Friday, April 30, 2010

Ending and Beginning again

I originally titled this blog, My Parents Told Me Not To Become A Writer. Indeed they did. They only knew one writer, Benjamin Appel. I adored the man, at least as a child. He was funny and witty and warm. Years later, when I was a graduate student I read all his novels and found them, well, not exactly what I'd expected. I wrote one of my worst papers on them. I loved the man, but not the writer. My parents saw that being a writer, or really an artist of any kind is beyond difficult. It's great when you attain a modicum of success. Let me amend, that moment is great. It's also great when you get a nice review, or someone tells you they loved your book, article, story. The rest of it? Not so great in terms of making a steady living. Sure, I love writing. Love how hard it is, love the challenge. But I hate the selling piece. Hate finding the agents, I've had seven. Hate getting the rejections from editors. Hate realizing that what I think is finished is never done. Even success when it comes isn't what you thought it would be. It's as if you get to take a big sigh, then gird your loins and move on. I'm not griping, I'm being honest.

Why does one do it? Because really you can't do anything else. It's an addiction. If I don't write, I'm miserable. If I'm not investing in a character's life, I can't enjoy my own. I am about to attend my high school reunion. Now let's say I have a little trepidation about this. Why? I was miserable in high school. I had exactly one friend. But I did have an English teacher who inspired me. I was already writing poetry, bad poetry of course. He assigned a paper that could be creative or not. I chose creative and he gave me a lousy grade. He told me I wasn't writer material. Years later I suppose I've proved him wrong. And my parents too. But at what cost? It would have been much much easier to be the doctor my mother wanted me to be. I think of Amelia, she could have been a doctor too. In that way, we are similar. She also wanted to be a writer. And was one. . .though really she's not famous for writing, now is she?

Regrets, not about this. Without being able to write, where would I be? It transports me, and offers me a real challenge every single day. It's painful to be a writer, but life is painful. It's also the most fun I've ever had working. That's why we choose it in the end I think, because it's fun. Or as Amelia said, for "The Fun of It."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What it takes to survive and endure . . .

I have come to the end. Or at least the end of this draft and so I think about what it means to outlive. To live on. I have left the sisters on the rooftop at Columbia. They have things to say to each other, and to find out what, you'll have to read the book. I have come to admire both of them. One was truly an amazing woman, we all know about her. Or think we do. Because the Amelia Earhart who was always in the public eye was very cautious about showing herself. I admire her caution. And am drawn in by it. I want to know her and believe I do know my version of who she is/was. I find her to be remarkably assured, willful, brave, stubborn and willing to take whatever chances she got. I think she was lucky. And I believe she made her own luck. That is an American ideal isn't it, forging your own new version of self. She did it. That's part of why her mystery endures. It's not just the mystery of her death, it's how she managed to be and do so much when she was alive.

And then there's Muriel. Muriel seems easier. She was a mother, a teacher, a wife. She stayed close to home and kept her sister's memory alive. Intact. Shaped it very carefully. I am positive there are things she kept completely private. It's wonderful territory for a novelist, imagining the younger sister taking charge of the older . . . once she is no longer around to tell her younger sibling what to do. There must have been a satisfaction in it, however bittersweet.

Of course my own experience has informed all of this. I have a sister, and many many friends. I find my friendships with other women to be one of the greatest pleasures of my life. This book is about those close bonds between women, ones that have made my life immeasurably richer. Without them, I would have been lost.

Monday, April 26, 2010

On what makes Amelia Earhart Amelia, and of course Meryl Streep

I'm sure that men feel guilty about the choices they make. I'm sure they spend time regretting the road not taken. And I know that I'm no Meryl Streep. Or Amelia Earhart. I've written about this before, but I don't think the subject is one that can actually be exhausted. I wish we would all stop apologizing for our lives. They are what they are. And we have done our best with them. We can continue to try new things, hey, as long as we're not dead or debilitated, and we can grow. We can become better citizens, better writers, and pilots, and parents. Life goes on. It's time to let go of the regret already.

This was brought home to me again as I listened to several women talk about their lives and the formation of self. I think that many women who choose to forgo a career, or stop it midway and focus on their children feel apologetic about it. And I think that others who have chosen a career and have no interest in being parents feel defensive. Enough. The fact is there isn't world enough and time to do everything well. Who said we had to. Let me go back to the part about men here. Do they really agonize about this the way women do? I'm having my doubts.

I think back to my own parents; my mother couldn't bear that she wasn't good at everything. And I mean everything. Her cooking was horrid. Her vegetables were unrecognizable, her meat tough enough to break a tooth on. Yet she wanted to hear what a fine cook she was. I was thrilled that she was a doctor, a woman doctor! Wasn't that enough? No. She had to be the happy homemaker too. She had to be able to juggle successfully. Frankly, I think juggling is overrated. It's beginning to give me brain freeze. And I can't be the only one out there.

So let's can the guilt. Let's look at who manages to do what and how. We aren't all Meryl Streep, and god knows she's marvelous. As for Amelia, a lot was made about how she decided not to have children. How she said she didn't have time for it. She didn't, how about that. There wasn't enough time. How refreshing that is. She chose and chose honestly. But still people talk about her regretting it. That she wasn't fulfilled because she couldn't have a family and a career. Maybe she wasn't, if so she suffered from the same misguided notions we all suffer from. That we can have it all and do it all.

Which brings me to Chris Rock, he said something funny on Bill Maher. I'll paraphrase. Most people are mediocre at what they do. He wasn't being mean, just honest. It's true and if we manage to be a little better at one thing, then hey, that's pretty damn great. So women stop berating yourselves for the road not taken.

There, my rant for the day.
Now back to finishing up with Amelia.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Amelia Earhart's sister Muriel and the Rock Island Line

Herein, the body of a letter written by Edwin Earhart. Yes, I have been roaming the halls of Schlesinger library in Cambridge. Written on Rock Island Line stationery, it reads,Miss Muriel Earhart,
Dear Madam,
I have your claim for $5.00 for having been bitten by a isquito on our train. Before we can pay the same, we would, at least, like to know how big a bite the misquito took and we would like to see the misquito. Of coure, we admit that we owe you something and are willing to pay it, but you will have to produce the misquito before you could expect us to pay you. This case will probably have to be referred to the Chicago office as it is so serious a case and I hardly feel like handling it.
Very truly yours,
ES Earhart.
Father jokes. And jokes lovingly. I spent hours with him, with Muriel, with Amelia, or what was left behind. A detritus of a life, or two, or three. Muriel, her mother, Amelia. Letters signed sealed and evidently delivered. Photographs of the sisters. And I noticed the gaps between being young together and being older, and separate. Muriel does become the keeper of Amelia's legacy. She also spends some time speaking to those who want to discover what happened to Amelia. I'm curious about the in between. About the time when Amelia became Amelia and Muriel, Muriel. What went on between them, and what didn't go on . . .
I have to say one thing that stunned me, even at this late date, was how photogenic Amelia was. She's at one with a camera, even if it's unintentional. Anyhow, research is good for the soul, it lets you get away from that hunkered down intensity and breathe. And in this case it confirms your suspicions.
Amelia has spoken about her father in my book, the scene takes place on the Rock Island Line, he, once a god, falls in her estimation. And she keeps his secret for a while longer. It's Muriel who received the letter, with the ironically spelled mosquito. But it's Amelia who continued to send letters to family members, using ironic misspellings. It's family that shapes us . . .for better, for worse, forever.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Keith Haring and Amelia Earhart

I dare you to find the connection. . . actually no, I already have. There was nothing I loved more than seeing Keith Haring at work. And I did many times. The guy was slight and odd looking. He worked fast, but hey what he was doing was basically illegal. It was a New York moment. And a good one. Amelia sees him too. I won't say when. I won't say why. I will say that the book opens with Sam, one of my other protagonists, riding north to Barnard. And that she spies "the chalk man" working.
A time it was, oh what a time it was. . .

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Amelia Earhart and her Dad

Amelia's father was an alcoholic. And a charming man. "At one time I thought that my father must have read everything and, of course, therefore, knew everything. He could define the hardest words as well as the dictionary and we used to try to trip him and he to bewilder us. I still have a letter he wrote me beginning, 'Dear parallelepipedon,' which sent me scurrying for a dictionary." So writes Amelia. It sent me scurrying too. It's a three dimensional form according to the ever handy though fairly unreliable Wikipedia entry. Her father was a large presence in her life, that is until he began to fail, and then to drink. After that he became a confusing presence/absence. I am preoccupied with Amelia's father today, and with all fathers.

My friend lost her own father yesterday. I went by today as they were sitting shiva. Last night I dreamed of my own dead father and with a writer's true self absorption had him noting that I had rushed the ending of the book he'd just read, even as he was physically failing. In my dream I knew he was dying but he was still ready to critique my work. Ah fathers and daughters, what a tangled web we weave.

It's funny, because I only have sons myself. It's sons and mothers here and sons and fathers. But I think of my other family, the one I had before this, the one that only lasted a mere sixteen years, after that of course we saw each other but never lived together again. I couldn't stand to. I think of Amelia and know that my connection to her extends to this. Her father was someone she loved and felt incredible contempt for. His weakness exposed all of them to poverty. It made her mother miserable, and their marriage ended in divorce. Yet once when she was little, he was a god. How far our parents have to fall and fail to become human. It really is unfair.

So here's the end for Amelia and for many. If we're lucky we do outlive our parents. And we mourn them, even as they become our children. Amelia writes to her mother, "About Dad. The diagnosis was correct. . . he waged a hopeless fight against a thing which took all his nourishment. . . I tried and had always to please him, and he hoped until he could not move his poor hands.. . He was an aristocrat as he went-all the weaknesses gone with a little boy's brown puzzled eyes."

I love that, a little boy's puzzled eyes. To fathers and daughters everywhere . . . love.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Letting go. . . watching your mother die (and no, it's not about Amelia)

Dying. It ain't easy. I interrupt my regularly scheduled Amelia broadcast simply because I need to write about it. Watching someone you loved and admired deteriorate is painful. But it must be so much more painful for them. Yet I think my mother has finally reached a level of peace I didn't expect. Perhaps I'm being naive. I went to see her yesterday, and for once she was alert. Able to talk to me, and to listen. I'm never quite sure how much she really wants to listen. And I find myself trying hard to entertain her as if I'm back in those years when the two of us were thrown together and I was the child who was there to try and cheer her up. It was my role. I was the one who was expected to do what she had done, to be what she'd been, and to love her. She'd struck out with the other two. My brother hated her. My sister fought with her bitterly. Third time was the charm, or at least it was for a while.

By the time I came along my siblings were almost grown. There are ten and twelve years separating us. My brother had been sent off to prep school, one of his biggest pet peeves. It was really because my mother couldn't deal with his behavior. I think she's always been a little afraid of men, and my brother was turning into a man. One with a quick temper. My sister and I bunked in the same room, but when I was six she went to college and from that time on, I was my mother's keeper. Neither sibling cares much about my experience with her. Theirs are so different, perhaps that's what siblings do. They believe that their experience is everyone's. I somehow have managed to be able to differentiate. My father treated us differently. So did my mother.

I think that it may have been partly historical. When I was five, my mother had to give up a satisfying career as an obstetrician and move back to New York from DC.
Then her father died. She was depressed by that and by having to find a way to begin again. Meanwhile my father worked endless hours. So she made me into her buddy. Until I left for college I swore I was going to be a doctor to please her. And in turn, she loved me more. Or at least was able to show her love in a more natural way. Not that she was ever a warm person. Far from it. Still I knew that she appreciated me. I never felt that from my father, in fact, I felt he disliked me personally even though he loved me in a general sense.

Each child gets a different parent. And at the end, each child gets a different goodbye from them. The last words my father spoke to me were, "You're getting fat." Suffice it to say, I am not fat, not even remotely overweight. He said he loved me too. But it was always like that with him, give something and then take something else. My mother made me lean towards her yesterday and she said, well you know I don't remember exactly which is why I have such trouble with the memoir concept, but the gist was "you get me." I agreed. I do get her. I always have. She lucked out the third time that way. And I had a mother I could talk to for years, one who shared with me and supported me. That was a real gift. She's long gone, but that moment I think was her way of saying goodbye to me. She finally seems at peace, I think that death has terrified her but now for whatever reason it doesn't. I'm glad of that. And sad as I am to see her go, and she will go though who knows when exactly, I'm glad that I got her back. At least for a moment.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Seeing is believing in Amelia Earhart's world

What if everything was crucially different. What if the city you once lived in had changed, signposts were there but they were obscured by all the rest. The Empire State and Chrysler building dwarfed; and of course that's just the beginning. Automobiles are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity. In this city, buses have replaced trams. Planes crisscross the sky. Air travel is exactly as you'd imagined it, it's become routine. What would you ultimately make of this, if you were supremely logical?

Amelia is logical and pragmatic. She sees change all around her, there are two impulses pulling at her. One is to be herself in every possible way, but the other is to be part of all this. And to explain how she's arrived at this odd juncture. Who am I? It's a question we all ask ourselves. She asks it over and over again. This novel is about identity, and hers is fluid. Because she's getting a second chance and she means to enjoy it.

There's much to enjoy, and much more to be floored by. Think of going up to the top of the twin towers and looking out . . . a bittersweet image for those of us living here. I did it in those shaking elevators. I sat in Windows on the World and took in the view. There are so many things I love/loved about the city. In 1980 there was a lot more grit and a lot less glam. She gets to wander my city and try to make herself part of it in her own way . . . that part I won't tell. How a supremely logical mind tricks itself. Because hey, we've all tricked ourselves into believing things. Why not Amelia?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Amelia Earhart and a life worth living

I have been spending so much time wondering what Amelia would miss most. I have been focusing on the details. First meal? That was a good one. First view of a world so changed it's almost unrecognizable. Lots of inventions that would fascinate someone whose life revolved around a faith in physics, and in human ingenuity. In real life, Amelia pressed forward. But what would you do, given a second chance. It's the doing that got me stuck. Yesterday I thought about what you wouldn't do. What you'd marvel at, if you could take a breath and stand back. If you weren't always pressing forward. If you could observe, and enjoy and just live.

That's what I think she gets a chance to do. She gets a chance to be happy. Now I'm not saying she wasn't, or that any of us aren't. But given an opportunity perhaps we would be able to be the ultimate tourist. I'm never happier than when I'm in a country where I am completely free of the needs, wants and endless frustrations of my own daily life.

I think she is that tourist today. Here, but not here. She gets to see my city when it wasn't sanitized, when it wasn't as rich or as safe as it is today. There was a great ticking heart at the center of that city, one that made me fall in love with it on a daily, even hourly basis. This is the gift she gets, to be anonymous for a moment, to take a breath and not be Amelia.