To My Mom, on her Daughter Turning 50

15 Mar

From the first year I was conscious – age 1? age 2? – this day in mid-March belonged to me alone, centered around me, my wants, my memories, my identity. This year for the first time I thought of this: there in the snapshot, on a porch in Kearney Nebraska, is my beautiful mother, dark flashing eyes, sculpted cheeks, short dark hair swept up and back, wearing a tomato-red wool turtleneck sweater. She is smiling, but maybe there’s a tint of fear back there. After all, she is young, only 24, and this is all new. This baby in her arms that has and will continue to change her life in ways impossible to predict.

I took that sweater, though I don’t remember when, or if I asked permission. I’ve worn it over the years like a charm, an inanimate thing that binds us together through time. Like I took Grandma’s red lipstick in the gold-tone cylinder after her funeral. It smelled and tasted like her kisses. I didn’t want anything else of hers, just that memory. I’ve worn her lipstick too, or did, back when I could pull off that deep red. Now it’s become hard and waxy anyway, and taken on the earthy smell of decaying minerals.

This is my 50th birthday. Our culture measures life this way, marking decades as milestones. It doesn’t feel that way, though. Does anyone feel a new age? Other than those that mean some change in status: draft age, drinking age, retirement age, too old to have children, whatever age that is. When I think of myself, my life, I see it all at once, all overlapping, not a moment but all moments. When I think of you my mother, I think of all times of you, of you making cakes that looked like Easter eggs or shamrocks, of you singing (performing) Tom Lehrer songs for us, of you watching me, worrying over me, feeling mortified while I did or said some foolish thing, threw a tantrum in a theater lobby, or scolded the wrong little boy on a train, or refused to dress quickly to rush to the hospital with my little brother, scalded by coffee. Of you crying once because I forgot your birthday. Of you taking care of shelter cats and sheltering a homeless woman. Of you visiting a boy we knew after he went to prison. Of you folk dancing, disco dancing, Western swing dancing, ballroom dancing. Of you making baklava for Christmas, of you sleeping well unlike most of us, of you reading to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses, of you holding strangers’ hands on an airplane, of you wrapping hotdogs in foil to take to the drive-in movie, of you making care packages for women in shelters, of you tinting your hair a lighter color, of you shopping for your daughters, of you on the boat, pretty in a swimsuit, of you crocheting at the public pool with the other mothers, of you in your red and purple outfits, of you reading presidential biographies and mysteries, of you unpacking clothes so neatly folded in your suitcase, of you driving because you hate to fly, of you eating sandwiches on the floor of the vacant house we were cleaning, of you in our new house, of you in all times and places.

This year, for the first time, my imagination on my birthday stretched out beyond the self contained in this skin, to you, not for having borne me, for the biological act that is no different for any woman, but for all the years of actual life, to acknowledge this shared moment, the day your oldest child turns 50.



3 Jan


Q: What made you interested in jellyfish blooms?

A: So, I saw one when I was a kid and just started asking questions about it.

Q: How do you get your cakes to come out so nice and fluffy?

A: So, I use whipped lard instead of butter.

Q: How was the concert the other night?

A: So, it was awesome. So, we go and there’s all these losers waiting outside and this guy with like really cool hair tells us to come in cuz he’s a roadie and he can invite friends and we’re really cute.

Q: What’s your favorite season?

A: So, it’s fall.

The questioner is not immune:

Q: So, how do you get your cakes to come out so nice and fluffy?

A: So, I use whipped lard instead of butter.

“So” appears to be the new “like,” the way “like” was the new “uh.”  “So” has become a grunt, a noise, a non-word, a placeholder, an awkwardness posing as fluidity.

At first, I thought of this new verbal phenomenon as akin to coming into a conversation in medias res.  You start a conversation and the person you’re conversing with treats it as though it has always been going on, with brief interruptions.

“Hi Brad.”

“Hi. So, I saw Sam the other day and he said to say hi.”

But it’s not an interrupted conversation. You haven’t broached this topic before. You might not even be broaching a topic now. You might just be greeting someone on the street. You might be interviewing someone on public radio. You might be relating to your instructor why you weren’t in class for the exam. And you might be a teenager, or a scientist, or a financial analyst or even a teacher having a private and informal or a public and formal conversation.

It is a corruption of the conjunction “so.” Where conjunctions join, show relations, hook back to previous thoughts, this version of “so” hooks back to nothing. It joins no two things. It stands there all alone, grunting and filling the air with white noise.

The placeholder “uh” and its cousin “um” indicate awkwardness in speech. They tell us that the speaker is searching for the next word or thought, possibly having lost his or her place (something I must sympathize with: see “Lethologica” for more on that). “Well,” another placeholder, also suggests that the speaker is searching, needing a little more time to frame the next sentence, to find the more perfect expression. I’ve heard “well” used in classrooms and conferences as a way to clear space for the speaker to respond to an awkwardly stupid question in a gentle way. “Well, that is one possibility. But here I am focusing on something a little different.” “So” is just a mindless jerk, a jab, a foot kicking in the door of conversation, a harsh and rude entry with an aura of self-entitlement.  The speaker assumes the listener’s interest and attention.

I’m afraid. I’m afraid that we will only hear “so” as hemming and hawing more often. I’m afraid I will get used to it, the way I’ve almost gotten used to “their” referring back to a singular subject, or the way I feel less and less inclined to draw a line between “every” and “day” on signs. I’m afraid I’ll even adopt it as I have “like” (causing much yelling at myself to STOP THAT!). I’m going to try to hold out.  Want to join me?

On Babbitt

17 Dec

My little Signet paperback of Babbitt is falling apart. It came into my hands used, dozens of reads and 20-odd years ago, and now has clumps of pages coming loose. I lie in bed reading, pinching them together, knowing that I’ll have to put this book away for good soon. I’ve resorted to sticking clips all over it. I love this copy. Being used, it holds the traces of others’ lives as well as mine: on the inside front cover is a drawing of a curly-headed girl named Barbie Mack.

I’ve preserved a bookmark, a folded slip of paper that notes that Barbie, or Babs, was given this book by her friend, Janet, for her 19th birthday, indicated by the drawing of a birthday cake.  


The map of a street on the other side of the slip might show that the two friends lived near each other. (I can’t help thinking that Janet, knowing nothing about this novel, made a connection to her friend’s name—Babs/Babbitt—and that’s about all the thought that went into the selection. But I could be wrong. Still, I can’t rectify the image of young women who draw childish pictures for each other with this deeply satirical novel.)

Babs annotated bits of the text. Mostly these are light underlines and exclamation points.

But my favorites are more editorial. On one page Babs has crossed out a line and made   changes:

Here (right) she has moved nearly a whole paragraph describing Babbitt in sleep. The “Yet” of the remaining sentence now makes no sense, as it has nothing to attach to, Lewis’s point being that this very ordinary looking chap, a bit babyish with his pink, round face, harbors in his subconscious fanciful and escapist dreams. Babs has ruthlessly dispatched the sentence which Lewis used to link the end of Babbitt’s fading dream of the fairy child with the jarring clangs and clamors that threaten to wake him.

On the following page (left), she makes a more subtle editorial change.

Lewis’s sentence reads, “He glanced once at his favorite tree,   elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and fumbled for sleep as if for a drug” (7). But Babs  doesn’t like the sound of that “gold patina of sky,” so changes it to “golden sky.” (Babs, I fear, may have gone on to be a critic.) The difference between these two expressions is what  makes one thing worth reading and another not. The hard sound of “gold,” the even harder, metallic sound of “patina.” This is not a soft, comforting sky, a welcoming sky: Babbitt clings to his dream because he has begun to lose his faith in the everyday world, he’s begun to question and doubt and feel something missing.

My friend Lynn once asked me why: why Babbitt? She’d read my Facebook profile, scanned my book list, and seen that I read that novel every year, at least, usually when I’m feeling, something. I don’t know. When I feel like I need it. I reread many books. Rereading is one of my greatest textual pleasures. One, I do not have a good memory, so I’m constantly rediscovering wonderful lines and words and scenes and descriptions. Two, rereading is taking a book to another level of ownership. I own these books over time, after reading 10, 15 times. I own them. No one has the same relationship with them that I do.

But that’s not why Babbitt. That why rereading. I can understand why someone would wonder why I am so in love with this novel. It’s far from obvious, though I’d never thought about it before. Why this traditional novel, written by the long-dead Sinclair Lewis in 1922, many years before even my parents were born, much less me? It’s not such a distant world that it’s unrecognizable, like a Medieval tale of knights and damsels, or a Renaissance play of crowns and intrigue. It’s very much in the modern world. Let’s start with the obvious differences. George Babbitt is a middle-aged man, at 46 several years younger than I am now; though I’m older, I perceive myself as much younger than Babbitt. He’s balding; I have too much unruly curly hair. He runs his own successful real estate office; I’m a part-time college writing instructor. He blithely cuts corners and justifies cheating his employees out of commissions; I am constitutionally incapable of cheating on anything, to the point where I come off as strident and prissy. Babbitt is a booster, clubman, and believer only in what his Republican newspapers tell him; I’m left of left, never boosted anything, have never been a joiner, and am practically paranoid about being sold a bill of goods by any media outlet. He cheats on his matronly, clueless wife; I adore my husband, who is much hipper than I am.

I could go on, but that’d be, like, relating the whole book. The fact is that I do identify with this man who wakes grumpily and reluctantly from dreams of the “fairy child” at the beginning of the book, after a night of prohibition drinking with his booster friends, to find that his perfectly ordered and ordinary world no longer thrills him. The rest of the book follows Babbitt as he drifts, grumps, badgers himself to get a grip. The usual pleasures: securing a slightly-shady property deal, trading kidding barbs with his club pals, just don’t do it for him all of a sudden. He makes several social strides. His booster speeches get him past previously closed doors. But even his successes don’t curb his yearning for that something intangible represented by the fairy child. He questions his beliefs in the native goods of business and capital and boosterism and conformity, for a while. Politically he is a bit of a mush-head, so is easily led from one set of uninterrogated beliefs to another by a group of silly flappers and young men who call themselves “the bunch.” His disapproving friends, most of them businessmen and “pillars” of the community, punish that treachery with social ostracism, he panics and repents, and back he goes to the refuge of the stodgy and familiar.

Babbitt is a novel about materialism, dissatisfaction and restlessness. But that makes it sound drab and dull. If that were all it was, it wouldn’t be readable, much less rereadable. The thing is, it’s funny. It’s witty and warm and very real. It is writing like this that keeps pulling me in year after year (pages opened at random, really).

Businessmen meeting on a train:

“That’s right, brother. And just look at collars, frinstance—”

“Hey! Wait!” the fat man protested. “What’s the matter with collars? I’m selling collars! D’ you realize the cost of labor on collars is still two hundred and seven per cent. above—”

They voted that if their old friend the fat man sold collars, then the price of collars was exactly what it should be; but all other clothing was tragically too expensive. They admired and loved one another now. They went profoundly into the science of business, and indicated that the purpose of manufacturing a plow or a brick was so that it might be sold. (119)

Babbitt’s character:

The whole of the Glen Oriole project was a suggestion that Babbitt, though he really did hate men recognized as swindlers, was not too unreasonably honest. …

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y.M.C.A; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:

“Course I don’t mean that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling spiel.” (40-41)

Babbitt getting ready for the day:

He roused himself and spoke gruffly to his bath-things. “Come here! You’ve done enough fooling!” he reproved the treacherous soap, and defied the scratchy nail-brush with “Oh, you would, would you!” He soaped himself, and rinsed himself, and austerely rubbed himself; he noted a hole in the Turkish towel, and meditatively thrust a finger through it, and marched back to the bedroom, a grave and unbending citizen.

There was a moment of gorgeous abandon, a flash of melodrama such as he found in traffic-driving, when he laid out a clean collar, discovered that it was frayed in front, and tore it up with a magnificent yeeeeeing sound. (80)

If language has flavor, Babbitt is written with a sharp but pleasing tang. Lewis has chosen every word for its sound, its specific meaning and its connotation. “Golden” is a soft and mundane description of a morning sky. “Gold patina” is vivid. He’s grabbed the speech of his day and laid it out there, a ridiculously difficult thing to do for most of us. He’s poked fun and peeled back layers of hypocrisy and exposed the silliness of his characters, while never being mean or removing their humanity (as Dickens does, but does oh so perfectly). Any fool can pick up a pen (how Luddite an expression!) and write something with a plot. Anyone can “write” a piece of fiction. That is easy. Just make some crap up and throw some words onto a page. Load your prose with mushy adjectives and trite expressions. Repeat the lazy thoughts and clichés of the populace and you’ll probably even have a hit. Anyone can do that, and too many people do. The works of hacks will die, though. And I’ll still be reading Babbitt, I hope, in 40 years.


15 Oct

Like Mrs. Krabappel when she hears the word “embiggens” for the first time, I never heard the word “actuate” before I moved to Athens. (Miss Hoover responds in my head, “I don’t know why not. It’s a perfectly cromulant word.”)

I think about the word “actuate” most often when we’re driving to or from Parkersburg, WV. It’s a half hour drive through beautiful green-now-turning-red-and-purple hills. We go for a change of scenery that doesn’t require the investment of time/gas/money of a trip to Columbus. We go for commerce, not nature or art or food, to rifle though the racks of a chain bookstore or browse furniture stores, or check out the stock at a different big box diy store.

On this day, the cable (thus internet) down because of the previous night’s storms, we drive to Parkersburg and I notice, as I always do as we cross the bridge and pay our 50-cent toll, the sign reading “no parking on the berm.” I like the fact that the sign says “berm,” and wonder if other drivers think about that word. It has a quaint and literary ring to it. I’d never seen the word “berm” used on a road sign before taking this drive to Parkersburg. clears this up. The second definition is “shoulder of a road,” but only in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. Now I like that four states have their own independent definition of a word. Maybe it’s archaic, four states determined to hold on to an old fashioned usage. Or maybe it’s the uniqueness that they like, a holding out against terminological conformity.

It’s the sign for the berm that makes me think of the sign in Athens at the bottom of North May at the stoplight, that has an arrow pointing under the advice, “stop here to actuate signal.” Why “actuate”? Why not “activate”? was my immediate thought. The first time I saw that sign I thought it was laughably odd. An oddball sign. It too has almost a quaint sound to it. But I don’t know if that’s just because it’s a word we don’t see or hear much. It is an old word, comes from the Latin, usage dates back to the 17th century, but I had never seen it on a sign, never heard it spoken, before moving to this place.

I like to imagine the sign makers for these cities as prim and reticent, dressed practically in quiet shoes and muted colors, wearing thin wire-framed glasses, sitting at desks covered not with laptops and high-tech gadgets, but piled with books, dusty dog-eared dictionaries and thesauruses and compilations of quotations, hand-lettering their signs with modest fonts, before turning them over to be stamped into metal and screwed to steel posts.

So much pleasure in a couple of words.


10 Sep

My friends Ally and Tim gave me the word “lethologica.” When I experience lethologica, it is the only word I can remember. This makes it a remarkably useful word, because most people don’t know what it means, and so think you are being smart to pull up such a lofty-sounding term so quickly. Lethologica is an actual affliction of the temporal lobe, something serious and debilitating, but we use it in a looser sense to mean a temporary forgetting of a word, especially the key word, the one you need to complete your thought. Is there a word for this, more precisely this, or are we doomed to such trite and ugly and inaccurate expressions as  “senior moment” and “brain fart”?

I tell my students that they should know this word. “All you need is this one word to impress people even while your brain is clamoring to remember what it is you want to say.” They probably don’t need it yet. I don’t forget, though it’s getting harder to believe that I once had one, what a 20-year-old brain is like. I could abuse it with all kinds of substances (including the insecticide I sprayed around the Murphy bed every night in my first apartment in Long Beach, the first one I shared with no one. I wonder how that changed me, breathing that noxious stuff. The smell agitates me now, though then it was a comfort. I could be pretty sure no cockroaches would crawl over my hands and face while I was sleeping. That I stood that place, and for three years, is further evidence of the gulf between the almost-50 me and the barely-20 me. I romanticized life in a scummy apartment building with an ironic name, with patched carpet and an old ice box, with dim halls and winos in the entryway, with an assortment of down-and-out grannies, spooked Vietnam vets, crack dealers, and colorful queens, with no phone or TV, where I wrote poems and read and listened to music or went out, by myself if no one was around to keep me company. But I digress). I could abuse it with all kinds of substances, mostly beer and martinis, and starve it of actual food, starve it of sleep, and still work and study all day and party all night. And still, though I was never quick-witted (only longing to be Oscar Wilde), I could say the occasional bright thing, I could talk about books I was reading, I could remember names and words.

I wonder if we have so much stuffed in there that some of it has to leak out. Just numbers must take up a good chunk: social security, phones, addresses, passwords, combinations, birthdays, bank accounts, prices, ages. And add to numbers names, names of pets, children, ancestors, nieces and nephews, friends, actors and directors, musicians, characters in novels and stories, writers, politicians, activists, historical figures, neighbors, streets, towns, buildings, students, administrators, bosses, co-workers. Add to names and numbers how to do things, where to find things, where a recipe is, where the keys are, how a car works, directions, where the birth certificates are. And add to those all of the memories of people and places and feelings, all the remembered slights (those should be the first to go, but stubbornly stick around for lifetimes), places lived, memorable meals eaten, conversations, ideas.

Nowadays I mainly teach. That means standing up in front of a tough crowd (even the good ones, and I have many, can be demanding), trying to remember dozens of things at once, the wisdom I want to impart, the specific points that will help my students to see the value of what I say and want to be good writers, the funny stories I want to tell to soften the often intense experience of teaching and learning. I stand there trying to be bright and clever and warm and knowledgeable and sometimes I forget the thing I wanted to say. I say “I’m having lethologica,” they laugh, I remember, and we go on.


6 Sep

Recently I heard on public radio a story in which the writer said something emanated into something else. I don’t remember the story. It might have been about the floods in Pakistan or about fighting in Afghanistan, or something else entirely. It sounds (and maybe is) heartless, but the weird misuse of the word made me stop listening to the story and start thinking about the word, about a writer’s responsibility to know the meanings of words he or she uses. I plan to add this to the rules for good writing I’ll be giving my students this fall: know the meaning of the words you use.

A word that means “to radiate from such and such” cannot be used to indicate an entering into.  Coming from, going into: these are not interchangeable ideas.

“Emanate” is a good and useful word. Things that emanate are intangible: odor, heat, aura, feeling, sound. The odor of earthy decay emanated from the cellar. Cries emanated from the dark playground. It has connotations of sadness and loss, of mystery and possible past violence, of the unseen and unseeable.

Words, I imagine, usually come from need. A culture needs a way to refer to an idea or a new thing. The people of the culture get an idea, say, of an odor not simply being located in a place but originating there and moving outward. The parts of the word come together from roots and prefixes and suffixes. The word enters the world.

I call myself an English geek. My students like this and laugh. Sometimes I go further and say I’m a fascist about the use of language, but neither is really true. I can go on a rant about the abuse of apostrophes (the rules are so few and simple, people! But more on that another time), but mainly I have a feeling for words, their shadings and textures. When I read something elegant, not necessarily elegant in the ideas it depicts but elegant in that it uses the perfect words to express, with simplicity, something often complex, the language stirs something in me. I feel it, sometimes even as a tingle, a real sensation. Sometimes it creates more of a longing, based partly on my envy of the writer and wish to convey the world like that (how I envy Don DeLillo whenever I reread White Noise).

When I first read Mishima’s story of hara-kiri, ritual suicide by disembowelment, I had a tense, physical reaction to it. I hadn’t set out to read this story, but was reading a collection of his stuff. I was ignorant and didn’t know that this was the story that described the act in exquisite detail.  It’s been more than 20 years, but I still remember the effect. It was then that I realized words’ actual power. Words have more than a benign, tangential presence in life. They do more than simply describe. They can make us feel as strongly as an act can. They can do violence to us, to our minds and bodies. They can caress. They can stir and confound us. They can haunt. They can pervade. They can evoke. They can bring tears. They are real.

I guess it’s because of my own feelings about words (here specifically words in English, because I am not proficient in other languages, but I imagine because there are writers in every language, that in every language words can have as powerful a physical presence) that public misuses bother me, and make me question the designation “writer.”

If we were perfect, or even perfectible, we would not be human. But a good rule for a writer to follow is this: know the meaning of the words you use.

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