Saturday, April 24, 2010

Self-fulfilling processes.

Twelve pages into this book I found myself wondering what the hell its title meant.

So before I went any further, I looked it up. (Paraphrasing, much of this is courtesy Wikipedia) The title is actually an isolated reference to W. Somerset Maugham's retelling of a fable of sorts. Here's how it goes: A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace. The servant comes right back home, frightened, and tells the merchant that in the marketplace he was terrified by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and that she made a threatening gesture towards him. Borrowing the merchant's horse, the servant then escapes to Samarra (miles away), where he believes Death will not be able to find him. The merchant goes to the marketplace and finds Death, inquring as to what happened. She says, "That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."
And hell if I didn't still have a hard time understanding the reference. More on that in a minute.
But first, I have too admit that reading this book was like paying a metaphorical debt. A dear friend handed it over almost two years ago, insisting I read it because of its literary parallels to Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (one of my favorite books). Though written in 1935, roughly twenty years prior, Appointment is, like Road, a biting send-up of suburban life in America. For some reason, I never made it to the first page back then. A recent search of my car revealed the aging paperback, under a seat, untouched and suddenly goading me like a cranky crying child. I owed it to my friend, and to myself, to fulfill the recommendation process, if you will.
And, as per always, the universe had a way of plopping the right words in front of me at precisely the right time. This book may not be super well-known, but hopefully it's a thing of cult knowledge; perhaps it's wisely pulled from musty university shelves once in awhile. O'Hara's characterizations of middle-class anxiety, human lust, and the day-to-day finaglings of relationships are more pitch-perfect than anything I've read recently. It's like the Great Depression-era version of Slate Magazine's "Dear Prudence" column; it's all the dirty little things we think and (these days) sometimes say. Back then, I don't think a lot of middle-class folk actually spoke frankly about things like condoms, masturbation, drinking problems, or mob activity in public. But O'Hara goes inside the heads of several twenty- and thirty-something couples to uncover the narrative that's there, even if the words aren't being spoken. Plus, the great thing is that one of his couples DOES speak these things, at least to each other.
They're the main show in this Philly suburb--Julian English, a ladder-climbing car man (Cadillacs), and his lovely, hyper-sexual wife, Caroline. It's Julian's downfall that O'Hara pieces together. The scary thing is that I didn't realize it until the end; in the meantime, the characters that dance around them are so colorful, so full of life, so multi-faceted that the reader may even muse that this very dark piece of work might have a happy ending. There's no real plot, just a series of ambling scenes that at times reminded me of parts of James Joyce's Dubliners. In other words, it's just like life--no linear plot, just the plotting along punctuated by successes and failures.
There's a young boxer named Al Grecco, but that's not his real name. He also delivers boxes of liquor and knows everyone's secrets--who's cheating on who, who's been at the roadhouse outside of town, and who owes who money. There are college girls who dance brazenly at the country club, and the men who've bagged them but no one knows. No one is virginal here, but everyone's trying to keep up appearances. The characters who grow are the ones who realize that the scary, secret thoughts are actually okay (and they learn to be honest about them).
Julian and Caroline navigate their neighborhood, their families, their social status...all with a booze-y wit that eventually catches up with them. Peeks into Julian's psyche reveal that their relationship is largely based on sex, and after an unfortunate situation at the country club's Christmas party, Ju (as she calls him) is forced to confront the breakdown of all of his veneers--his marriage, his friendships, even his smile.
O'Hara weaves Julian's history (and Caroline's) in with almost everyone else's along the way. Their observations of the crew are everyone's observations. Random thoughts pop up fluidly in the text, perfectly: Those two people slept together once, and it didn't go over well, so that's why they're awkward around each other now. That man's wife is cold, prudish, so he has to cheat. That girl isn't very attractive, but she "goes all the way" for ya, guaranteed! In other words, O'Hara writes all the stuff we float through our social situations thinking, or at least wondering about. (Not to say that these are observations we should run around verbalizing, but it sure is nice to live in a world in which the people around us acknowledge a mutual humanity!)
What Julian has to realize is that the easiest and most human emotion is often negativity; navigating away from that, to very purposefully love yourself and someone else, well that's the answer.
Here's the crux of the thing, and the tie-in with a servant at Samarra: Julian English starts to doubt himself. Bigtime. He wonders if he loves his wife at all. He wonders if he loves anyone, really. Like a little boy searching out trouble in a cookie jar, he goes on a bad-decision binge. Caroline is not innocent, but she is confused. Instead of speaking frankly, Julian moves to sacrifice his marriage very purposefully. In many ways, this is because he fears that recognizing the legitimacy of it will lead to heartache. There are so many baited moments in this book, breathless windows, within which these characters have the damn chance to speak the truths. To say, for example: hey, I don't know what's going on, but I'm worried, me, love me, let me know you. But those moments are missed. Just as a lot of us miss those moments everyday; the smartest among us take as many of the chances as we can, or when we miss them try to make them up later.
The servant headed to Samarra because he was scared out of his mind. Instead of seeking counsel within himself or with others, he ran for the hills. And in doing so, he sabotaged himself like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I called this post "self-fulfilling processes" because I think we're all trying to learn how NOT to be that guy hanging out in Samarra.
Huge moral here? Sometimes you have to forget the crazy, negative thoughts that swim around you. Sometimes people just need people. If you worry too much, or push yourself too far into your own might just create a prison of your own damn design. Sometimes it's the moment that matters, and you've got to seize it up.
I LOVED this book. I've already let that aforementioned friend know. I'm sure there are copies of this on Amazon for like five dollars; you should order one. It's a quick read, but it's so honest and refreshing as to leave a real impression.
[Cheers to all on a lovely, warm Sunday. I'm full of food and champagne. I've gotz to get back to packin' up! Oh, and I do promise that the next book reviewed will be more upbeat. I've read quite a few satires lately...need to shake this up and diversify!]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Just call me Miss Blue Sky.

[Enough of the somber, ennui-laced posts. Obviously I'm entering a transitional phase in mah life, but I doubt you folks want to keep reading about that. A dear friend of mine said to me just a few days ago: "You know, you can't look back at all, you can only look forward. So look forward." Simple, but I love it.]

Back to some literary postin' and some book recommendin'--

Until I read Sarah Vowell's The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, I was embarrassed to admit the REAL reason why I love to play tourist at even the most cliched of American places. I study history, so I just always let anyone and everyone assume that I visited places like Gettysburg or Salem, Mass., or the Alamo out of scholarly reverance. The truth is that I love the grisly stories, the ones that make your skin bump all up. I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, but I adore the places that are "haunted"--because whether they're haunted with injustices or actual spirits, their stories can scare the hell out of us all, and make us run for the metaphorical hills. (Usually we find our way back, though, and all the while becoming educated and informed.) Vowell is a woman after my own heart, I've known this since I began reading her work a few years ago, and in this set of essays she full-on freaked me out...with historical revelations eerily similar to those I've thought up but been ashamed to discuss. In this book, she asks us all if history is really a series of trainwrecks that none of us can stop watching. It is. Take the Civil War. Not only are some folks still fighting it (and NOT because it was about states' right--it wasn't--but for other gross reasons), but the tourism associated with it makes more money than all the other historic sites in this country combined! Talk about a time when America was most on the brink--of both physical destruction and permanent psychological disunion. I think that's the American story in many ways. Reverance comes from realizing not only what was lost but also what more could have been lost. It also comes from thanskgiving. Take Salem. I drug my friend Brian (who grew up there, so it's all old news by now) around on the "haunted tour" of the town just so I could feel some goosebumps and also feel really thankful that I live in an era in which Americans don't often hang from gallows for their religious beliefs...and often live past the age of 30. Enough said.

It's okay to love the scary stuff, to enjoy the fear, if you're also made more human by it. Vowell writes about this too. She's most touched by the smallest of details--the placement of a tree that shades many graves at a battle site, or the pothole on a street that revolutionaries may have stumbled over. When confronted with the physical sites of tragedy, or of hope for that matter, our minds start to really believe that places are worth fighting for, or that people really can be heroes with their might or with their words. Vowell is so liberal that I doubt any American could stand to the left of her, but she concedes that American democracy is like a religion to her; she may be vocal about her politics, but she's proud to be able to choose them.

Her books are quick airplane reads--witty, frenetic at times even. In this collection, her best essay is about putting a "geek" in the White House. Forget these lame-o politicians who claim to be "of" the people (when we all know they're wearing designer duds and eating caviar, so why the front anyway) and dumb themselves down to complete the picture. We need leaders who are voracious readers, she says; we need memorizers, dorks, men and women with so much passion that yes, we might call them "nerds" in everyday life. I couldn't agree more!

I've certainly been cynical about the idea of an "America." I guess for a long time all I saw were strip malls and Hummers and Pottery Barn-freaks. I feel a lot more hopeful these days. Thanks to Vowell for writing about the experiences that unite us all--in fear, in joy, in whatever. The more we all talk, the more we all learn.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Singular kind of moment.

It is with great joy that I admit something about myself: I'm kind of obsessed with music right now.

I haven't always been this way; for most of my youth I listened to the radio and feverishly recorded Top 40 hits unto mix tapes. In college, I opened my ears to some of the greats--Dylan, Cash, a lot of Joni Mitchell. But it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realized I could be my OWN music filter. It takes a certain development of personal taste, and the building of a mental database, to figure out what you like and why you like it. The soundtrack of my life became less predictable; I wanted it to be more dynamic--a unique mental mix tape, if you will. So I admitted my ignorance to my music-guru friends, and they started me with baby steps in the form of CDs and itunes playlists. Now I feel like a kid off training wheels. I really NEVER thought I'd be the person scouring Paste Magazine reviews every Sunday for something new to obsess about, the one up until 4am attempting to perfect my understanding of an album. But, hey, here I am.

My roommate Brian introduced me to this dude yesterday--Stephen Kellogg, backed by a band he calls The Sixers. He's from Boston, and that's odd because his voice is more gravelly, homegrown, and country-husky than some of the most-lauded southern alt-country acts out there. This song sums up the way I feel about life probably more than any words I'd be able to cobble together in this space. Makes me think about my time in Athens, how much I love these bundles of memories here, and what's to come.

That's all I got today. I'm sippin' iced soy lattes, organizing photographs into cloth bins, and trying to stay really hopeful.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Everything running over.

I guess I should practice writing and saying this: I'm gonna travel, then become a Texan, and all while writing this dissertation of mine.

I'd really come to expect that my last few weeks in Athens would be largely uneventful. Lord knows I'll be back quite a bit to check in with my committee, which is why I tried to keep this whole "moving away" thing as unceremonious as possible. The universe seemed to have conceded to winding down my time here quietly and gracefully--afternoon beers, the sun on my face, organizing boxes of pictures and old notes (and oh! so many memories) while I shouted Carly Simon lyrics at the top of my lungs or watched the midnight feature on TCM. I've had a lot of boisterous here; the calm felt nice.

The calm was leading to something though--not necessarily a storm, but an emotional peak of sorts, most parts of which I had absolutely no control over.

And isn't that how life usually changes--on a random Thursday afternoon, while you're having the day's third coffee and ruminating on some tiny inconsequential thing that you'll never recall again? From my experience, yes. It happened to our family last week--a sudden loss, shocking the collective breath from us. My sister's inlaws were involved in a car accident while visiting Joan and Jason in Texas. Becky is okay, suffering relatively minor physical injuries, but we lost Mack. Two days before, he'd been bouncing my niece Eleanor on his knee, fresh from a swim. He loved morning swims in a warm-water pool. Mack had become, in a very short period of time, a beloved member of our far-reaching, multi-faceted family--a family that finally found some cohesion and peace on the occasion of Joan and Jason's beautiful wedding last May. He was a retired professor, a southern gentlemen, a healthy man who seemed to love being outdoors; the last time I saw him, this past Christmas season, he was wearing a funny-looking safari hat he'd just bought at Target. He loved hugging everyone. He's just not someone who should be gone yet, and certainly not in this way.

I was incredibly frustrated to be so far away, unable to help. The same day that Mack left us, my oldest sister Olivia brought my nephew Aldin into the world (in a Hong Kong birthing center). The cycle of life and death became so palpable, and in a single day. I wish that I could have been with my sisters during these life-changing moments. But what being AWAY taught me is this: the love that radiates from genuine care and support is tangible. My family congregated over phone lines; it was all we could do, and it was something. Over the course of three days, I spoke with every member of my family--even those that, unfortunately, I'd lost some amount of touch with. It formed a new map in my head, permanent now.

The emotion of these events also exposed something in me here. Everything's flooding out now. I have so much to say. I have so much to do. I'm so thankful for the opportunities I have, for the people that I know, and for the hope we should all cling to. Hell, I don't know how I thought that moving on would be simple, or easy.

Memories are funny little living, breathing creatures. They lie down and hibernate for periods of time, sometimes long ones. And then they wake up growling. They sneak into the circuits of your body, getting made and re-made as you make and re-make your relationships with the people around you. They're pieces of paper you find in boxes, and the scrawl of a handwriting you could recognize anywhere. Or how you can close your eyes and remember exactly how a moment felt, right down to the whip of the wind. They're photos that are always hiding in the back of your brain, snapshots of the way you WANT life to be. These snapshots I have of my friends are epic, iconic. The people I have loved and love are complex, and etched into my heart. I wish I could make my life into a mosaic.

[Next day addendum!
Turn and face the strrrange ch-cha-changes!

Today I've been trying to provoke some mini-catharses. Brian and I ran around Bishop Park three times, then he made me do odd training moves--like running sideways with my ass out and jogging backwards down a hill. I cleaned out three boxes. The dust made me sneeze sixteen times (yes, I counted). Catherine has requested that I work on an ultimate playlist for the trip to Italy in May...I mean, that's a rather massive undertaking. I welcome suggestions.

But most importantly, I decided to have a "take my stuff party." Have no clue what that is? Check this out: Sidenote: The website, "Like the Dew" is an Atlanta-based online magazine, mostly southern-themed. Lots ofodd political snippets next to music reviews and odes to fried chicken. It's worth a look!
This afternoon, while sneezing sixteen times and sifting through a box of Athens memories, I imagined that I would drive away in a few weeks, car packed up, with Natalie Merchant's "Kind and Generous" blasting. And everyone would think I was idiot. All the while, I'd be serious.]