How to Live With Irony

Today, many people sent me an article from the New York Times that deeply annoyed me. I have decided to respond. Your thoughts? Four years ago, I was living in New York. My friends and neighbors worked at farmers' markets and fish stands, made pies from scratch and talked about poetry that most people hadn't heard of. We rode our bikes around the city and met up at independent movies and bought each others' home-brewed beers and t-shirts. I was an active member of an anarchist book club and enjoyed wandering into an old map shop and oogling prints of old cities that I could not afford. We ate a lot of brunch and I remember those mornings as some of the happiest and most sincere of my life.

It is with no shame that I report that, if you were to see us then from a distance, you might say "hipster" and spit on the ground. Let me clarify: I was not, and never will be, ashamed of myself or my friends. I am ashamed of you if you are as quick to make that judgement as it seems so many people are now.

I was highly aware of my position as the most square of that group: dating someone with a corporate job, somehow never being able to dress myself in any other mode than a frumpy camp counselor. I did not intend to be the least hipster of the hipsters, but I was, and happy to be in the company of those smart and kind individuals. We never called ourselves hipsters-- indeed, I have never heard anyone call him or herself that, even as a joke-- but, when I moved to Connecticut, all of a sudden I was the hipster among the squares. Same clothing, same boyfriend, same interests, new environment. Buying locally made goods and having a secondhand bike and not working a corporate job suddenly made me the spokesperson for all people who made the same sorts of choices.

In today's New York Times opinion piece, we the public are treated to yet another takedown of a tiny American subgroup of which no one seems to be a member. A group of people who, apparently, evokes hatred the second that most people lay eyes on them. When did that become ok?

The thing that upsets me about this piece, and all similar pieces that I have read, is that there is no basis in actual reality. The definition of a hipster, as I understand it from all of these kinds of articles, is a person who is so steeped in irony that they they are apparently incapable of feeling human emotions. (A judgement we make because a person is wearing a Little Mermaid t-shirt or something. I'm not quite sure how that leap is made.) But since, of course, all people are actually people inside, no one has actually come forth and claimed they are a hipster.

That person you say "fuck you!" to under your breath as he rode by on his fixie is a real and actual friend of mine who called me in distress because his roommate is possibly dying in the hospital. That girl working for Occupy Wall Street and the farmer's market is a damn nice person who would open her door to any person in a storm. Those people making t-shirts and brewing their own beer really do believe in supporting the local economy. The very quiet girl with the thick glasses may actually look miserable because her father unexpectedly died-- a thing that happens to all people regardless of how they dress or what movies they find funny. I know this sounds like a made-up list, and yes, I know this is the cheesiest way to express what I'm angry about, but I have very specific people in mind-- which that New York Times article does not. It is taking a stereotype and encouraging people to make judgements on others based on the way that they dress, or socialize, or talk about movies.

Listen: we all have a superficial layer. It is a requirement for existing in the social world. For example, this paragraph is total bullshit:

Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style?

To which I ask: do your clothes refer to "corporate executive," "professor," "teacher," or anything else deemed normal? All clothes are a costume. All clothes make a plea to the world to judge us in a certain way. Clothes that say "don't look at me" are still making a statement.

Or this: Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?

What if I like things that are absurd? Why is that an impossibility? What I like is what I like, no matter if you think I "really" like it or not.

And how about this?

What will future generations make of this rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness? 

According to this question, humor and joy have no place in a sincere world. But a sense of irony is part of what makes us human. Webster's definition of irony: incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. The world hasn't lived up to our expectations: that's the whole idea. It's painful. And that pain is funny. And if you don't want silliness to be a part of a complex and funny and at many times emotionally brutal life, good luck to you. You're going to be very lonely in your humorless tower. I certainly don't want to be there.

Here are some things that bring me totally real, non-ironic joy: the over-the-top-ness of Jurassic Park. Some funny t-shirts I have about grammar that a friend gave me. The beautiful tattoos of children's book illustrations a friend has. Eating a meal with my friends on a Sunday morning. Riding a vespa through the open air to a wedding in Connecticut. Listening to NPR while I brush my teeth. All sorts of hipster things. And I will never be ashamed of that, and it doesn't make me any less sincere, or any less of a real person, or have any less of an inner life than you have.

And please, if there is anything more sincere than people trying to make a living off songwriting, or growing their own food, or loving an image or a quotation so much that they put it in ink permanently onto their skin, please let me know.

We are all equally human. Let's treat each other as such. And if you're going to write an article about a subgroup, for god's sake, refer to at least one actual person.

I Have This Friend

I have this friend named Megan Mayhew Bergman. Well, I'm not being truthful, really. Her primary role in my life is as an object of envy (I think she'll understand when she reads this, which she will. I know because we're internet friends, mostly, although we went to grad school together): she is beautiful and kind; she's married to a veteranarian; she had two adorable and feisty daughters; and she just published a completely wonderful short story collection about man's animal nature. See for yourself, and see if you do not feel envy. I love her from a distance and close-up both. Those people are rare. On this night, I drove up to Burlington for a Museum conference. I left in such a rush that I forgot all of my underwear. I missed the first snowfall in Connecticut by mere minutes. It was a hell of a day-- I got there, presented on social media, and after my presentation suddenly found that I was really in Vermont. I put maple syrup in my coffee and headed to a bookstore where, coincidentally, Megan was reading that night. She'd come hours to be there, I'd come hours to be at the conference-- I was thrilled our very wayward paths crossed.

I found her between the natural foods cookbooks and the books on animal skeletons, and it was equally likely that she'd be looking at either. She had a terrible cold and seemed like she'd been through a long book tour. Megan read a new story to a crowd of seven or eight of us, and in the middle another friend from our graduate program, pregnant as hell, burst into the bookstore and listened.

After the reading was over I opened all the pages of her books to the title page where she'd sign. Dayna, the other friend, bought us hot chocolates and coffees and we talked for a few minutes about our three divergent lives. "You have such a wonderful life," Megan said to me, unprompted. Stunned by the fact that someone I worship could possibly feel this way, I replied that she did, too, and I felt one of those very rare moments of appreciation that bursts on you like a good wave. I belly-surfed it in and tried not to hit that rough sand: but... but... I haven't done this and that.  And for that night, with three friends all in the midst of trying to do one very simple and very difficult thing-- be a writer-- I hung onto that wave in the only way you can. Lightly. Without paddling.

I have this friend. She is wonderful, and you should really read her book Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

"Drive safe," we all said, walking with our hot drinks in three entirely different directions.


What happened on Election Day: a simple account. We awoke at 7: my time of day. Greg pretended to be awake and we got cups of coffee for the walk. The day, as most people will remember, was clear and starting to get cold-- the sort of cold that makes you say, "I feel ALIVE!" like my dad always does when jumping in the Maine ocean.

We took our civic stroll, feeling very much a part of this town-- past the banks and Greg's office, past the museum and what amounts to a town square. Into the library, where we breezed past local politicos standing just next to the border of where they are allowed to solicit. As we went in, an old man with a walker, nasal tubes, a nurse, and an "I VOTED TODAY!" sticker went out. There was no line and we were properly registered. I filled in bubbles. The only part that was hard was discerning the double-negatives of the question about the town water supply. We had time for a second coffee. Like I said, my time of day.

I was on time for work, which I bragged about, along with the second cup of coffee. I had a lunch meeting that I found stressful. The afternoon passed without excitement and I taught my children's acting class. "Obama is flushing this country down the toilet!" said an eight-year-old.

Improv stops for no man, or pair of men, and we rehearsed in the studio we own. There is no record of what we did, but I believe it was the night that the Drinking Glass became a Ninja. And that glass was Greg.

When it was over we went to the local art cinema where everyone was despondent. Things seemed bad to everyone who was there-- but to us their spirit simply seemed tired. I ate popcorn for dinner, and the whole, sad evening drew to a close.

As I was hugging someone goodbye, Ohio was called. "It's over," everyone said, suddenly upbeat. "This is it." Somehow it seemed unreal and unsatisfying. No one believed.

We went to a bar to believe. I had unquantifiable beer and said, "I'm not leaving until there's a concession speech," and then there was, and we left.

Greg and I went home and put on the radio. It was his time of day now. All of the gleeful button-pushing and coffee and walking had dissolved into a half-drunk, dehydrated sense of victory. I wanted the cold sharp promise of the unknown morning again. I'd gotten what I wanted, had believed in-- and I was too tired to love it. Isn't that always it?  We heard the President's voice and, not having a television, skittered down to the lobby of our apartment building and watched the acceptance.

"Math," I said, having followed Nate Silver, "goddamn math is amazing."

"Yes it is," Greg said, "yes it is."

He told me of all the technologies coming in the future, like a bedtime story. He'd told me these kinds of things before and always been right. It was hard to believe, but now I believed. I believed everything tonight  "Math," I said, dozing off in the lobby chair. "Math."

20,000 Listeners Under the... ME?

My evening is winding down. The cats are fed, an oatmeal stout has been uncapped, Greg is staring into his computer screen with an intensity I dare not interrupt, and I'm finally considering taking off the sweaty clothes I've been wearing since I returned from the gym five hours ago. Any minute now I'll swig back a little cup of NyQuil and quell my coughing until election day morning. 

I've had a productive evening, packing four miles onto the treadmill, uploading a Literary Disco episode, cooking a bunch of vegetables doused in peanut sauce, and, mainly, writing a grant for Sea Tea. As usual, each of these activities was a little sin wave of related joys and anxieties, self-congratulation mixed with "what do I have to do after this?" But, all in all, a normal day. As normal as I force myself to have. 

But then, gleefully looking around for responses to the Literary Disco takedown of The Pillars of the Earth, I decided to check up on our stats.

Tomorrow, after a mere 16 episodes, we will almost certainly cross 20,000 downloads. 20,000! That is an incomprehensible number to me. The most people I have ever seen in one room was a group of Chinese students in Dongying, Shinjang, for whom I and a friend sang an a cappella rendition of "Country Roads, Take Me Home" at their request. That was perhaps 2,500 students listening to my somewhat-experienced, somewhat-overgleeful, somewhat-absurd voice.

This feels the same.

Why do 20,000 people care what I have to say about anything? Or, accounting for people who listen to most of the episodes-- why does a virtual room approximately the same size as that Chinese auditorium have any interest in the boom of my voice? Tod and Rider are not experiencing the same thing-- they've almost always had the disembodied names floating to them across the planet. But not me. Accounting for Tod and Rider's popularity, I've brought perhaps a hundred or so people to the podcast, so the rest are true strangers. They write to me, a little. Today someone I don't know bought a book because I said I liked it. That is power.

The connections are strange, and surreal  and feel at once too huge and too small. Just know, if you're out there, strangers, I appreciate every listen.

Here's to tomorrow, and here's to 20,000, a number that may someday feel small.


In the meantime, please listen to if you haven't already. 

Where to Look

When my grandfather and his twin sister receive the Happy Birthday song, they turn and look at each other. This year they turned ninety-two. I have never seen these birthday rituals, because every year my grandfather flies out to Western Canada to see Beryl and exchange this particular all-knowing, for-twins-only gaze. But when the ipads come out-- and oh, they come out-- the look turns forward. On the other end a grandchild.

The reason I saw these looks this time is because my grandfather had a small stroke earlier this year. So, while I was happy to see the birthday ritual, I wish he'd have been able to fly away to Canada as he loves to do. Looking out the window of a jet whose name he knows and I don't. Waiting to touch down in Saskatchewan so he can call us on the phone, while our birthday cards make their own journey to Falmouth, all of us moving through time and space at a speed we all still find breathtaking.


It all went wrong. First and most, I had caught Greg's terrible cold and our cats had fleas. The only thing I had left to hold on to, other than my full bottle of DayQuil, were the facts that I hadn't yet caught pinkeye and that I'd be attending my best high school friend's wedding that night. I put on a dress and a cardigan and realized I looked like I was going to a funeral, then put on all my makeup, and then suddenly changed dresses and got on the back of Greg's Vespa. The suddenly very cold November wind tangled my hair and made me cry my makeup off my face, and when we were almost there I realized I was wearing the same dress I'd worn to the bridal shower with all the same people there. Oh well. At the church I got all tangled in my scarf during the ceremony and got the giggles very badly trying to sightread the solemn Catholic hymns. I was standing behind someone very tall and so couldn't see the kiss, but I watched it from the viewfinder of a stranger's camera. I was very happy.

My friend the bride, who I grew up with in New Jersey, wanted desperately to get married in a barn, and the one she chose was a hudred miles from her home and only four miles from mine. So Greg and I arrived early to the reception. The barn wasn't open. "Let's go to Lucky Lou's and have a hot drink," he said, coughing too. We had Irish coffees and then walked out into the colonial graveyard. We were improperly solemn again. I can't be unhappy in a beautiful graveyard.

The barn was open when we went back. Everyone there had grappled their way out of a hurricaned New York and New Jersey and everyone was yelling their stories very loudly. My voice began to fall away, and when I couldn't be heard any more, I retreated to the dance floor. Bon Jovi was celebrated as a god when he came into the rafters. Against all judgement we took the Vespa another four miles deeper into Connecticut, following our friends back to their hotel. We all promised to run marathons with each other, but not to do small things like call. Everything was loud and louder.

When I woke up in the morning my eyes were sealed shut with pinkeye. In my attempts to look like who I used to be, I'd used every brush and bottle I had. I threw all my makeup away, left with only my bare face.

My Toulouse

When I was eleven, I began to study French. I was a mediocre student of the subject, intimidated by the challenge of speaking with a vocabulary as immediate and reflective of a popular, busy, bubbleheady life as "we are going to the swimming pool," and "Allo? Let's go to the library with Jacques," when what I was thinking about in those days was distinctly in the subjunctive mood: "if I were more beautiful, who would love me?"

While my teacher turned out to be something of an embezzler-- overcharging for the annual Paris trip so that she could bring her daughters, a practice which was discovered and shut down the year before I would have gone, so I never went-- I will always love her for one thing. She quizzed us on the impressionists regularly. Since I could not master the language, I boosted my grades by hanging out in the library memorizing Cezannes and figuring the differences between Monet and Manet. To this day I can spot a Renoir or a Cassat from halfway across a gallery, on style alone, and as I approach the plaque that will confirm my rightness and the worth of my New Jersey public school education, I always feel a rising sense of gratitude towards this teacher. I feel that those colors and blurry interpretations are somehow mine, thanks to her.

In my middle school and high school, there were four language options. You had to choose one. The practical kids-- the overwhelming majority-- chose Spanish. The dreamy ones with cliched romantic notions chose French. The kind of kids who, at eleven years old, were thinking about SATs chose Latin. And the future punk kids chose German. My parents and all four of my grandparents were all the kind of people who would choose French without a thought. So did I.

Greg, the paramour with whom I share an apartment, studied Spanish for all those years I was studying French. As I sunk into an ever-more difficult notion of the romantic life, Greg learned a language I'd later hear him speak in with ease and for practical uses. Grown up, I have tried many times to interest him in French, but my efforts to explain my delight in completely impractical French things fall oddly on his ears, I think.

So it was with great delight that I received the news that he had been recruited by a professional arthouse theater to portray Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the great post-impressionist painter and poster artist. Tonight I saw him pull a ribbon out of a bottle and paint a piece of glass. I watched women in nearly-horizontal tulle skirts do the can-can unironically, and after the show I pulled on Greg's overgrown whiskers. They've never been that long, but in order to portray this grotesque and wild man he grew his beard way out. Toulouse-Lautrec, though, was practical in his own way: he made millions during his lifetime and had no problem commercializing his work by selling it as poster art. The whole performance was done in a marble stairwell of a museum. It was quick and had a big audience and every voice was distorted by the echo of the place. Greg as Toulouse lifted the girls and sold off the paintings, and as I watched I thought "when I was eleven, could I have known I would be here? Could he?"

He came out afterwards and we tried to sneak a look at the actual painting the play was based on, but it was closed off so I had to rely on my memory of it. I couldn't remember exactly. "Let's go home," I said, and we put on our pea coats and walked there.

The Real

November is national novel writing month. I don't have a novel I'm dying to get out, but I am a fan of the holy, all-American resolution, and I like the idea of forcing myself to write a certain quantity every day. I will attempt to blog every day in November. (Idea stolen from my good friend Stephanie, who did it last year and loved it.) Enjoy the creaking of my writing joints.

There was a very exact moment that I felt like a real runner.

Three weeks ago I ran a marathon. At the start of the day, I got up and worried. I put on my clothes. I packed up all of my carefully selected and tested gear, telling myself I hadn't selected or tested it well enough. I put on gloves, and a headband, and an extra shirt. I pushed each of my four pins through my T-shirt and stared upside-down through my number: 1905. I chanted it to myself, thinking about how none of this ridiculous gear existed in 1905, but running still did, so why did the gear matter?

I walked out toward the start line and stood by one of the oldest carousels in the country, waiting for Greg to meet me. Reading an email from a friend pushed my anxiety to love to some kind strange emotion that wasn't good or bad or even able to be evaluated. I cried into my cheap gloves and waited by the carousel and Greg appeared.

Here was the email:

Run! Run like the wind!

Run like the next sentence to write is waiting inside the next stride.

Run like perfect punctuation is in every footfall.

Before I knew it I was running, slow and cold and overjoyed. For a few miles I ran with a friend who had planned every step. "So what are you going to do when you have no energy left?" I don't know. "So how often are you going to walk?" I don't know. Did I train enough? Did I eat correctly? What is under this highly imperfect body?

It was cold out, and I like it cold. I threw my gloves at a friend at Mile 3, and my long-sleeved shirt at a friend at Mile 10. I ran the first 6 miles with the very prepared friend, and then was leeched onto by a chatty stranger. At first I hated her. Then I realized that she was speeding me up and distracting me with her chatter, and before I knew it, it was Mile 15, and she was leaving me in the dust.

The last eleven miles were lonely. Horses watched me go by in my own private misery. I whimpered to myself a little. I bowed down to the greatest god there is: math. Seven point seven miles left at this pace means I will finish for 200 steps... you are 80% finished....

At Mile 26, I ran by a huge crowd of friends, and sprinted through the finish. I felt amazing. I ate a peanut butter sandwich and continued to feel amazing. My medal was incredibly heavy because the sponsors had insisted on including their huge ING skyscraper in the inaccurate Hartford Skyline. I bragged about my achievement for a week.

That was not the day I felt like a runner. I never had before, and running a marathon didn't slap that nametag on me.

A week passed, and I was so sore I didn't run. Another week passed, and I was still feeling lazy, so I didn't run. Another week began, and a hurricane hit, so I didn't run.

Yesterday, my throat hurt so badly I went and got a strep test. It was negative. I went to work today and mostly had Dayquil to eat. There was an event I wanted to go to-- four miles away, way off the route of public transportation-- and I was going alone, and don't have a car. I was meeting someone there I wanted to impress and wanted to dress somewhat respectably. It was 40 degrees out, and dark already.

I put on my jeans. I pulled out a winter thermal underarmour shirt that smelled vaguely of cat pee, and I put it on anyway, because I had to wear it if I was going to do this. I put a wool sweater over that. I put on a pair of Greg's dress socks. I put on a vest, and in that I put $20, my keys, and my ipod. I put a bottle of water in my hand. Then I put on the electric blue sneakers that had carried me 26.2 miles, the only hint that this overweight, bookish, sick-looking girl might possibly do something athletic. 

I had one hour to get the four miles to the event.

As soon as I began, I felt good. I felt like myself-- a person who wears old sweaters and unflattering vests-- and I felt like I was running to go somewhere. My feet were transportation and I was on a schedule. The cold air felt better on my throat than any medicine had. I was so happy to be out skittering slowly across people's lawns and listening to my terrible audiobook, I could have run all night.

At the lecture, I met the folks I'd hoped to meet. I bought two books. I ran home the same four miles, in the dark, holding the books in my hand the whole way.

Slow Burn

Dear readers: I started out to write this and it turned into something entirely different than I intended. If anyone has feedback I'd love to hear it. Perhaps this was an unintentional brainstorm for something better. Like it or hate it, at the very least this is a good example of my first drafts.  ****

This weekend I drove from my home in Hartford, Connecticut down to Cape May, New Jersey for a bachelorette party. Not a single party-- a weekend of festivities, ranging from lounging on the beach to formal dinners to pin-the-macho-on-the-man.

I am good at these sorts of games. At my last bachelorette party, I destroyed a porny pinata with four great bangs of a little pink bat. At another, I presented undergarments so lovely that the bride wore them as her "something blue." On this particular occasion, I put that macho on the man. So what if it was backwards?

When I'd said goodbye to Greg in Hartford, we'd kissed each goodbye in the middle of a conversation about the business we run together (and with several other people). We're not married, but we are good at weddings. We know what to wear and where to stand to get a picture of the cake-cutting. I can't cook at all, but I can pick out kitchenware and wrap it up to be adorable. I have developed a liking for cool, clean hotel sheets and sharing a room with old friends, so that everyone can laugh into the night. I know that champagne gives Greg a headache and he knows that I wil inevitably lose a button somewhere on my dress. Grandparents love us. And I have grown very fond of the bachelorette party and the bridal shower: these old-fashioned rituals of sisterhood usually take on a quiet spirit of solidarity, underneath the whooping and cooing.

Despite growing up in New Jersey, and being at least third-generation Jersey shore, I'd never been to Cape May. It's a seaside town, a collection of Victorian mansions that make up a National Historic Landmark. This is not the Jersey shore of gym/tan/laundry; this is the Jersey shore of floor-length swimsuits and, later, bobbed hair. This is where the feminists started going into the water in smaller and smaller suits.

The whole town is a collection of dollhouses, looming high and well-painted, so well-maintained they appear to have good posture. The doors are shut and you only have to see them to know their heaviness. Since I work at a historic house, I wondered what furniture was behind those doors. How many people go antiquing, and how often, to fill these rooms with davenports and chaises and vanities? Are there enough antiques out there, in barns and attics and other, smaller, less grand homes, to fill these romances we've left here as models for our summertimes?

I got a sunburn on this weekend. I'd lain out in the sun, finishing a book, knowing I was probably burning. But there were dolphins in the water and sandpipers all along the outgoing tide, pecking around for what they wanted. My friend the bride and all of her friends were quiet, their feet buried in the cool sand. And I got a little sunburn, a slow one, from denying that the day was going by.  I get so many sunburns that way.

We did not really talk about love at this particular party. I like this about these friends, and I like this about certain bridal events: it is enough to say "this is a beautiful place and here we are together at the seaside." Someone asked who was getting married next and we all brushed it off with the usual ha-has.

On the morning I had to leave, I pulled the car around to downtown Cape May and got out, just for a minute, to walk among the dollhouses. When my sister and I were young we build a dollhouse like these and painted it pale blue. We didn't play with dolls in it, really-- we enjoyed the building and furnishing of that little dreamhouse more than imagining ourselves as the dolls. But still, the house-- the house, with its one nonexistant wall, so that we could see into the little secrets of the past-- the house was beautiful and everything that many little girls wanted.

I walked back to my car. My sunburn was starting to ache and I wished I could just take off my bra, which was pressing against it, and drive into the future where I wouldn't be so impulsive and dumb and let myself get burned again. In the seventies I would have done it, maybe.


By all accounts I am having a good year. It's only August, but I think it can be declared. I go over the list in my head, holding each memory in my fingers like a sentimentalist's rosary: standing in the dark backstage with Judy Blume, pulling at the hem of a blue dress; the wash of anxiety and relief as I beg for each submission for Syllable; uncountable hours in a pink drawing room with eight-year-old girls; more than one morning spent belly-down in the mud; and, most recently, driving out of Acadia National Park just after dawn.

It is the end of the summer, and I am already feeling the pull of evaluation, of a report card. It's probably the impending fall. How did I do? My brain cries out. Give me a quiz, I tend to say to Greg after a couple of beers. I want to be tested. I want to measure. How many things did I do, how many miles did I run, how many dollars did I save, how many days did I make good use of?

There were many metrics I planned for this year: races to run, pounds to drop, words to write. One thing I did not plan for was this summer visit to Maine. It was a family vacation, the sort where my mother says "this is the plan" and I say, "when are you picking me up?" even though I'm almost thirty and could probably arrange for my own ride. But I don't-- I pack a bag that morning and get washed into the gentle summer tide of family vacations.

I always think of our time together as water-based and cyclical. No Pistell vacation is complete without a swim. On the day of my sister's graduation from Tufts we ditched some formal proceedings and all swam out into Walden Pond in the rain and recited the one line of Thoreau we had memorized. In Key Largo we rented snorkels on a day with no visibility, and on another day with good visibility, and enjoyed both. Most of my teenage summers were spent saying things like "I'm going to swim out to the raft" "I'm coming up on the raft now, watch out," and "it's time to swim back but I'm afraid the water will be cold after spending so much time on the raft." Water days are long and pointless and easy. A part of me wants all days to be water days.

But now, in a family era of strength and robustness and goal-setting and outdoorsiness, all of a sudden we have mountain days. Days when we get up early and ascend. Days where the bliss comes not from collapsing into cold water but from doing something very difficult, and, in my case, frightening.

What I'm trying to say is that this summer, we hiked Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine.

I was nervous about this endeavor. The same group-- my sister Emily, my brother Alex, my cousins Jessica and Jordan-- had gamely agreed to do the Tough Mudder with me in May, which (until Maine) I had pegged as the highlight of my year. (Already evaluated.) I agreed just as fast when they suggested we climb this ancient thing that, as legend would have it, even the Penobscot would not climb because the storm-god Pamola was all over it. If we could do Mudder we could do this! But, as the mountain loomed ever closer, my head began to remind me that the Tough Mudder is all talk. It is man-made, man-controlled, man-marketed. Katahdin does not require marketing or explanation. All that is needed to get a sense of what you're about to do is to suddenly see its black shadow looming over 200,000 acres of preserved forest in Baxter Park. The forest looks wild but the mountain looks wilder still. I have never seen something so still that was so frightening. But then, I knew I had to ascend. I had given my word to my family and to myself.

We camped the night before and got up at 5:45, just as we planned. An hour later we were deep in the woods, moving fast toward the rock slide. The best way to ascend Katahdin is over a rock slide known as the Abol Trail-- the rocks slid down in the 1800's, creating for the first time a rough stairway to the top.

The consequences of this are mostly wonderful. The first mile of trail is flat through the woods, and then you begin to move over the tiny pebbles that have, over 200 years, slid all the way to the bottom of the mountain. As you climb higher, the rocks get bigger. The pebbles become stones and the stones become rocks, and for a couple of miles the rocks are there, getting a bit bigger every few feet. Our feet found new holds with every step, and then, as it became steeper and steeper, our hands had to find holds, too.

The ascent is steep and dramatic, and, since the slide demolished the forest it rolled over, immediately exposed to the sky and the view. No photograph could express how high it immediately felt to me. But, only the day before, we had climbed a tiny and exposed mountain and I had been overtaken by fear, driven upwards only by the shame that I was such a baby.

That height was only 520 feet; Baxter Peak is 5,270 feet. Ten times what, just the day before, had been an extreme, embarrassing, nearly debilitating fear.

Still, I went up towards Baxter Peak. I had planned for it. I had promised myself and my family this mountain.

As those rocks got bigger and looser, I became afraid of so many things. I waited for their steadiness to betray me. I turned back and looked at distance I could potentially fall. (Some would call this a view. I say, a view is only a view if you are nowhere near the edge.) Icarus! Icarus! I called myself. Somewhere in the middle I changed my promise to myself: I would give up. I didn't have to do this. After just a few more steps. Just as soon as I caught up to my family to tell them I was quitting, I would quit. I was driven up by my desire to go down. And then the shame came in like a wind again and I was driven up by the shame of my desire to go down, but I would break my promise to myself and just keep going up.

How many feet, I said to Greg so many times, who had some gadget that measured these things. How many, how much. How many feet have we gone? Even when I wanted to quit, I refused to count down. Even when I was punishing myself for not being in better shape or better spirits, I was counting every foot as a good foot, and not one to be dreaded.

Then, all of a sudden, the rocks became boulders. The top of the slide. Each one seemed bigger than the last and jammed together in such a way that crossing and climbing them required strategy. There was a way over every one, we only had to find it, led by a merciful trailblazing mark. Every strip was our Virgil-- a guide and a warning and a poet of the rocks.

When we got to the boulders, I was happy. Gone were these mid-sized obstacles, endless and loose and ordinary. Give me a boulder, give me a nearness to the top, anytime. And then-- the best thing about this trail-- after three miles of steep ascent, the top of the mountain is nearly flat.

The boulders lay down now, underfoot, unslid. Thoreau says that Katahdin gives the illusion that rocks are a kind of rain. They lie there, covered in moss, by the thousands, a mile in the sky.

And at that point, every step up is a foot climbed nearly to the summit. And you're at Baxter Peak, looking down on Maine, the most beautiful state in the country.

I felt great at the top, of course. There's no better place to congratulate yourself than at the top of a mountain, especially before noon on a clear day. All of a sudden, a view is a view again. You say 5,270 feet, you say three and a half hours. The measurements and the unmeasurable beauty go hand in hand. Just as with the Mudder, and shaking Joan Didion's thin hand, and a hundred great improv shows, I felt here I am in the clear air, uninjured and alive, very alive.

And then, after lingering as long as we could there at the top, even as the fog came in and Emily had to admit it was too dangerous of a day for the Knife's Edge, the inevitable thing happened. We had to go back down.

The boulders became slides, the fog became rain. All the promises I'd made going up had been fulfilled and now, there was no turning back, because the hardest part was the turning back. The moss and the rain and our knees and the waning sun all conspired against us, making everything both slow and urgent. I slid down, I let momentum take me, but not much. My brother Alex and my cousins Jordan hovered silent and protective behind me in the rain, being kind, and my sister Emily and cousin Jessica forged the way forward, being bold and picking out the way for the rest of us. Coming down is harder than going up, every time. It is so easy to forget.

After a while, my siblings and my cousins vanished among the rocks and it was just Greg and I together for the last hour, silently following the blue stripes through the rocks and trees. The gadget died and we no longer checked how many feet we'd gone or how many we had to go. We had done the thing we'd set out to do: reach the top. Now we went to the woods, to see if we could live deliberately. That is, sort of, the line that all Pistells know from Walden.

We reached the woods and walked silently through the last mile, because I hoped to see a moose. I always hope for the big thing. We saw no moose, but the birches hugged us tight in comfort. Greg informed me that the back of my pants had ripped sliding down boulders, and I laughed loudly and likely scared my moose away. At four o'clock, we walked back into camp and put our feet in a stream.

I used to have a lot of water days, even when I did not swim. The days when I drove around New Jersey with my friends for no reason, the days I walked around New York with dogs, the days I read books in the attic: those were water days. Now I have my eye on many personal mountains. I have promised myself small peaks and large.

Katahdin reminded me that every mountain guarantees a descent. What you have measured and achieved will be undone by time. No one lives at the top of mountains, not even ambitious girls who grew up in a town named Summit.

But at the bottom are unmeasurable things: your family, and a place to take off your shoes, and the knowledge that you really did it, no matter how slowly, no matter how immediately it seems like a memory or dream.

I Read Myself Stories in Order to Live

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," says Joan Didion in her essay "The White Album." This quote also happens to be the most cliche way to begin talking about Joan Didion, a problem that I hope to avoid during our upcoming conversation at Hartford Stage on Thursday. That's right. All this noise I was making about Judy Blume-- because I knew she was coming for so much longer, and also because it was first, and also because the venue was larger-- has finally subsided and made way for the glimmering jewel of my year, which is interviewing my favorite writer of all time. Joan Didion has had  a huge influence on my style and subject matter, particularly when I was at Bennington, so I couldn't be more thrilled to speak to her.

Small problem: I did not start my planned Didion-a-thon when I was supposed to. In fact, I lazily strolled through Run, River for two weeks. Now I have fifteen more books to read. In three days.

Today I finished Run, River, then read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, and A Book of Common Prayer. I'll read myself to sleep with The White Album. They were all weird and amazing, and they all feature very skinny women who are numb in one way or another.

Then I will attempt to read 5 books a day on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I haven't read this much since college and I don't know if it's possible. Part of me wants to give up. But another part of my knows this is my only chance.

So here I go-- reading myself these stories in order to live through this interview.

-- Julia

Blume-a-thon #26, #27, #28, & #29: The Pain & The Great One Chapter Books

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here This is it. This is it! I have now read the collected works of Judy Blume.

In a way, this feels like going back to the beginning. These are four little chapter books roughly at the same reading level as The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo. They are an expansion of  that Free to Be You & Me picture book, the Pain and the Great One.

All four of these books depict little childhood episodes: wolfman masks, getting lost in the mall (in New Jersey this is almost a rite of passage), dogsitting, failed birthday parties, mean cousins, and chasing boys around. What can I say? They're Judy Blume books. The kids are younger, the concerns more childish. Pitch-perfect for that stage of life.

I love that The Pain and the Great one was originally written for Free to Be You and Me. Because at heart, that's what all of this work is about. Being who you are. Seeing things from your own distinct point of view, but knowing there's another completely different way to see it. Knowing that life is hard on every side of the fence.

I expected that these books will be a silly little denouement from the more "serious" Judy Blume books. I expected to be disappointed that these were the end of my project.

But instead, I lay in bed, laughing a little and thinking, "yes. That's exactly how it felt."

Blume-a-thon #25: Double Fudge

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here

Money: ugh. For a long time thinking about it was horrible. Other than those first few times I babysat and had the thrill of a cold, hard $3 per hour in my hand (yes, that was my rate, even in the spendy 90's), money has always seemed to me a taboo subject and an anxiety-builder. For a while, every dollar I had was a reminder of the ten dollars I didn't.

But some kids love money. They are fascinated by its symbolic value and very real power. Fudge is one such kid.

"Nice people don't talk about their money, especially in these times." Sheila gave me a look like my brother had no manners....

"I'm nice," Fudge said. "and I like to talk about money. You want to know how much I have?"

"No," Sheila told him. "It's nobody's business but yours."

He told her anyway. I knew he would. "I have fourteen dollars and seventy-four cents. I mise my money every night before I go to sleep."

Question for consideration: how does Judy have such a pitch-perfect ear for the way kids talk? I wonder if she is kept in touch with these perfect turns of phrase and attitudes and logic not only from her own kids, but from her fans that are constantly writing to her. Must be.

Like the last Fudge book, this one's just for fun. Long lost relatives. Uncle Feather. Discussions of "tightwads." It's a good time all around.

This is the last of the Fudge books-- Judy keeps insisting she won't write any more. But I'd be willing to bet my last dollar otherwise.

Blume-a-thon #24: Places I Never Meant to Be

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here

This is not a book by Judy Blume, really. It's a collection of stories by censored writers, edited and introduced by Blume.

The stories themselves are good and you can see why censors would attack them-- arson, gay bath houses, use of the word "shitty"-- but the real treat here is Judy Blume's introduction. She discusses her own story of censorship and the one small moment when she succumbed to its pressures.

I saw that a few lines alluding to masturbation had been circled. My editor put down his pencil and faced me. "We want this book to reach as many readers as possible, don't we?"

Well, dammit. That's the thing. Pushed far enough, censorship not only removes materials from the public but also changes the writing. Writers want their books to be read. After too long being censored by libraries, and then by editors, writers might begin to censor themselves. To save a lot of heartache.

The reason we asked Judy Blume to come and speak at the Mark Twain House is because she is one of the most publicly attacked and censored writers of our lifetimes. Twain isn't around to defend Huck Finn, but Judy's here to defend Margaret. And she will. Again and again. This, above all, will be her legacy: not succumbing to these pressures. Standing up for those who have been forced to. And hopefully, inspiring other writers to put exactly what they mean into print.

Blume-a-thon #23: Summer Sisters

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here I LOVE this book. Maybe because I read it in the back of my parents' minivan when I was fifteen on the way to summer vacation, blushing.

This is the only book of Judy Blume's that covers many decades of one life (in this case, actually, two). It's about two girls who spend the summers together on Martha's Vineyard from 1977 through 1995. Caitlin and Vix have one of those incredibly intense friendships that seem like a crazy dream once they're over. Those friendships, in a way, can feel almost closer than a family bond. Someone has chosen you, plucked you from your ordinary life and brought you entirely into a magical land of adventures and romance.

I had a summer friend whose parents had a house next to a pond, right down the path from my grandparents. We weren't as close as the characters here but we had a tacit agreement to be friends during the time we were together. We hung out on the beach and wandered in the woods. We had dinner at each others' houses and hung around in our bathing suits.

That friendship began to unravel in a very specific moment. A new girl appeared on the block and we all lounged in the cold pond-water together. She was older than us-- clearly-- and skeptically asked our ages, deciding whether or no we were too young to entertain her. My summer friend immediately lied about her age. I remember looking at her, feeling betrayed. I was not a liar and I definitely wasn't sixteen yet, and couldn't even pretend. Sixteen was a faraway land where I had no business trespassing.

From that point on I didn't really spend much time with my friend any more. It was the classic drift-apart. Sometimes I'd see her through the trees headed down to the water. She wore bikinis now. I still wore one-pieces. That said it all.

I've had many friends like Caitlin, the free spirit in this book, wild and self-destructive. And I've had many like Vix, reserved and reasonable. I'm really neither. Probably, most women exist somewhere in between and enjoy seeing those two types hash it out.

Read this book as a teenager-- as I first did-- and it seems like a promise of a thrilling life. Read it as an adult-- as I just did-- and it seems like a memory.

Either way, it belongs on the beach, free from the responsibility of being "literature." It's a good story. That's all I need to know.



Blume-a-thon #22: Here's to You, Rachel Robinson

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here Let's talk about anxiety.

I like to think of myself as a laid-back person. Or at least, I was until the last couple of years. My mother can recount so many late-night school projects I'd left to the last minute, or huge messes in my room, or activities dropped because I just didn't feel like doing them any more. I stunk at clarinet and piano? No problem, I'd just sing in the choir. AP Bio conflicts with Drama in my schedule? I'll just take drama.

But, thinking back, a lot of my chilled-out attitude was actually related to an extreme perfectionism that I still have. I don't just want to do things. I prefer to do them well, and, if possible, be the best.

Rather than making me into a perfect person, this instead made me into kind of a crazy person. It created a little seed of anxiety that has grown into a shaky little tree that I still have wafting around in my chest today. It isn't as bad as some people's anxiety-- not at all-- and it isn't particularly easy to swat away sometimes. I'm guessing I fall right into the "average perfectionist" camp (a maddening phrase for any perfectionist).

Rachel Robinson is the same. She's nice. She's smart. She has good friends. But she has this unshakable sense of worry all the time.

As soon as I said it, I realized my mistake. Natural Helpers are supposed to listen carefully, not just to the spoken but to the unspoken. We're supposed to acknowledge feelings. But did I acknowledge Stephanie's feelings? No, I did not... I'm going to have to learn to be a better friend.

This is a nice moment of self-realization and growth, but it's also classic worrier. One little comment spirals into self-punishment and sweeping generalizations like "I'm a bad friend." I'm so with you, Rachel. How many times have I said that to myself?

Now that I've read almost all of Judy's books, I can confidently guess that Judy Blume herself is familiar with worry. This is probably the biggest thru-line of her work. Worry: who will I be? What am I doing wrong? What is going to happen to me?

I fight the impulse to worry so much, and to be the best at everything. Sometimes I give in. Rachel does both, too. For once, I wish I could reach back into the book and tell her: it'll be alright. Everything will be great, even if it isn't.

Blume-a-thon #21: Fudge-a-mania

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here More Fudge! So much Fudge! My teeth are aching from the sweetness and hilarity.

All of the Fudge books were written years and years apart. It had been seven years since Blume's last when she finally succumbed to a new novel about the Hatchers and their neighbor Sheila going on vacation together in Maine. As it happens, Maine is my family's vacation destination, too. Oh, Judy, growing up in New Jersey and going to all of my favorite places! Thank you for writing about my very life.

This book is just fun. Oil of ole, a grandparents' romance, baseball games, and other shenanigans. It's a little chaotic with all of these great characters-- Peter, Fudge, baby Tootsie, their parents, Sheila, her sister Libby, their parents, the grandparents, dogs, and a baseball star-- but I think that's a good thing.

"You're all maniacs!" Libby shouted.

"Fudge-a-maniacs," I added.

Either Libby didn't get my joke or she decided to ignore it. Because she said, "This is all your fault, Peter! Chaos follows you and your family."

"Chaos," I said. "I don't believe I know him."

So, for a really book-report-y ending to this blog post: if you like overcrowded summer cabins with too many overjoyed people and lots of shouting (which I adore), you will like this book. It seems to linger longer than its 146 big-print pages. It's a long weekend just for fun. We all need one of those once in a while.


Blume-a-thon #20: Just as Long as We're Together

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here When I was about twelve, a friend and I grew apart in a major way. Even though we'd been close since kindergarten, the stresses of middle school and the fact that we were both sort of lame grew between us. We began to fight a lot, mostly because we wanted to be friends with cooler girls. Of course, it was completely possible that we could have undergone this journey to coolness together, but it seemed somehow easier to tear each other down in order to avoid last place in the popularity race. It was a painful and sad time, and very confusing. I felt like no one else could see the world from my point of view.

Around this time, this girl shared Just as Long As We're Together with me. The story of two friends who must navigate new waters in their relationship when a new friend comes to town, this book, of all of Judy Blume's, changed my mindset the most. It's a really simple story about a group of three girls-- one funny, one stressed, and one new and sort of weird-- sensitive to the shifting nature of any trio.

I wonder what Allison will say when I tell her Rachel and I are speaking again, that maybe we are even friends. Probably she'll be glad.

Female friendships (perhaps any friendships) are like tectonic plates. There are so many little movements imperceptible to the naked eye, and then all of a sudden you've got a chasm in the earth or a stunning mountain. Not much happens in this book-- Steph and Allison have classes together and Rachel has a different schedule; different seating arrangements on the bus are attempted; sleepovers are arranged. And then all of a sudden characters aren't speaking. And then they are.

This was my experience, too. The weight of a thousand little comments added up to something. I wish they hadn't. I wish they'd vanished into thin air the moment they were spoken. I wish I had seen better how my friend's anxieties were related to her own becoming; I wish I had eased them.

But among the passed notes and locked diaries, there were some books that came from far away and held out one small plea: here's how it feels.

Stephanie's story felt like mine. And soon after, I read the sequel-- and that felt like my friend.

We are still close friends to this day.

Blume-a-thon #19: Letters to Judy

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here I have never written a fan letter. I did, once, write to the advice column Dear Sugar, after getting caught up in the beautiful writing of that column and desperately wanting her to speak to me directly. I don't even remember what I asked. I just remember that I wanted to be spoken to.

Letters to Judy is, I think, Blume's most important book. Here's the story.

By the 1980's, Judy Blume was internationally famous and heavily censored. She received thousands of fan letters. Most authors, I imagine, would be overwhelmed by that and stop reading them, or have someone else read them. Some very kind authors would write back. A select few might even write a book to address the kids directly.

Judy did these things, but she did something else that I think is even better: she collected them and addressed the book to parents.

Here, she is saying. Here is what your children are thinking about. They have confided in me. Here is what you need to know.

She writes in her introduction: Sometimes I become more emotionally involved in their lives than I should. There are letters that tear me apart, and they will you, too. 

They do. There are letters about family violence, there are letters about love. They are all short and sweet and lovely and horrible at the same time.

This book is also the closest we may ever get to a Judy Blume biography. In her answers to the kids and their parents, Judy talks about her parents, who wouldn't talk about sexuality with her, a summer friend who left her behind for the popular crowd, bedwetting, bullying, you name it.

Once again she passes information and reassures her readers. That's her usual MO. But this time, it's for the parents.

This book is sadly out of print now. You can get it online, or perhaps stumble upon it in a used bookstore. I imagine that if I were a parent I would seek it out one way or another. It's easy to forget how we thought as children. Luckily, Judy's got a whole archive of experience just waiting to be researched.


Blume-a-thon #18: Smart Women

Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here

Confession: up until this point I plowed through 1-2 Judy Blume books a day. Then, I read Smart Women. It took me a week.
At first I felt like it was kind of a slog. Familiar territory. Once again, we have adult women. We have a steamy hot tub scene with a naked guy right off the bat. The women-- two main characters, both divorced-- seemed overly muddled and needy to me. I'd rather read Wifey again.
But then: enter the teenage girls, the other two narrators of the story.
Remember a few posts back when I said I loved the adult stories peeking out of the corners of Blume's children's books? This book mashes together all three of Judy's best demographics: a pre-teen. A full-fledged teenage girl. And two adult women.
So Sara knew that the crisis had to do with her father. She called Jennifer for advice, but Jennifer told her to just stay out of it. That parents have to learn to solve their own problems.
Sara doesn't get a lot of narration time in this book, but she's the one who illuminates just how unlikeable her mother B.B. is (who has a breakdown and largely ignores her daughter for the duration of the book). I love you, Sara. I'd read more books about you. And Michelle-- you and your first love, too.
But of the three of Judy's adult books, this one is the weakest. I mean, there's no comparison with Summer Sisters. But we'll get to that in due time...
Just found this opening paragraph from People in 1983. So Judy. So Smart Women. Were the 80's as ridiculous as they seemed?
If Judy Blume were the protagonist of a novel, she'd be pretty hard to stomach. Rich, famous and fresh-faced at 46, she has two stylish abodes, a devoted lover, a pair of grown children who actually like her and a new book, Smart Women (Putnam, $15.95), on the best-seller list. She knows how to tap-dance, get a good table in a crowded restaurant and inspire loyalty among millions of readers. Add to that the fact that she's a genuinely nice person, and Blume's story would seem to have all the dramatic tension of The Joy of Cooking.