Thursday, September 27, 2007

Prague by Arthur Phillips


The year the Berlin Wall fell, I was living in a house in the old part of Marrakesh that was built into the wall of the city. From our terrace, we could see straight out over the palmerie to the snow-covered High Atlas Mountains in the distance.
I was twenty-eight years old, the same age as the Berlin Wall.

It was Thanksgiving, and the road outside our house was also the roadway that led to the king's palace. When the King wasn't there, we could drive up in front of our front door and part, but when the King was in town, there were armed guards that patrolled the entrance to the road, and we had to park our car at a distance and walk the rest of the way.

I was married in June, and moved to Marrakesh in July, and though I had lived in Morocco twice before, this time, suddenly, Thanksgiving was important to me.

We found a turkey in the French Market in Gueliz and I went to the trouble of mashing potatoes, making gravy and stuffing. American dishes never taste quite the same when prepared abroad, and this dinner was no exception, but it was good enough.

We invited three Moroccan friends, all single men who were friends of my husband. For some reason, I insisted on serving the meal American style, with individual plates, and knives and forks. In my deepest heart, I felt like the whole dinner would be ruined if we sat around a communal plate, picking off bits of meat using pieces of bread as silverware, as in the Moroccan tradition.

The three gentlemen were as lovely as they could be, although I remember feeling a sense of lack. Moroccan food is colorful and vibrant, full of with rich spices and a full palette of colors. My turkey dinner, unlivened by cranberry sauce or jeweled yams, looked drab against the vibrancy of our surroundings.

After the meal, we drank sweet mint tea and watched the news on television, the celebrations, and pictures of people dismantling the Berlin Wall piece by piece. Sometimes we watched the news in French, and sometimes we watched it in Arabic, but in either case the action seemed impossibly remote, so distant that it might have been unfolding in another time.

We looked out through the ornate iron scrollwork of the terrace, to the empty, quiet street, and the armed guards on duty at the archway that served as a checkpoint. Sometimes the prince's van or the big blue Mercedes' that belonged to the palace people would zoom by, but the rest of the time, there was nothing but a clear vista, over the floating green palm trees to the mountains in the distance.

Then, I felt stuck away in a dusty corner of the world. Now I miss with a passion the days when a terrace in Marrakesh seemed ordinary.

Rereading Prague by Arthur Phillips, I think maybe now I'm old enough to understand how much of life is spent thinking of elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My Alter Ego

A sneak preview of a new project I'm working on with my son, or what happens to your brain when you spend too much time with a sixteen-year-old boy.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

John Hinckley, Jodie Foster, Alice James, David Milch, and Me


I was in college. I wrote a story called Keeping House. It was about a woman who refused to get out of bed, and so her house was slowly overtaken by dust, until she was eventually suffocated. The slowest of all slow deaths. I submitted it to the college literary magazines where it was roundly rejected. That year, one college undergraduate published a story in The New Yorker, and we ran into Jodie Foster, a classmate, at every turn. We knew how to recognize talent-- and the lack of it, of course.

At that time, I was taking a class that I had chosen primarily for its high "gut" potential. The class was called "The James Family Project" and ostensibly we were to learn the art of television screenwriting all while learning about the illustrious family of Henry and William James.

I chose the class because I was able to fulfill both an English and a History requirement, and because it involved creative writing, and because it looked easy.

There were six students in the class, five boys, and me. The professor was an out-of-shape guy in a tweed jacket with wild hair threaded with gray and a souped up vocabulary-- to my youthful eyes he was the essence of a failure posing as a know-it-all.

He said that he was writing a PBS special about the James family, and he hinted around that he had all kinds of connections and that if we were "good enough" we might be able to get a foot in the door. I suspected that he was frankly hoping that our work would be good enough to steal.

He was bombastic and full of himself. The boys in the class were pumped up and full of hot air. I was painfully shy and sat silent most of the time but there was something about this man that seemed painfully familiar to me-- even then, I had an awareness that the writer's road was not an easy one, and that he must have once had more glorious dreams than to be pacing that basement classroom trapped with the six of us.

Still and all, I found myself becoming obsessed with the sister of William and Henry James--Alice. A brilliant woman in her own right, she had spent most of her adulthood as a neurasthenic, confined to her bed bitterly complaining of her ills, while her two brothers, the psychologist and the novelist, went on to become some of the most illustrious men of the nineteenth century. She reminded me of the woman in my story who took to her bed and refused to get up.

The secret truth of my life was that I was having a terrible time. One of my two roommates was falling apart, and I myself was barely holding my head above water, but in a quiet way that no one seemed to notice. I was not doing much of my work. I was too shy to participate in class.

Then, partway through the semester, John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, and gave as the motive his love for Jodie Foster. There were news reporters everywhere, and people trying to interview us--do you know her? How does she dress? Who are her friends? Jodie Foster went into hiding and was about to give her first press conference in the same building where my class was going to meet.

There were armed gaurds at the entrance to the building, and when I tried to pass, they demanded my teacher's name. John Hinckley, Jodie Foster, Ronald Reagan. These were names on the nightly news. Not my bag-of-hot-air, middle-aged, slightly overweight professor. What was his name? If I had known it at some point, by then it had slipped away.
"I...uh...I....I..don't know..." I said.

I felt the security officers' arms encircle mine, and my feet were just lifting up off the ground.

Another student bailed me out just in time.

David Milch, you idiot.

Oh yeah.

David Milch, David Milch. I repeated it to myself so I wouldn't forget it.

At the end of the semester, I had to hand in the one assignment, a television screenplay about Alice James and then meet with the professor in his office.

"So," he said, leaning forward from behind the big desk and looking at me. "You never say a word, sometimes you don't come to class..."
He had my twenty-page screenplay sitting on the desk between us, my heart was pounding and my mouth was dry.

I nodded.

"Why didn't you come to class?"

How does one answer a question like that? How did I explain about the fact that I liked to go up to the seventh floor library stacks and write poetry on the carrells and stare out the windows? That I read lots of novels, but never the ones that were assigned in class? That I felt like the lady in my story, the one who never wanted to get out of bed?

"Are you passing your other classes?"

"Oh sure," I said. "Everything is perfectly fine."

He picked up my papers from his desk and looked at me. "There is no doubt that you have talent. But, what I want to know if you are okay. I want to know if you are doing okay in your other classes?"

I did a quick run through in my mind... at the end of that disastrous semester I would be on academic probation.

"Fine," I said. "Everything is fine."

I didn't tell him then but it made no small impression on me that he had cared enough to ask, and that he had noticed me, Alice James, silent, small and tamped down, among the boisterous others.

I don't think it was more than two or three years later that I saw his face on the cover of Newsweek Magazine.

David Milch had gotten famous as a TV writer and director of some of the hottest shows on TV, and in the article, it mentioned that there had been a time when he had been so down on his luck that he had been living in his office at Yale, right during that time that he was my teacher.

I'll always be one of his biggest fans-- for introducing me to Alice James, and for asking me how I was doing when no one else did.

In the youthful arrogance of twenty, I had mistaken him for washed-up when he had not even gotten started.

Success is impossible to predict-- the worst washed up failure sleeping in an office may quickly morph into next month's sensation.
But, kindness is impossible to mistake, and not soon forgotten.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton

As a child, I loved any book that had covers, and would even stoop to books with the covers ripped off if necessary. But, I had a special weakness for books where big families lived in old Victorian houses with damp cellars and tower rooms with velvet curtains, houses that had streams running through the back yards.

Growing up in a modern ranch house in Southern California, it seemed that bookish things happened in bookish houses. I desperately wanted bookish things to happen to me, and there were no bookish houses anywhere in my neighborhood, none in my town.

My plan was to grow up to be a writer, and I planned to write books about bookish houses-- books with lots of porches and gables and turret rooms, and secret things hidden away in them.

There was a short list of books that fulfilled my greatest book house fantasies: The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Four Story Mistake, by Elizabeth Enright, and a third in which there was magic jewel encrusted in the window of a secret room that enabled the childred to travel back in time. Of those three, I owned paperback copies of the first two. The third one I checked out repeatedly from the library.

By the time I had reached adulthood and wanted to shared the books with my own girls, I could no longer remember the name of the third book, nor enough pertinent details to describe the third book to a librarian. I remembered only a big Victorian house and a magical jewel... beyond that, I was lost. I assumed that it was an obscure book that had long since gone out of print.

Fast forward thirty years, I live in the east, where I still don't live in a book house, but at least there are lots of them all around my neighborhood. I've succeeded in passing on my love of reading to my daughters, and I haven't shaken off the dream of growing up to be a writer who writes books about big houses with turrets and gables.

In fact, I've written a book about just such a house, it's about a woman who inherits an enormous old lake house from her grandmother and through secret letters and photographs she finds in an old trunk and she's able to reconstructs the secrets of her family's past. It's all terrific, except I can't sell it, and I'm discouraged.

One day, I'm browsing at the book store, and I come across a book called Three Junes. I read a few pages and I'm hooked. I don't normally buy hardcovers, but I have to buy this one. A few days later, I notice a brief mention of the book in my college alumni magazine. I realize that this is the author's first novel and that she is a few years older than I am. I read the book avidly, though I am humbled, because the book is brilliant. Though I don't normally write fan mail, I decide to write this author a letter telling her that she has inspired me.

Flash forward again, five years later. The author, Julia Glass, is now a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award winner, and I am a twice published novelist, and then I have the opportunity to meet her through the kindness of a mutual friend, Jon Clinch.

Before the meeting, I come across an essay she has written in which she talks about books that have inspired her, and she mentions The Diamond in the Window. In a flash, it comes back to me, that this is my missing book.

Julia tells a wonderful story about how she met the author Jane Langton, for the first time, when she was eight years old. I google her, she has a website, her books are all in print. I mention her name to my mother who has been a fan of her mysteries for years.

There she was, under my nose for all these years.

I find a copy of The Diamond in the Window in my local independent bookstore, sitting on a shelf that I've perused a million times before. I buy it "for my daughter" but as I sit down to read it, an entire world comes back to me, and I find all of the half-forgotten memories that have been there all along. I am ashamed of the things that are so woven into the fabric of my imagination that I thought I had made them up myself and there they are, sitting in the pages of The Diamond in the Window.

Julia Glass did not remember that she took a few minutes to send kind words of encouragement to me a long time ago when I was disappointed that I couldn't sell my book about a big house with lots of towers and gables and porches and trunks with old letters and photographs inside. Jane Langton doesn't know that I just mailed off The Diamond in the Window to my girls who are visiting their grandmother with the assurance not to worry that there are more in the series-- books that were written later that I never even knew about because I outgrew the children's section of the library.

Occasionally, a writer can have an influence that is directly personal, and other times a writer can leave traces that are profound but almost entirely forgotten.

One lesson is clear to me from all this. Those trips to the library as children stay with us for life.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Quarantine Island

It's not easy being a woman and a writer, especially when that woman, and that writer has a daughter who has the whooping cough.

As a writer, I'm horribly prone to romantic notions of all things connected to words, and that includes words used to describe disease. Whooping cough, consumption, hysteria, neurasthenia... childbed fever... apoplexy... From the comfort of the rather sterile and well-medicated twenty-first century, these things seem quaint and distant-- quarantined to memory.

So, when my daughter came down with a terrible cough, and the doctor mentioned a possible diagnosis of pertussis, I was confused. I knew that she had been immunized, and I thought that we were immune to long bouts of illness that could only be treated with hand-holding, strong broth, and convalescence.

Not so. Whooping cough, or pertussis, has made a resurgence, and immunity as conferred through vaccination tends to wear off.

I've sat by my daughter's side and watched her racked by coughing fits that last for hours and sound like freight trains running along tracks at night.

She will recover, slowly, and I'm nursing her back to health the old fashioned way, with clean sheets, cool beverages, and plenty of love.

Not getting a lot of writing done.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Hotel of Dreams (One Star)

Sometimes, an idea for a story comes to me, and this morning, I was out on the driveway blowing bubbles for my son when I realized that I might want to write a story right out of my own life.

Maybe it takes a certain amount of distance to be able to see that a slice of one's own life was delivered in story form, and in my own case, it seems to have taken precisely twenty-seven years, the chunk of time that has passed since the four months, March through July 1980, that I spent at the Hotel of Dreams on the Island of Corsica next to the blue, blue Mediterranean Sea.

There was every character there, when I think about it, and I know that somewhere in a box at my mother's house, there is a treasure trove of journals that I kept at the time to remind me what I really thought at the time.

This I know. I was eighteen. On my own for the first time. I had overstayed my visa, I was living on 600 francs a month, which I think was about thirty dollars a week. I was living with a family that didn't speak a word of English, and that one by one they fired the laundress and the chambermaid and the waitress and I took over each of the jobs and added it to my list of responsibilities.

I had an American friend, Yvonne, who lived 2.2 kilometers away, on the next beach over. She was blonde and had loopy curls and eyes that seemed to me at the time to be perfectly round.

Her father sent her packages with books in them, and she used to read them with a paperback dictionary and learn new vocabulary words with which she used to pepper he speech in odd and unexpected ways.

Yvonne had a Saudi Arabian boyfriend, and she used to write letters to him, and he'd write back, offering to come take her away with him, and she and I would imagine that he would appear in his yacht on the horizon of the tranquil bay of the Tarco beach and she would sail away with him.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Once, when I was living in married student housing in California, my oldest son was about eighteen months old, I read a short story by Anne Tyler. I'm not even sure where I read it... The New Yorker, maybe....?

My literary aspirations were deep undercover then, but my life, in many ways, was lovely. We lived in a spartan apartment. It was on the ground floor, and tiny, with tan linoleum floors that echoed the sound of every toddler cry.

There was a large sandbox and play structure in the center of the apartment complex, and every apartment was full of little families-- mostly the wives of foreign graduate students. In a way, I was also the wife of a foreign graduate student. My husband was a graduate student, and he was foreign, and so we blended in.

I taught ESL in the nearby adult school. My life was full of people with accents, and children learning to climb and ride tricycles. We often had potlucks in which we sat on folding lawn chairs, balancing paper plates filled with asian noodles, egg curry, and cous while our children played with garage sale plastic toys and our conversations were peppered with sentences that began, "in my country..."

Truth was, I often felt inadequate. I was never sure what to bring to the potluck. I did not have a dish that was quintessentially mine. My housekeeping was never as good as the wives of the foreign graduate students, nor were my opinions quite as well-formed. My friend, Zohra, from Tunisia, gathered olives from the trees that lined the road and in the spring she could make dishes from plants that even in my native California I had always thought were weeds. She kept her house clean, and hung a small cloth over her TV when it wasn't in use.

My house tended to be discombobulated. I was afraid to use disposable diapers for fear the gel in them would poison my baby's bottom. I had trouble with breast-feeding and had expensive Medela paraphenelia that cluttered up the area near my sink.

And then, I found that Anne Tyler story, and I read it. I don't remember much about it, except that it was about a woman who lived among foreign graduate students and felt inadequate.

I wanted to know how she knew me. I wanted to know how Anne Tyler knew what it was like to be me.

Now, fifteen years later, I find Digging to America.

Anne Tyler is writing about many things-- but she is certainly writing about my own experience of seventeen years of living in a cross-cultural marriage.

Sometimes literature is like that.

Sometimes you realize that you are not alone in your most secret thoughts and fears. There are other people in the world who are envious of the foreign graduate student wives with their clean houses who always seem to know what dish to bring to the potluck to represent their culture, and who seem to have enough time to keep that little embroidered cloth, with the point hanging just so, over the the TV when they are not watching it. Whose lives are not cluttered by piles of useless junk that collect in the corners of their kitchen counters, who could pack off of their belongings into two or three cardboard boxes.

Clutter, junk, stuff, abundance, joy, love...

Anne Tyler put in all in there.

God bless.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble

Maybe to fall in love with certain writers you have to read them at a certain moment. The characters become more than characters-- they become embodiments of pathways towards living.

When I was in college, Frances Wingate, in Margaret Drabble's The Realms of Gold was such a character. In 1979, the year I entered Yale College, there had been women there for exactly ten years, but I felt that we had made but a superficial impression. There were no women in the secret societies that mattered. Few women professors. Girl students did not tend to win prizes. It was hard to be "hail fellow, well met" and when you weren't a fellow at all.

Frances Wingate was a full-grown woman, and she seemed to know how to behave in the world, and I took full note of her particulars: she had a lover with an accent who was sometimes with her and sometimes not. He had long tapered fingers stained with nicotine. She checked into hotel rooms alone. She travelled, rode in Jeeps in the desert, came down with dysentery, drank something called bitters. Frances Wingate was sometimes called into the kitchen to do tasks such as chopping vegetables, but when angered she picked up crockery and hurled it across the room.

The women in Margaret Drabble's books never hesitated to seem as smart as they felt. They were not afraid to use the word "teoleological." They were not afraid to get divorced, go to parties alone, have sex, drink too much, and look in the mirror and notice that their lipstick was smudged.

So, the joy of meeting Ailsa Kelman, now in her sixties and looking fabulous scooped into a metallic dress, is not inconsiderable. Another confident, smart, headstrong Drabble woman. Again, she is alone in a moving vehicle. Again, she is a reassuring twenty-some years older than I am, still barreling along, smart, determined hard-minded and thinking things over.

I don't drink Campari, ride Jeeps across the desert, or look good scooped into a metallic dress. I've never been as brave, or as articulate as a Drabble woman, but at least I've always had a sense what I was shooting for.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I'm so sad to learn of Tillie Olsen's passing. I was lucky enough to hear her speak once when I was in college. She was an older woman then. She must have been in her seventies already, back then, in the early eighties.

She was small, and soft-spoken, but vibrant. She wore big glasses that were almost as big as her face. I had to learn forward to hear her.

At the time, it seemed that the whole world was available to me. I was twenty, and enrolled in an Ivy League university that had only started admitting women ten years before I got there, but by the time I arrived, my class was fifty per cent women. Sure, there were signs that we weren't quite equal-- most of my professors were men, the secret societies, most of them, were still only for men, the women's sports facilities were not as good-- but those were things we could overlook. Our success was guaranteed by the sheer bulk of our presence.

But still, I listened attentively to Tillie. Her words made an impression on me. There was something dishearteningly familiar to me about a woman who might be a writer but who was engaged in ironing shirts. I knew that woman. I had grown up with her. She was my mother.

I had no intention of being my mother, but I hadn't ever stopped and given a lot of thought to who might iron those shirts in her absence.

Now that I am a woman and an author, it seems that I give a disproportionate amount of time, thought, and anguish to laundry.

The laundry in my home isn't just a household task, it is a geographical destination, with a name: Mt. Laundry. We get out rappelling ropes and we scale it from time to time. We take along GPS devices and Nalgene bottles and all sorts of modern contrivances, and yet, there it stands: inevitable, immutable, and smelly.

Sure we make dents in it. Sure, we extract clean socks, underwear and sports clothes from Mt. Laundry on a regular basis, like miners extracting raw ore.

But we never fully tame its wilderness of laundry baskets, socks without mates, and graying underclothing that should have been washed separately with bleach.

And I'll admit that there are times when I fantasize about another sort of life. A life in which laundry is sorted and washed and ironed and folded and put away with the inevitable rhythm of the seasons. A life in which my relationship with books is no more than a weekly trip to the library. A life in which I sacrifice art to life, books to laundry, ideas to household order.

But, I wasn't raised for that. I was raised to believe that I would not have to stand ironing and looking out the window, thinking about books that might have been written while listening to the children playing in the street below.

I was raised to believe that I could do what I wanted to do, reach for whatever I wanted to reach for.

And I have. And as far as the ironing is concerned, it's not that much of a problem, because fortunately wrinkles are more accepted and someone had the good sense to invent wash and wear.

But someone still has to do the laundry, and in my household, that someone is no one, or rather, that someone is a distracted mom who throws some in between chapters and a distracted Dad who throws some more in after work.

But in my mind, somebody makes a whole lot of money, and then, I spend part of my day ironing, just because I can.

Except, that I'm afraid I never would.