It’s Always Once Upon a Time in New York City

2017-10-27 19.41.54The Engineer surprised me back in May with tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway for our anniversary this October.  (If I hadn’t already known, this would clinch it – he’s a keeper!)  So last weekend we flew up to New York for an anniversary weekend trip.

For me, New York as always been something of a mythical place.  It’s the setting of so many stories, from Disney’s Oliver and Company (where astute readers will note I got the lyric to title this post) to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and it’s a place where so many stories get their start, with all the publishing companies and magazines headquartered there.  I’ve read about it and seen it pictured so many times it felt almost unreal.  But as I was absorbing all those different versions of New York City, I failed to realize just how much actually visiting it would mean to me.

It hit me when the Engineer leaned over my shoulder and pointed out the lone statue I had somehow missed as we flew in.  “There’s the Statue of Liberty!”  And then I saw that iconic skyline, and I felt a swell of emotion I haven’t felt since seeing the Tower of London for the first time in person.  Without my noticing, New York had become something of a dream destination – and now we were here!

2017-10-27 11.56.40Like the Tower, which was so steeped in history I could feel the air thicken, New York seemed filled with palpable stories.  Actual stories of buildings gave a visual representation of the tales upon tales that have piled up here as people live their lives and visit and go away and set their novels and memoirs and children’s books in this city.  I wanted to roll down the window of the cab and hold my hand out the window.  I was sure if I did I would feel the texture of all the narratives floating around us.

Immediately, I felt at home.  I felt I could slip into the same stream and feed off the same energy as all these people surrounding us.  Part of this is my weird ability to navigate cities; I hate driving, and I can barely remember certain routes through my own hometown, but if I’m walking around a city or figuring out a train map?  Easy.  I led the long-suffering Engineer (he hates cities) on walks through Bryant Park where they were setting up the Holiday Village (complete with ice rink!) to the stone lions at the New York Public Library, then down 6th Avenue to find the Macy’s where they hold the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Some iconic places we just stumbled upon, like the Chrysler Building on our way to dinner before the show, and Tiffany’s with its own diamond necklace draping its facade.  We sought out the Empire State Building and the Plaza Hotel (though I didn’t go in to see where Eloise lived).  I took a picture with the statue of Balto, and when I read the plaque below it a little girl’s voice surfaced in my memory from the introduction to the animated movie.

Everywhere I looked in the city, I noticed a fragment of a story slipping by.  If it wasn’t a lyric from “N.Y.C.” in Annie, it was a line from From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  And when I wasn’t thinking of my favorite fictional characters, I could so easily imagine the narratives taking place in the little diner where we went for breakfast, or among the people meeting their friends on a street corner.  Sometimes I didn’t have to imagine – the Engineer actually saw a couple get engaged next to the boathouse and overheard the whole story!

The Engineer liked wandering through Central Park, even going so far as to rent a boat so we could row about on the lake.  “We’re in people’s Instagram photos!” he joked as we glided past the Bethesda Terrace.  Sure enough, many of the tourists at the water’s edge were holding up their phones to capture the ridiculously picturesque day.  The leaves on the banks around us were in varying stages of turning color, lending some wonder to the buildings rising above them at the park’s horizon.  There was just enough sun to tempt some turtles to clamber onto the rocks near the lake’s edge – we spotted six in one cove, lined up by size like Dr. Seuss characters.  The air was crisp, a perfect temperature for Pacific Northwest natives like us.  Fall in New York City – in fact, New York City itself – was everything I had ever imagined it to be.

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What I Learned From My August Self-Challenge

It was Tuesday, August 1st, and I was sitting at the kitchen table with Bird, staring at my computer.  I’d meant to post something on Monday, but I forgot, and now the private goal I’d had of posting something every day that week was gone.  But another calendar segment had just begun.

I looked up at Bird.  “I’m going to try to post something every weekday in August.”

“Okay then.  Let me know how that goes.”

I didn’t make it the whole month without interruption.  Moving across the country and then being housebound once I got there (we don’t have my car there and I can’t drive stick, so the Engineer’s truck is out) made for less-than-exciting anecdotes.  But for a good 3 1/2 weeks, I managed to post something Monday through Friday.  So if anyone noticed that for the first half of August I was writing something every weekday, I thank you for your attention.

Here’s what I learned about myself (and blogging) in this little challenge I told no one about:

  • I can’t not be a perfectionist, but I can reassign the Perfection Value to something else.  Rather than trying to write amazingly polished pieces or having a word count goal, consistency was the “perfect” thing I strove for.  Focusing on one aspect of the blogging process helped me give myself more leeway with the other parts.
  • I need to use the good ideas I have.  I’ve had topics sit in my drafts for months before I finally wrote them, simply because I thought I had to save it for the right occasion or it needed more tweaking.  In August I took the time to actually pursue those topic ideas and publish them because I needed to write something that day.  And it felt good to use those ideas.
  • Because not all the ideas I have are good ones.  I didn’t like all of the posts I made this month, but they were part of the Write Something/Anything process.  There’s a part in Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic where she talks about respecting every idea that comes forward, even the really stupid ones.  She says that once your creativity sees how you treat those mediocre ideas, it will start sending out the really good ones.  Other writing teachers have stressed something similar over the years, but that’s the image that stuck with me: the Not So Great Ideas are the brazen ones that come forward immediately, while the Great Ideas are shy and need encouragement from seeing how I receive the others.  And once I started using those mediocre posts (again, because I just needed to write something that day), better writing came through in the following days.
  • Life gets in the way, but that doesn’t bother me unless I really wanted to write that post.  Even after getting to North Carolina, when we had just set up the internet, I managed to keep posting for a week and a half, even though we had no furniture and there were boxes everywhere and if I had forgotten to post it would have been from busyness and exhaustion, not laziness.  I really wanted to keep writing, so I did.  And when I didn’t have any ideas that gave me that energy, and I finally stopped posting every weekday, I wasn’t kicking myself for it, because I wasn’t missing an opportunity to say something amazing.  Life just happened.
  • People do actually read my blog.  I keep forgetting that when I show people something I posted, they might start reading regularly.  And I actually gained some followers (welcome, new friends!) during this month of posting consistently, and my reader traffic increased as well.  While that truly wasn’t a goal of my little challenge, I like knowing that people enjoy my writing!
  • There are topics I stay away from.  I feel like they might not match whatever theme my blog seems to have, or I feel like other people could say it better because they’re more experienced/informed/well-known/etc.  Going forward, I probably won’t post them here, but I do want to write out those thoughts and explore them more.
  • I like writing every day.  I forget that sometimes.

Thank you all for reading!

 

 

Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

*Requisite spoiler warning

You know those books where after finishing the last page, you close it, sit for a moment, take a deep breath, and restrain yourself (or not) from grabbing passersby and shaking them and telling them that they absolutely must read this book?  The books that turn you into a book evangelist?

This is one of those books for me.  And Bird.  And our mom.

I’m a sucker for microcosms, so the premise of Amor Towles’s novel had me hooked immediately.  Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat convicted for his status but spared for his poetry, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the fall of the Tsar.  The idea of a man building a life within the parameters of a single building, even one like the Metropol, appealed to my “watching from inside a small space” personality.  The story spans Rostov’s years inside the hotel, introducing us to the friends – and enemies – he makes and showing us the spaces he carves out for himself along the way.  The ensemble of side characters are just as charming as the protagonist, and as well-drawn, and the conflicts within Rostov’s shrunken world represent the greater clashes of larger powers outside.

Successful as he is in making his own little niche work for him, Rostov’s gentlemanly skills are put to the test when he becomes the foster father of a friend’s daughter.  Watching him (and his Metropol family) try to fit a precocious, energetic child into such a small allotted space (illegally, no less) reminds readers of the bargain Rostov makes to maintain a delicate peace with his situation – he has given up a future.  He has accepted the petering out of his own spent life.  But his sense of justice, of noblesse oblige (for, despite the revolutionary ideals of his jailers, Rostov’s greatest honor remains true gentility) will not allow him to accept the same lack of future for an innocent child.

All this is compelling alone.  But it is Towles’s language that makes the book great.

I can only describe the syntax as musical.  This is a “me, too” book, one that observes common experiences in such a way that they feel new.  A few chapters in, for instance, Rostov must cull his belongings to fit into his new attic apartments (a disgraced aristocrat being unworthy of his former fourth-floor suite).  In a few paragraphs, Towles meditates on why it can be so much more painful to let go of things than to let go of people – and I promptly had to read it aloud to my family so that they could also say, “Yes, that’s exactly it!”

In other books, the reader would quickly tire of too much time spent pondering life’s little quirks.  Not so with our gentleman in Moscow.  The sentences lilt and flow in such a way that none of Rostov’s many reveries feel too weighty or boring – and if they ever begin to drag on, Towles brings in another character to cut the monologue short, and Rostov himself chuckles at his own tendency to get lost in thought.

With good characters living out an intriguing story in such beautiful language, this book is one I will continue recommending (loudly, eagerly) to everyone.

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

The Looming Negative Streak

I currently have a 141-day streak on DuoLingo.  The more days in a row I practice Spanish with that little green owl, the prouder I feel – and the more determined I am to keep my streak going.  Losing those 141 golden calendar days and having to start over at 1??  It’s unthinkable.

Clearly, the concept of being On A Streak is motivating to me.

But The Streak has an evil twin.  This is the string of accumulated days in which I have not done something, not started that habit I kept meaning to do, not read that book or taken that walk or called that friend.  Similar to cold being the absence of heat, this isn’t really a streak in itself, but the absence of one.  It’s a buildup of squandered potential.  It is The Negative Streak.

The Negative Streak doesn’t cheer me on the way being On A Streak does.  Instead, it hovers.  It looms.  All those blank calendar days, all the unchecked boxes, peer over my shoulder and *tsk* at me.  And whenever I tell myself that any day is a good day to start something, The Negative Streak taps me on the shoulder.

“Remember all the days you’ve already failed?” it asks sweetly, frowning in false concern.  “You’ve already procrastinated so much.  Be honest with yourself.  Today won’t be any different.”

Suddenly, instead of facing forward, looking at all the time I have in front of me, I’ve turned around to view an insurmountable wall of wasted days.  It’s dispiriting, to say the least.

They say that perfectionists procrastinate to preclude failure, and I think The Negative Streak is born of that same mindset.  “Look at how easy it was for you to fail on such a small scale,” it says, “and think how much worse it will be when you (inevitably, given your track record) fail at the big stuff!  Much safer not to fight the inertia and just keep not doing things.”

The main place I’ve seen this lately is in my writing.  All the days of not managing to post on this blog or to even open the document of my manuscript have snowballed into an overwhelmingly enormous idea of this big, blobby project labeled just “WRITE MORE” which is hardly actionable or realistic because it has nowhere to start.  I am a person who needs lists, steps, concrete actions to take.

So I did two things.

One was that I actually kept a habit journal.  For the month of June, I tracked the habits I would ideally like to make a daily occurrence in my life.  I didn’t write once in that time, but I did get a better picture of where my priorities are, and seeing the places in my life where I am On A Streak (reading for fun, getting outside, exercising) was helpful.

The second was reading a blog post by a dear writing friend where she talked about why she has decided to start a secondary project just for the fun of it.  She explains that her Real Work in Progress is daunting, scary, and difficult, and she needed something to remind her why writing is fun.  And I realized I also needed something to remind myself why writing is fun, without any attached expectations.  So I dug out an old idea for a story and started writing.  There’s no cohesive narrative, no specific plans for story – I’m just having fun developing that world.  (There are dragons!)

So for July, maybe I’ll get to fill in the little color-coded square for “wrote today” more often, even if it’s just a paragraph about the etiquette of talking about hoards in draconian culture.  I’m hoping to put some distance between me and The Negative Streak.

Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review: The Forgotten Room

*Requisite spoiler warning.

I love old houses for the stories they seem to hold, particularly places where it seems as though the owners have just picked up and left.  I love generational sagas too, the types of stories where you see how the family stories intertwine and get to trace characters growing up, disappearing and reappearing and making you gasp, “Oh, so that’s what happened to him!”  So the collaborative novel from Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig, The Forgotten Roomlooked to be right up my alley.

The Forgotten Room follows three different women in New York City in three different times: Olive in 1892, Lucy in 1920, and Kate in 1944.  They all come to the same building, an old mansion (well, new in Olive’s time, a hospital in Kate’s) searching for answers about what happened to their family.  And they all meet men, whose connections to the Pratt mansion run equally deep.  Each new couple delves a little bit deeper into the mystery of the previous generation, which the authors handle well – the reader knows more than the characters do, but never enough to completely solve the puzzle until all is unveiled at the proper moment.

I also saw a certain amount of developing feminism in each of the women’s experiences.  Having recently lost her father, Olive pushes back against the strictures of 1890s society with her reluctance to marry the first man who comes along.  She prioritizes finding the truth about her father’s death over her mother’s expectations, which is a small battle but a significant one for her time.  Lucy makes further steps with her refusal to become the secretary who sleeps with her boss, even going so far as to turn him down flat in a speakeasy.  Even more than Olive, Lucy insists on moving forward on her own terms, whether romantically or careerwise.

Kate’s struggle with blatant workplace misogyny and sexual harassment is the most obvious instance of feminism in the novel.  Her male supervisor not only sneers at the idea of a female doctor, but regularly undermines her treatment of her patients – when he’s not trying to get her alone in the storage closet.  Frankly, it was this battle against sexism, particularly when a young nurse looked to Kate as an ally and role model, that interested me more than any romantic entanglements.  That was where the novel fell short for me: these women had their own original motivations and desires, but that independence was quickly thrown out when they met The Man in their respective stories.  Though the ending(s) were cute enough, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Still, the parallel stories and the building tension as the generational mystery continued were intriguing enough to give this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography? 

Purpose

the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal
determination; resoluteness
As the Engineer waits to hear back from grad schools and I wait to hear what part of the country I’ll be living in come September, I itch to start a job search.  But not just any job search.  At the risk of sounding like An Entitled Millennial, I admit that I want a job that gives me a sense of purpose.  I wouldn’t mind working as a waitress, a barista, a data entry person – at least, not at first.  There are many necessary jobs that make our society run smoothly in the ways that we are used to, and I respect the people who fulfill those needs.
But it turns out that I am the kind of person who, if she is unsatisfied in her job, is unsatisfied in general.
I blame some of this on my brain’s deeply entrenched habits.  I’m already much better at exaggerating negative emotions, consequences, and difficulties than celebrating and remembering victories and little happy things.  And if I spend a week writing down good things for my Gratitude Jar and journaling every night and Naming and Recognizing My Emotions, I do notice that life is not quite as Blah as it seemed the week before.  So I do try to do that.
The problem continues, however, when I try to make my job relate too closely to my passion.  I have already figured out that I don’t want writing to be my career in a traditional sense, at least not now, so I thought working at the Writing Center would be a good way to earn money while sticking close to the field that already provides me with a sense of purpose.  So I spend several hours a day showing students how to better put words into sentences, and then I come home and I open my laptop and I open my own Work In Progress…and the last thing I want to do is put words into sentences.
I read an article in a magazine a while back about the concept of “reservoirs of energy.”  The gist was that everyone has three reservoirs: Mental, Emotional, and Physical.  A full day at work might deplete your Mental reservoir, so coming home and being asked to figure out what the heck is wrong with the refrigerator because it’s making that high-pitched noise again is only going to demand Mental energy from an empty reservoir, making you feel more exhausted.  The trick is recognizing activities that might drain one reservoir and not pushing yourself past your limit in using that type of energy; for instance, you might exercise after work because your Physical energy is still nearly full, giving your Mental and Emotional energy a chance to refill in time for dinner with your family.
I think working too closely with writing on a daily basis does something similar.  I think it depletes my Writing Energy (more probably just Mental energy, but humor me).  This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if my job were only focused on my own writing projects, where I could finish the day tired but satisfied at a job well done.  But right now, I’m so focused on helping other people with their writing that I still feel dissatisfied with my day’s work because I so rarely manage to make progress on my own projects.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A vocation is a terrible thing.”  He was talking about the call to one day join God in Heaven, to go through the difficult work of preparing for that kind of relationship, but I think the quote applies equally to those of us who know what we are meant to do on this earth but don’t know how, exactly, to go about it.
Writing, it has long been clear to me, is my God-given purpose.  It is “the reason for which [this person, Grace] exists.”  But while this gives me a long term goal, a desired result for my life (fantasy books, and maybe a historical fiction or two), and though I have been determined and resolute in this goal for years (despite every unoriginal snarky comment in the book), that leaves a bit of a gap in my daily life.  Because I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, I’m supposed to find a job that gives me a Daily Sense of Purpose without sapping energy from my Big Picture Purpose.