July 4, 2012 Leave a comment
Protagonists at large
May 27, 2012 2 Comments
Dear Carla Fran,
I saw Wicked tonight at a theater with my Mom. A dragon with neon eyes glowered down from the upper part of the stage where I watched the surtitles with my dad when he took me to operas as a kid. (Have I told you that we went to operas a lot? One of the kids’ dads would prep a group of us music-nerds for each opera by arranging themed evenings where we’d talk about the plot over a period-piece dinner, after which we’d watch the movie version from start to finish. When we it was time for Die Fledermaus, we had fake beer and duck. The host offered me the duck’s heart, explaining that at the time it was considered an honor. His older daughter was a model, and thought we were losers.)
The model-daughter made me feel pretty lame about enjoying those dinners as much as I did, and I remember trying to tone down the enthusiasm whenever I remembered she was there. Not unrelatedly, there’s still a version of me that regrets loving musicals as much as I do. Sometimes I even manage to convince myself that I don’t, that I find criticisms of the genre true, and that it is uniformly mawkish, overwrought, unnatural, bourgeois, obvious, sentimental.
You can convince yourself you’re over something, but you can’t always convince the people you love. My mom, for instance. Thanks for the ticket, mom! To my dismay, Mr. Millicent has discovered that whenever I’m moved by a bit of story, my legs and arms break out in goosebumps. (I know this at some level, it’s part of why I gravitate toward jeans and long sleeves.) These days, when we sit down to watch Scrubs reruns, there’s the totally predictable moment when the music goes soft and Something Moving happens. I watch with a steely eye, but lately Mr. Millicent has taken to hitching up my pajama legs. Without fail, the uncool goosebumps bear silent witness against me and my claims to a more discerning taste.
When it comes to musicals, I know I’ve never been able to fool you, and one of the beautiful things about our space here is how has been not even having to try. Your love of the thing and your writing about the thing has given me permission—hell, monkey bars, a trampoline, a language—to have one musical-loving face instead of two, one of which scorns them for the maudlin qualities you’ve given us a way to prize. It’s thanks to you that I have a way of thinking, of putting words to a reaction I’d consigned to hair follicles. I’ve had fewer faces since I’ve known you, and there’s no way to measure that relief.
Anyway, about Wicked.
I spent tonight awash in goosebumps. Like I’ve said, it’s hard to trust them, because they’re just stupidly easy to manipulate. I know they’re wrong sometimes in the way sentimentalism is wrong when it goes unchecked. If I think over and through them I can see the flaws. I can note that the speaking-animals-going-mute subplot is underdeveloped in Wicked. That it’s an awfully easy way to make Elphaba good and the Wizard ungood because there are no counterarguments. Elphaba’s clearly right, everyone else is clearly wrong, and as moral stances go, this one manages to evoke a spectrum of arguments that apply to vegetarianism and the Civil Rights Movement without ever really committing. Fiero’s change from party-boy to activist feels thin. I had to look away during the love scene between Elphaba and Fiero out of embarrassment both for its excess and for the weird logistics that go into singing incredibly loud and not particularly good lyrics directly into someone’s face. Talk about sentimentalism going unchecked—I couldn’t take it. Every time I tried I started suffocating from discomfort.
All that’s true, and if someone asked me what I thought I could say those things and I wouldn’t be lying. Not exactly. But the other, meatier truth is that I got goosebumps from the crazy deep-green set of Emerald City, from the astonishing Victorian steampunk costumes that made almost every chorus scene an improvement on Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue covers. From the jarring shade of Elphaba’s skin, from the intense physical comedy of Glinda’s makeover—her first kind act. And from the incredible singing that musicals always have, but maybe I’ve just been away long enough that it blew my socks off to hear it live.
Speaking of singing, I still like opera, and pretty much the way I did as a kid: it makes silly utterances majestic and makes sexuality consumable as art (cf. Carmen). It gives amazing music a veneer of story that will make it go down easier if you can’t be there for the music alone. But I rarely get (or got) goosebumps at the opera because opera librettos are almost magically vapid, the stories tend to be both melodramatic and staid, and the singing, while technically brilliant, doesn’t quite square with my sense of how music and human emotion intersect. (That said, I love The Marriage of Figaro to death, even if it leaves me bumpless, because of its unflagging sense of humor.)
What forced me wrap my coat around my bumpy legs tonight in an effort to calm them down was that Wicked was a story about friendship. I had no idea. I’d listened to the soundtrack several times because my sister loves it. She and I can holler our hearts out to Disney songs and musicals for hours when we’re at home; it’s one of our favorite games and it’s so habitual that I sometimes forget to treasure it. Still, when she told me how great it was a part of me suspected that her goosebumps, like mine, were too easily roused. I just didn’t expect much out of Wicked. I’d been so sure Glinda would be torn down in order to raise Elphaba up in a dumb contrarian way that I didn’t think it was worth seeing. (Whyyy do I think I’m automatically smarter than the story? Or that my taste has any reason to be better than my sister’s, or anyone else’s, when I have ample evidence to the contrary? Unconscious Hubris, meet humility.)
I guess I just didn’t expect the friendship to survive the musical. I didn’t expect to see an incredibly smart portrayal of female friendship to the near-exclusion of other more traditional musical relationships. I didn’t expect it to honor both witches’ motivations and choices, or to saddle them both with losses. Most of all, I didn’t expect the story to refuse to make either friend learn a lesson.
But it did, and their leave-taking from each other is a really raw ode to friendship, and goddamn if it didn’t make me think about how lucky I’ve been, and how you’ve changed me for good.
May 13, 2012 1 Comment
I am the Queen of Cheap Rent, but on Friday I’m buying a house. Because I want to. Because I can. Because, I realized recently, I’ve moved every one or two years (sometimes more than once a year) for the last fourteen years.
This isn’t a new impulse–over the years there were times when I wanted a house, or could have purchased one. But those impulses were usually driven by my dissatisfaction with a crappy apartment, and I was always somewhere I knew I would leave, or wanted to leave. Now I’ve found a place where I’m comfortable, not too far from my family, and can see the building blocks of a happy life in reach. So I am packing up my things, and next Monday movers will come to carry my belongings out of my little apartment in the sky. As I pack, I’m thinking about all the places I lived before.
I probably don’t remember the name because I’ve blocked it out. I chose my college because I didn’t want too big of a bill, but I didn’t want to be close enough that I had to live at home. After moving all my things into the room, my parents were about to get in the van and drive home when my Mom grabbed me and howled. “Rachel!” She sobbed into my shoulder until I pushed her into the van, amused at her emotional breakdown. Didn’t she know what this day signified? That I was standing on the brink of the rest of my life, and the rest of my life was awesome?
I shared my room with a sophomore who informed me she’d had two roommates the prior year, then had the room to herself for months. That should have been my red flag, but I was naive. This girl showered once a week, every Saturday night, then worked an eight-hour shift at Taco Bell on Sunday. She watched TV constantly, and even watched videotaped shows on VHS during commercial breaks of shows she watched live. When I moved out on Halloween weekend, it felt like I’d been there for eternity. In the fresh air of my new room, all my stuff smelled. I spent the afternoon in the laundry room washing the stench out of my comforter and all my clothes.
This was right across the street. The rooms were smaller, the food was better, and almost everyone was a freshman. I had chosen my new roommate based on the fact that she smiled and talked and the room was clean and charmingly decorated. Red flag #2: if someone says “I’m a nice person,” they’re not. I spent the rest of the year living an episode of Gossip Girl against my will.
This was a house owned by the Catholic church on campus. After the first year of college, I was more than ready to move home and go to a commuter school, but my parents convinced me to try this out. I had plenty of space and nice roommates. We were the last set of girls to live in the house, because, according to the pastor of the church, “Girls are too much trouble.” Thus I can thank the Catholic Church for simultaneously saving my undergraduate education and reducing me and my friends to a problem to be brushed aside and forgotten.
Junior year I lived with a couple of my Antioch House roomies in an apartment. I volunteered to take the room with the washer and dryer in order to save on rent, and insisted that I didn’t mind it at all. I was awakened by a squeaking bed in the apartment above precisely at 9am every Saturday and 11pm every Wednesday, in addition to unscheduled episodes throughout the week. A friend from class came over to hang out one Friday night and looked up in horror when the squeaking commenced. “What is that?” she asked. “Oh, that’s just my neighbor on her exercise trampoline.” I’d made up a little story to tell myself so I wouldn’t go completely insane from listening to these people boink like bunnies. Finally, one Saturday morning in March, I’d had it. I rolled over and pounded the wall once, so hard I left a bruise on the side of my hand. The squeaking stopped. If I’d known I would have done that much sooner.
My roommate Julie and I found this spacious one-bedroom off campus. We made the living room her bedroom and the dining room the living room. The plan was to live cheaply first semester and have the place all to myself second semester. Instead, a friend from class, Misti, moved in when Julie left. This apartment had a lovely view of a nature preserve. It was quiet and I had good roommates. It was an oasis after three years of shitty living arrangements. Misti and I threw a graduation party in the clubhouse. A month later, I packed up my Corolla and drove away in tears.
I spent a year back with my family while I saved money and applied to grad school. It was not so fun after having a taste of independence, but now I look back fondly. Because of the large age difference between me and my youngest sister, there are only five years in the history of our family that all six of of lived together in the same house. This was one of them. For me, it was a year of anticipation.
At the end of summer we packed up the van once again and I trekked to my new home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hackberry Place was a little cul-de-sac of concrete-block apartment buildings. The rent was dirt cheap and many of my classmates lived there as well. I tried to pay less attention to the roaches and the landlord’s utter refusal to fix anything that was broken, and more attention to the nice things, like the pretty glass doorknobs and the ceiling fan from Target my friend John installed for me. The only heat/AC came from a wall unit in the bedroom, so I often left the front and back door open in order to get the air circulating. There was no screen doors, of course, so occasionally a stray cat would wander in. I stayed for two years.
This cabin is on the grounds of a twenty-seven acre estate donated to the University of Alabama English department by Hudson Strode, a professor who sold a lot of books in the mid-twentieth century. The cabin itself was nothing to get excited about–one room, a bathroom, a kitchen–but the grounds were lovely and the main house was an odd, uncurated museum of decay. Sometimes the house was occupied by visiting professors; other times it was empty for me to use as I wished. I lived in the cabin for two years. I rode out Hurricane Katrina with a book and a bottle of wine, huddled on the bathroom floor, wishing I’d gone to stay at a friend’s. I invited friends over for New Year’s Eve 2006, and I don’t think there will ever be another NYE that fun. After two years, I graduated. I had my twenty-seventh birthday party in the house that May. At the time, I didn’t know if I would stay in Tuscaloosa for another year or not–I was hatching a plan to use the money from my summer job to move to Chicago. Regardless of my uncertainty, the party was the perfect send-off and the culmination of four years of community. Three weeks later, my friend Sarah helped me pack boxes to store in the living room of the house. My Mom was in the hospital, on the verge of death at age forty-seven. I rushed to see her before I left for three weeks of teaching in Rhode Island.
My Mom was tough and she survived. But she would have to have chemo and radiation, so I postponed the Chicago plan and moved with my family into their new house. I was there about four weeks before I started getting antsy. I drove to Tuscaloosa to get my stuff, came home and searched the ads for a part-time job. I ended up with a full-time job, offered a week before school started, teaching at a university ninety minutes away. The boxes went back in the car. I found a place to live over the weekend.
Without a doubt, this was my most spacious apartment of all time. I didn’t have much of anything so it seemed very empty. It was a five-minute drive from my building on campus. There were trees and when the leaves fell off the trees I had a pretty view of a man-made lake. The neighbors above me played games I referred to as “Apartment Bowling” and “Throw an 8-Year-Old on the Floor.” One person would let her enormous dog run down the stairs on an extendable leash. The sound was as crazy-making as the boinking bunnies of junior year.
I stayed in this apartment for almost two years. For the first year, I would go back home every other weekend to take my mom to chemo. I would often go weeks at a time without speaking to anyone who wasn’t a student or a family member. I was so shocked and consumed by my mother’s illness that it was useless to try to make new friends. My home and my life were a vacuum.
The second year was better. I made some friends. I did not renew my lease.
My friend Lisa was teaching in Australia that summer, so I stored all my stuff in her garage and house sat. It was a sweet little three-bedroom ranch. I mowed the lawn and dreamed of homeownership. I sat in on a summer English class and tried to find a new job somewhere else. I learned that I’d been passed over for a high school teaching job in favor of one of my own college professors. I despaired.
North Street is a charming little brick road near campus where professors live. Except for the last couple blocks, where I lived with the undergraduates and rednecks. I rented half a house, thinking that would save me from the perils of living in a complex. My parents came to help me move. My Dad and I did the heavy lifting while my mother, weak but stubborn, pushed lighter things to the edge of the moving van. My new neighbor, who lived with his girlfriend, knocked on my door three times in the first two days, and kept me up at night with the war-rumbles of his video games. There was an enormous pit bull chained to the house next door. My Mom declared that my sister was not allowed to visit me.
The day after I moved in, I drove to campus to hand in my employment contract. My inner voice was screaming at me not to do it. But I thought of my little apartment, my twelve-month lease. How else would I pay for it? There was no other job for me in this town.
I loved my one-mile walk to work. One mile in the other direction was a quaint downtown, with one good coffee shop and a couple good bars. In the winter, I left every three weekends for yoga teacher training in Chicago. School ended in May. I spent June sending job applications, put my stuff in storage, and flew off to summer teaching in California.
I’d always regretted not doing AmeriCorps when I was younger, and in August I found myself in Louisville, looking for a place to rent with my little stipend. I met a soon-to-be coworker and we tried to find a place to share. It didn’t work out. After three days of searching, I had an appointment to look at a little attic apartment. It was Friday at 5:00. If this is not the one, I vowed, I’m not moving here.
It was the one. On the day I moved in, I declared this my last rental. “When I move out of this apartment it will be because I am buying property.” I pictured myself still here in six or seven years. Not ideal. Not the worst.
I had money woes but I felt so free. I loved and was proud of the work I was doing. My little apartment in the sky was at the nexus of the best parts of town. I was finally used to my Mom having cancer. I hoped she could visit to see my new place. She’d given up on chemo a few months prior, but I believed she could make it a couple more years.
I was wrong about that. Six months after I moved in, she died. Her dad died that winter too. Again, I lived in a vacuum. But this vacuum was different. I needed rest. I needed quiet. But while impending loss led me to desperation, loss behind me led to hope. Trees blossomed outside my window. I could only think of the future, of potential. I could only think how lucky I was to be alive.
Months passed and I thought about what I wanted. Sometimes it’s windy and my apartment sways. Sometimes I am awakened by squirrels running across the roof, mere feet from my face. Birds nest right outside my window and chirp so loudly that I think they’ve gotten into the building.
This is the last apartment on my list, because what I want is to be on the ground. In a week, I’m moving to a home that doesn’t have an expiration date. I bought furniture for the porch. I will have space for my mom’s loom, which I vaguely know how to use. I am going to grow tomatoes and zucchini in the yard. It’s painful to know that my mom will never be there with me, but I learned from her last years how precious it is to be alive, that there’s no reason to wait when there’s something you want. I get carried away thinking about renovation plans and what I’ll plant in the yard, and I stop myself. I never do all the things I plan. And the best things that happen are always the ones I never imagined.
March 6, 2012 2 Comments
The thing about migraines, when you have them almost every day, is that they tame you. You stop fighting, sometimes because you’re lazy, sometimes because migraine is its own reality. Like dreams, where whole timelines are born, complete with histories and memories, migraine is a feverish bright blue that believes that you will never be normal:
You will be hurt by the sun.
You will never regard an invitation from a friend as “fun,” but rather, something to be survived. Like drinking anything alcoholic. Like watching a good movie. Like catching up with someone on the phone.
Taking the bus is carsick torture. You sit with the back of your head pressed against the iron bar behind your seat, forcing your neck into the disgusting and sticky metal, hard, so that it gives you pressure, sensation, anything but the tangled muscles and nerves that are strangling your brain. Maybe you can loosen them. You think of an anecdote someone told once about their mother accidentally breaking her own foot with her hands while trying to stop a cramp. You know how it happens. You’ve never forgotten the time you went to the grocery store, with a migraine, and tried to replace your cart. You missed, and accidentally scraped your elbow against the grocery store’s brick exterior. You watched the blood start trickling down your arm and realized, amazed, that your headache was gone. You did a little dance by the carts. You’ve thought many times since about scraping your arm against something to stop a headache, but you doubt you could do it hard enough on the first try, and you don’t want to become a self-harmer. It seems a dangerous road. Anyway, you know you look a little crazy on the bus, with your head at a 90-degree angle to your neck, but migraine clubs your absolute self-consciousness into submission. You don’t care.
You will never be entertained, the migraine says. Ha! It knows you can’t watch or read anything too absorbing, too interesting, when a headache strikes. The excitement makes the headache worse. Instead, you’re condemned to reruns. They’re shows you like–The Golden Girls, Arrested Development, Peep Show, and Frasier is especially soothing–but you know the episodes by heart because you’ve listened to every single one, in the dark, more times than you want to count. You are deeply, deeply bored. Your brain is hungry. If it were a tiny animal it would be starving, with horrible food allergies to all its favorite things. It would eat oatmeal every day and rage quietly at its lot.
So, like a child sneaking candy at night, you read Twitter. Small Tic Tacs of information you can digest. That’s not true, of course, and the migraine knows it; it knows you’ll take everything far too seriously, it knows that you can be tempted into participation and dialogue, and it knows that all of that will only make it stronger.
So you stand on a high-wire, with never-ending doldrums on the one side, nauseating and redundant, and a forest of spikes on the other.
And your balance sucks.
Then the migraine leaves, and all your failures of imagination evaporate. Friends are opportunities, books are salvific, and television does things you never thought it could. You work! You produce! A future seems possible. You imagine a posterity of good conversations, of entertainments, of discussions and walks.
It’s easy to say that the second world is the real one, but when you get one day of it every two weeks, it gets harder and harder to believe that, if one is, say, Kansas and the other is Oz, it’s the good days, the migraine-free days, when the Wicked Witch is dead.
October 16, 2011 2 Comments
This is what happened in July 1670, when Roger L’Estrange, inveterate royalist and Licenser of the Press, was implementing his “crack-down against nonconformists,” trying to stop people from printing unlicensed work. (This was just after Puritan efforts at republicanism had failed, and Charles II had been restored to the monarchy.) The relevant portion is from the Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1670. As related in John Spurr’s England in the 1670s: “This Masquerading Age“:
“L’Estrange’s men raided John Streater’s printing-house with warrants to search and arrest suspects, but twenty people ‘fell into an uproar, and begin [sic] crying out that they were freeborn subjects, and not to be meddled with by such a warrant’ …. Intimidations and insinuations … were part and parcel of the political process.”
September 18, 2011 Leave a comment
I’ve watched 254 training videos in the last week. 254 exactly. I know because the service I’m using counts them. I’m watching them because I’m trying to learn Adobe CS5–or part of it. Illustrator and InDesign and Photoshop and Dreamweaver. I just want to grab images and make them do my will. But every time I skip steps and try I end up with an unchangeable chunk of image with crawling ants around it. Chastened, I go back and rewatch videos like “Using Rules and Grids in Illustrator” or “How to Manage Your Files in Dreamweaver.” They are mind-numbing, and yet I need them.
A happy side effect of all this is that I have a new appreciation for how insanely easy it is to draw on paper. It’s a technological miracle! No layers! No panels! No selection tools or brush sizes or fills and strokes or anti-alias or pixel previews! No RGB or CMYK! Just your hand, paper, and something to mark the paper.
Here is a tomato I drew and then ate while watching 9-to-5, which is on Netflix Instant, and which everyone should watch if they haven’t because it is COMEDY GOLD. That stupid movie with Justin Bateman that we reviewed—Horrible Bosses, that’s what it was called—was its sad shadowy echo. The dream sequences! The fact that at one point a boss actually gets trussed up with telephone cord. The miraculous reappropriation of a garage door! It’s so ballsy, and God, I wish Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda had become a comedy trio after that. I would have bought every single thing they made.
In conclusion, here is some magical asparagus:
September 7, 2011 4 Comments
I spent Labor Day noodling around the Oakland botanical gardens, taking pictures of cacti, when a very small (rabid?) squirrel decided he was Mr. MacGregor and I was Peter Rabbit. Here’s what happened next:
August 31, 2011 18 Comments
Does an author have the right to be a bad person? Particularly if it’s precisely their “badness” that makes their story compelling (Cheever be damned)?
I finished reading Julie Powell’s book Cleaving today. A dark read. Not because of the one scene of anonymous sex (which the entire internet seems to have fixated on, and which was totally forgettable), but because of the ugly and insanely raw emotional territory it occupies, and how fiercely it decimates the Julie Powell persona of Julie and Julie. You rarely see a nonfiction author assassinate her own character, and it’s fascinating to watch.
I wrote this post about the internet response to the book (and to female selfishness generally) back in March 2010. Here’s what I said then, back before I’d read the book, concerning the charges lodged against Powell that she was a Selfish Narcissist who Overshares:
Some qualify that assessment. They say Julie Powell seems to think that self-awareness means calling herself all the names she knows people will call her first. If she labels herself a whore before anyone else does, she vaccinates herself against judgment by being the first to confess herself guilty as charged. This set of critics complain that this is pure defensiveness; she doesn’t really think she’s a whore. Therefore, she doesn’t really feel guilty. To admit guilt without doing anything about it, this set of critics feels, is, well, it’s downright Catholic! It’s as if she expects absolution just because she says something that’s true without feeling, in her heart of hearts, its truth and changing accordingly.
This latter charge strikes me as probably true. It’s also what Woody Allen (for example) built an entire career on. [/snip] Nobody would deny that Woody Allen is a selfish, unregenerate narcissist whose every project is a paean to his own ego. But neither is anyone suggesting that his career should end because of it. Narcissism does not necessarily make for bad art. In fact, to my everlasting despair, it seems like great artists almost have to be Firecrackers—it might be the case that great artists are constitutionally shitty people. Most writers are narcissists, most artists are egomaniacs, and most memoirs are fake. The sooner we reconcile ourselves to that, the better. Memoirs are faker than (for example) Facebook profiles, and if you think your Facebook profile is in any way a representation of the real you, well—the deposed King of Nigeria desperately needs your help.
This is one many reasons why it’s so damn hard to write—how absolutely great, but also how absolutely selfish it feels. That’s the wrong word. “Selfish” is really the wrong category. We’re all selfish in different ways all the time, and most of those ways should be worked on. They can hurt the people around us who we genuinely care for and have reason to treat well. But this kind of selfishness, the writing kind, is strange in that it’s basically victimless but feels especially objectionable. It feels (and I speak only for myself here) like a HUGE taboo.
While narcissism in male artists gets painted as brilliantly iconoclastic or even excused—Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso were just raw, sacrificing convention (read: their partners) for the sake of great art, Roman Polanski anally raped and drugged children but made great movies—women are severely punished when their desires or demands cross the line of the reasonable and prudent. (My God!!! Julie Powell cheated on her husband!!!)
Now that I’ve read the book, I want to point out a few things. The first is that I’m not actually minimizing the final reaction I’ve noted above—it is genuinely shocking that Julie Powell cheated on her husband. The reason it’s shocking is that Julie Powell made her husband such an immensely likable character, and their marriage so impossibly charming. Eric, that figure for whom reviewers have advocated with so much compassion, and on whose behalf they’ve eviscerated his creator, is a literary creation. Our experience of him is mediated by Powell herself. We see him through her eyes. We have no direct experience of him. Or them.
I’m emphasizing that because many reviewers have criticized Powell for a lack of authorial control. They’re wrong. Eric may or may not be a saint, but anyone who has ever been written about—including Julie Powell herself—knows that the written version of a person bears (at best) a sibling relationship to the real thing. The reason we love Eric is because Powell made us love him. That’s the same reason we dislike her. In a way, watching the internet attack Powell for her book is watching a creation butcher its creator.
Here’s how Linda Holmes (of NPR) anatomizes the shortcomings of Cleaving:
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that you can’t do regrettable or dishonest things and write about them in a good memoir. But for me to enjoy it, that takes reflection. It requires that you not appear to be bragging about the worst things you did and how exciting they were, while insisting that really, you feel terrible. In fact, you could write a memoir in which you explain why you do not feel bad about your affair, and if that seemed to be your authentic perspective, maybe that would be interesting. But when your internal struggles seem to be the ones you think you’re supposed to be having more than ones you are actually having, then the book feels inauthentic and dull.
While I agree with Holmes in principle, Powell’s internal struggles aren’t the one she thinks she’s supposed to be having. This, I would argue, IS the memoir in which she explains why she doesn’t feel bad about her affair, even as she has the intelligence to recognize her own ugliness. Powell seems to believe that feelings are animal things that refuse to be dictated to. You can’t lecture a feeling away; you can sit with it or you can push it underground. What we do on the basis of those feelings is a whole different question, of course. But in a marriage like the one Powell describes, where there is no privacy because you essentially share a brain (and e-mail passwords), the feeling is the real sin. Not the infidelity. That’s not how we narrate the ideal marriage, it’s not how we understand what a “sainted husband” should have to put up with, but it is interesting. We’ve certainly seen versions of the same story before, wherein husbands anatomize their personal journeys, complete with marital infidelities, without seeing (or writing) their spouses as anything nearly so human as Eric Powell. Not having read Elizabeth Gilbert, I nevertheless suspect that Julie Powell’s depiction of an ideal union and its decline is far more real than anything she’s done.
As far as the claim that Powell lacks self-awareness goes, I challenge anyone to claim that the following is anything other than the naked and ugly admission it is:
Eric and I haven’t had sex in months. And though D is gone, hasn’t exchanged a word with me in weeks, despite or because of the desperate, pleading texts that our horrid at-last-real breakup didn’t succeed in deterring me from, still he’s there, of course, living in our apartment. Eric doesn’t touch me. And I can’t touch him either. The truth is that Eric’s love, his very dearness, is excruciating to me, a constant stabbing.
or the sheer, nightmarish discomfort of this sequence, which offers a ruthlessly honest portrait of what people are really thinking even as they go about offering what seem like the “correct” performances:
“Eric, of course, knows I’m fucking someone else, has known for almost the entire period of my affair with D. He even knows that, in distressing point of fact, I’m in love with this other man. I don’t have to tell him this. We basically share the same mind, after all. Once, I was proud of and comforted by this nearly paranormal connection. That my husband knew me so well, and I him, seemed proof of a love superior in all ways to all others. Then D happened. We fought about it when Eric first found out, of course, or rather I cried and Eric yelled and marched out of the house into the night for a few hours. But after that, there was only exhaustion, and quiet, and in all the months since we’ve barely spoken about it at all. Sometimes, even most of the time, everything seems fine this way. But then, this talent we share emerges and proves itself the stealthiest, most vicious weapon in our arsenals. We can delve into each other’s heart and deftly pull out the scraps of filthy hidden longing and unhappiness and shame. With a look or a word, we can deftly rub these into the other’s face as we’d push a dog’s nose into its mess on the living room rug.
“We’ll be sitting in front of the TV, say, into our second bottle of wine, watching some Netflix DVD. I always have my phone on silent when we’re together, so Eric doesn’t hear the trill or feel the buzz against the sofa cushions. But still I’m tense, glancing at the BlackBerry screen whenever Eric gets up to go to the bathroom or stir the soup. When he gets back to the couch and sits, I’ll press the soles of my feet up against his thigh in a gesture of affection intended to make me seem comfortable and happy. But eventually, unconsciously, the nervous energy builds, and I’m tapping my bare feet against his pants leg. “What’s the matter?” Eric will say, grabbing my feet to still them, not taking his eyes from the TV screen. “He not paying enough attention to you tonight?” I’ll freeze, stop breathing, and say nothing, waiting to see if there will be more, but there won’t be. There doesn’t need to be. We’ll stare at the television as if nothing at all has been said; when D does send me a message, if he does, I’ll be afraid to answer it.
“I can do the same to him. Some night my husband will go out. “Drinks with work buddies,” he will say. “Back by nine.” Nine o’clock and then ten will, inevitable, come and go. The first time this happened, a month or two after he discovered I was sleeping with D, I was surprised and worried. He came home that morning at two thirty and woke me up to confess, remorsefully, that he’d been on a date with another woman, that it wouldn’t happen again, though I told him—ah, the pleasure of being the sainted one for once—that he deserved to be able to see anyone he wanted. By now I’m used to it; I don’t expect him home, probably until dawn. I can instantly tell, from the tone of voice when he calls or the phrasing of his e-mail, that he’s going to be the woman he’s been seeing off and on for nearly as long as I’ve been fucking D. I’m not even angry; I’m pleased. The text I send him a little after eleven is always more than gracious: Sweetie, can you let me know if you’ll be home tonight? I totally understand if you won’t be. I just don’t want to worry.
“It might take him twenty minutes to write back, or an hour, or three. But he’ll always write the same thing. I’ll be home soon. I know I’m fucking up everything.
“No, I’ll write, all sweetness and light, you’re not fucking anything up. Have fun. Come home whenever you like. When I hear the lock in the door I’ll initially feign sleep while he undresses and cuddles up guiltily beside me in bed, but I’ll make sure I give his hand a reassuring squeeze so he knows. In the morning I’ll pretend not to see his wish that I’d scream or cry, show my hurt and thus my love. I’ll poach an egg for breakfast, smiling. Nothing will be said. This is how I punish him.”
The person who comes out of that claustrophobically dark domestic portrait looking bad is not Eric. And it could have been. There was a way to tell that story that made Julie Powell look good, or at least not horrifically bad—there were problems with the relationship, she had noticed an attraction between Eric and this other woman, there were fissures. She doesn’t. That first sentence—Eric, of course, knows that I’m fucking someone else—beats you over the head with her culpability. She doesn’t make excuses, she doesn’t psychologize her own behavior. She owns the intense ugliness of her actions, which are predicated on the fused intimacy she spent the first book creating, and strips the cloying sweetness of all the passivity that would make it passive aggression.
That could be sociopathic, as some have suggested. It could also be one of the most honest things I’ve ever read. Plenty of people go through their whole lives manipulating decent codes for indecent ends. The vicious private languages couples develop, the misunderstandings they cultivate, which to outsiders can look innocent, even sweet, are an incredible phenomenon that seldom gets tapped in memoir (for obvious reasons). Julie Powell translating her cheerful morning egg-poaching into the brutal and unfair indictment of Eric that it is? That’s many things, but it isn’t sociopathic. Would that it were. It’s deeply human, and we’ve all done something like it, and never spoken of it, and even forgotten about the motives ourselves.
There’s plenty not to like. The food metaphors frequently drift into the domain of maudlin punning. This one, for instance:
In an ideal world, this recipe would yield about two dozen four-inch links of sausage. However, all boiled sausages are delicate, especially blood sausage, due to the liquid filling. You will lose many lengths to burst casings…. but the ones that do turn out are lovely—spicy and rich, with the mint providing an unexpectedly refreshing note. You’ll find that you can live with the few links you have and not mourn too much over your mistakes.
Still, it’s a memoir where the author refuses to see either her lover or her husband as anything less than fully human, and that’s remarkable. It would have been so easy to make “D.” villainous or manipulative or bad—a bad man, taking advantage of her weakness, her newfound fame. Powell doesn’t do that. She isn’t a victim, and D. isn’t a villain, and that’s awful to have to read, because we want Eric to get the happy ending he deserves. We want her to have an epiphany, and there is one, but it isn’t that D. is horrible: it’s that he isn’t a god granting sexual favors, and that he’s been badly damaged by all the demands she’s placed on him.
I don’t know if that’s generosity. Perhaps it would have been more generous to sacrifice D. on the altar of narrative catharsis. More artful too—if art is about wrapping up the ugliness of infidelity in a CryoVac package so it stops contaminating. But the alternative Powell offers, while flawed, gives one (in the words of Hercule Poirot) “furiously to think.”
August 17, 2011 Leave a comment
Read Carla Fran on Poldark, a Netflix Treasure or utterly surreal “Cornish Maxiseries,” over at The Hairpin.