I have a white outfit I’m ready to break out at a moment’s notice. And I have a neti pot for nasal irrigation. Hurray, reunion!

Heather and Colette at the Ivy Day parade

Why we need a gnome


Originally uploaded by mattfoster

I have been going crazy trying to keep order around the house, and finally I had an idea. We’d get a gnome.

This brainstorm came out of a parenting class I went to so that I’d be more sweetness and light around the kids. A woman there said she had great success getting her son to eat vegetables when she told him that their gnome cooked them. (Why did they have a pretend gnome in the first place? I wasn’t totally clear, but I think it had something to do with a Norwegian background.)

This could work! I thought. We eat plenty of vegetables, but struggle not to be slobs. I needed a pretend gnome of my own to send cute gnomey notes to the kids about tidying up.

So, I told my kids, hey, I was on the Berkeley Parents Network, and I saw a message from a family saying they were moving and needed to find a new home for their gnome. His name is Nils, he’s an older gentleman gnome, and he’s looking for a house with children, do you think you’d be interested?

They were over the moon. Yes! They cried and immediately began to argue about where he would sleep. I burst in with a few caveats. We’d have to keep the living room clean, I said. Nils will take care of us, but he gets cranky if toys and things are scattered all over. I painted a rather grim picture of what life would be like with a cranky gnome running loose in the house. They thought about this and believed they were up to the challenge of placating a small gnome.

Okay, I said. If you really think you’d like to have him, I’ll write him a letter.

Then I went out and did not write the letter. I got another cold, and I started writing some new stuff, and we started swimming lessons twice a week, and it seemed like a lot of work to bring Nils to life, even though I still wanted to.

My husband was deep into writing descriptions for my son’s silent auction school fundraiser, and he was also picking up some extra freelance work in his off hours. So I couldn’t exactly sit on the couch and when he asked what I was up to say, I’m really busy writing a letter from Nils the gnome.

Still, I kept thinking about Nils. I imagined him as fairly old-school, yet with a streak of mischief. He could be our Mary Poppins! He could transform me into a genial, somewhat absentminded mother who planned adventures and left day-to-day details to the gnome. Nils could scold about the dirty socks on the floor, while I flitted about going “yes, darling?” to the kids.

Maybe the gnome could remind you to water the lawn, my husband said.

I really don’t think that’s an appropriate use for Nils, I told my husband. The living room and the dirty sock situation alone were already a lot to put on his plate. Reluctantly, I concluded there were just too many possibilities for gnome abuse in our household.

The kids still mention him every once in a while. We were reading Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets, and when Dobby shows up in Harry’s bedroom to warn him not to go back to Hogwarts, I tried to explain about house elves. My son lit up. He’s like the gnome! he exclaimed.

Yep. We’ll have one just like him someday.