Fifty years ago today, on May 4, 1970, National Guard troops shot at a crowd of students at Kent State University (in Ohio) and killed four of them.
For whatever reasons, I was recently speaking with a friend about the history of the 1960s and 1970s, which I have, after a lifetime of largely ignoring, have suddenly decided was a fascinating period of US history. This is a sure sign of aging. All sorts of historical stories that I was never interested in before are starting to appeal to me. Maybe because I'm learning in my own life that, no matter what happens, mostly, there is nothing new under the sun. That's almost equal parts appalling and comforting.
Anyway, my friend said something about the Kent State incident, so I took myself off to Wikipedia to get the thumbnail (and probably wrong) sketch of what happened. And I was surprised to discover (I first looked this up two days ago), that today was going to be the 50th anniversary of the shooting. It's not been getting much media play, of course; Corona is King.
I am not going to get a book on the subject, primarily because my library is closed right now. Also, a new graphic novel about it is coming out in September, by none other than Derf Backderf, who is an author that I absolutely love. I will actually probably overcome my cheap nature and just buy a copy of it, because Derf Backderf should be able to make a living. So I will wait and read that.
In broad strokes, here's the story: A group of students were protesting the Vietnam War (in particular the bombing of Cambodia) on campus at Kent State, in a protest that lasted for several days. Nobody actually knows who fired the first shot, or why, but after twenty-eight National Guard soldiers (who were there partially because over the prior weekend prior someone had set the ROTC building on campus on fire) shot at the students, four of them were dead and nine were injured (including some students who had just been walking to or from class, and weren't involved in the protest).
P.S. In happier news, the CRjrs inform me that it is also "May the Fourth Be With You" Day. That reminds me, I have to stop typing this and get back to trying to teach those little punks their math. Ye Gods. The little Target gift cards I gave their teachers over the holidays should have been much, much bigger.
I am not sad because John Prine didn't lead a full life. I think he did.
I'm sad because John Prine occupied a special place in my heart and my memory, and because he wrote and sang beautiful music, and the world needs more of that, not less.
In July of 1995, I was young. I was in college, I felt good, it was the mid-90s and women were allowed to wear the grunge look and still be considered desirable women. Life was good. Of course, at the same time, it also wasn't. In July of 1995 I was beyond depressed. I thought I was majoring in the wrong thing in college (I was) and that nobody I had a crush on would ever date me (they would, but I couldn't know that then), and that I was fat (I wasn't) and a loser (the jury's still out) and I was in the wrong college at the wrong time and why didn't I feel better? About that time I had taken a light semester of courses, with an eye to dropping out, and was working full-time at a CD store (when such things still existed) for minimum wage, which was, at that time, something like $4.50 per hour. Actually I think I was better off than my co-workers; I got a quarter extra per hour for being a full-timer.
But the job had perks, no doubt about it. First of all was the world's most relaxed dress code, which has always been the most important consideration to me when taking a job. Secondly, I worked with nice (although crazy) people, and we all had different musical tastes, so in one eight-hour shift you went from punk to country to rap to whatever Americana I was into at the time, and beyond. You also sometimes got free concert tickets, and backstage passes. In July of 1995 I got free tickets and a backstage pass to meet John Prine at his show in town.
I had no idea who John Prine was. I went because the opening act was The Subdudes, and I loved The Subdudes. I also went because I had two free tickets, and this way I could ask my friend Joe to go along with me, because he was perpetually low on cash and was always up for free entertainment. I was also in love with Joe. Joe was emphatically not in love with me. It was frustrating to be in love with Joe, because I loved his laugh and for some reason he found me funny and when we were together we laughed all the time. If you can make me laugh, I'm basically in love with you. Didn't it work that way for guys, I wondered?
Over the next ten years or so I would learn, no, it doesn't work that way for guys. But that's the subject for a whole other book of maudlin essays.
Anyway. I loved Joe and still harbored sad desperate hopes that someday, when he was laughing at something hilarious I said, he would suddenly realize he actually was in love with me. So off we went to see the Subdudes and John Prine.
The Subdudes were great, and Joe totally enjoyed that part of the concert, which made me happy. We almost left before John Prine even played, but then I remembered, hey, I had a backstage pass, I kinda wanted to hear what he was about and go backstage afterwards. So we stayed. And here's what I learned: John Prine was the King of Awesome.
John Prine has a voice like nobody else, and although I'd never heard him before, and of course I don't remember the songs he played, I still remember how I felt at that concert. I even forgot about Joe sitting next to me. I sank into the music that I'd never heard before and I just totally, totally enjoyed the showmanship and skill of John Prine and his band. I loved every song. I remember feeling both totally awake and totally still in a way that I rarely am. If I am awake, I am moving. My mind is moving, my hands are moving, my feet are moving, something. Antsy is my primary state of being.
But for the entire time John Prine played I was still. I listened. The world was still while I listened. And then, when he was done playing, I dragged Joe backstage with me and I got to meet John Prine. Of course he had to say hello to a lot of other people who had backstage passes, and I don't remember that I even talked (I think I was still in a transcendent state where speech would have seemed superfluous). I do remember that he was completely gracious, and he was not exactly a big smiler, but he seemed very kind. He signed my backstage pass.
When I was young I had the habit of tucking ticket stubs and other ephemera into my CD booklets.* So, although I have not listened to it for a long time, I just went downstairs to the CD archives and found my lone John Prine CD. Tucked in the booklet is my ticket, and that backstage pass, and it says, "Thank you. John Prine."
I don't know where Joe ended up. I can still remember his laugh, and I laugh thinking about it, and I laugh thinking about Joe and knowing what I know now, and understanding why he didn't love me back and how he was right about that, no way in hell would that have ever worked. And I'm no longer young, and the world is upside down, and a great singer is dead.
But once, long ago, I took a chance and did something new, and even if it didn't substantively change my life, it gave me a lovely feeling and a memory and an appreciation for going to see something even when I didn't really know why I was going. Or, as Theodore Roethke would say: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go."
I read my first "introvert advantage backlash" article yesterday, so I'm glad to see people staying positive. Those stories go a little bit like this: 1. Introverts everywhere, to varying degrees (and also depending on how many extroverts they're stuck living with), largely shrug their shoulders about stay-at-home orders. 2. Introverts everywhere, to varying degrees, feel a small little thrill that they immediately quash because now is not really the time, that finally, FINALLY, a global order has gone out that actually kinda fits their personalities for a change, and 3. Some extrovert asshole tires of that after approximately 30 seconds and tells introverts to stop being smug about their abilities to stay inside their own homes.
To which I say, let's all try and get along before we die, huh? And also, fuck off, extrovert, my whole life has been about acting like I'm not an introvert, getting out there and smiling and networking and acting like you, so excuse me for feeling okay about myself and my peculiar "I love staying six feet away from people" skills, just this once.
So as you can see: the pandemic has not changed the two basic and competing tenets of my personality, which are "come on, let's have a bit of solidarity here, people" and "screw you guys, I'm going home." Confused? Don't worry. Mr. CR hasn't figured it out yet and he knows me as well as anyone.
But that is all neither here nor there.
Are you reading? Or are you finding you can't concentrate enough to read? I'm somewhere in the middle. I'd like to post something here about books to read in a time of crisis, but can't decide what tone to take. Mainly I wanted to pop in and say I hope you are all well and healthy and self-isolating like champs, and also I would like to hear what you are reading and why.
Take care of yourselves. We're all in this together.
The Driftless Writing Center is this neat place in Viroqua, Wisconsin, that "provides literary and educational opportunities, readings and discussions, writing classes and workshops, and an outlet for the presentation of original writing by area writers." They also do a lot of work helping homeschoolers, and for that I feel very warmly toward them, as I wholeheartedly believe in homeschooling.*
So the DWC has published this anthology, Contours, which includes poetry and essays and fiction and original artwork (from 64 contributors). I haven't read the whole thing yet, but every now and then I read a few chapters and just enjoy them. They truly do all have the flavor of my native state, and I enjoy that, because, let's face it, the wonders of Wisconsin are not over-explored in the national media or publishing industry.
Family members have asked me what my essay is about, and I have done a terrible job of answering them, because what my essay is about sounds vaguely stupid when I say it out loud. But I must really work on my "elevator pitches" and summaries, so here's what I'll tell you: My essay is about my brother Brian, who I loved and who was a golden god to me when I was little (he was fourteen years older than me).** He died in a farm accident in 2003, and I just realized recently that I'm older now than he ever got to be. This seems wrong, because in his outgoing way he really enjoyed the hell out of other people and out of being on earth in general. I am not like that. In short, he was a summer person, reveling in getting outside, and I am a winter person, reveling at getting back inside and locking my door behind me. But I find as I age that I want to be a little bit more like Brian, especially since he is not here to enjoy the world.
See? Terrible at summarizing. Here's an excerpt instead:
"In spring I often think of my brother Brian. Which makes no sense, because he died in July and his birthday was in November, so there's no particular reason my thoughts should turn to him more often in this season than in any other. This spring I thought about him, did the math, and realized that I am now older than he was when he died. I feel very old some days. My back is dodgy and I never stopped doing the sideways "C-section roll" out of bed in the mornings that they told me to do after my first son was born and I don't earn enough money and I feel I haven't accomplished anything even though I'm forty-two. And yet, if I were my brother, I would be gone."
I am very honored to be part of this publication. I particularly like the DWC's advertising copy for the book: "Explore the Driftless with 64 of your friends."*** Nice.
*Although I don't get to homeschool the CRjrs, because they actually like other people and seem to enjoy going to school. If someone had offered to homeschool me while I was in grade school? Holy crap. I would have been in heaven.
**Once when I was little, a neighborhood bully I rode the bus with stole a wheel off my toy car, which I was taking to school for show and tell, and which I had taken out of my backpack to show off because I was so proud of it. When he heard this story later that night, my brother Brian drove to the bully's house and demanded he return the wheel. The bully didn't have the wheel anymore, so it didn't help my car, but the bully certainly left me alone after that. No matter what faults my brother had, and he certainly had them, I will love him to my dying day (and hopefully beyond) for that act of older-brother kindness and chutzpah.
Minter is a journalist/author who investigated a lot of angles of the secondhand economy; I particularly enjoyed his behind-the-scenes information about Goodwill and particularly the many vendors who move between the US and Mexico, buying lots at Arizona Goodwills and then selling them south of the border. The chapter on kids' car seats and their "expiration dates," in particular, was fascinating:
"Professor Kullgren [a Swedish regulator] concluded by writing that Folksam's recommendation is that so long as a seat hasn't been in a crash or otherwise doesn't exhibit any damage, it's fine to use. He also noted that seat designs are always improving, so a consumer buying a newer seat is likely getting a safer seat--especially if the old one exceeds ten years in age. But there's nothing illegal or unsafe in using an older one.
Kullgren's email wouldn't have shocked any of the bidders at the Goodwill car seat auction. Roughly fifty seats were up for sale, and all but three sold, in a matter of minutes. Prices ranged from 5 to 30 dollars. AS the seats disappeared, one of the bidders asked a Goodwill employee when the next ones would arrive. Thinking back on the auction, I think it's too bad that Target recycled those more than 500,000 seats over the years. They would've sold, and many children south of the border would be safer because their parents had access to a secondhand market." (p. 199.)
That chapter in particular made me think differently about car seats, recycling, and how differently resources are used and recycled around the world. The entire book also gave me a desire to buy even less (which actually might be difficult for me, as I own only two pairs of pants and am not inclined to buy any more, even though I probably should), and perhaps even start a business helping people downsize and clear out their houses. I could totally do that, except the carrying out the heavy furniture part. Anybody wanna start that business with me?
I tried to write this post all last week. But each time I sat down to do so, I just felt I wasn't bring sufficient energy to the task. It's February in Wisconsin, and because I have a phobia about driving in snow (it's time to just say it out loud, because that will make it go away, right?), a lot of my energy goes to worrying about winter weather. I'm not completely nuts--it's not just driving. Last week the little CRjr came home from school and reported "We had to go back in school after recess by a different door because someone slipped on the ice and hit their head on the slide and hurt himself really bad and they didn't want us walking by him," and that's just the sort of remark that keeps me nice and worried about playground safety for both CRjrs. Anxiety is exhausting.
Which is one of the reasons I really love TV. For me it functions as a low-cost coping mechanism and way to shut down my brain. I love good stories in written or TV form, and the TV series The Wire, based on David Simon's and Ed Burn's books The Corner and Homicide, is stupendously plotted and jammed with outstanding character acting performances.You've seen why I loved TheWire. So why did I love The Corner?
Well, for one thing, it's one of my favorite types of books. I love investigative and journalistic accounts of people whose lives are very different from mine. (Like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Have you read it yet?) David Simon calls this (in his Authors' Note) "stand-around-and-watch journalism." I love this, because I like to stand around and watch too, but don't often get the chance. Reading these types of books allows me to watch from the privacy of my own home. I also like these types of books because they are often long-term labors of love; Simon points out that they stood around in a west Baltimore neighborhood for more than a full year before even starting to write the book. Their main characters eventually became a fifteen-year-old named DeAndre McCullough, his parents Fran Boyd and Gary McCullough, a variety of drug runners, dealers, and touts with names like "Fat Curt," and a neighborhood resident and parent named Ella Thompson who works in the neighborhood rec center.
This is how the book starts:
"Fat Curt is on the corner.
He leans hard into his aluminum hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival. His fattened, needle-scarred hands will never again see the deep bottom of a trouser pocket; his forearms are swollen leather; his bloated legs mass up from the concrete. But then obese limbs converge on a withered torso: At the heart of the man, Fat Curt is fat no more." (p. 3.)
If that doesn't say a whole world in one paragraph, I don't know what does.
Most of the action in the book follows the drug trade, of course. But there is also a lot of information about family histories and relationships; love affairs gone wrong; Ella Thompson's (heartbreaking) continuing battle to help the kids in her rec center find something, anything, beyond drugs to do; the history of the city and community of Baltimore; and above all, the never-ending struggle to make money with one scam or another,* to score drugs, to find mere moments of release.
I am doing a terrible job of writing this review. I'm going to stop for now. Please: just consider reading this book. Or Homicide, which is another mind-blower. Or watch The Wire. Or maybe do all three, and then watch the documentary Charm City just for good measure.
*Consider the life of the drug addict who needs cash, as described on p. 193: "Every day you start with nothing, and every day you come up with what you need to survive. And day after goddamn day, you swallow the pain and self-loathing, go out into the street and get what has to be got. Who else but a dope fiend can go to sleep at night with not a dime to his name, with not a friend in the world, and actually think up a way, come morning, to acquire the day's first ten?"
I am awful at making money, really terrible at it, although I actually used to like the hustle and surprise of waitressing and selling vegetables, seeing how the day would go. But still: I know it is HARD to hustle money from nothing. My biggest piece of luck is that I am way too lazy to even think about becoming involved with drugs.
I am not a Republican or a Democrat, but one of my pet peeves is when people lament to me what an American hero Barack Obama was and how much better off we were when he was the president. In the future, when they do that, I am going to read them this paragraph from Mueller's book:
"After years of endless war and institutionalized financial fraud had destabilized America, Barack Obama took office promising change, yet proceeded, through both acquiescence and action, to normalize the abuses Bush had introduced as wartime exigencies, and add a few of his own. He confirmed the de facto role of Wall Street as the rule of the US economy, and war as America's default condition. He staunchly defended Bush's torturers, kidnappers and other war criminals from prosecution, or even from opprobrium. He endorsed extralegal drone assassinations as an appropriate policy of a nation of laws, and mass surveillance of innocent US citizens as the right and the duty of the US government. And throughout, he attacked, relentlessly and vindictively, the few national security insiders (and several journalists) who questioned his betrayals of the Constitution and the people." (p. 838, large print edition.)
Boom. That's what I'm going to say when I have to offer proof for why I believe Obama was a terrible person, and Bush was a terrible person, and Clinton was a terrible person, and the first Bush was a terrible person, and so on and so forth, back to, I don't know, maybe Abraham Lincoln.
Awesome book, if you want to read a book and cry every time you're done reading a chapter.*
*Or, as Mr. CR says, "Reading more depressing nonfiction, are we? Of course you are."
Okay, I think I'm ready to talk about watching The Wire.
The Wire, which is an HBO television drama that aired over five seasons, from 2002 to 2008, was created and largely written by David Simon. It is one of those shows you constantly hear about, often in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Simpsons and Breaking Bad as some of the best TV ever made (or at least those are the TV shows you hear about from all the male TV critics, of whom there are more than female TV critics). For that reason, and also because I have a severe British television addiction problem, I never got around to watching it. I knew I would get there eventually, but I wasn't in any hurry.
So what tripped the wire in the fall of 2019 and made me think, hey, it's time to watch The Wire? I don't know, really. Back in 2017 I read David Simon's nonfiction True Crime masterpiece Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and that knocked me over. It's a classic. And it briefly went through my mind then to watch The Wire, or even Homicide: Life on the Street(which was the TV show based on Simon's Homicide book). But again. Never got that far. What can I say? Freelance jobs needed to be done and CRjrs needed to be fed, taken to various enriching activities, and hosed down once in a while.
But last fall my littlest CRjr. went to school, meaning that I now had marginally more time during the day to work, and had a whole free hour of time (time I would have spent working in previous years) between 9 p.m., when the eldest goes to bed, and 10 p.m., when I go to bed. So Mr. CR and I, crazy kids that we are, decided to fill that hour with episodes of The Wire.
I don't think we're ever going to be quite the same.
Here's the deal. The Wire is about Baltimore. To say it is a show about cops and drug dealers misses so, SO much. Cops and drug dealers may be the majority of the characters, particularly in the show's first season, but The Wire, at its heart, is about Baltimore. It is about everything that is going wrong in Baltimore and has been going wrong in Baltimore for decades. But it's not even that narrow. The Wire explores so many characters and storylines and themes and tenets of basic human behavior that it's actually a show about America. But it's even bigger than that. The Wire is a show about people. The end. Everything is on showcase here: people you like, people you don't like, people being shitheads, people being pragmatic, people being sweethearts, people being weak, people starting out trying to do something good but ending up being shitheads, people being shitheads who in small moments try to do something good, people being hilarious, people being obnoxious, people being racist, people not being racist, people being really really dumb and people being really really smart. In its insistence on strong and complex characterization, The Wire is a lot like the very best of British TV: you never quite know what's going to happen. But then when it does, it makes total sense. And then, the next day when you're out living your life, you see someone doing something great or mean or stupid or hilarious, and you can think of a corresponding scene from The Wire that reminds you of what you're out in the world looking at.
If you can't tell, I loved this show a lot. I loved this show with the whole fiber of my introverted being that loves and needs television just a little bit more than the average well-adjusted extroverted person.
And then I went to Half Price Books and was lucky enough to find a copy of The Corner, also by David Simon. Then I read that while I watched The Wire and dear readers, then my mind was well and truly blown.
And I clicked on it, because I thought, awesome, I totally want to see where all my fave British TV and movie stars rank on that list.
Now, in all fairness, I've trained my Yahoo to give me exclusively pop culture, TV, and British Royal Family news, so how this actual STAR-related science-y link got in there, I'm not sure. But there you have it. I'm an idiot. And a shallow idiot at that. This probably explains why I didn't get a very good grade in my high school physics class.
I'm not sure where I heard about it, but I just picked up Helene Tursten's tiny little An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, a collection of linked short stories about feisty octogenarian Maud.
It's dark and the protagonist Maud is mostly unlikable, but, God love her, you're not going to push her around. To tell you any more than that would be to include spoilers, and I'm not going to do that. But if you're looking for a quick, fun fiction read, you might want to try this one.
Huh. I'm tired and I'm not getting anything done. So far 2020 is looking a lot like 2019. Expected, but disappointing.
A quick word about 2019. Goodbye, Sucktastic Year. I learned a lot from you, I'll grant you, but I'm finding that learning experiences are not necessarily fun experiences. Here is what I learned: our bodies are weak and yet none of us are going to die at the right time, it's always going to be too soon or too late; I struggle to find solidarity with anyone because I seem constitutionally unable to get along with anyone who isn't my sibling or child; money is in fact the root of all evil and you can't win an argument with a stupid person and there are quite a few stupid people (nice though they may be otherwise) out there. Myself included.
That about sums up 2019.
But it wasn't all bad. I talked books and reading with some lovely online kindred spirits. (Thank you, dear readers.) I watched the CRjrs get a little bigger and navigate the world in ways I would never have expected. I laughed a lot, mostly ruefully, but also sometimes joyfully. I learned that although I make no money and it starts to look like I never will, I have numerous treasures that I am ridiculously grateful for and that I need to find ways to share.
I learned something else*. Toward the end of the year I went to Half Price Books and bought a pile of books for nieces and nephews and myself and it felt really good. It was healing to touch books and stand among books and if you can swing it this year, please go to any actual physical place you can and buy books there. Increasingly I find I am a woman without a country. I feel lost when I go to church and when I pay attention to local politics and I have absolutely nothing in common with all the parents of the CRjrs' friends and I could give a flying fuck whether my alma mater's football team wins the Rose Bowl today. But when I stand among books I am home. I touch them and they touch me and they are a finite universe that I can understand, while they help me understand the infinite universe around me.
My hope for you in 2020 is that you surround yourself with books. May you feel at home there. Then come feel at home here and tell us what you've read, okay?
I wish you all a healthy and safe and peaceful new year.
*I also learned that "The Wire" is the best TV program ever. Ye Gods. It hurts me to love American television this much but if there was ever a series that could give any of the best Brit series a run for their money, it would be "The Wire." (Of course it's based on books: David Simon's Homicide and The Corner.**)
**One of the books I bought for myself at Half Price Books.
Thank you all for another wonderful year of reading with me. Let's go forth and find some new books to chat over in 2020. Have a peaceful season of whatever it is you celebrate and we'll see you on the other side of this decade, all right? And remember to keep your stick on the ice--we're all in this together.
I know, I'm of an age now where I'm supposed to enjoy Women's Fiction. But I DO NOT ENJOY Women's Fiction. (Unless it's by Anne Tyler.) I don't know why this is. Perhaps because I need fiction to take me away from the world, and reading Women's Fiction makes me feel like I'm trapped in small talk at our school's Parent Teacher Organization. I do not really need any more of that.
Two cases in point: I tried to read Susan Gloss's novel The Curiosities, and I just got about thirty pages in to Kelly Harms's The Overdue Life of Amy Byler.* I did not enjoy either of them. These are not bad books, and I actually remember reading and liking Susan Gloss's first novel Vintage. But these books are not for me.
So here's what I need: suggestions for some good chick lit. (You know, Bridget Jones's Diary, etc.) Failing that, I need some suggestions for good novels that are not "literary" (read: by a man who talks obsessively about masturbation or that critics think write women characters very well: I'm looking at you, Sam Lipsyte and Nickolas Butler) but are also NOT Women's Fiction in any way, shape, or form.
Thank you for any suggestions!
*I got a total laugh out of the Kirkus review of this book, particularly this line: "Amy heads off to New York, where she delivers a presentation at a library educators’ conference and has first-date sex with "hot librarian" Daniel Seong-Eason." I think if you'd ever been to a library conference (and I have) you'd laugh at every part of that sentence. But maybe that's just me.
Update 12/3/2019: Big thanks to everyone who purchased a copy of the book this past week. The price has reverted to $19.99, but the deal of you buying a book at Amazon, posting a review, and then letting me know about it, will always result in me sending you a second book absolutely free! Thanks!
So: The announcement is that, if you are doing any shopping on Amazon this Black Friday through Cyber Monday, please consider buying a copy of Bingeworthy British Television. For that day only we'll be lowering the price from $19.99 to...I'm not sure yet. But it will definitely be cheaper than 19.99. AND our earlier deal applies--if you buy a copy for yourself and review it at Amazon (and you are free to review it honestly--even if the book turns out to be not your cuppa--anything you have to say about it will help us if we ever write a new edition) and shoot me an email at email@example.com comment at The Great British TV Site on any post to let me know you've reviewed it, I'll get in contact with you and send you a second copy absolutely free!!
As long as I'm asking for stuff I'll ask this as well: Please consider linking to this post on your blogs or social media to help us spread the news about these deals. We can also be found anytime at The Great British TV Site, or on Facebook at @GreatBritishTV if you can link to any of those sites.
I've never actually given my relationship with my mother a lot of thought. We were always really close and worked together in a family business and share a lot of the same opinions, so for me it's been a good relationship. When I first went to college I was really homesick for home and for her; I've kept some cards she sent me while I was a couple of hours away and they still make me laugh and tear up a little when I read them. They're not sappy or anything, they're just pure mom. She's kind of a stoic and could never really write I love you or I miss you but I know that she did. On one card she drew a little unhappy face with tears, with this written next to it: "I do this a lot."
But she is aging and I am aging. For my sisters and I, now in our forties and fifties, it seems just a bit like we are having a somewhat-delayed (thirty or forty years delayed; just somewhat) adolescent-hood. As Mom's needs change (and they have, particularly since my Dad died), we are experiencing some difficulties getting along with one another. It's all fine; it's growing pains. But it has been an eye-opening process.
All of which is a very long-winded introduction to the subject of how much I am enjoying the essay collection What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate (who is also the author of the essay of that title). Just a few years ago I probably would not have been in the right place to read this book. But now I am, and it's knocking me over. The essays are good, and they're just (almost unbearably) honest and (often) sad. But there is a strength in them, and in the writers, and in the humbling realization that we are all human and it is hard to get along, even where there is love. I continue to learn this lesson over and over, just of late. How hard it is to get along even with those you love the most. Reading a book like this makes me look at people and the human condition and just be awestruck, over and over again, that so many people get up out of bed and face each day. To do what humans do--go out and face life every day, over and over and over--with all our weaknesses?* It's incredible.
Anyway. I'm explaining it badly. But it's a good book and an interesting collection and even if you don't have any issues with your mom, you may want to check it out. I'll leave you with one of my favorite paragraphs, from the essay "Thesmophoria," by Melissa Febos:
"There is a difference between the fear of upsetting someone who loves you and the danger of losing them. For a long time, I couldn't separate them. It has taken me some work to discern the difference between the pain of hurting those I love and my fear of what I might lose. Hurting those we love is survivable. It is inevitable. I wish that I could have done less of it. But no matter how much of it I did, I would never have lost her." (p. 56.)
*And constant freaking snow and unrelenting record-setting cold in November? As if it wasn't hard enough to get up and go about your day?
Okay, the copy I have is overdue from the library, so here's your extremely short review: I liked Henry Marsh's memoir Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon. His work is fascinating, his take on the bureaucracy of the British medical system is also fascinating, and even when I don't like Marsh very much (mainly because I don't like doctors) I find most of his honesty refreshing. I could have done without his advocating for euthanasia, because (as previously stated), I just don't think we have the right to kill ourselves or others, but that mostly comes in the last chapter so it's easy to skip it if you're so inclined.
So this is the memoir of a woman who fell in love with a man who wanted to farm, and I mean old-style Farm with a capital "F." So much so that by the time I quit the book, on page 97, they were getting their own farm in shape, buying draft horses, and looking for equipment to use with those horses to break and plant sod on the land they were renting. I have zero interest in horses, so that seemed like a good place to stop.
You know, to each their own. I can respect Kimball and her (eventual) husband, and their desire to grow their own food. But this author had all the earmarks of a certain type of person/personality that I just don't get. First, there was this, when Kimball went to interview her husband-to-be for a magazine article and first met him:
"He introduced himself, shook my hand, and then he was abruptly gone, off on some urgent farm business, the screen door banging shut behind him, promising over his shoulder to give me an interview when he got back that evening. Meantime, I could hoe the broccoli with his assistant, Keena. I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can't believe I drove all this way to hoe broccoli for this dude." (p. 10.)
Yeah, I can't believe it either. I grew up on a farm where the work always came first and everything else came second. It's not charming. It's brutal, and it grinds you down, particularly if you don't really enjoy working 20 hours out of every day. Secondly, fuck this "this is a man" shit just because he does some physical work. I really do believe all people should do some physical work, whether it be cleaning their own home or doing a garden or something, but quite frankly I like a good cerebral man. When I watch Mr. CR work Excel like a champ, which is a skill that has taken time and brains and a lot of patience to develop, I get turned on. Doesn't mean I run around telling people, "Wow, Mr. CR is a man." Thirdly, why are you hoeing the man's broccoli? You don't have your own work to do? You can't find a man who maybe recognizes that you scheduled this time for an interview and he could abide by that appointment if he respected what you do?
And then there's this, when Kimball went back to see/date Mark and hunted for deer with him. They ended up eating the deer's liver with herbs, white wine, and cream:
"The texture reminded me of wild mushrooms, firm but tender, and the flavor was distinct but not overpowering, the wildness balanced between the civilized and familiar pairing of cream and wine. And there was something else about it, something more primal, a kind of craving, my body yelling, EAT THAT, I NEED IT. That was my first hint that there's a wisdom to the appetite, that if you clear out the white noise of processed food and listen, health and delicious are actually allies. We are animals, after all, hardwired to like what's good for us...That might have been the same deep part of me that first told me to love Mark. Don't be an idiot, it said. The man hunts, he grows, he's strapping and healthy and tall. He'll feed you, and his genes might improve the shrimpiness of your line. LOVE HIM." (p. 28.)
Ugh. Where do I start with this? At the beginning, I guess. I grew up on unprocessed farm food (we butchered our own meat, milked our own cows, etc.) and you know the only time my body has ever screamed EAT THAT I NEED IT at me? The first time I drank coffee and ate S'mores Pop Tarts. I've eaten healthy and I've eaten for shit and honestly I can't tell you that I've FELT a lot different either way. I can grant you that I can see the effects of healthier eating in less weight gain, but other than that? I'm certainly not feeling any epiphany when I bite into local meat vs. whatever the hell it is Costco sells. I feel about this "your body will melt with orgasmic thrills if you just feed it better food" crap the way I felt at the farm market once when I overheard a woman telling the vendor that her kids won't touch any processed stuff since they'd had farm market food. I wanted to clock her. My children have had farm market food since birth and they would gladly give it all up for a steady supply of Welch's fruit snacks (or kiddie crack, as we call them around here).
And don't even get me started on the lack of information about how one gets health insurance or sees the doctor when both parts of a couple freelance/farm. Kimball and her husband have two kids now, I think, so obviously someone saw a doctor at some point. I'm curious how they paid for that? I hate it when farm/freelance/work memoirs leave out the scariest part of our current economy: what you do without health insurance.
I guess maybe I'm just bitter that I'm obviously not hardwired to love real strapping MEN or organic meat. Either way, back to the library with this one.
So I got to page 200 of Arlo Crawford's memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year before I admitted to myself that I just don't like this Arlo kid or his book, and I'm going to stop reading it now.
I know. I really have to get both more efficient and honest with myself and stop reading things that I dislike before, you know, I get 200 pages in. On the other hand, I feel like I have read enough of this book to say, yeah, don't bother.
Crawford grew up on a vegetable/farm marketing farm in Pennsylvania. His parents had moved to the farm in their late twenties/early thirties and made a going concern of it, and the actual descriptions of the farm and the marketing work are vivid and interesting enough.
But overall, although Crawford admits he enjoyed his upbringing and is proud of what his parents have achieved, he wants to do something else with his life. He wants to do something artsy or literary or whatever else it is well-educated and good-looking urban millennials do with their lives these days. And that's okay. But, if I'm telling the absolute truth, I was a little annoyed that an agent was able to sell a publisher on this not terribly interesting, not really back to the land memoir, in hardcover no less.
We have had three truly glorious days of autumn weather here in Wisconsin, and it almost makes up for the climate in the state all the rest of the year.
At this time of year my thoughts turn to my dear tubercular John Keats, most specifically these lines from his poem "Ode to a Nightingale":
"Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn..."
When I first read those lines I was in my first year of college in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, ninety minutes away from home, and I burst into tears. I was so homesick. And Keats couldn't have landed any better an image on me to turn on the waterworks.
During this time of year I need and crave to be near cornfields. I mean it's a desperate physical and bodily requirement. Which is funny, because growing up I always had a difficult relationship with corn. Yes, I'm not lying, it felt like a relationship in that my feelings about it were very complex and it took a lot of work. My farmer dad grew field corn, of course, to sell and to use as feed for the cows, but the corn I am thinking of is sweet corn. We sold veggies at the local farmer's market, a job I helped with from about the age of 8 onward. There was always a lot of work and at first our biggest cash crop was raspberries (I have never been a fan of raspberries and I was gobsmacked that anyone would willingly pay--holy shit--three bucks for a pint of the little bastards) and other fruits, but then one year the idea of also selling sweet corn was discussed. And, although we kept selling a variety of fruits and veggies, corn became THE crop. It made the most money but it was also a lot of work.
In my life I have picked probably a million ears of sweet corn. (Actually, I know about how much corn we used to sell, so I should actually do the math on how many ears that amounted to per year, per years of work. But "million" is certainly what it felt like, even if that is not numerically accurate.) And I picked it in the wet Wisconsin summer heat, when every part of your body sweats, and when you're going among corn stalks to pick corn, all of the itchy tassels and pollen drop on you and stick to every available surface, and its knife-sharp leaf edges slice up your arms and your face, so by the time you are done you are a sweaty, sticky, sometimes bleeding mess. And I picked that corn mostly with my father, who, even at the age of fifty-seven, could physically work me under a table, and who never, ever slowed down. He also had some heart problems and I often watched the sweat roll off his nose, wondering if I should be worried if we were both going to make it out of that field alive.
But also: it was satisfying to pick. It was a systematic task that began at the start of the row and was done at the end of the row, and those are my favorite types of tasks. It required some subject expertise in that I developed a way of feeling for which ears were ripe, which was to grasp an ear lightly at the tip and to feel, very carefully, for the ever-so-slight juicy bursting "pop," under my fingertips. It was not enough pressure to actually crush a kernel of corn through the husk, but it was more that I could feel, through husk and silks, and in a split second and over the course of hundreds of ears in a picking, that slight promise of juicy ripeness.
When I buy sweet corn now I still use that technique to find good ears, and I pity all the poor clueless city dopes who have to rip open each ear, without nuance, to see if it's ripe.
But I digress. The corn was a lot of work, and it made us a lot of money (by farm marketer standards, mind you). But the true glory of any kind of corn is to look at a field of it in the glowing autumnal sun. Depending on which angle you view the field from, it can look just like dying plants, their lush summer green being replaced by light tan and brown stalks. It can look absolutely dry and colorless and dead. But if the sun is shining through it at just the right angle, the tan is gold and all those purple tassels are still covered with dried pollen that has gone fuzzy and lends the entire field an almost angelic halo. Then the wind comes along and the entire field moves and undulates, although it's a dry and somewhat stiff undulation, but it's still unified moment that is hypnotizing to the eye. And the sound. The autumn wind in a drying cornfield is unlike any other sound on earth. You know what the wind sounds like in the trees? It's like that, but simultaneously bigger and softer. It is countless dry leaves rustling against one another rather than crackling; it feels both warm and full of life but still, all the time, dying. There's the immediate noise of the leaves rubbing together, but there's also an underlying constant swish of all the sound waves from the entire field converging together at the same time. I could listen to it forever.
I hope you are having a good autumn. I hope you can find a cornfield somewhere and enjoy just listening to it for a while. I hope, wherever you are, you are not sick for home, in tears, amid alien corn.