Thursday, September 23, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

So happy to be discussing Emma Donoghue's masterful, gripping and funny novel Room with the From Left to Write book club this week. Initially, the premise of the book, told from the point of view of a five year old boy gradually coming to the understanding that he has spent his entire life imprisoned in an 11 x 11 foot bunker by his mother's kidnapper, gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Enough with the morbid fascination for extreme cases of violence towards women and children. Enough with "Click Here for photos of the house of horrors." Don't feed the dragon.

Room turned out to be something very different. Jack's mother, despite nearly nightly rape, emerges not as a victim, but a resourceful and stunningly brave heroine, whose inventive construction of a particular version of reality has not only kept her son from physical harm in their tiny world but protected his innocence and sense of well-being.

When Ma takes an enormous risk, the pages of Room became some of the most terrifying I've ever read. When I reached that point, it was after eleven at night, I was the last one awake and I stood in our cold bathroom, crying with fear, unable to take my eyes off the story.

Then things got surprising and even more interesting. The story does not end here, as a conventional thriller would have. And the pages that follow force us to see the world we live in from the point of view of a three-parts-civilized, one-part-feral child, who, despite all, appears to have escaped damage.

Both Jack's unique position to observe the oddities of our modern world (crocs shoes, predatory talk show hosts, the chaos of the mall, grandmothers hooting "yoo-hoo!" at the playground) and his undamaged quality that his mother's creativity was able to preserve allow the book's second half to become dryly funny and very much so.

Which is pretty amazing to me because here's the thing about safe. The topic of safety is pretty hard to make funny. People on safety patrol can be awfully sanctimonious. Safe is the derogatory word used to describe second-rate art.

As I write this I sit in front of window offering a high-rise view of a Chicago parking lot below. A little person in pink wanders alone in the aisle as her big people lock up their car. There are no moving cars in the entire lot, but I can feel an unpleasant tension. Parenthood heightens most parents' Spidey-sense and the added acuity can sometimes balance out with a decrease in the humor-sense. Heard any good jokes about vaccines lately?

Room resonated for me in so many ways. The memoir I'm laboring over has an ongoing theme of safety's folly - the well-intentioned hoops adults jump through to try to keep and preserve the children in their care, how physical and emotional safety can come to be at odds, the tension of safety vs. independence and self-sufficiency.

I wrote several paragraphs last night (which I intended to share with you, but left behind on the desktop of the aforementioned high-rise) about my mid-teen years when my aunt and uncle worked their darndest to construct elaborate ways to keep me physically safe and sound despite absolutely no efforts from me to be dangerous. I was the abstemious virgin in the family, whose favorite habit was reading, who hung with spiffy clean crowds and neglected to get her driver's license until she was eighteen.

My free time hours were busy with Girl Scouts, Key Club, French horn practice, writing original oratories about the importance of positive self-esteem and stuffing squares of black and white tissue paper into a chickenwire frame shaped to resemble Pepe Le Pew. (Pepe's levitating tail and the white smoke issuing from his ass ensured French club won the homecoming parade float first prize that autumn.)

The innocence of which kind of made my guardians' over-protection all the more ridiculous, but if I take even a half second to ignore my own irritation at the earliest curfew I knew and the harshest grillings when it was overreached and take another half second to look at my aunt and uncle's obvious motivations, all humor in the situation comes to a full stop.

Well, duh. If they could not control the awful recent past, if they could not take back the awful accident, if they could not even bring themselves to talk about it with the children who remained, the least they could do was try to control the already compliant girl who tried to see love in their strictures, since affection and pride came from them with more difficulty.

So you can see some of the challenges I'm facing trying to write the truth with both compassion and humor. Some days writing my story feels like constructing a jigsaw puzzle out of pieces of broken glass. And yet it's the joy in the past that I most want to convey, the joy in Jeanne and Chris's leap into the air next to the trailer, the joy that couldn't be extinguished, despite all.

You can find more posts about Room at From Left to Write.

The participants in From Left to Write Book Clubs receive from the publisher a copy of the book discussed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tenth Anniversary Staycation

The view from our hotel room.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary Randy and I had decided to spend a long weekend in New York without the kids, but when time came to buy tickets, I couldn't pull the trigger.

"I just wanted to go because you wanted to," confessed Randy and I sighed with relief.

"We would be rushing too much, trying to cram everything in," I said. "And I can't find any shows I really want to see." (This was before I read Chris Jones's recommendation of the David Cromer directed Our Town that closed this week. Ah, c'est la vie. Mary Zimmerman's Candide next month should help me get over it.)

So we stayed close to home, close to the girls, spent the weekend in Chicago and had a great time. A forty-eight hour date, like those long fun weekends we used to have when we had no schedule other than the Reader's movie section. Just time to be together and wander this gorgeous city, getting our wedding rings cleaned, browsing for hours at the new Barney's and the Newberry Library Book sale, getting an earful at the Bughouse Square Debates in Washington Square Park, lunching at Le Colonial and RL (places I wouldn't yet dare take the girls), waiting half an hour in line for fancy cupcakes at More.

The last of which made me beam with affection for dear sweet husband who patiently weathered the storms of giggles from the all-women crowd. Another patient kindness out of the thousands that the man has extended to me over our seventeen years together.

Dessert at Blackbird. That "cherry" was a hollow sugar construction, filled with sorbet.

Friday night we had dinner reservations at Blackbird, where I'd never been, where the parade of couples and parties through the front door was half the fun, where I saw several versions of my black patent peep-toe platforms, where we raised glasses to those who had celebrated our marriage with us ten years ago but are not longer with us: Eric, Katy, Ross's wife Mary Ellen, my aunt Theresa, Uncle Phil. It is a wonder, isn't it, when you still feel so young but your contemporaries start to leave you?

Back at the hotel Randy surprised me with our wedding video that Brent made and we laughed and gawked all over again. How beautiful and young everyone looked, how small the children were!

Saturday night we took a bike taxi to dinner at Ria and then saw Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies at Second City (featuring a clever Shelly Gossman, who bears a passing resemblance to Tina Fey and was grabbed last month by visiting Lorne Michaels to write for SNL) and half of the later show, The Absolute Best Friggin' Time of Your Life before I called time for bed. Both shows brilliant, although Friggin' is getting the good press, since its comics are actually good singers, too. The rap "Rubenesque," a tribute to the curvy form sung by the show's three women brought down the house.

Flowers and truffles courtesy dear husband, fruit and nibblies from the nice folks at the Peninsula.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Favorite Moment of the Summer

The playground at Tower Road Beach in Winnetka has a modern kind of merry-go-round that is simply a circular rubber track, six feet across, supported on four posts. Two of the posts are slightly higher than the others so the angled track begins to shift under your feet when you step on its six-inch-wide black surface. The girls and I played gingerly on this playground toy, sitting on the nubby track and shuffling our feet in the sand to get a spin, or trying to stand and keep our balance as it moved.

I had retired to a bench to watch the girls and flip through a magazine when a pack of three or four tween boys came over to play on the merry-go-round too. Their legs and bare torsos were muscular and brown from the sun and they looked like they had done nothing all summer but swim and run and yell. In the unspoken deference to the older kids' size, the girls stepped out of their way.

The boys jumped on the rubber circle, took a moment or two of experimental balancing to figure out its physics and wordlessly started a game where they ran in place, spinning the entire track like a revolving conveyor belt. When one lost his balance or his nerve, he would fly off into the soft sand. Their flying legs were nimble and they unconsciously jerked their arms like tightrope walkers to keep balance. They seemed to know secrets of gravity and equilibrium that the girls have not learned and that I have forgotten, if I'd ever known.

Mia and Nora watched off to the side, but it didn't take long for my fearless five-year old to jump back into the fray. She took her place on the line between two of the boys, nearly a head shorter than any of them. The line of kids, four boys and one little girl, started to walk, then accelerate into a trot, then into a run that was thrilling to watch. They stayed in place, their legs working furiously and I was laughing and shouting, "It's a hamster wheel!"

Nora didn't last long, a few strides before she fell on purpose, but after jumping off the side, she twisted back and dropped to her belly on the wheel again, a sudden obstacle on the treadmill that the boys had to leap over as they ran, or fall off to avoid her.

I was laughing, laughing and calling out, "Nora, no!" when she leaped back on. "You're road kill!" The boys did not complain, just took the added challenge as part of the game, while Nora screamed with delight at her trouble making, spinning at their feet, my little wrecking ball, scattering boys in her wake.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I Really Want To Tell You About My Sandwich

October 4, 2009. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Sunday we had the hotel spread (granola, yogurt, meats and cheeses, butter, butter, butter) for breakfast. Brazilian delegates were everywhere looking like the celebration was so over. How was I supposed to know Hotel Skt. Petri was the Rio de Janeiro command center when I booked? Eh.

We took the 6A bus from the front of the hotel, easy-peasy, all the way to the Copenhagen Zoo. The girls negotiate who will push the STOP button, who will hand the coins to the driver. We work out a deal where I will whisper to Nora, who will signal Mia with a high five and Mia will push the button. The sky is busy today, the wind brisk. I'm wearing my last clean dress that I packed on a 70 degree day in Wilmette, blue tights, a cardigan and my purple 3/4 sleeve cotton jacket. I have a warm beret but no gloves.

We skip the turn of the century observation tower that resembles a short black Eiffel Tower and right away get an eyeful at a hands-on display of animal skins and tusks. Even the faces of the tiger, the wolf and the leopards are intact, which I find sad, but doesn't bother the girls.

It's a great zoo, with cool new houses for the elephants and hippo (Flodhest is the cool Danish word). In the cold, the animals are frisky and what animals! Huge polar bears and brown bears barely ten feet away from us. Local musk ox, foxes and reindeer get us so excited, we hardly mind the start of the rain. Well, Mia has a pink umbrella, Nora and I wear hats and Dad has his big beer from the kiosk next to the skins display. What a country.

A huge tiger momma and her five kits! And an enormous tiger father! Fighting over a rack of bloody ribs for lunch! A big lion pack watching their wrestling kids! We oo and ah and take refuge from the cold wind in the steamy tropical house. Lunch is in a warm and dry cafeteria with beers on tap. I have four kinds of salad with bread; my plate looks like a rainbow compared to Nora's field of white. A hot chocolate after is warm and just sweet enough - totally satisfying. I swear I can taste the difference between sugar and the cloying aftertasty bittersweet of high fructose corn syrup.

The underground tunnel to the children's zoo has the Danish design touch - cool angular light boxes that shine strips of light on the walls and ceiling. (Have I mentioned that every immaculate bathroom has yet another beautiful sink and faucet and dual flush commode?)

In the children's zoo there are shaggy ponies and a rabbit hill with tunnels where the children can enter, then peek their heads out through clear plastic domes next to the bunnies on the grassy slopes above. It's beyond cute.

Nora falls in love with a black and white goat in the petting pen and pulls a little Heidi, hugging him and caressing his horns. I just want to stand next to his warm body to heat up my cold legs. I had bought some socks in the gift shop for my hands and actually eyed the largest of children's pj pants. The wind is picking up and an ominous cloud is covering the sun when we pull the girls away. Wait -- before we left the zoo Momma needed a bit more sustenance so we stopped at a sweet looking cafe next to the cafeteria where we had eaten lunch.

Warmth inside. A camel in his pen walked by the window and relaxed families around us enjoyed the same spot. The clouds had retreated and the afternoon light was spectacular through the high-angled windows. African spears and tribal standards hung on the walls next to the elaborately carved fireplace. Of course, as always, there were cool Danish lamps and a sweet waitress. Most Danes speak English with a British accent; our waitress had a broad Midwestern twang - she could have been an exchange student in Michigan.

But what I really want to tell you about is my sandwich - my cured tuna sandwich with preserved lemons, cucumbers, tomatoes, dill and mayonnaise. Open-faced and beautifully constructed. Phenomenal and unexpected. Beautiful. This place just has got the love, man.

Mia and I really want to show Dad and Nora the yellow palace in the park Frederiksberg Hav next to the zoo. Dad takes pictures of the surreal linden tree alle and the girls scoot down and climb back up the steep slopes. I feel like we've stepped into a Constable painting.

We try to do a lot on the way home - drop by the miniature model of Renaissance-era Copenhagen in front of the city museum, show Dad the Shooting Gallery Park behind. He gapes at the enormous wall, just like I did, and pushes the girls on a traveling rope swing. They bounce at the end and sail back, squealing.

From the window of the bus heading back to our hotel, I spy a tub filled with flip-flops outside a shoe store. The sign on the tub reads: SLUT SLURP KLAP KLOP.

The girls are tired so we go back to Dalle Valle next to the hotel for dinner. The hostess makes me smile when she shrugs at all the full tables. "People tend to stay here." It's the first time anyone we've met on this trip has been less than accommodating and kindly deferential. I'm amused at the change. We wait forever for someone to come once we get a table and the waiter does not speak enough English to get a girls a pizza but the couple next to us act as if we made their day when I oo over their sweet two year old. The baby has white blond hair and rolls around on her mom's jacket on the floor. The dad had a student's wild curls and a slightly better grasp of English than the shyly smiling young mom. We watch them through the front window wall after warm goodbyes, as they put the toddler in her push cart, wave once more and head out on their bikes in the dark.

You can find all our Danish and Swedish adventures here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Grief, Redux: Nothing Gold Can Stay

(If you don't already have sympathy fatigue after reading my other grief posts over the hard summer of 2010, feel free to let this story burn up the last of your kind feelings.)

I don't believe coincidences have any more meaning than what we place on them. But I did think of John McGinnis that morning, I did, as I stepped outside the I-94 hotel to get something from the car. I was walking out of the canned lobby air into the morning and its freshness and the sunshine spurred some upbeat musings. Usually when I've thought of my old friend over the years it has been tinged with a bittersweet wonder why I've never met anyone finer. But the night before we had had dinner and swimming with a lovely family and the memory of Mia's happy face and the ease of it all made me think of the possibility.

That morning we had planned to head north to spend the rest of the weekend at Camp Wandawega in Wisconsin. But when I returned to our room from the car, Nora's coughs, little barks we had hardly paid attention to, turned into a bout of throwing up. We decided I would take her home and Randy would go on to camp with Mia.

There was another coincidence that day. Later, a couple of hours before I got the email, Nora and I were resting on our bed, a towel and plastic wastebasket nearby, and I grabbed a book at random from the shelf above the bed. It happened to be I Wasn't Ready To Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Death of a Loved One.

And how odd that my last post was partially about him.

I could say the universe was sending me a warning that I was about to get some bad news. Or I could say that the idea of Loss and the memory of this good person who was my friend a long time ago are so often in my thoughts that today was just a day when they happened to come together. Or I could give up on trying to do anything but feel sad that he's gone.

Because John was awesome. A phenomenal guy. Brilliant, kind, gentle, principled, wise, and funny, so funny. Special. His voice was beautifully deep but his laugh boomed even larger and invited you to join in.

He would joke that deep down he was a dull guy with simple tastes, but I found him endlessly fascinating.

We met sophomore year at Notre Dame in a seminar that all arts and letters majors took - a kind of survey of all the disciplines. We read some mind-blowing texts, including The Denial of Death and Invitation to Sociology and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I squirmed silently as the class complained about having to watch Fellini's magnificent 8 ½. They were annoyed it didn't make any sense - I felt like Fellini had tapped into my dreams and put them on celluloid. This was my first year at the school; I was a transfer student from a dinky Baptist college in Libertyville, Missouri we called Billy Jewel Bible School. Here, I felt so intimidated by all the smart kids at the university I could barely speak in class.

One day early in the semester, our professor didn't show up at class time - I later wondered if this was by design to see what the students would do. I sat quietly, like I usually did, too shy to chime in, as people wondered if and when we should leave.

Then John stood up with the assigned book in hand and said, "My parents are both high school teachers. Maybe I'll give this a shot. Let's figure out what was going on in the book we read this week."

I was shocked at his earnestness and his confidence. How brave. But I couldn't admit my admiration. I had to roll my eyes and groan a little as he tried to start a discussion and write salient point on the blackboard.

I must have been groaning a lot, actually, working really hard at showing my contempt for thinking and effort, you know, too cool for school, because John suddenly stopped talking to the class, exasperated, and said, "I'm sorry, Cindy, but I'm trying here!"

My face burned. I was instantly so sorry. And so smitten.

After the discussion stumbled on for a few more minutes and John and the others decided to call it a day, I rushed out of my seat and up to him to apologize. And we became friends.

Friends of a sort - the kind of friend you talk about the David Letterman show with, about how funny Paul Shaffer is and how great Mitch Ryder looked singing "Devil With The Blue Dress" on last night's show. The kind of friend you have a secret crush on but don't tell him because you can't say that. I hung out in the studio when he had his radio show and he let me help him with his set list but I picked some eighteen minute dirge for him to play because I couldn't admit I didn't know as much about Lou Reed's songs as I pretended to.

His favorite poem was Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." I have the poem here in front of me, I'm holding a Xeroxed copy that John made for me. It only took a few minutes to find it in the boxes downstairs, a few strata above the letter with which he took his leave of me. Looking at it burns.

But before the letter there were road trips to see the band X at the Metro in Chicago and to Champaign to watch Nebraska trounce Illinois.

I gave him a ride home from Omaha one Thanksgiving break, not just because I would be visiting my cousin Jeanne, as I said was my reason for being in town, but because I wanted to spend the hours in the car talking with him and sneaking peeks at him when he slept.

(I don't want to write about this. Because I want you to know how incredible he was, how filled with life and this is turning into something about Me and me being uglier than I can even believe now, me being a greedy child at twenty-one, starving, desperate to hold on to any love she can get, lying to myself that it was innocent because it was chaste, panicked into cruel omissions that were really cruel lies and stupid with fear and he was never any of those things because he was fearless. He got up in front of that class and he jumped out of airplanes when he was living in Hong Kong and he was always the same vital and good person, not trying too hard, not afraid of the truth, not needing to try to be anything but the boy who was already a man, filled with integrity and truth.)

I'm going to let the camera fade to black here and let's take it up later because I was shitty to him and he didn't deserve it and he was smart enough to get far away so we weren't speaking when we graduated and I couldn't even let myself think about it because it hurt so much.

He said his favorite poem was "Nothing Gold Can Stay."

Later, later, years later, when I had moved back to Chicago after Iowa and Boston, I ran into some friends of his at The Gingerman and we reconnected and he sent me a letter from Hong Kong where he was interning at the Asian Wall Street Journal.

And I read it and reread it with mixed relief, of course. It felt like I may have been forgiven a little, which I wanted but didn't feel like I deserved. The years since school had taught me what I had done and what it meant. And the letter had a friendly distance that said I had been forgotten some too. And it hurt again to think of what had been broken.

A few years later, the summer of 1997, I was in New York taking a film course. I looked up John's number and called him with a pounding heart.

We met at his Wall Street Journal office in the World Trade Center. At some point in the night he looked at me with something like surprise. Surprise that I still thought of us as friends, perhaps, I don't know, perhaps surprise that the past was still so present for me. He was courteous, cool. Introduced me to the woman he would later marry. We had dinner and talked about a giant table they had brought back from Hong Kong, the city where they met. They walked me to the subway train and we said goodbye.

Perhaps I should believe the Joanna Newsom song I'm listening to right now.

The unending amends you've made
are enough for one life.
Be done.
I believe in innocence, little darlin.
Start again.
I believe in everyone.
I believe, regardless.
I believe in everyone.

When I first got the news that John had died, I sat at my desk, sobbing. Nora came over and rubbed my back with her little five year old hand and said, "Don't think about it, Mommy. It's okay. Let's play Monopoly." So we got down on the floor and we did play. Instead of the top hat and the shoe, she uses her little plastic animals with big heads and oversized eyes for playing pieces. When our two plastic kitties land on Jail at the same time, she'll have them turn to each other and say, "Hello!" "Hello!" "Just visiting!"

We played Monopoly and here was life in front of me and goodness. And every stupid thing I ever did in my life had to be forgiven because this beautiful child and her lovely sister are the wonders that I find at the end of the chain, made with links of iron and gold, thorns and flowers, the chain that I have forged with each day of my life.

John's obit is here.