What I read in February + March

One book.  That was my grand total for the month of February.  One book read, zero things written.  It was a tough few weeks, creatively, and not the most productive.

But I'm back at it and I've slapped my list together and I'm anxious to carry on, to spring forward. Things are looking up.  So here's what I read, in decidedly un-chronological order.

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Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman.  With my six year old over spring break.  Lots of voices. Exhausting. She wasn't as thrilled as I would have hoped but I think this might be one that loses something when read aloud by someone like myself.  The audio book is splendid, I'm sure, but I expect my littlest will be more of a fan in a couple of years when she is able to tackle it herself.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel.  I liked the beginning of this very much.  The premise was intriguing and I could even get on board with the unorthodox narrative structure.  Sadly, it lost me somewhere around the middle but I made it to the end nonetheless and don't regret it.

Studio Sesh: The Book by Britt Bass Turner.  Britt Bass Turner is an Atlanta-based painter whose work I frequently admire.  I have one print of hers in my living room and it always makes me happy to look at.  Studio Sesh is her self-published guide to the art of abstract painting, which I picked up because I was feeling at the moment - and a bit now still - that a hobby was in order, a creative outlet that didn't involve words or writing in any way.  The book is very pretty but also, in my opinion, very expensive at $65+ and isn't so much a guide as a glossary of ideas with a lot of blank pages in between on which the reader is vaguely invited to "experiment."  It would be great for someone, I'm sure, but wasn't exactly what I was hoping for or expecting.

Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow.  Last year I spent a week casually binge-watching Jerry Seinfeld's web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  Though I have never been a huge Seinfeld fan in general, I found the series to be utterly entertaining and almost universally flattering to the subjects of Jerry's interviews.  Sarah Jessica Parker's episode, in particular, was surprisingly endearing (I'm now an SJP fan for life) and President Obama's was as charming as anyone would expect.  Judd Apatow also made an appearance on the show and came across as a lot more earnest and introspective than I knew him to be previously.  This book, a collection of conversations in which he assumes the opposite role, of interviewer instead of interviewee, is a nice continuation of that.

Celine by Peter Heller.  The best of the bunch.  Hands down.  Loved every word.

What I read in January

One of my goals for 2017 is to read 50 books. A pretty standard number, I think, amounting to roughly one a week with a bit of wiggle room in case I get ambitious, but still way more than I managed last year.

I'm off to a pretty good start. Five down in month one.  I even resisted the temptation to begin on New Year's Eve, as I didn't feel I could count anything that wasn't fully read in this exact calendar year.  I'm a stickler for rules (as long as they aren't the kind of rules that dictate what I can and cannot eat, that kind I don't even bother with).

So, here are a few thoughts on the books I read in January.

Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling. I already want to read this one again.  Her first book as well.  And I want to break with my cheapskate ways and actually buy them.*  Mindy Kaling deserves every bit of love she gets.

Upstream by Mary Oliver.  This one I did buy, as it wasn't available at my library.  Good thing too, as it wasn't a quick read for me.  It's the kind of collection you have to really dig into and one that made me wish I lived somewhere much more beautiful than where I actually do.

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. An encyclopedia of perspective, on writing and writers, comics and science fiction, and touching tributes to the important people in the author's life.  I admit to skipping a few bits that didn't call out to me quite so loudly but I read enough to confidently include this in my count for the month.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.  I have mixed feelings about David Sedaris and, indeed, about the origins of some of the essays in this book.  They are undeniably funny but less undeniably true.  He's a controversial dude, no doubt about it, which makes some of the stories difficult to trust, but I appreciate the humor enough to read through my reservations.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  Kind of a cheat, as I have read this one before.  Years ago.  It was an assigned book for school and I remember being surprised by how much I liked it (I made a point of firmly resisting all assignments that felt like the school establishment encroaching onto my private time, and paid dearly for my principles).  My daughter, age 10, is a very advanced reader.  She has been through the entire Harry Potter series, all of Tolkein, The Hunger Games, Rick Riordan.  You name it, she's read it.  But, despite her ability to comprehend the words, she is still very much a 10 year old.  She is innocent and sensitive and, as her mother, it feels like part of my job to tread lightly around her tender heart.  The Hunger Games in particular was a rough ride for her but she responded to the social message of it, the wrongness of the world of Panem, just as she has responded to the wrongness of the real world and the things we are facing as a society right now.  So I have no doubt she will embrace Bradbury's message...eventually.  But after re-reading with her in mind, trying to see and hear and feel the story the way I know she would see and hear and feel it, I'm putting this one back on the shelf for at least another year. 

*To be clear, I borrowed both of Ms. Kaling's books. I am a frequent patron of my local library, not a book-stealer.

Assignments

(or: how I ended up with a blog, part two)

Ten years ago I gave myself an assignment: write a novel.  I was a young mother, with a brainful of weird ideas and images, looking for a way to mesh something I suspected I might be decent at with the kind of life I wanted to create for myself and my little family.  So I did it.  I wrote a novel, which in hindsight I think I can say was probably not that good.  And, once done, I changed the assignment to: get agent for novel, sell novel, make a million bucks. 

I did not do that, any of it. 

The argument could be made that the goal was too broad, that I had stacked up too many big steps to take at once, and that would be true.  But it is also true to say that I was untested, I hadn't learned enough or practiced enough or even considered another possible course.  Instead of stepping back and adjusting my aim, I went straight at it again.  I wrote another novel, better than the first, but still no agent, no sale, no bucks.  I did the same thing again and again and again, improving each time, getting nicer feedback and making more connections, but crossing no new finish lines.

Ten years, five novels, nearly 500,000 first-draft words (and that's only the completed drafts, saying nothing of the ideas started and abandoned in between).  Countless hours spent scribbling during naps and after bedtimes, slippery sentences caught on the backs of grocery store receipts as I waited in the afternoon pickup line at school. A handful of very generous literary agents who read my work and then read it again, tailored as close to their liking as I could get from their helpful revision notes, and still said no.

"You're almost there," they kept cheering.  "The prose is beautiful, the characters are believable, the premise is intriguing.  But.  Still it's only an 'almost' for me.  Maybe your next story will be The One.  Whenever you finish, send it my way okay?  Keep me at the top of your list."

What they were saying was that I was holding all the right strings but hadn't managed to tie them in the right sort of knot.

If there is anything guaranteed to get under my skin, it is the idea of waste. At best inefficient, at worst selfish and fatal, waste reverberates far beyond the scope of our own individual lives.  Wasted food, wasted resources, wasted time. I would never literally water dead plants (just ask the members of my homeowners' association, who are rarely thrilled by the state of my front yard) but I got to a point where I could no longer fight off the feeling that I was doing it in a figurative way.  I was writing novels that weren't going anywhere and the idea of starting another felt like the first step toward wasting an awful lot of time and energy. 

I had to accept that I had failed.  And, again, it didn't count that I had tried.  It didn't make me feel better knowing that I had written a book (or five), even when my sweet husband tried to convince me to be proud of it.  I'd done something, sure, but not the something I wanted to do.  I hadn't completed the assignment.

I had failed.

Hard.

The funny thing was, after I finally did get some distance and catch my breath and reassess what had gone down, I didn't mind admitting that I had failed.  As much as the waste bothered me – ten years was an awful long time to spend spinning my wheels – I was relieved.  I hadn't been enjoying the effort.  Even if one of those books had broken through, I doubt I would have felt any more fulfilled than I did at the end of any other work day.  Driven by pure stubbornness, I had forced myself to push through my own instincts and straight into misery.

Right now, all over the world, good-hearted loving parents and husbands and friends are assuring the people they care about that they are successful no matter what.  "The only real failure is the failure to try," they're saying.  I know because I've said and heard those exact words myself.  But if we tell ourselves that trying alone is enough, that we're hitting the mark when we're really not, then there's a chance we are sacrificing the joy that can come from actual, concrete accomplishment.  Maybe instead of denying failure we should be telling each other something like, "It's good that you tried and it's okay if you fail – like really fail super hard, so hard it hurts and you bleed and cry and maybe throw up a little – as long as you learn from it.  Get back up and take a different line next time."

I consider myself a resilient person.  I've walked through more than my fair share of fire in my years on this planet.  So, even though I swore after my trip to Colorado that I was done with bikes forever and ever and ever, when we got back to home to Florida I rode again.  I stuck to the flat, safe, baby trails, I rested when I needed to, I started the day with smarter (albeit slightly more boring) fuel like eggs whites on toast, but I rode.  And little by little my confidence healed.  I bought a spin bike and resolved to use it every possible day, to build my strength and speed, to fortify my heart for the next mountain I faced.

And I started writing again.  Not another novel, not yet.  But putting words on pages feels good, for the first time in a long time, and even if it's still not my time, even if I fail all over again in a new and devastating way, I can't wait to see what happens.

(I won't say no to having a cold bottle of Coke ready afterwards, just in case.)

Xs Where My Eyes Should Be

(or: how I ended up with a blog, part one)

My first mistake was eating cold pizza for breakfast that morning.  I thought nothing of it, only that I was on vacation and anything goes when you're on vacation.

I dressed – padded shorts under baggies, long hair pulled back into a sensible low ponytail – and my husband and I headed out to meet our guide at a packed dirt parking lot behind a 7-11.  We shook hands, acted cooler than we were, and then jumped into this stranger's truck and rode south and west from Boulder to somewhere on the other side of Denver.  We had been planning the trip for months.  A week of hiking and riding in Colorado to celebrate ten mostly-glorious years of marriage.  We worked out and ate well and rode bikes at home all the time so we were fine.  I was fine.  Cold pizza was fine.

That was my mantra: fine, fine, fine.  As we left the interstate behind and wound our way up beautiful, empty, steep back roads. This is fine.  As my ears popped in the unfamiliar altitude. Totally fine.  When we got to the trailhead I watched our guide, Jake, pull my borrowed bike off the tailgate of his truck and thought, Fine.  I will be fine.  But, even as I thought it, I could feel a cold marble of dread slide down my throat and lodge behind my ribs.

"Don't freak when you see the first climb, okay?"  He was warning me.  His voice already sounded like it was coming from a tin can at the end of a very long string.  "It's a little ugly at first.  Kind of goes straight up from the gate and sometimes people get nervous.  But it's just that first part.  The trail we're taking levels out pretty quickly.  No worries, nothing you can't handle."

But it was something I couldn't handle.  We were already 8,000 feet higher above sea level than I was used to, the bike I was on already felt too big, the brakes too touchy.  I had to stop twice to catch my breath on the jeep road that led from the parking lot to the trails.  I sat in the dirt with my head between my knees while ten year old boys flew past, standing tall and bouncing on their pedals as easily as if they were skipping down the street. 

It didn't get better.  I pushed the bike to the trail and then hopped on and tried my best not to freak out, to ignore the pounding in my temples, the sweaty queasiness in my chest.  A few minutes in I half-fell, half-dove into some low brush, attempted (unsuccessfully) to throw up, closed my eyes and took big slow breaths while my husband plucked a tick off my shirt.  Then I got back on the pedals, for another ten minutes.  Off and then on, off and then on, over and over again.  Eventually I just stopped, resigned to the fact that I was going to hike-a-bike three miles straight into the sky (Jake lied, it never leveled out) while my husband literally rode circles around me. I am lucky to be married to one of those dudes who exercises irregularly (at best), snacks on soda and Oreos, and yet can hop on a rented bike and tear up the side of a hill without a second thought.  He is confident and a little bit reckless, which I usually like.  He is up for any challenge, any time, as clearly evidenced by the fact that he actually enjoys being married to someone like me.  His daredevil stamina had buoyed me through countless difficult situations in our 14 years together but it couldn't do anything for me that day.

"Just go," I panted at one point.  "Leave me behind.  Send help, preferably an airlift or something."  I pictured myself curling up in the shade of a hollow log, waiting to be roused by a friendly Saint Bernard with a barrel of brandy around its neck and a sled tethered to its back.

I snapped this photo while trying not to die.  I find that's when I do my best work.

I snapped this photo while trying not to die.  I find that's when I do my best work.

Of course my husband didn't abandon me.  Not for long anyway.  He rode a quarter-mile up the trail then doubled back to report that it looked easier up ahead.

"How far ahead?" I asked.

He shrugged.  "Just, you know, ahead."

We repeated the scene over and over that day, me struggling along and him riding up and back, barking encouragement, assuring me that I could do it, covering 20 times more ground than I did and feeling 20 times better about it.

Eventually I pushed my bike over a lip of sun-bleached rock and collapsed.  I had made it to the top.  But just as I peeled back the foil from the end of the grilled chicken and black bean wrap Jake had brought up for me, I heard a crack.  And then a booming echo.

I will never, in a million years, forget the look on his face as he turned to me and said, "I'm really sorry but we have to get down from here, like now.  That's thunder."

We were fully exposed, lunching on a warm pile of boulders atop a mountain that had yet to recover from wildfires that had claimed most of its trees a few years earlier.

I jumped on my bike, faster and more gracefully than even I would have believed, and headed for the trail. It was one thing to feel like I was going to die, to imagine my face all slack and blank, with Xs where my eyes should have been, but quite another to be presented with an actual real-life deadly danger.  Cold rain stung my cheeks as I swerved between wet, slippery roots and muddy singletrack that dropped into deceptively shallow-looking ruts.  I fell more than once and, in the process of righting myself, lost a pair of really nice VonZippers I'd hooked to my shirt when the rain started.  But I barely cared.  (I mean, I cared a little. Obviously. I really liked those sunglasses.)  More than anything, I was just ready for the day to be over.

When we finally pulled in to the parking lot at the trailhead it was warm and sunny once again.  Jake cracked open three little bottles of Coca-Cola and we clinked them together and everyone told me, with desperate sincerity, how great I'd done.  And I knew they were all lying.

It didn't count that I had tried.  It didn't count that I hadn't given up halfway through (because I might have, if it had ever been an option).  My husband's blind pride in me did not negate the bruises on my hips, the cuts on my shins where they'd bashed against the sharp edges of the bike's pedals.  Sometimes, no matter how brave we act or how valiantly we push through an obstacle, we still fail at what we set out to do.  I had given myself the assignment of getting after it that day, on strong legs and with fierce lungs, and that's not what ended up happening.

I had failed.

Hard.