Sunday, January 19, 2020

Snooping Tales

Two weeks-ish away from my phone, and I have found that I am listening more to the people I am with.

Also I am listening more to the people I am not with. Yes, I am talking about eavesdropping. This is an old habit of mine that I'd actually forgotten about, probably because I'd stopped doing it. Stuck in a grocery store line, during lulls in a conversation at a party, sitting alone at a restaurant-- these potential moments of boredom are when I will invariably pick up my phone.

But before I owned the dumb phone, it was prime eavesdropping time. My ears would perk up and I'd tilt my head toward whatever conversation had grabbed my interest, sometimes blatantly, apparently, because my kids used to get on me about it. It's nosy, they said. And rude.

I argued it was a good practice for being a writer-- observing human interactions, analyzing the flow of dialogue, making judgments about food selections in the grocery cart... Okay. Maybe I was being a little nosy.

And the information I gleaned didn't always lead anywhere interesting.

I couldn't help myself though. I used to write in cafes. Various Paneras. A Starbucks near the kids' school. One year I went there nearly every day right after I dropped the kids off and would park it in the same seat until it was time to pick them up.

I'd open my laptop and work on whatever I was working on. Whenever I hit a wall in my story, my mind would drift over to the political conversation the professors were having over in the comfy chair section. Or to the grandmother sitting very primly with her granddaughter, prodding the kid to do her homework and plying her with hot cocoa and cookies. The young woman curled up in the chair across from me, opening up creamer container after creamer container into her cup of ice.

I started to think of all these people as my characters. The professors were retired, I decided, and trying to remain relevant in the world, but how could they, sitting in a Starbucks all day? The grandmother was secretly annoyed at having to babysit for the granddaughter and why couldn't the kid figure out her damn homework on her own? The young woman with the creamers was beautiful and tragic-looking, always on the verge of tears. Possibly she was a college student, an artist, a bohemian type who got her inspiration from creating her own beverages.

It took me months of half watching her to realize that she was homeless and possibly mentally ill. Actually, I learned that from eavesdropping on the Starbucks clerks who were debating if it was okay for them to stop giving the woman free cups of ice into which she was emptying the (pilfered) creamer containers.

The answer, they ultimately decided, was yes. The woman ended up locking herself in the bathroom. There was a discussion about whether to call the police. The professors tsked tsked over the drama.  The prim grandmother ushered her granddaughter out quickly. I pretended to be writing, but really I was torn up.

Why couldn't they just let the woman sit around and drink her icy milk? And now that she was officially kicked out of the Starbucks, where would she go?

But over time I forgot about the woman. I forgot about my old eavesdropping habit.

Last week I went out to lunch with my husband and during a pause in our own conversation, when he picked up his phone, I started listening to the women at a nearby table. One of them was telling what sounded like a riveting story, as evidenced by her hushed tone and the other women leaning in closer to listen.

I leaned over closer to listen too. Something about a guy who'd gone to jail and who had been cheating on his wife. Money laundering was involved. Hardened criminals were coming after the guy and it was all going out of control. My husband put his phone down and tried to resume our conversation, but I shushed him. I was worried over how everything was going to turn out over at the other table.

The woman telling the story was winding down. It's crazy, she said. No kidding! I was thinking. And then one of the other women at the table said, So what channel is this show on?

Netflix, the woman said.

When my husband and I left the restaurant, I quickly caught him up on the story. What show was it? he asked me. It sounds good.

I don't know, I told him. I stopped listening.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Take my phone. Please.

The joke over the summer around my house was me misplacing my phone (a daily, sometimes, multiple-times-per-day occurrence). Whenever it happened, my daughter would sing the line from that glorious Lizzo song Where the hell's my phone?

Then we'd do the iPhone Find My iPhone search and a buzz would come from under the couch cushions or buried deep inside my purse and everyone would laugh and I'd say something like, too bad I can't glue my phone to the side of my head so I can keep track of it better, sort of like in the novel Feed, by M. T. Anderson, where people basically have their phones implanted in their brains.

(It's no joke, Mom, my son told me recently. That's totally the next step in phone technology.)

My son is also the one who told me that our dependence on our phones and on social media in general is similar to the addictive feeling we get from gambling.

I believe him. Each click on a website -- checking Likes on a post, searching for funny memes and videos -- gives us a little surge of endorphins, just enough to keep us clicking, and just enough of a charge to ignore the fact that most of what we're digesting is silly or stupid or in many cases toxic and evil. Side note: we are now, in this country, getting a real time civics lesson in how government propaganda works.

(Don't believe me? Reread the passage in 1984 where the main character is told that Qasem Soleimani has always been his country's number one enemy. Um, I mean the passage where he's told that his country has always been at war with Eastasia.)

I don't want my phone attached to my brain.

I don't want it in my hand all of the time either. How did something that didn't even exist for me ten years ago become such an addiction?

The answer goes back to the gambling thing and it's why I'm glad I don't live near a casino. But here's something funny: I do live near a casino. There's one in Columbus and I don't even know exactly where. I don't have to be a slave to my phone.

I don't have to continue to consume media passively and uncritically either.

Anyway, this month, as an experiment, I'm setting aside my phone-- for everything except it's original use: talking on it. (and okay, texting/messaging, because it is the only way my kids communicate with me). I'm also limiting my time on social media.

If you need me, call me. I promise I will answer the phone.

If I can find it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Memories of New Year's Decades Past QUIZ

Match the following memory with the correct year

___1. The year we filled the bathtub with water because you never knew if it would be the end of the world as we knew it when the clock struck midnight. It was a half-hearted tub-filling though. Last minute, right before the babysitter came over. We left her with instructions:

if the power shuts off, we'll make our way back home as soon as we can. Then, off we went to play board games at our friends' house, leaving the six year old and the two year old in the hands of a teenager and the possibility of a potential computer-glitched meltdown apocalypse. But at least we had some tub water?

___2. The year I was the babysitter, putzing around in some virtual stranger's house, eyeing their champagne, even though I had never tasted alcohol, but wondering if it would be okay to take a sip at midnight? while watching Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve party alone, some random kids asleep upstairs.

(Hint: I was twelve years old.)

___3. First year with my boyfriend (soon to be husband) and we strolled out of my apartment (he was still in school but staying over) and headed down the street to THE cool hangout at the time, a place called Overton Square, where we made our way through the growing mob of cool people and met up with friends, vowing to stand out there until the ball dropped, 

but quit before midnight because some not-so-cool ding dongs in the crowd started throwing glass bottles in the air.

___4. The kids were all grown up and one had jetted off to London, but the rest of us were together, shaking up our annual New Year's multi-family house party by meeting somewhere in the middle, in this case, Asheville, North Carolina, a cabin in the woods, where we went hiking and nearly got blown off the top of a windy mountain, explored the funky art studios by the river and made our yearly music video.

Hint: This is happening right now :)

___5. It's a three-family, four-night slumber party at our house. Six adults, seven kids. Seemingly non-stop eating, drinking, game-playing, father-son-football, and a weepy night, all of us together, watching old videos of the past ten years of New Year's, the kids as toddlers, school age, and now on the verge of teenager-hood,

marveling at how long our families have been coming together and vowing to keep meeting up over the next ten years.

Spoiler alert: We did.

1. 1999/2000
2. 1979/1980
3. 1989/1990
4. 2019/2020
5. 2009/2010)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Favorite Books, 2019

(in no particular order)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I love books where I have no idea what is going to happen next, and this one, hands down, wins in this category. Two newlyweds find themselves trapped in a nightmare that could only happen in America. Halfway through this novel, I still didn't know which character I was rooting for or how in the world the author was going to pull off the ending. Spoiler alert: she does.

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jennings Reid.

Grab this one on audio the next time you're on a car trip (or painting the orange ceiling in your dining room). The absorbing back story of a Fleetwood Mac-ish-style 70's rock band-- how they came together and how the whole thing fell spectacularly apart.

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan.

The perfect book for the person who's read The Great Gatsby 50+ times and religiously follows book critic Maureen Corrigan's book reviews on NPR. (okay, I am talking about myself. But I really do think that even if you've only read Gatsby once way back in high school, you might enjoy this.)

Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Be warned: This is not a romance even though it does have at boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back at its core. Dark and heartbreaking with real, complicated people who long to be normal, but alas, that doesn't seem to be in the cards. I still can't believe it was written by a twenty-eight year old. (Side note: Maureen Corrigan highly recommended this one.)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain.

I loved The Paris Wife, which is the imagined story of Ernest Hemingway's relationship with his first wife Hadley. But it's possible that I loved this book, the story of Hemingway's third wife Martha Gellhorn, even more. I heard Paula McLain speak a few months ago about both books and this question naturally came up in the Q & A: Will you ever write a book about Hemingway's second or third wives?

The short answer was no, because she did not like those wives.

Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey.

This sweet, smart romance follows Annie, a rom-com obsessed heroine, who finds love with a guy who is not Tom Hanks, but is still pretty cool. Bonus: there's a fun scene set in the Book Loft, my favorite 32-room bookstore in Columbus Ohio.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

This one was a recommendation of my Circ Manager Sara, who said it had the most horrifying ending she's ever read. Premise: When the main character was a kid, his parents were murdered by his older brother. Now he's a happily married psychologist with two sons... until one day a patient shows up spinning a conspiracy theory that a devilish cult is responsible for the string of drowned college guys in the area. After that unsettling therapy session, our main character learns that his brother was just exonerated by DNA evidence and is about to be released from prison.

The two events have nothing to do with each other... or do they? (Oh, and Sara was right.)

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Another Maureen Corrigan rec. An absorbing story that tackles as its backdrop the height of the AID's epidemic in the 1980's-- the immediate effect of loss on the gay community and the rippling effects in the future for the survivors. (If Ill Will has the most horrifying ending, this book has the most heartbreaking beginning.)

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

As soon as I learned that the author of "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House also wrote humorous stories for women's magazines about her daily life with four kids and a large dog, I wanted to know more about her, and this biography lays it all out. Shirley Jackson was only 48 years old when she died, but somehow she managed to live the dual life of wacky 1950's suburban mom/ professor wife while at the same time writing six novels, three memoirs, and over 200 short stories.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by David Fassler

I struggled with writer's block for part of this year and I credit the Universe with sending this book across the Check-in desk at my library just when I needed it most.

In it, the editor asks 46 writers what piece of literature inspired them to write. The answers cover everything from favorite books to writing tricks to theories about where ideas come from and how we get the motivation to do what we do every day. Two or three essays in, and I was reminded what drew me to being a writer in the first place,

and before I read the last page, I was writing (joyfully!) my own pages again.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

This is the end

was playing on the stereo

and we were having one of those inane (but we thought) deep, philosophical conversations about life and what a giant bummer it was that we were living in the 1980's when everyone knew the 1960's were way better. Because of the music, for one thing. I mean, The Doors were awesome.

Also, we liked the clothes. Mini skirts and tie-dyes. Supposedly, the weed wasn't as good, so that was one drawback, but the point is

people-- young people--cared about stuff then. They were out protesting in the streets against the war and marching for civil rights, and here we were, stuck in the boring 1980's, where there was nothing to protest, nothing to get fired up about, except, maybe global thermonuclear war? (but we didn't count that. because what were you going to do? Chain yourself to a missile like some weirdo Catholic nun?) What were we talking about again? oh, right. The sixties. When people cared.

It isn't that we don't care, you said. It's just that we don't have anything, really, to care about.

That sounded true, I had to admit, and then you told me the story about how your roommate threw his stereo out the window because he was annoyed that his records kept skipping. Three stories down, the thing shattering apart, and then he hauled all of the pieces back up three flights and told you to throw it out, and you did.

Now that's a protest, you said, and I laughed. We were such a weird mix of smug and innocent when we were twenty-two. Smug, because we thought we knew everything. Innocent, because we believed protesting and things to care about were things that only happened in the past.

Flash forward thirty years and I am getting ready to go to a protest. It's cold outside, the streets wet with ice and snow. Alexa, I call out, play The End by the Doors. She does and I am surprised by how much darker and crazier the song sounds than I remember. Also, I forgot that the character in the song kills everyone in his family.

Only took me thirty years to figure this out. Today, I am no longer smug and innocent. I understand now that I know nothing and that the country I love is much more fragile than I realized. But weirdly, I am optimistic. Today could mark the beginning of the end of our democracy.

I head outside anyway.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The eighty-eight year old woman in our home

likes to sleep in the sun.

Or sometimes she will curl up on a heating vent. Why is it so cold in this house, we will say, and then we will stumble shivering into the kitchen and find the eighty-eight year old woman parked out like a queen on the vent, absorbing all of our heat.

Another place she likes to snooze is on a plumped up pillow that we've stuffed inside a box and tucked into the closet. Putting away our clothes in the afternoon we hear her light snores, tiptoe out of the room so as not to disturb her nap.

She is not much of a traveler.

Truth be told, she doesn't like anyone else in the family to travel either. She hasn't told us this, exactly, but she makes her very strong feelings known. Leave an open, half-packed suitcase on the bed, and the next thing we know You Know Who's stretched out grooming herself upon it.

And speaking of grooming, she will tolerate a combing for approximately three minutes and then she will bite us. She does not bite hard, so we try to overlook her aggression.

We have suspicions that she is a Republican.

Also, she is a prankster. Often she will sit in the exact center of a doorway or on the stairs because she knows the dog is afraid to walk past her. What's the crying? we'll say. Where's the dog? we'll say, and then we'll see the eighty-eight year old woman, blinking at us and smirking, the dog cowering behind her.

We have known her for eighteen years, through three house-movings and two states, five fish, the already-mentioned dog, two children--who were once elementary age and then teen-aged and now adults. 

At night she likes to sleep on my head.

Last week she had a stroke and went blind. She wobbled woozily around the room for a day but then righted herself. Twitching her tail, she explores the new dark world, finds the heating vent and her food.

It's almost time, the doctor tells us. But seeing as how she's still having some good days, it's okay to wait a bit.

We cart her back home and let her go, watch her circle her way around the room, carry her up and down the stairs, comb her for approximately three minutes, help her find her pillow.

Tiptoe out of the room so she can rest.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Book recs from my family to yours

We've got a full house here for Thanksgiving, and in between chowing down on 15 pounds of turkey and Grandma's ginormous tin of homemade m & m cookies, everyone is busy reading.

Including Mr. Peppers, visiting from Florida, who is checking out the latest 614 Magazine with things to do around Columbus.

A good audio book series, according to my husband, is the Stephanie Plum Mysteries by Janet Evanovich. The actress who reads the series does a great job voicing the characters and the books are fast-paced and funny. My husband used to hate his commute back and forth to work, but now, thanks to his Stephanie Plum audio books (borrowed from my library!), he hardly minds anymore.

The best book my mother ever read is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Side note: this novel has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for weeks and as long as I have been working at the library, people have been on the waiting list to borrow it. Last time I checked, there were 1000 people in line. Get in line now and you will, according to my mother, cry your heart out.

Auntie Jan says to tell you that the latest John Grisham book, The Guardians, is supposed to be very good. Also, the latest Nelson DeMille. But right now she is re-reading all of the Outlander books because she is in love with the series on Netflix. Plus, she thinks book number 9 is coming out soon and she wants to be ready.

Grandma Linda (of m & m cookie-baking fame) is a fan of the Stone Barrington series by Stuart Woods because she likes the characters and the mystery.

Grandpa wants to recommend a movie. His favorite is Independence Day because he likes how Will Smith blows up the aliens. And speaking of aliens,

Our son, who is not with us for the holiday because he is presently climbing a large rock in Nevada and scaring the crud out of me, highly recommends  The Three Body Problem by Cixin Lui, which is "a sci-fi about the cultural revolution in China, but also aliens."

Climbing a rock and not reading a book right now 

And last but not least, our daughter, who is also not with us because she is presently gallivanting around London... but thankfully, not climbing large rocks: The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty.

Me: What did you like about it?
Daughter: The voice
Me: Can you give me a little more?
Daughter: No.

And there you have it.

Tune in next week for book recs from me!