Friday, November 27, 2009

working, not shopping

Old fashioned thanksgiving celebrations I've had very few. My original memories of this holiday center around screaming fights at the dinner table, with me as the youngest, least pivotal character, choosing to disappear to the TV room way in the back. There, I learned everything I ever needed to know about Star Trek, The Addams Family and Gilligan's Island. Why are families so hard to get along with? At least one's birth families. In the novel, Amelia has long left her parent's dysfunctional marriage behind. Yet there are references to her father's descent into alcoholism and the impact it had on his wife and daughters. This was all in the early nineteen hundreds. Now they'd be writing memoirs. Amelia's mother would likely focus on her unusual escape, divorce wasn't common back then. Muriel's on choosing the safer course, teacher, mother, and ultimately family spokeswoman. Amelia's would point out what she learned best, that there's no point in sticking to something that makes you miserable. Her marriage pact accompanies this post, a cut and dried agreement that had its roots in what she witnessed growing up. And also, one has to believe, in the complications that arose from marrying someone she wasn't sure she was sexually attracted to. It wasn't purely a marriage of convenience, but surely a marriage of persistence. Putnam asked her countless times before she agreed to it. She was stating her ground-rules, ones she likely wished her own mother had written.

Apparently her husband and mother didn't see eye to eye, at one point the elder Earhart was shipped back east from Amelia's house to live with Muriel. I'd have been curious to sit in on some of those Thanksgiving celebrations and see just where the friction came from. But it's more fun imagining two people with strong opinions fighting over someone who had long ago figured out how to free herself from both of them. That's an elusive target for sure.

Anyhow, I give thanks for my own family and for Amelia who is currently teaching me how to see the world new, no matter your circumstance. She's sending me to 1980, a pivotal year for me to be sure, and I get to remember it through her eyes, to see all the changes that time has wrought, and to get a second chance with her. It's why I write . . . because I can still be surprised even this late in the game.

Monday, November 23, 2009

theories on the Last Flight of Earhart

One has Amelia going down at sea. Another overshooting Howland Island and landing at Nikimaroro, three hundred and fifty miles away, then starving to death. A third crashing and dying in New Guinea. A fourth, captured by the Japanese. In this scenario Amelia is either repatriated, executed or falling sick and dying; choose one. People want an ending. They want resolution. They don't want a mystery, they want to understand what death is. Why it happens. They want endings, even as they struggle against them. Why else do we call it battling cancer? My father did. And right up to the end, he was bemused. "I don't understand where this came from?" Like death had snuck up on him when he wasn't looking out for it. Like he could have prevented it in some way.

There are plenty of families who don't know the ending, their children disappearing, their loved ones vanished, there are conflicts burning the world over. We want to know. We need to know. When we don't it aches. So Amelia is a symbol of all that we can't control. She's our grief writ large. And even though I begin the novel with the news her remains have been found, I don't want that to happen. I want this mystery to endure. I know that her family probably wanted closure at the time. As a parent, I think I would too. The grief would be too much to bear and so it would be the most I could hope for, other than a miraculous resurrection. But if I couldn't have that, if I couldn't put an answer the question then I'd hope for the gift of not knowing. It's the gateway to every theory. Because human imagination is capable of great things. And one of them is this, each theory a different ending. Each ending, the beginning of a different story, each story ours to remake, each revision giving life to someone's fertile imagination. . . so that she continues to inspire, continues to offer us insight into how we can break away, how each one of us can learn to fly. . .

Friday, November 20, 2009

outlining a life

How do you make the mundane dramatic? That's a writer's job. A story must have an arc, we demand that of fiction. We want the protagonist to face danger and overcome it, to face internal demons and best them, to grab hold of their lives and transform themselves, we expect them to act in ways we don't. Our daily lives are filled with extremely modest twists and turns. When we sit down to dinner to share what's gone on, much of it is referential. I talked to this friend. I had this frustrating experience. We get to live vicariously when we read about someone whose life moves more quickly.

Yet my son is reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Now there's a writer who was obsessed with minutiae. Incredibly written and maddening for most readers today who want more plot please! Put that book against the shallow characterizations and completely vapid Dan Brown style. I'm impressed that my son is willing to lose himself in a book that is all about texture and detail. He tells me he's interested in memory and how it works.

I am too, I find myself trying to remember the city in 1980, the body of the novel is set then, and I don't think I'm giving away too much to say that Amelia is there. There in 1980, but you'll have to read the book to see how she manages that trick. Meanwhile, I strain to make sure the details are precise, and as I do I discover the city I once loved so much, the one that's disappeared in the interim. I am trying to do justice to that time, to the New York that was funky and filled with kinetic energy. Back then, when I was young and attending Columbia, much like Amelia did years and years before, I was naive enough to believe that my life would have an arc, that there would be some dramatic moment where everything would be revealed. God was I young!

What's wonderful is that I get to give my character's lives the logic mine has lacked. Mine is filled with small moments. Those are what I treasure, sitting on my back steps watching my children play a game of catch, the summer sun warming me, twilight coming on . . .a familiar moment for so many of us, but perhaps Proust was on to something, our lives are really all in the details.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Muriel and her/their mother


What does it mean to be a hero? And what does it mean to be a heroine? Why do we have two words to define us? Woman versus man... what are heroic acts that men value? Courage under fire. Courage against all odds. And women? We value all sorts of courageous acts. We protect those we love, would do anything to help them. To defend them. To keep them safe. We'd die for them. Where does Amelia fit into this? This is something I'm grappling with. I think of Muriel, her sister and how she lived her life. A model citizen, a teacher, a mother, a wife . . . and I think of Amelia. How she left all those strictures behind. Why is one choice more valued than the other? Because men define who we are. Men create the values for us. Men make us think that being heroic in daily life is less important. Am I a jaded feminist? I suppose so. I'm at home with being at home. But I'm also in awe of the choices Amelia made. How she bucked the common wisdom and dared to do more.

Amelia was a great proponent of women being as good as men at being whatever they wanted to be . . . doctors, pilots, you name it. It's what makes her so engaging even now. We want to understand what it took for her to be so convinced of your own abilities. We want to be that woman, we all want to be Amelia. Yet what of Muriel? She's as admirable in her own way. What if two roads diverged and you were tempted by both at once.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

try and try and try again

I've begun to write the novel for what I assume will be the final time. One of my three protagonists Sam is the frame. She begins with the news that Amelia's final destination has been discovered. This is entirely possible, after all there's an expensive expedition designed to solve the mystery that's currently in the news. Of course they may find nothing. We may never know what happened to Amelia. Judge Crater anyone?

Sam is middle aged, she has a full life with children and a career. She looks back on a moment when she feels decisions were made, her life was transformed forever. Of course real life is more messy, but there are those moments out there that we all examine. In Sam's case, she was seventeen and in her first year of college. She met a girl who rocked her world and helped her know herself better. Sam isn't famous. And she doesn't become famous in the novel. She lives a life that is imperfect and much like the rest of our lives because we all grow incrementally, our lives shaped by the people we love and the work we do.

Amelia wasn't really all that much different, she was by turns a nurse, a pre med student, and a social worker. Then she became the most famous woman in the world. She took the opportunity when it presented itself and she was certainly ready for it. And why not, from above the world is a stage. And you're not forced to play on it. All that mattered in those days when you were a pilot was being present, and ready. There were so many less bells and whistles, to fly meant to live in the moment. How many of us ever do that for more than a few minutes?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

children and Amelia

In Muriel's book, she talks about Amelia's visit. How she says her work has left her no time for children. This fits in neatly with the concept of choice. Women had to make one. Were they going to focus on career or raising a family. That was then, this is now right? Yet why is it that so many women I know still feel pulled in both directions? Because in this world you can't have it all? Because there just isn't enough time or energy to do both well, or even at all?

Amelia flew away. When I think of her I think of her soaring, and leaving. I imagine Muriel left behind. Muriel whose life was demanding enough; a schoolteacher, a civic minded citizen, a wife and mother. That in itself is more than enough for most of us to juggle. I wonder about regrets. Did Amelia really regret not having children, or was that her sister's construct?

That's the thing, when someone dies they can't tell you what they thought. They can't defend themselves or revise their history. Biographers and writers, yes like myself, get to have a shot.

I look at my children and think they're the best thing I've done. When I was in my twenties I thought career was everything. Then I had my first child and realized how wrong that was. Career is wonderful, getting published is wonderful, writing is what saves me, but my children . . . well they're astonishing. I'm glad I didn't have to choose, but I wonder if I did choose. Choose to be a mother first, a writer second. Choose to focus on them because it was what was necessary. And because I wanted them to have a better chance than I did.

If so, I don't regret it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

why we all need to fly

Amelia defied her father's wishes and took lessons from Neta Snook. Now there's a name. She had discovered her passion, but what drew her to it? I think it was the same sensation I used to have when I'd jump a horse and we'd be suspended in midair. Yes I know, girls and their horses, but that wasn't what it was about. No Freudian imagery please, it was incredible. Simply incredible. A rush, and not the kind you get when you've taken drugs. Not that one at all. Aloft, without anyone or anything holding you back. Of course then the horse landed, and off we went to prepare for the next man made barrier.

Flying used to be fun. It was when I was a kid. Amelia did it for The Fun of It, right? It used to be a way to escape, now it's just drudgery. They stick you in seats that press you up against your companions. They ignore you when you ask for refills and charge you for a bag of stale peanuts, the airlines cut costs and make the experience miserable. But when I was growing up it was glamorous. And when I went off to college in Madison, I'd get into that plane and imagine my whole life was about to be different. Taking off I'd look back at New York City, at the way the boroughs were laid out, at the water curving between all that land and then it would be gone and I'd be gone and the world was filled with possibilities. Life was too.

That's what Amelia must have felt when she went up in a plane for the first time. Imagine controlling that, having that always as an option. You could always escape to a place where no one held onto you. Where you were truly free.

Monday, November 9, 2009

fathers and daughters

Amelia writes of her father. "At one time I thought that (he) must have read everything and, of course, therefore, knew everything." In my family, I thought my mother was the font of all knowledge. This was likely because she contradicted my father at every turn and her voice was several decibels louder.

I grew up in the sixties, Amelia in the teens, a span of years separated our childhood experience, but I found similarities. Her mother was open minde3d, she let her daughters wear bloomers instead of skirts. My mother dressed me in overalls and work boots. Amelia's mother chose to divorce her husband after a long and difficult marriage. It was hardly the norm back then. My mother was one of three women in her medical school class, a Jew who was barred from attending most undergraduate and graduate programs. She later worked on family planning and was central to both Planned Parenthood and NARAL. We were both raised by women who thought outside the box.

I have imagined what Amelia and Muriel must have felt, watching their parent's marriage unravel as their father lost his way and became addicted to alcohol. I've thought about this father, and his unmasking. I've thought about what lessons were learned, how it impacted Amelia's decision to do what she had to do regardless, while Muriel chose a different path.

As we grow older, we learn to narrow our horizons, life presses in, we learn we can't all be Amelia. But we need her, all the same.

Friday, November 6, 2009

the things we lost

My son is interested in memory, in how it works. Why certain images matter, why they stick with us. I think about memory all too much, my mother's is shot. She asks you the same question again and again, at ninety five she has her health and is losing her mind. Where does a mind go, once lost. Where do all the people go who you've keep alive by dint of remembering their faces, their names, the things you shared? My mother refuses to talk about her husband, my father, she keeps that part of her life, the part that matters most to me hidden. She talks thematically, for the entire month of January and February she reminded me that we were entering the next Great Depression, she knew, she'd been there before. It was, obviously, less than comforting.

My father has been dead for five years, and she's never once willingly brought him up. Has she forgotten that much about him? Or is it unbearable to remember? I'm sure a little of both. Aging is so lonely. I bear witness to how her life has gotten smaller and smaller, now I can cup my hand round it. If I close my fingers, then open them I find there's nothing much left. That's what my mother has . . .

Muriel lived to ninety eight. I thought of my mother as I wrote about her, but I knew that she'd lived long enough to lose her sister, her mother, her husband and her son. My mother used to say "It's horrible being a survivor." I couldn't argue with that. You can either fight against the reality, or give in to it. A lot depends on your innate reserves. I have no idea what mine are. But I hope that they'll be like those I imagined for Muriel. I wanted to believe she was like her sister, ferocious, a fighter. As life constricts there has to be a moment of taking joy in it. Of finding something to laugh at, even as it fells us. If not, we're done for.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

who will you be when you grow up?

It's a question isn't it? Here I am shepherding my younger son through his junior year and on to college. I know what he'd love most, to be up on stage with a band . . . well who wouldn't? It's a powerful position, serenading a crowd of hyped up fans. To be admired and beloved. I try to remember what it was I wanted, what I imagined myself as . . . I told my parents I would be a doctor, but that wasn't happening. I was miserable at science, let my fruit flies escape and cribbed the results. When I read about Amelia trying out the idea herself, I thought of that first year of college when I was pre med. I knew even as I was doing it, just how wrong it was for me. I gave it a chance, then gave it up. I've never regretted it, not for a moment.

Regret is beside the point. Amelia's life teaches us that. She tried to be good, to do the right thing, to be a doctor, a social worker, but then she got the chance to do something for herself. Yes, she also spoke about the role of women and how she was blazing a path, but was that what she was thinking of when G.P. Putnam offered her a chance to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic? I don't believe it. I think she would have given anything to try. She spent the rest of her life trying things out, she never settled for safe, she never wanted ordinary, she wanted to live like most of us live only when we're young. She was foolish and spectacular.

Of course the question of what one wants to be when you grow up, offers a different sort of answer. It requires a child to pick a career. Basketball player, rock star, rocket scientist . . .writer. All these require dealing with reality; you may not play basketball that well, or be seven foot four, you may have talent but not as much as Jack White, as for rockets, who knows how they fly. And writing isn't for the faint of heart, it's a world of hurt and rejection. There's bliss sometimes, but even that feels different from what you'd expected.

I used to have this recurring dream when I was a child, I'd take off from the roof of my parent's house and fly over the city. The sensation was remarkable, freed from all restraint . . . I haven't dreamed it in years and years. But I think Amelia always had that dream, she was always able to convince herself that anything was possible.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

what's so great about "nice" or damned with faint praise

Women are raised to believe that "nice" is good. But what does being nice entail? Does it mean that you never intentionally hurt anyone or express a negative opinion in public. Does it mean you worry over them, and cater to them and make sure their every need is taken care of. Does it mean that you're the fairer, duller sex? How does nice play out in the real world? And is it even possible?

I don't hail from the land of nice. My family values are fight first, fight second, fight third, and imagine that's love.

But this isn't about me, it's about Amelia. Was she "nice?" Or was she playing nice for the crowd. In an interesting interview, Hilary Swank says pretty much the opposite of what she's quoted as saying in Town and Country. "I think Amelia was a very private person. So, you know, what she was expressing out in the world might not necessarily have been what her true thoughts were." Good luck finding those true thoughts in The Fun of It,. Amelia writes about her first solo flight across the Atlantic. "The first place I encountered was Londonderry, and I circled it hoping to locate a landing field but found lovely pastures instead. I succeeded in frightening all the cattle in the county . . . there ended the flight and my happy adventure. Beyond it lay further adventures of hospitality and kindness at the hands of my friends in England, France, Italy, Belgium and America."

Her authorial voice is always courteous and respectful. Forget emotion. No fear. No anxiety. No sadness. It's all of a piece. When she describes her childhood she covers the years where her father's alcoholism lost him job after job with this. "What we missed in continuous contacts over a long period, we gained by becoming adapted to new surroundings quickly."

The hidden Amelia is the one that fascinates me. I don't care how she died. I don't care where her plane went down. I care how she lived. I want to know what she felt and who she was. . . to me the smile's a dare.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hilary Swank in Town and Country

First, what is this magazine exactly? Who subscribes to it? I'm guessing people who live both in town and in the country? Do those people still actually exist? Well yes but are they interested in Amelia Earhart . . . my guess is no. They're interested in Hilary Swank though and she is quite striking looking. But don't read this expecting to gain any insight into either Swank or the real life character she portrays."Before I started, I only knew the textbook version of Amelia, so that was helpful because if you know a lot about a person, you're wondering why isn't that included?" True that I guess on the other hand, it seemed from this piece that Swank could have used a little more in the way of historical preparation. Don't get me wrong, given the right material I think she's a wonderful actress. Perhaps the interview suffers from the same fault as the movie, it's almost purposely vague. Not to mention extremely light reading, when the interviewer asks what Swank thinks about her subject's sexuality she responds, "She was a tomboy. Later she thought it inconvenient to wear dresses while jumping in and out of planes. It made her ahead of her time. Look how great her clothes were!" My favorite part of the interview is when she claims "I don't think Amelia and I look anything alike," adding, "that was a big challenge for me." Oh come on. When a friend said they'd cast someone as Amelia, I didn't even think, just said "Hilary Swank?" The best thing about the interview are the photos, in them Swank is swanky. The rest? I'll let you be the judge.