Archive | June 2014

Chicago, Please Stop Sucking As A Literary City

Dude, Chicago, we gotta talk.   I gave myself a 36-hour cooling off period, but I’m still consumed with roiling emotions (rage, indignation, rage).

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Me and Jennifer Weiner in NOT-Chicago

 How can it be that so many literary events do not take place within the actual city limits?  Why do we make authors and their fans trek out to Naperville, fifty three miles from downtown Chicago?  Did you know that Jennifer Weiner’s driver got lost on the way to Naporville and then Ms. Weiner threw up in the bumper-to-bumper traffic?

This is how we compete with NYC and LA? 

I’ve got nothing against the suburbs, but why can’t I take the Michigan Avenue bus or the red line to see writers like Ms. Weiner? Or Jill Smokler? My babysitting fees for a night with Jennifer Weiner? Over $100.00, in part, because the highway back to Chicago flooded, and we sat on I-290 without moving for over an hour.  That wasn’t exactly “in the budget” as they say.

Fine.  Weather happens.  But why do I have to go back out to Naperville if I want to see Chris Colfer of Glee fame, talking about his new book The Land of Stories?  If I want to see Jen Mann from People I Want To Punch In the Throat, or Jane Smiley, and I do, then I better pinch my fucking Benjamins because $100 IN BABYSITTING and oh my god, gas to Naperville.

Even the crowd-drawer Emily Giffin, who did stop at Bloomgingdale’s on North Michigan Avenue on May 28th, first stopped in Naperville.  Of course she did– that’s the literary epicenter of Illinois.

Ahem.

It’s not like I live somewhere far and out of reach.  I live in the middle of this gigantic city.  While I’m proud that our suburbs are thriving literary enclaves, I’m confounded about why we can’t scrounge up some interest in the actual city to host authors.  Are we that bereft of literary culture or accommodating venues in this City? Didn’t we bid to host the Olympics?  What, a state of the art archery center was totally doable but a modest theatre for a chart-topping author is simply out of the question?

Please don’t make me open an indie bookstore to host these events.  I don’t look like Meg Ryan, I don’t write like Ann Patchett  and I have enough conflicted feelings about Amazon.

Can we agree to work on this together? I’ll do my part.  (What that consists of outside of this well-written screed is not yet clear, but I’ll keep my eyes open for opportunity to remedy this.)  You do yours. 

Please stop sucking as a literary city.

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On Being The Boss’ Favorite (And Having No Idea)

 

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Our office was so small that leftover birthday cake sat in the kitchenette until the crumbs petrified and the whole thing sagged and fell in on itself.  At the peak, we numbered five—the Boss, the Secretary, and three staff.  It was only a summer job, but the dynamics, those dysfunctional and terrifying familiar beats of office politics, still thrum inside me today.

Admittedly, my tactic was rather unsophisticated: head down, do the work, stay out of the drama.  It wasn’t a horrible way to proceed, but it was proof of my immaturity that I thought it would work.

In week one, I figured it out:  A, who had been around since the office was founded, was the favorite child, the son the Boss never had, the acolyte extraordinaire.  I was always surprised when he skittered out of the Boss’ office looking as pale and vulnerable as I felt.  He was the favorite—shouldn’t he saunter out of meetings, head high and gait assured?

B was shadowy—she, like me, decided to lurk in the shadows, stay out of the way.  She was better at it than I was—she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds.  Her pale skin and soft blond hair made her seem ghostly.  She floated from her desk to the conference room, her expression always the same neutral inscrutability.   She never emoted—not so much as a smile.  I know because I kept track.

By week two, I’d snuck to my car to call a friend, holding back hot tears as I described a meeting where I’d been excluded.  “They shut the door!  Practically in my face.”   I went around and around (What did I do? Why does Boss hate me?  Is he going to fire me? WHY WON’T HE JUST FIRE ME?).  I would have kept going too—ad infinitum—but it was 83 degrees and humid.  As devastated as I was, I wasn’t prepared to die of heat stroke in my 1986 Honda Accord.

Not all the days ended with tears or hot, frustrated sighs and furtive glances at the calendar: how much longer until this job is over?

My birthday fell in week five, and by any measure, I was feted adequately with a cake (chocolate) bearing over two decades of candles.  B pushed hers around on the plate and left the first moment she could without it appearing awkward or hostile.  At the other end of the table, the Boss and A got into a long discussion about the propriety of NCAA rules.  I slipped out the side door, mumbling thank you for the cake.

I survived that summer in part because I accepted my role as number three out of three.  Last place.  Humiliating at times, but freeing too.  The floor was right below me all along.  Stakes were low, pedestals well above my head.   By week eight, I stopped trying so hard to break into the top two; I settled, accepted, surrendered.

Right after Labor Day, I cleaned off my desk and said my goodbyes.  I assumed I’d never see anyone from that random chapter in my employment history.  I congratulated myself on doing all my work on time, learning a bit about the field, and mastering a way to cry without making a sound.

Years later I ran into A at brunch– a forkful of omelet raised to his face.  “Christie!” he called.  Dodging a roaming toddler and a waiter with a tray the size of the Coliseum, he made his way to me.  Surprised by his warmth, I returned his hug, introduced my family.  We went through the basics—what we were doing now (both of us law), how many kids (me two, him three), where do we live (both of us in the city).

“I’ll let you get back to your eggs!” I said.

“You know you were his favorite.”

“What? Whose?”

“The Boss.  He talked about you for years after you left.  He said it was the best summer ever.  He liked your gumption.  Always said he knew you would be successful at whatever you did.”

Had I been eating, I would have choked.  Rendered mute, I nodded.  He must have confused me with another intern.  The Boss had never indicated he felt anything about me one way or the other.  In the empty space between me and the Boss, I made up plenty of stories (he hates me, he hates me, he hates me).

A threaded his way back to his table, and I to mine.  The shock lasted for several hours.  When it finally wore off, I scrolled through my memories of that summer, but couldn’t find a single piece of evidence for what A had said.

Not a single piece.

What was I missing?

 

Hey, Graduates, Do Something Cool

Go forth, Graduates, and do something cool.  Do something no one else has ever done. Do something that adds to the goodness of this ragged old world of ours.  Surely you can think of something to do that no one else has done.

 

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbon

You can’t split the atom, because I’m pretty sure that’s been done.  Plus, I think you need a license and a PhD in physics, graduate students, and a laboratory.

But don’t be discouraged because there are things you can do without more schooling or a license from the state.

How about this:

Explain to the world what the lyrics to Some Nights by Fun. mean.  Because nobody understands that shit. What does it mean to have lips building a castle? I have no idea.  Go figure it out and report back.  Come back to me and “jack my style” (after you explain what that means).

See? It’s easy.

Pick something good.

Teach the world how to tell the difference between Keira Knightley and Natalie Portman.  Pick a video that’s gone viral and trace how something as stupid as a contrived video of kids telling their mothers they don’t suck went around the globe 80 times.

Add to the rich bounty of scholarship and journalism and entertainment, the stuff that makes this country great.

Aim high, trust your gut, reach for the stars.  Then sit down and do a video log that explains why children insist on sleeping in on the one day you have to wake them up and race to the airport.  Give me a good explanation about why Kathie Lee Gifford is a thing or why it’s so fucking impossible for a juice box straw to stay attached to the damn box.  Then invent the glue that will make that straw stay the fuck put.

Don’t just hide in your parents’ basement waiting for the economy to bounce back.  Make an app.  Create one that can tell the future– like what’s the exact date that my children will learn how to actually look for something they lost instead of wandering, glossy-eyed and unfocused, in a damn circle claiming, “I can’t find it!”

Write a book about a werewolf who time travels with a bow and arrow.  Then write the sequel.  Invent a pet that doesn’t shit. Or have hair.  Knit a blanket that will cover the hole in the ozone layer.  Outline a plan for peace in the Middle East.  Clean the Great Barrier Reef.  Clean your room, your fingernails.

It’s your life.  Do something grand.  Start today.  The future awaits you.

 

 

 

Help! I Fell Into A Goldfinch-Sized Hole

The following has always been a true statement since Miss Hunter taught me to read in kindergarten: I love to read.  I remember tenting my covers and burning through Judy Blume’s canon with a flashlight in junior high.  My love for a good story arc and a compelling plot runs deep.

Apparently, however, not as deep as the satisfaction of finishing a book.  I think I’ve had my tenses wrong all this time.  It’s not that I’ve loved to read; I’ve loved to have read.  I love watching the tally rise as I finish a book– that’s what really gets my juices flowing.

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Take this year.  I’ve read 18 books so far.  Around book 15, I started geeking out at the prospect of pushing myself to read 50 this year.  Could I? Should I? Let’s do it!  I picked up the pace, hoping to finish June with at least 23 books stuffed in my noggin.

Then I started The Goldfinch.  Damn, you Goldfinch, with your perfect descriptions of EVERYTHING and your expert language.  Damn you and your 80 gazillion pages.  The Goldfinch is a speed bump on my quest to digest more and more books.   There’s been no zipping through Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  Yet, I keep returning to see what’s next for the young protagonist Theo Decker.  I’m rooting for him; I adore the beautiful language.  (I’m supposed to call it “prose” and get my English degree on, but it feels like language to me; I want to bathe in it, marinade in it, and hope that some of her mastery rubs off on me.)

So, now I’ve spent a week with GF and am only 1/3 through.  The irony in all of this is that my next book is Proust, a challenge-read that a friend and I are undertaking for this summer.  (I should probably make peace with the fact that I’m perhaps only going to read 20 books this year.)

But the bigger issue?  I might want to look at my values because this little exercise, this musty literary corner of my life is a microcosm– how I do anything is how I do everything.  And my first impulse is always to value speed above thoroughness, quantity over pleasure and the goal above the journey.

And that is my real problem, not that GF had more pages than red states have guns.  No, the real problem is that there’s a battle I’m eternally (and internally) engaged in– how to harmonize all my wild and ferocious impulses into something manageable, productive, and ultimately beautiful, even those that are at odds with one another.