The One with Back to the Future

I was walking Reggie in the early evening darkness when I saw the faint outline of my neighbor approaching. I’d been hoping to run into her. I had to ask if it was her name listed in the credits of a popular literature webisode. She has an unusual name, which nearly jumped off the screen when I saw it scroll by. We chatted for a few minutes while Reggie sniffed her baby’s feet. (He loves baby feet and will try to lick them if left to his own devices.)  She said she was indeed one of the writers for the series, aimed at high school and college students. And, well, the rest of the embarrassing conversation played out something like this:

Me: The clips are so well written. It must be hard to boil Hamlet down to a ten-minute segment. And make it funny. How did you get this gig?

Neighbor: A friend works on the series and suggested I would be a good fit. I used to write sketch comedy and I have a PhD in comparative literature. When else could I use both of those in the same job?

[Laughter]

Me: It’s like a Venn diagram of probability. I have a Master’s in creative writing and…

The rest of the conversation was a bit of a blur. Luckily, she didn’t seem put off.  Did I really try to impress her with my measly MFA? The degree I only talk about under duress, lest I invoke PTSD flashbacks? Why on earth would I try to one-up her?

This is not the first time (and, sadly, probably not the last) I’ve wanted to turn back the last thirty seconds, gobble up my words, and replace them with something less obnoxious. I know I’m not alone. I recently read that 9 percent of Americans are dreaming of time travel. NPR went a step further and took the question to the streets: Why?

While some people would like to go back in time to change a terrible event (“I’d kill Hitler,” several respondents said), most people were like me and would want to fix something personal.

Girl: If I could time travel, I’d go back and fix all the awful, awful mistakes I’d done. Because there’s so much stuff that you just think of, like when you’re lying in bed, you’re like, oh my God, that’s so embarrassing.

Interviewer: Well, wait. Hang on a second though. You’re only 11.

Girl: Yeah. I’ve got a lot of things I want to change.

A fair number of respondents (older than 11, I presume) would want to go back to advise their younger selves. “Don’t let that opportunity get away.” “Whatever you do, don’t take that job,” “You’ll want to get your MFA…just go to the gym until the feeling passes.”

Another girl recognized that this could be dangerous. “I mean, I’d love to do it. And I’m sure everyone would love to go back in time and change some things. But it’d ruin things a bit too. Well, experiences that people might not call experiences, people might call mistakes. Even though at that time, they make you sad, if you go back and change everything like that, then you don’t learn. So you’re sad more often.”

back to the future

There’s a desire to “fix” the past, right wrongs, and erase mistakes with the advantage of hindsight that only comes with having made the mistake in the first place. Although Marty McFly tried not to disturb the events of the past, it’s natural to want to change things that we said or did, be they minor gaffs or life-changing fiascos. What we really want to do is mitigate regret.

Each one of these regrets is a lesson on what to do next time. Maybe that is a kind of time travel—into the future. Can someone get me a DeLorean?

Would you time travel if you could? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

The One with the Books of My Life

Books help me live a passionate life. I’m surrounded by them all day, every day. I have stacks of books on my nightstand, on my office bookshelves, in my backpack. On weekends, I spend time at the library and in my neighborhood bookstore. I subscribe to newsletters about books and follow bloggers who write about books. And I never tire of them. It’s one of the few interests I have that has spanned most of my life. So I was intrigued by a popular magazine’s feature story about how hobbies can define our lives. Insert your hobby and think about how you would you answer these questions.

 

My favorite childhood booksNancy Drew
The Nancy Drew series. A girl detective. Right on!

A book I read in secret
Judy Blume’s Forever. There was one contraband copy in my school, which was passed around with all the “important” pages dogeared for easy reference. Now, of course, that book is tamer than a Robin Thicke video.

The books I’ve read over and over
I return to these books because I learn something new each time I read them, but more specifically I learn something new about myself.  Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. “Song of Myself,” by Walt Whitman

A classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
Oh good Lord, but Moby-Dick. I’ve tried. I really have. But the moment after I read “Call me Ishmael” I close the cover. Every time.

A book I consider to be overrated
I hate to call any book overrated. Some books just don’t speak to me personally (see: Moby-Dick), but they still have value. But if you’re going to twist my arm: Ulysses. I wonder what all the fuss is about. I know. I’m in the minority.

brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

 

The books I wish I’d written
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin. His prose is clean and straight-forward. Each word is so carefully chosen. He’s not pulling any gimmicky funny business. And yet… it’s riveting. The characters take center stage and their world slowly builds around you while you’re reading. Before you know it, you’re enveloped in it and you don’t even know how it happened. And all I want to know is, how? How does he do it? I’ve got Nora Webster on my shelf and I’m both excited and nervous to open the cover.

 

The novels people might be surprised to learn I love
I enjoy the irreverent Jeeves. I don’t usually go in for slapstick comedy and general buffoonery, but the Jeeves-Wooster combination is pure fun. I highly recommend the audio versions of the Jeeves books. There’s something about the cadence of Wodehouse’s words that are even better when read aloud.

The last book that made me laugh…and the last one that made me cry
Oh, David Sedaris. You had me at hello.

I’ve gotten teary in certain bittersweet sections of Me Before You and Eleanor & Park (both wonderful reads), but I needed to keep a tissue handy for Between Shades of Grayby Ruta Sepetys, a story about keeping hope alive when all else is lost.

My favorite movie versions of books
I’m usually in the book-was-better-than-the-movie camp. That said, I thought The Book Thief, Atonement, and Brokeback Mountain were very good adaptations. Can I list To Kill a Mockingbird again?

What I’m reading right now
Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning Last Orders. about four men who are charged with scattering their friend’s ashes at sea. I’m still getting to know the characters

Why I read
Reading is an act of empathy. That’s true of bad vampire fiction and experimental beat prose and Swedish thrillers. It connects us to each other by conversations just like this one through the universality of common human experiences.

“We read to know that we are not alone.” — C.S. Lewis

 

Do you have any lifelong hobbies? How has it defined your life? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With Kind of Blue

Even if you’re not a jazz aficionado, chances are you’ve heard of Miles Davis. His 1959 album “Kind of Blue” was groundbreaking in that it drew a line in the sand. There was before “Kind of Blue” and after. It’s been described as soulful and avant garde; simple but complex.. More than five decades after this was recorded, it still sounds fresh.

 

When I came across a podcast about “Kind of Blue” from PRI’s Studio 360, I was excited to hear details about how Davis recorded this iconic album, but I was surprised to learn that he could be, um, kind of a jerk, to put it mildly. He had a “disdaining attitude toward his audience” and a sense that he didn’t owe his fans anything aside from playing his music. He didn’t even want to smile. He often went out of his way to stir the pot.

But it gets worse. According to Studio 360, he was “unrepentant about his treatment of people. He shamelessly admitted to beating his wives and pimping in order to pay for drugs.” In her essay, “Mad at Miles,” Pearl Cleage says that learning this about the jazz great made her angry. She could never again listen to his music without thinking about  what Davis might have been doing the day he recorded the song. She writes, “I kept thinking about Cicely Tyson [Miles’s then wife] hiding in the basement of her house while the police were upstairs laughing with Miles…I wonder if thinking about his genius made her less frightened and humiliated.”

For some reason, I’d had in mind a very different persona of Miles Davis. I suppose I wanted him to be as illustrious a human being as his music was. But he can’t live in my spit-shined image of him. Elvis Presley said, “The image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image.” Was the truth a shock because I had built him up to be larger than life?

Then a few weeks ago, Robert at 101 Books posed this question on his blog: Does an author’s personal life influence you?  The comments to Robert’s post leaned toward “No,” and that was my initial reaction. Authors, like musicians, don’t live in a bubble. Their experiences inform their work. One need only look to Hemingway to see that in action. Then Sara Lewis’s comment got me thinking. She wrote, “There cannot be any integrity in the work if there’s no integrity in the person, can there? The heart behind a piece of art has some bearing on its value too, doesn’t it?”

Michael and Ann from Books on the Nightstand tackled the subject in this podcastThey discussed accusations of child abuse against author Marion Zimmer Bradley and bigoted comments recently made by Orson Scott Card, and if their personal lives affect how and if you read their work.

This certainly isn’t limited to musicians and authors. The more I thought about it, I realized there are some artists, athletes, and entertainers I choose not to support because their actions have caused harm to others. I wanted to delete “Kind of Blue” from my playlist, and I won’t be reading Ender’s Game. Sometimes there is a line in the sand. Just like the line Miles Davis drew with “Kind of Blue.”

What do you think? Does an artist’s personal life influence you?

Have a great weekend, everyone!  

The One With Halloween

My neighborhood gets all decked out for Halloween, even more so than Christmas. Let’s take a walk around the block and see what people have come up with this year.

 

The Low Maintenance

Halloween

A few pumpkins…a few skulls…aaannnd we’re done.

 

The Ghoulish Jeeves

Halloween

The black wreaths are a nice touch.

 

 

The Even-Skeletons-Need-A-Vacation

Halloween

Maybe Jeeves can get them a margarita.

 

Halloween

Aloha!

 

The DIY

Halloween

 

Halloween

 

The I-Didn’t-Think-This-Through

Halloween webs

How will they get inside?

 

The Two-Cool-Pumpkins-and-I-Got-Tired

Halloween

 

The Creepy

Halloween

The eyes blink, sometimes independently of each other.

 

Halloween

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean 13?

 

The Lost in Translation

 

The fresh mums don't scream spooky.

The fresh mums don’t scream spooky.

 

Does your neighborhood decorate for Halloween? What are some of the craziest decorations you’ve seen? 

Happy Halloween, everyone! 

The One With the Job Titles

A few years ago, I was at an event hosted by Poets & Writers magazine. The cocktail hour was coming to a close, and I was just about to congratulate myself on escaping without having to make small talk.

Cocktail hour

Then a friend appeared with someone in tow, and before I knew it I was introduced as a novelist to a published author of some prominence. I could feel myself blanche, wanting to crawl under the buffet table with a martini and a plate of those little crudités the waiters were passing around. It wasn’t because I was anxious meeting said author. I felt (you writers know where I’m going with this) self-conscious to be introduced as a novelist. I don’t feel like a novelist and all that it implies, certainly not in the presence of someone who has won awards for that very thing.

When is it that one becomes the description of themselves? The lawyer. The plumber. The vice president of corporate relations. Is it when you pass an exam, or when someone else confers that designation upon you? Is it after you feel you’ve reached a certain level of competence?

Some descriptions happen instantly, even if you’re not fully ready for them. You cross a threshold of no return. You’re a mom or a dad in the blink of an eye, with no prior experience. Same goes for wife or husband. Or retiree. With that one you have to switch to past tense (I was a…) and look to redefine yourself.

I wasn’t upset with my friend for introducing me as a novelist. He was just reaching for the quickest way to identify me and landed on the one thing the author and I had in common. I’ve done it myself—used someone’s job title or position as kind of shorthand. It happened just this weekend. I was at a friend’s birthday get-together. I was hanging out near the guacamole (the best place to be in my opinion) when someone came up next to me and reached for a chip. We introduced ourselves and I, apparently already out of witty repartee, said, “So, what do you do?”

guacamole

At first, I chalked it up to small talk. I’d always thought of the question as an empty one, similar to “How are you?”  It’s a shortcut in a culture with a collective attention deficit disorder, but maybe it’s more than that. It’s a way to define someone. I suddenly felt bad for all the times I’d led with the what-do-you-do question or introduced someone with their job title as a name attachment, “Mark, this is Susie. She’s an accountant.” I’ve inadvertently put my friends and acquaintances into a little box. I’d thought I was breaking the ice, trying to make pleasant conversation with someone at an event. What’s a poor INFJ to do?

Really, it’s a conversational dead-end. Unless Mark is an accountant, he and Susie are done talking. Worse, if Mark has a lot of preconceptions about accountants, he’s now making judgments about Susie based on her job title.

My new guacamole friend was already one step ahead of me. Instead of asking me the same question in return, he asked, “What do you like to do?” What a difference one word makes!

How do you introduce friends or introduce yourself to someone new? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!