Thursday, March 8, 2012

And the Stories They Rode In On

About halfway through 2011, for reasons I can no longer clearly recall, I decided to keep track of the books I read on an annual basis.  So I tried to remember what I had already read in the opening months of the year and jotted them down.  Then I added the rest as they accrued.  I eventually learned about Goodreads and now I track my reads that way, too, though I still keep a Word document on my computer to which I dutifully add each completed volume and its author.

There is something about lists and tracking one's own activity that is very powerful.  For example, in theory I already know what I eat every day because I am the one shoveling it into my mouth.  If I were to actually write it down, however, and reduce it to documentation admissible in court, I would surely object to my own evidence and argue that hearsay must somehow have been involved.  I know I ate a handful of tortilla chips and a chocolate chip cookie when I got home from work, before then pouring myself a glass of wine and beginning to make dinner, but confronting this on paper just makes me look bad.  Of course, this is precisely why food journals are encouraged in many weight loss programs, but let's consider the context for a moment: I am a tried and tired middle-aged woman.  I am not in the market for ANYTHING that makes me look bad.

Not surprisingly, I have not adopted the habit of writing down what I eat.   I see nothing rewarding in engaging in guilt-induced self-flagellation that would surely only make me uptight and unhappy.  But list-making in the positive direction -- good deeds done, rather than sins committed -- now that's something much more palatable.

Several years ago I started tracking my workouts on MapMyRun and then last year the books I read.  It is amazing how engaged one can be in chasing one's own tail just by doing so in the form of a list.  It goes without saying, I hope, that I am not required to report any of this to anybody else.   It's just me keeping these lists and monitoring my progress, if any.  I am both parole officer and ex-con.  And yet, it works.  By tracking my workouts and watching the accumulation of hours spent and calories burned, I am motivated to exercise more often.  By tracking the books I read, I find myself more willing to pick up a book and resist the television.

In my limited experience, the most satisfying part of list keeping comes at the end of a measurement period -- the end of a month for workouts, or the end of the year in the case of my newly minted book list.  I then review the time period in question and see what I managed to accomplish.  This can generate its own internal momentum, where I suddenly rush to get items logged before the bell rings and I must put my pencil down, such as on my recent year-end vacation to Mexico during which I was reading like a fiend to get one last book in before 2011 was bolted shut and padlocked forever. 

So far, my list of books read is not particularly impressive.  It looks like this:

RP's List of Books Read (est. 2011)


Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall
See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, by Bob Mould
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
The Long Shining Waters, by Danielle Sosin
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by John Krakauer
The Long Run (Kindle Single), by Mishka Shubaly
Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer's Quest to Find Zen on the Sea, by Jaimal Yogis
The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman
The Leftovers, by Tom Perotta


Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentille
Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Growing Up Amish, A Memoir, by Ira Wagler

Compared to many people I know, my list is decidedly short of stature.  Still, it is a starting point.  A geographic marker.  A benchmark.  I have read hundreds perhaps thousands of books in my life, but I've never kept track of them.  Now, I will write them down, strive to lengthen the list year over year and have the chance to look back and see where I've been. 

Which is what I did recently with my nascent little book list.  I looked back over it and was struck by how many of the books on my list were either memoirs/personal histories or biographies.  At least 7 of the 15 listed to date, and that's not even counting the book in which I am currently embedded, Hitch-22 (A Memoir) by Christopher Hitchens.  I hadn't been aware that I was seeking out so many non-fictionalized accounts of life in the modern world.  I hadn't done so consciously, yet I was consistently gravitating towards the stories of life as experienced and recounted by others.

Up until my 2011 survey, I would have told you that I almost always go for fiction.  In fact, the more fictitious the better.  By this I mean that I have plumbed the depths and limits of the canyon under the bridge of my suspended disbelief and it is deep and wide.  I am not bothered by impossibility or farfetchedness.  If the universe ceases to behave in accordance with the immutable laws of physics I will likely be giddy with delight.  To wit: some of my favorite books of all time are Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.  If you are not familiar with these books I will first take a moment to weep for your gaping loss.  {Sob.}  I will then quickly move on to telling you that the series begins with a particularly lousy Thursday morning as experienced by our befuddled protagonist, Arthur Dent.  On this day, he finds himself lying down in the mud, in his bathrobe, in his front yard in order to dissuade the driver of a bulldozer from proceeding with tearing down his house.  After his startlingly calm and intelligent friend, Ford Prefect, arrives on the scene and convinces the driver of the bulldozer to take Arthur's place in the mud so that Ford can borrow Arthur for a few moments of critical conversation at the pub just down the block,  Arthur thinks his day might be looking up.  But then, with a seemingly celebratory pint in hand, he learns that Ford is actually a hitch-hiking alien from another part of the universe and that Earth is moments away from being blasted into smithereens by the Vogons as part of the equivalent of an intergalactic highway widening project.  Owing to his good fortune in having unwittingly befriended the only hitch-hiking alien on Earth, Arthur is soon safely stowed away on one of the Vogon blasting ships just as they are clearing out the inconsequential and irritatingly daft space detritus that is Earth.  And then the story really picks up.

(If you are not yet convinced of my historical appetite for literary silliness, I give you Exhibit B:  my once deep and abiding love of Tom Robbins' novels.  I rest my case and move for a directed verdict.)

After reminding myself of what types of writing I used to gravitate towards and noting how far away from this warm and familiar sun my apparently elliptical orbit has now taken me, I pondered the possibility that I had become interested in the real, concrete and gravity-ruled stories of others' lives because I am very aware of being decidedly in the middle of my own.  Aware that the beginning is over, the middle is in progress and that the end will one day come.  Accordingly, I find myself somewhat less interested in imagining the crazy, logic and physics-defying things that will surely never happen, than examining and considering the many, grittier, less shiny aspects of living that certainly will.  The human experience may not yet encompass the hilarity of intergalactic space travel (during which, you must not forget to bring your towel), but it is chock-full of nuance and emotion and the pain and joy that comes with experience and any kind of connectedness to others and the world we collectively inhabit.  Missives from the front lines of life are, therefore, suddenly more compelling to me.  I am thirsty for reports on the land ahead and for any advice or scraps of information about how others have navigated this terrain.  What were their joys, their pitfalls, their successes and failures -- their regrets?


Tina Fey's book was intriguing to me because I find her to be such a refreshing kind of celebrity, especially since I generally tend to dislike celebrity.  A lot.  The more you seek fame for the sake of being famous, the more I will tend to conclude that you are a vapid idiot not worth my time.  But Tina -- 'cause, you know, that's what I call her -- she seems different.  Better.  From what I can tell, she has managed to succeed not only in her field, but also in constructing a stable and well-engineered psyche  that is not in need of constant remodeling or redecorating with each new trend, nor at risk of collapse from huffing (and here I mean deliberately to reference both metaphorical Big Bad Wolves and Demi Moore).  She is smart and funny and has managed huge success in an industry known to be historically allergic to such women.  It seemed I wanted to know if there was some secret engine of abuse or hatred or family dysfunction that propelled her forward and I was very pleased to discover that, mostly, she is just normal smart and funny.  Not fucked-up and tormented smart and funny.  Somehow, I found that deeply gratifying and reassuring.  Maybe the future for women generally, and my daughters in particular, wouldn't require the tortured exaggeration of certain attributes and personality traits and the repression of others, often at great personal cost, to succeed in the big leagues.

Bob Mould, on the other hand, turned out to be quite the opposite kind of specimen.  I read his book, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, mostly because I am a big fan of his music.  Indeed, the title of this blog is a line from one of his songs.  Unlike Tina, Bob seems to have contracted every possible strain of fucked-up over the years and has paid dearly for it. And if you ask me, he still hasn't fully recovered.  Although we shouldn't need any more stories of abusive childhoods and drug addiction and denial of sexual identity to maintain our resolve against these social ills, his is yet another compelling account to add to the evidence sheet. 

Pat Tillman couldn't tell his own story.  As you may know, he was the former NFL linebacker who left a promising, lucrative and comparatively safe career in football in order to join the military and serve his nation after 9-11.  He was killed in Afghanistan by "friendly fire" in what can only be described as a horribly botched patrol that resulted from horribly botched military strategy and the illogic and irrationality that can exist in a "chain of command" environment.  That U.S. troops might be directly responsible for the deaths of other U.S. troops is awful, which is why it was determined at much higher levels that the true facts and circumstances of Tillman's death should be obscured and hidden.  The saddest part of this story isn't even the senselessness of his death and how it happened (although that is infuriating and heart wrenching), but that the handling of it was in such sharp contrast to the values Tillman embodied and for which he was willing to risk his life.  Tragedy happens.  We all know this.  But to bury tragedy in a shallow grave covered with the thin soil of short-sighted self-preservation and then preside over the body with a religious ceremony that the deceased specifically indicated he didn't want -- well, that just takes nausea and disgust and deceit and disrespect to a whole new level.  Pat's story is both inspiring because of the personal portrait of who Tillman was that emerges from Krakauer's thorough and considered research, and demoralizing for uncovering the persistent and intractable problem of narrow-minded group think.

Those are just the higher-profile memoirs/biographies on my list.  I haven't even told you about the even more fascinating lives of Phoebe Snetsinger (world-record holding bird watcher) and Gabrielle Hamilton, teenage runaway cum award-winning New York restauranteur and ridiculously talented writer.  But if you want to know the truth, these two are the best stories on the list and are nothing like what you think they will be.  Which, in a way, is the point.  It's the old "you can't judge a book by its cover" lessen that nevertheless bears repeating over and over again no matter how many covers you have tried to not judge in the past.

I don't have a nifty trick for linking all of these stories together, except to note that their disparity and individuality and uniqueness is precisely what I love about them and why I am currently so drawn to memoir and other non-fiction.  I love that the reality of human experience -- the common thread -- is simply that we are human.  There is no one thing that we all do or experience the same way or even agree upon, it seems.  And yet, we can recognize humanity in each other though it is manifested in an infinite variety of individual expressions and realities. 

Predictably, reading so many stories of the lives of others might lead one to consider what one's own story is.  If your life were reduced to a narrative, what kind would it be and how would it be told?  What would be the major themes and the minor plot lines?  What might the future, as yet unwritten chapters hold?  To what extent do you feel that you are in control of your story and able to shape its progression and denouement?  And to what extent is your story influenced or shaped by where you were born, who you were born to and your access to food, shelter, healthcare, education and employment?

If that is not enough to bog you down for a good long while, then let me add a few more existential rocks to your mental rucksack.  On a parallel track, one can also consider the fact that, unless you are a hermit who was born from the short-lived and unlikely romance between a rock and a lusty patch of soil one peculiar summer night long ago, you are also a player in someone else's story.  Perhaps many stories.  You are a son or daughter, sister or brother, wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, mother or father or just plain old friend, acquaintance, colleague, schoolmate or neighbor to someone else.  This means that in addition to contemplating your own personal narrative, you can also contemplate how you figure into, or out of, the narratives of others.

Here's what I'm driving at:  I am someone else's mother.  In fact, I am two someone else's mother.  The. Mother.  You know, the person that everyone loves to complain about and load with expectations and impossibly conflicting essential attributes.  The person who must be strong yet soft, loving yet fierce, understanding yet demanding, nurturing yet freeing, forgiving yet rule enforcing, not to mention endlessly patient, good at school projects and in possession of a blue ribbon, family heirloom recipe for some sort of pie or cookie or other beloved baked good.  The person described and discussed at length in every single one of the memoirs/biographies digested above.  In short, the person responsible for millions of jobs and a whole sub-economy in the field of psychotherapy. (On the upside, though, if my kids ever win an Oscar, tradition holds that I will be the first person recognized and thanked in their acceptance speech.  So it pretty much evens out in the end.)

Here, to your great relief and mine, I will stop and take a breath.  I'm not really about to go careening out of control all over the internet.  It just feels that way.

What I find gratifying about looking through literary peepholes into the lives of others, or thinking about the book that is my own life, or the thousands of dollars in future psychotherapy, the need for which will be my fault, is not that I come up with answers, but that I come away with questions.  Lots and lots of questions.  There is nothing so satisfying as a good question.  (Fine.  Maybe there are a few things as satisfying or even more satisfying than a good question, but for me, a good question is up there.)

So, I think about the world full of different stories and how my own has unfolded and may yet unfold and I ask myself questions.  As it happens, the questions eventually led me to make a list.  A "bucket" list, I hear it's called, which I understand to reference a list of things that I would like to do or experience or achieve in case I accidentally cause Mrs. O'Leary's cow to kick the bucket . . . er . .  . lantern over and set the barn and then the entire city of Chicago on fire, which would surely land me in jail for the rest of my days. 


I made a list and I like to review it every now and then.  Because in this instance, waiting until the end of the measurement period to take stock of where I have been, trace the major themes of my story and what I've done or accomplished, will be too late. 

And also, it is amazing how engaged one can be in chasing one's own tale just by doing so in the form of a list.