What I’m Reading: Great Love Stories

My Mistress's Sparrow is DeadI’m currently reading My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, an anthology of great love stories selected by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorite writers now though I’ve yet to finish either of his novels. Continue reading “What I’m Reading: Great Love Stories”

Because Some People Do it Better: John Steinbeck

Apparently I am having a long bout of writer’s block, also known as laziness. But I’ll leave you with this for the weekend…though perhaps not the whole weekend. The sky looks as though it’ll start sobbing any moment due to god knows what (in my dreams the clouds wring their fluffy palms and wail, “That Betty, why isn’t she writing?” and burst into tears) and a good rain sometimes, makes me feel like a diligent writer.

Any who, the following is a letter from John Steinbeck to his son Thom, who wrote to his father from boarding school confessing that he had fallen desperately in love with a girl there. It is, in the poorly populated genre of letters from fathers to sons, one of the sweetest things I have ever read.

New York
November 10, 1958


Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

Fa

Quote of the Day: David Foster Wallace

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.” – David Foster Wallace 

Agreed. 

I’m beginning to see why so many of the depressives in my Creative Writing and English classes were so crazy about him and why that girl with the strong opinions and who always wore horn-rimmed glasses and thrift-shop sweater cried when he hung himself. 

The author of this article, Alexander Nazaryan, sums it up nicely: 

“[he writes about] all that messy stuff that goes into living a life, all the stuff that, if you try to write about it, you come off as either impossibly precious or…well, you’re going to come off as impossibly precious. 
But he didn’t. His mind was a diamond drill that reached as close as any to the opaque stuff inside us all.
And like the finest drills, it finally broke.”

Quote of the Day

“Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love.”

George Eliot (1819-1880), British Novelist. Middlemarch, book 2, chapter 15 (1871).

Quote of the Day

At the office I had gotten into a rhythm of putting up a thoughtful quote each morning. I have a little whiteboard behind my desk, made from the frame of an old television – I don’t know what the old assistant used it for, but I doubt it was for something as wonderful as writing a quote of the day. The quote I put up before our Thanksgiving holiday was the last thing up there for a while, because around then things got busy. Absurdly busy. I didn’t have time in the mornings to look up a quote and write it down, so Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year, came and went and the Thanksgiving Quote stayed, like a withering Christmas tree no one had the time to take down.

“Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.” That was the quote for the last two months.

Anyway, some cheeky bugger walked by the other day and said, “Hey Betty, it’s time you updated that thing,” and I thought, “You’re right.”

I erased the Thanksgiving quote and resumed my old habit. At first I feared people would think I had too much time on my hands, but whatever. A quote of the day is a nice thing.

I like all the quotes, but today’s is one I wrote in my diary as well:

“It isn’t safe to sit in judgment upon another person’s illusion when you are not on the inside. While you are thinking it is a dream, he may be knowing it is a planet.” 

-Mark Twain (1835-1910), written in 1905. “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes” Ch. 13 Which was the Dream?

How true! How very very true. Reminds me not to squash other people’s planets as I stand in my own.

"Beginners"

Hal: Well, let’s say since you were little and you always dreamed of some day getting a lion? And you wait and you wait and you wait and you wait, and the lion doesn’t come. Then along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be with the giraffe.

Oliver: I’d wait for the lion.

Hal: That’s why I worry about you.

-Mike Mills, Beginners 2010

Steve Jobs, the Macbook, and Me: Connecting the Dots

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

Steve Jobs (1955-2011) Stanford Commencement Speech 

A friend sent me Jobs’ commencement speech around the time of my own, much-delayed commencement, which I celebrated by driving away from Northern California, knowing that I’d never go back for longer than a weekend. Before, being the type of person who lusted after typewriters and fountain pens, I turned my nose up at Jobs’ creations. What use did I have for over-priced laptops, music players, and mobile phones, beautifully designed though they were?

My brother, the family gadget junkie, felt otherwise. He generously shared his interest with me, first by gifting me an Ipod for my high school graduation and a few years later, (when it became apparent that I would stop dropping out of college), by convincing my father that it was a Macbook I needed to replace my old black IBM. I was reluctant at first, wondering if I’d turn into one of those goons who waited in long lines outside the Apple stores, but friends, family, and the growing number of people in the streets, at school, on the bus – all glued to their iphones/pods/macs, assured me it was the right decision.

“I don’t know what I was doing before I bought my Mac,” said a friend, “It was like being in a bad relationship. You just put up with it because you don’t know any better. Until you walk into an Apple store.”

“Dude,” said another, not bothering to look up from his enormous MacBook Pro, “Don’t use that other shit.”

I was skeptical, but also tired of my PC’s petulance and general incompetence. It often stalled and made terrifying whirring noises that grew louder as my papers got longer – I typed in fear, wondering if it would crash just as I’d finished the last footnote. If it did, I would no doubt drop out yet again. Not to mention it was like a sickly child, constantly inundated with paralyzing viruses, a concept that mystifies me to this day. Why did such things exist in cyberspace? And why were they so similar to the viruses that plagued human beings – there seemed to be no cure for these viruses, only the dreaded “reboot” that erased everything you had ever written/photographed/saved, ever. Most of what I’ve ever written lives online, but regardless, the Macbook had a better immune system.

Finally the day came. The IBM choked, sputtered, and after much rebooting, died in a very electronic sense: It simply did not turn on. I bid goodbye to its dull black corpse and welcomed a shiny silver Macbook onto my desk.

My knowledge of computers and their inner workings is extremely limited – you may roll your eyes freely – but I do know that there is hardware (the tangible parts of the computer) and software (the dizzying code and algorithms that are built into tiny silicon cities). It seemed that in my old laptop, the hardware and software could not agree. A key could be pressed ten million times, but the command was ignored. There was a failure to communicate between the hard and the soft – and who knew: perhaps the software was in revolt. Perhaps the algorithms were rotting and the codes were corrupt, threatening to burn down the walls of the motherboard.

But it was immediately apparent that within and without the Macbook, peace reigned. Hardware and software worked together like well-fed, robotic peons of a happy commune. A button pressed was a command issued and I smiled, knowing I (or my father), had paid a little over one thousand dollars so that I too, could live in the present. Designed in the rolling green hills of Cupertino by Apple Engineers who loved their king, (though for some this love grew from fear), the Macbook’s keys felt and sounded different from my old laptop. This took some getting used to, but its quiet beauty, soundless breaths and smooth simplicity calmed me. Like with an easygoing coworker or classmate, I fell into a comforting rhythm. Each morning I pressed a smooth round button and it turned on. What a simple joy this was! I did not have to first brush my teeth, wash my face, eat breakfast and read the paper and come back into my room only to find that it was still initializing.

Upon it, I did my work and did not work. I blogged, wrote research papers, spent hours lazing about the internet, or in my room, with Pandora playing from speakers that were much more powerful than those in my old computer. I video-chatted with cousins in Taiwan and filled its memory with photographs from Rome, Paris, Berlin and London; recipes I hoped to try someday and half-finished essays that would likely remain half-finished essays. Then, at the end of each day, I would turn it off, knowing that it would turn on just as quickly the next morning. I could have done all of this and more on any other laptop. But the fact is, I did not. I did it on my Macbook.

I should have said “Thank you” to Mr. Jobs each evening, as his creation helped both my productivity as a writer and my connectivity as a human being living in the 21st century. (Though I will argue productivity is relative to connectivity, or has rather, an inverse correlation). And more recently, with the iPhone (another gift from my brother, whom I thank as well), he has hammered the final nail into the coffin of my fear. The internet in my hands! Email, wherever I go! And music, and Facebook, and an amazing camera phone etc. etc. etc. I can do all that on any other smart phone, but the fact remains, I do not. I do it on the iPhone.

So morbid as this may sound, To Death, the ultimate change agent, and to Mr. Steve Jobs, inventor and himself a powerful change agent. He had herded me, like a docile lamb, into his elegant and user-friendly pasture. And there – or here, I should say, as I am typing this upon my angel Macbook, I will stay.

I Agree Entirely. But stop? Never.

“I wonder, too, if this insistence on the improving qualities of our baptismal dips into the waters of literature does not blind us to the real thrill of reading; the recurrent reason why we come back for more, remember, quote, argue, share our experience of books? For me, reading needs to be justified not in terms of some notional moral benefit but – that more dangerous and enticing category – pleasure. I read because I love to read, because, in the company of a book, I am happy, engaged, and inexorable. This may well be bad for me, as selfish pursuits often are: taking me out of contact with my nearest and dearest, making me shirk obligations from washing up to keeping up. “I am reading! Leave me alone!” is the mantra of every true reader.

“Leave me alone. I’m trying to figure it out.”

 “So reading is an uncertain basis for the building of character. I am less ambivalent about writing. My writing, anyway. It has become increasingly clear to me over these last 10 years, in which I have written more regularly than before, that the more I write the worse I become. More self-absorbed, less sensitive to the needs of others, less flexible, more determined to say what I have to say, when I want and how I want, if I could only be left alone to figure it out.”

  – Rick Gekoski, “Writing is Bad For You”

Some People Do It Better: Richard Ford

Finished The Sportswriter . It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel, I felt, that so clearly sums up what I’ve always suspected. I’m not a man, not a sportswriter, have never lost a child nor been divorced and I hope to God I never will – but Bascombe and I – is this the writer’s connection? – definitely see eye to eye on many things. Maybe it has something to do with where you are in life – I’m 25, 15 years younger than Frank Bascombe’s 40, but isn’t it a fact of life that women reach these conclusions much earlier than men do, and even if men get there first, they don’t really know they’ve arrived until someone (usually a woman) points it out to them. This seems to be the case for Bascombe, even though he doesn’t say, or refuses to.

I’ve put the book down on my reread list. I’ll pick it up again when I’m forty to see if I still agree. I have a hunch I will. Someone less careful would write it off as cynicism: “Bascombe thinks like this because he’s divorced, can’t find love, has lost a son, is not passionate about his job…” Regardless, he sees life lived, he wonders, is amazed in an understated way people generally wouldn’t categorize as such. But even if my lips are pursed and my eyes seem unfocused, I’m still awed by the sheer force of life. Where it does and does not take us.

Why I love airports, hotels, traveling:

“It is not bad to sit in some placeless dark and watch commuters step off into splashy car lights, striding toward the promise of bounteous hugs, cool wall-papered rooms, drinks mixed, ice in the bucket, a newspaper, a long undisturbed evening of national news and sleep. I began coming here soon after my divorce to watch people I knew come home from Gotham, watch them be met, hugged, kissed, patted, assisted with luggage, then driven away in cars. And you might believe I was envious, or heartsick, or angling some way to feel wronged. But I fount it one of the most hopeful and worthwhile things, and after a time, when the train had gone and the station was empty again and the taxis had drifted back up to the center of town, I went home to bed almost always in rising spirits. To take pleasure in the consolations of others, even the small ones, is possible. And more than that: it sometimes becomes damned necessary when enough of the chips are down. It takes a depth of character as noble and enduring as willingness to come off the bench to play a great game knowing full well that you’ll never be a regular; or as one who chooses not to hop into bed with your best friend’s beautiful wife.

Why I’m being open about many things, most prominently: the job hunt and members of the opposite sex. 

“…I enjoy this closeness to the trains and the great moment they exude, their implacable hissing noise and purpose. I read somewhere it is psychologically beneficial to stand near things greater and more powerful than you yourself, so as to dwarf yourself (and your piddlyass bothers) by comparison. To do so, the writer said, released the spirit from its everyday moorings, and accounted for why Montanans and Sherpas , who live near daunting mountains, aren’t much at complaining or nettlesome introspection… All alone now beside the humming train cars, I actually do feel my moorings slacken, and I will say it again, perhaps for the last time: there is mystery everywhere, even in a vulgar, urine scented, suburban depot such as this. You have only to let yourself in for it. You can never know what’s coming next. Always there is the chance it will be – miraculous to say – something you want.

Lastly. 

“As I’ve said, life has only one certain closure. It is possible to love someone, and no one else, and still not live that person or even see her. Anything or anyone else who says different is a liar or a sentimentalist or worse. It is possible to be married, to divorce, then to come back together with a whole new set of understandings that you’d never have liked or even understood before in your earlier life, but that to your surprise now seems absolutely perfect. The only truth that can never be a lie, let me tell you, is life itself – the thing that happens.”

Until 40, Mr. Bascombe. (Though I’ll likely read the other two books in the trilogy before then).