Saturday, June 30, 2012

Doing What Didion Does

Joan Didion at Hartford Stage/photo by Anne Marie Cannon
I first read Joan Didion’s New Journalism in the early 70s when it really was new. She placed herself on the outside looking in at the counterculture. She covered places, such as the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and people, such as actor John Wayne as one would expect -- the way a journalist reports -- and, as one would not expect – the way a novelist narrates That was  the new in New Journalism, which, for me, brought the accounts closer to what was true.
In some cases, brutally true. 

Now, over forty years later, I’ve had the opportunity to see Joan Didion interviewed at Hartford Stage a few days ago. Between then—four decades ago -- and now, I studied her journalism and then her more autobiographical essays.  I am being careful not to call her more recent books -- The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights -- memoirs. Onstage  she said she disliked the word “memoir.”

Maybe The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, should be called the New Memoir. Yes Didion focuses on her life story in TYOMT, after her husband of almost forty years, John Dunne, dies suddenly in 2003, and then again in BN, after her daughter Quintana Roo passes after a series of illnesses less than two years later. But to simply call these tragedies "life stories" would be as misrepresentative as calling the title essay in  Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem  simply a magazine feature story. The recent books do not just pass through the days that followed the two sad events. The accounts ricochet deeper into Didion's psyche, her stream of consciousness, and back out to the reader’s psyche. The culture's psyche. Over and over again.  Not your ordinary Random House memoir.

Neither was Joan Didion’s onstage presence an everyday literary event. Escorted to a chair next to the moderator, she looked fragile. She sat more steadily and seemed to warm up to the conversation with an admiring, well-versed student of her work. Despite the lapse of a memory or two, Didion carefully  thought through her answers, whether one word or a few, about people in her life and passages in her books.

When the format moved on to audience Q & A, she took question after question until there were no longer any hands raised.  Why did she pick us? one woman queried, as if we were a specially designated audience. Didion reminded us her husband was originally from West Hartford and, even more matter-of-factly, that she was  just doing what she usually does this evening– talking to people. Another questioner wondered about the compromises the author and her husband must have faced while writing screenplays for Hollywood. I can’t remember Didion’s exact reply, but she seemed nonplussed, explaining that she and John were in California to make a living – "writing well." From the way she did say,” It’s what we did,” I inferred she did not feel victim of or partner to any Screen Guild shenanigans.

One question and answer from the event resonates the most with me. A gentleman referred to a piece he had read last week in The New York Times that raised the question Can Women Have it All? He was fishing for a cultural quote from a cultural icon. Something that the audience could take home as the feminist voice of the times, not the single opinion of a writer/wife/mother/widow. But Didion didn’t speak for women everywhere. After expressing her discomfort with sizing up the gist of an article she had not read, she wound up speaking , instead, for everyone simply by saying, “But tell me. Can anyone really have it all?“

Sunday, June 24, 2012

We All Scream for (Kate's) Ice Cream

Ornament by zazzle
D (for “delivery") is minus six or so weeks now.
Mommy-to-Be and Daddy-to-Be took off to Cape Cod for a few days last week, figuring this would be their last getaway before Patrick Lawrence arrives.  Though, it seems as if Patrick has been with us for months, having made stunning appearances in ultra-sound photos. Lately he’s attracting further notice with discernible stretches and kicks across his mom’s belly. Yet Patrick remains under wraps. Yep, he’s there - but not here yet. Mindbending concept.

An expecting couple best seizes couple moments while they can. And so the future Mom and Dad headed deep into Cape Cod, taking  6A, the off-the-main-road route. Mid-Cape they turned a bit farther away from the beaten path. That's when I received the text message: “Look where Ry and I just stopped for dinner and ice cream” with this photo attached.
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Larry, Conor, Em, and I vacationed for a week every summer in Brewster.  We stayed in a rustic cabin owned by a friend. Only stopped going there when the owner sold the three rentals lined up next to each other, right on 6A.

Kate’s Seafood was a favorite stop of ours during those weeks by the ocean – the bay side where the calmer waters suited family fun.
Just over a month ago Em posted a photo of her and her dad on Facebook, in honor of his birthday. In the frozen moment they clink spoonfuls of ice cream (yes, Kate’s ice cream)the way revelers clink glasses in a hearty salute to one another. Later in the day, Conor  left a comment below Em's photo  link. “We need to go back to Kate's Seafood someday.

I thought of Conor's reply under the photo when I  messaged back to Em, YAY. Conor will be so pleased." Then I added "Hasn’t changed a bit,” remarking on the familiar sign against  the peaked red storefront.
Instantly Em shot back “ And still tastes good.” It was fun sharing one moment which led to the recollection of other moments.
“Did you get strawberry cheesecake?” I tapped on my iPhone keyboard. Hit Send.
Another text bubble appeared almost immediately: “Remember the time I cried because there wasn’t any strawberry cheesecake? Yeah me too.”
I answered , “Yes, Did you settle for cotton candy or was that Conor’s order?”  I have to admit the “Yeah me too,” threw me off a bit. But this was texting, not proofreading. I let the misunderstood comment go. Received another message instantaneously.
I remember crying over star berry cheesecake and filling the void with bubble gum. But I could be wrong. T’was but a wee lad.”
Wee lad?  I thought to myself. Who? What? Then I saw Group MMS on the top of the phone screen. Em had texted me – and Conor – simultaneously, about the dinner stop . This was a three-way conversation.  Thanks to high tech messaging, both Conor and I  were back at Kate’s with Em and Ryan – and Patrick under wraps.

Like this post? Laura's memoir, Staying Alive: A Love Story is available for Kindle, Nook. and iBook readers. Download it today.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Garden of Reason

I call my vegetable garden God’s Little .08% Acre – literally. There’s enough room for three tomato varieties – cherry, sun sugar, and peron ( small, medium, and large). There’s also a red and a yellow pepper plant (green is so common) and a single mound of eggplant seedlings - skinny eggplants. I thought mini-moulengiani – the Italian word my mother used for eggplant – might not need as much space to grow as traditional moulengiani plants . Though, I should really stick with calling it eggplant, since my generation tagged Mom’s word for eggplant politically incorrect.  How times change.

A few steps down my driveway there's an additional  strip of herbs: chives, flat and curly parsley, oregano, marjoram, and three - yes three - varieties of basil: petite, traditional, and a real find this year -- basil lettuce. Its leaves are slightly puckered, more neon than deep green, and huge. The stuff of Scarborough Fair -- more parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme --  hangs in a container off the back steps railing.

Had a bigger garden, about the same size as  the 15’X 24’ above-the-ground pool, in the yard of the larger house I left five years ago. The house Larry and I raised our children in.  My adult children had grown out of the home - but not in the way they grew out of one bathing suit after the other. My kids didn’t need more space. They needed their own space. Which left me with too much space.

I remember looking at the pool in the old back yard and thinking, either this pool goes or I go. Seemed a shame to excavate a huge hole in the backyard  and then have to refill it with dirt. Especially with all that extra space in the house too. Space I couldn't just fill with dirt and replant.

So I found a mid-nineteenth-century cottage of sorts nearby and sold my big house to my niece and her husband. The family connection made it easier, I think.

Now, Baby Tess and her mom and dad swim in the big pool—in the big back yard.  My children and I still go to toddler birthday parties there. And though some of the house has been remodeled, my niece still refers to the room on the left, down the long first-floor hall, as “Emmy’s room.” My daughter Emmy. Which is nice in the same sort of way it’s nice to come home and sit on my little side porch, just a few steps down the driveway from my God’s Little .08% Acre veggie patch.   

Friday, June 8, 2012

First Birthday: Rite of Passage

I recently attended my grandniece’s first birthday. It occurred to me that sociologists should take a closer look at the first birthday party. It is, after all, a prevalent ritual that involves hours of preparation by adults, for a celebration in honor of a tot who has absolutely no idea what the fuss is all about.  Let’s face it –Baby’s First Birthday Party is really for the Big Guests  in the room. We arrive with expectations.

We expect the one-year-old to be baffled by all the bother. We expect the one-year-old to be able to withstand every cell-phone owner’s command to “Look at me, look at me,” as they multi-task their communication gadgets to seize the moment in each phone’s photo stash. We expect some fussiness from the guest of honor. And we expect a mess. Actually,we demand one, as the first-birthday-child is introduced to Birthday Cake.

My grandniece had her own little cake. a mini-me version of an enchanting Cinderella cake we adults sliced into. A Disney doll, the size of a Barbie doll (I’m talking height here) poked through the middle of a dome-shaped cake - frosted to look like the full skirt of a flouncy ball gown. A short doll and cupcake comprised the guest of honor’s personal confection.

This is when first-birthday-fun really begins. Messy fun, as  a dessert that looks as if it’s been assembled in a Willy Wonka Factory is placed before the child, all sugary and deeply frosted.

Consider, a year ago, same child started on breast milk or formula. Through the months, bland cereals, mushy veggies, and mashed fruits were slowly introduced. Maybe, just maybe, by the time this red-letter day comes to pass, said child has played with (more than eaten) shreds of cheese or carrots.

What’s the child to do with this newfound repast?

I’ve seen child/cake interactions that make barbarians at  Medival banquets look downright reticent. But my grandniece chose to remain as dainty as Cinderella at the Ball. She gazed at the cake, curiously. She looked at us. She repeated this back-and-forth once or twice. Eventually she touched the icing. Just lightly. She was all about being the lady, much like Queen Elizabeth at her Jubilee I expect.

But Queen Elizabeth did not have a gallery of relatives shouting for her to dig in. Nor did an adult take Her Majesty's hand and moosch it through frosting and cake. That was all the one-year-old needed before she began to, let’s say, get at it. At least enough for us to brag that she had accomplished what we all came to see.

Looking forward to the Wrapping Paper Massacre a year from now.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bradbury's Enduring Voice

Odd, hearing Ray Bradbury died tonight. I was just thinking about him last week. Actually mentioned him in a tribute I gave at a close friend’s retirement dinner. As I planned the speech, I had to look up whether or not he was still living – and he was – last Wednesday. Not this Wednesday.

I was mentioning Bradbury because my retiring friend still taught his book, Fahrenheit 451, to her Sophomore English classes. No one else in the department has taught Bradbury for a very long time. So I thought of  him, among others, when I was thinking about what some of the great writers she taught might say to her, if they could speak to her at the end of her career .

I decided Bradbury would elaborate on something he said in Fahrenheit.

He wrote how everyone leaves something behind. A child or a book, a painting or a garden. I think, in honor of my friend's retirement, Bradbury might have added a retinue of enlightened students to his list.  In the passage he goes on to say,” It doesn't matter what you do so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away.” That, Bradbury explained, is the difference between "the lawncutter and the gardener," and in my mind, the lesson plan purveyor and the true teacher.

My point was my friend had done that – left something behind (so  much really) by introducing over 30,000 students, who had passed through her classroom for a semester or two, to the words and wisdom of  Bradbury. . . . . and Thoreau . . . . . and Lee. Her favorites, among others. My friend put all those students in touch with these and other voices of the past. Voices that, in most cases, had existed one day and not the next. Voices that, like Bradbury's - and my friend's - will  endure.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Memorial Day : Postscript

Article first published as Memorial Day Postscript on Technorati.

As usual, I attended a Memorial Day Parade this year. I watched veterans and active servicemen and women march with town officials, school bands, and children’s sports and service groups. But this year I set my gaze longer on the men and women who passed by in military uniform, thanks to a different sort of Memorial Day parade I watched Saturday night – a parade of poems.

Connecticut poets Michael F Lepore and Lisa L. Siedlarz, editor of the Connecticut River Review, shared their published war poems at The Buttonwood Tree to a filled room of friends, neighbors, family, and servicemen. Most of us had driven to Middletown under overcast skies, heavy with the day’s humidity. The heat had settled in the venue too.

 As Lepore, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Glastonbury, was introduced I watched a thunderstorm break out the window. I felt my forehead, soaking wet, as he spoke of his commission as a lieutenant in the US Naval Dental Corps, having served with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC, where he was given independent duty at an outlying facility called The Rifle Range. There he saw Marine recruits, coming from basic training at Parris Island (SC), leave for combat duty in Vietnam. “Young men and women intellectually and emotionally unprepared for the guerilla warfare, so different than WWII,” said the bearded poet. His American flag lapel pin marked a striking contrast against the deep browns of his shirt and suit jacket. Yet, he didn’t look as if the heat bothered him as he started to read “Rookie.”

                        Crouched ankle deep in muck

                        the hard part – waiting, knowing

                        the enemy is out there, but not where

                        or how many.

 The poem ends with the young recruit forever changed by “a rippling aria of destruction,” and the view of “his enemy tattered to shreds, a julienne salad.” My attention, drawn away from the room’s temperature, settled onto this veteran’s parting comment that war tallies no winners, “only different degrees of losers.”

Siedlarz, dressed more comfortably in a tank top, acknowledged the veterans in the house and reminded us all that Memorial Day – first called Decoration Day – has been honoring the men and women who died while serving the American military since just after the Civil War.

 I was already familiar with Siedlarz’s debut collection I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball, about her brother’s life as a soldier in Afghanistan, published by Clemson University in 2009. Her powerful and varied points of view emerge through three sections: Sister speaks, Brother speaks, and Pictures speak. Three years ago the collection brought the climate, conditions, cause, and calamity of the war to me as no news story could.
Siedlarz began with, appropriately, Memorial Day, a poem that compares a hometown USA commemoration of a fallen 20-year-old PFC with her brother’s  regiment’s BBQ “just like ours, burgers, dogs, salads,” in dusty, 100-degree Afghanistan. He had reported the details of the desert celebration in an email.

 Last year Siedlarz, who lives in New Haven, followed I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball with an extended collection: What We Sign Up For: War Poems. She added a What We Don’t See section. When she read, acutely aware of the graphic imagery of her poems, she sometimes stopped to ask the audience, “Are you OK? Should I go on?”  before moving from one poem to another - and then on to her last poem of the night, “Why I Don’t Watch Good Morning America”. This poetically registered complaint against news coverage of the war includes the dichotomies of

          A scroll bar for the number

wounded by roadside bombs, full coverage

only when friendly fire causes death,

or a soldier empties his clip into civilians

because his buddy was snipered.

Boys come home with hostile fire

looped in their minds. News clips gloss over

second and third tours, ignoring families

widowed to this label of freedom.

Wounded, 25,000 and rising.

All of which contributes to why I’ve begun to skip morning news shows myself these days, why I grew accustomed to the heat at the Buttonwood Tree poetry reading, and why I found myself gazing  deeper into the faces of the military who marched in this year’s Memorial Day parade two days later.