Thursday, January 28, 2010

My First Pet will be a Squirrel Named Nutkin

"I first read this book {the Charterhouse of Parma} in 1972. When I looked at the passages I had underlined and the notes I had written in the margins on that first reading, I laughed, a sad laugh at my youthful enthusiasm. But I still felt affection for the young man who had picked up this book then and who, to open his mind to a new world and to become a better person, had read it so eagerly. I preferred that optimistic and still half-formed young man, who thought he could see everything, to the reader I've become. So whenever I sat down to read the book, we were a crowd: my twenty-year-old self, my confident Stendhal, his heroes, and me. I liked this crowd."

--Orham Pamuk, "The Pleasures of Reading" (from the collection, Other Colors)

I'm finally in a writing class that excites me. It's a short story workshop with a professor whose work I admire. For our first assignment, we have been asked to recall the first book that had this same impact on us; that mixture of innocent pleasure and the pretense of understanding everything.

The pressure in any writing program is to give the impression that one is well-read, that the power of literary analysis came at a young age and has stuck indefinitely. However, I've never been one to read a writer simply because he or she has won prizes, or belongs to a certain "canon of literature." I've got the same zeal for Little Women or as I do the dozens of graphic novels that now sprawl across my floor. My relationship with reading has ebbed and flowed over the years; at times, books were a comfort, an escape; at others, they were homework, laborious assignments to be chopped into little pieces and over-analyzed in lengthy, pretentious papers. But every now and then I stumble across that one book that keeps me up at night, not because I'm dying to understand the author's use of perspective or the timing of the flashbacks, but because the story is one I want to know, memorize, and follow. Understanding itself is not as important; I admire the mystery of an author that doesn't explain, as frustrating as that may be.

But the book that had that impact...? I think of books from my childhood as pastoral paintings: beautiful, luscious things that made me want to go outside and explore. Beatrix Potter was my first obsession, hands down. I saved my allowance for weeks so I could buy the $42 illustrated story collection at the Discoveries store downtown. What was it about her work that captivated me? The stories were so short, so concise, so beautifully drawn, little parables that featured squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, birds.

I didn't care much for stories involving actual humans, or contemporary social issues; I was seven years old. I wanted to know where animals lived, and what they named their offspring. I wanted the creatures I saw outside to talk back to me, and they did in her books. Potter made me hungry to read; I wanted to know all about her, and the countryside where so many of her stories are set. I'll never forget the day I realized that my elementary school was founded in the same year she was born: 1866. At seven, eight, nine years old, squirrels and rabbits and hedgehogs were very much a part of my world, both factual and fictional. I wanted to read every word she wrote, and collected every version of her stories I could find. At one point, I even had a little Squirrel Nutkin bookshelf with a copy of Pierre Lapin and El Cuento de Pedro, el Conejo. It didn't matter that I didn't yet understand Spanish or French; the words were already emblazoned in my brain. It was the exercise of opening the pages, feeling the book's spine in my hands, and absorbing the story through color and emotion.

Are they stories I have returned to in time? To be honest, I haven't revisited my Potter collection in years. At one point I even bought a collection of the letters she wrote to her fans, for hopes of deciphering some writerly wisdom from her scrawling cursive. Going back now, I see her stories for their original purpose: creative ways to write letters. A carryover from her botanical illustrations, an expression of something quieter yet bigger than she was, a meditation on setting and character. Even now, writing these words, I feel like the asshole twentysomething that Pamuk describes, but that internal admiration and reverence for Potter--that hasn't gone away. In fact, it makes me wish I had one of those collections with me here in San Francisco, so I could curl up in bed and lose myself in the Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, the scary one about the dog that thinks she will be served in a mouse pie. What the hell, right? But that's just what I loved about Potter and her stories: the inconceivable was normal, because all of her protagonists were animals, and yet they had all the same fears and desires that I did at seven, ten, twelve, sixteen, and now twenty-five. I don't want to be cooked in anybody's patty-pan, literal or metaphoric.

Beatrix Potter was just the first in a series of literary obsessions, many which echoed similar themes of animals, the countryside, an old-fashioned sensibility that struck a chord somehow. There was Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods series, Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, Sid Fleischman's Mr. Mysterious and Company (read that one five times, five summers in a row), Dick King-Smith's Babe and E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan. All lovely books written for children, all set long before I was born, many of them wonderfully illustrated. Nostalgia runs deep in these childhood classics, and yet somehow none of them possess that innate darkness that Beatrix Potter's tales did, that acknowledgment that with good fortune came the occasional random bad luck.

How wonderful it is to remember books that didn't require lengthy explanation, whose stories and character were left refreshingly alone because I simply trusted their existence on the page. Even now, the prospect of writing or (gulp) publishing a Potter-esque "tale" feels out of reach. The authenticity of intention, and the relationship between words and art--those are two things I have yet to learn.

Next time I'm at my parents' house, the first thing I'll do is grab my old $42 Potter anthology and go to the public park, nestle down in the grass, maybe under a family of squirrels, and remember what it means to truly read.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Broken Things are Just That - Things

I had the unbelievable fortune to spend New Year's Eve in Hawaii, with my brother, his girlfriend Shelby, and our two families. Shelby grew up in Honolulu, so we were greeted on the island by her amazing extended family, who felt familiar in the way that love just kind of spilled out the doors of their house. And yet, even a week in seeming paradise must have its moments.

Shortly after I got off the airplane on my first day, my dad, brother and I went bodysurfing at a local's beach. The waves were high, the sky gray, the water unpredictable. The water tugged and pulled at us as if we were the bait, and it was an immense blue fish. We heard the halting shouts of lifeguards, and I saw my mother beckoning us frantically to come in. I swam in just in time to see the expression on my mother's face darken. In the time it took for me to get to the beach, my father had crumpled beneath the power of a large wave, his hands over his head. When he rose out of the water, he was clutching a broken arm.

My mom, brother and I sprang to action. I walked him into shore, Josh got the lifeguard, Mom packed our stuff in the car. Josh and Dad left for the nearest hospital, and Mom and I drove to Shelby's house, where we arrived in wet bathing suits, sand still sticking to our foreheads. And there her family sat waiting, patient, kind, offering a beautiful dinner and reassuring words. Somehow the chaos settled us, as so many contradictions seem to do, and 2009 ended on a happy, if not ironic, note.

Fast-forward to a week after the Haiti earthquake, and the weather's not nearly so catastrophic in California, and yet weird things still happen. Two nights ago, my parents woke to a huge crash at midnight, only to find that their biggest kitchen cabinet, the one filled with all of their plates, bowls, and dining ware, had somehow become unstuck from the wall and crashed to the floor. I woke up early the next morning to the following picture in my email:

There are only three letters for this: W.T.F. And yet, when I spoke with my father, who has since had arm surgery, he said cheerfully: "It was all plates. Bowls. You, know, things. Besides, we've got two left."

There was just enough oil for eight nights of Hannukkah, and there were just enough plates for my parents to eat dinner. Chaos has its way of clarifying what's important.

2010 Thoughts

My mind is a vacuum, and this is what it has sucked up: the Proposition 8 trial here in San Francisco, the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, my parents' kitchen cabinet, which crashed off their kitchen wall in the middle of the night, The Big Rewind by The Onion's Nathan Rabin, the brand-spanking-new KALW News Digital Magazine, love, and the fact that I'm in it, the upcoming Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt, Mormon comic Elna Baker, my father's broken arm, my great-uncle's 2002 Volvo, Disneyland's "Give a Day, Get a Day" program, this band, this show, this hope...

Hyperlinked-out? Perhaps, but it feels appropriate to approach this new decade with acute hyperactivity. Four internships? Okay. Seven more school applications? Okay. One class? Wait--yes, that's right, California education has no money; neither do I. And yet still there's this ever present need to be insanely active, and not in the sense of actual mobility, but in the sense that what I do and what others do is so important that all of our movements should be chopped up into one-sentence status updates that are checked obsessively on the hour. That this forum that I had intended for my own thoughts must still conform to an online format; that all posts have direct messages, and that eyes not be bored with sentences with too many clauses or paragraphs with too many sentences. I break lots of rules too much of the time, which is ironic, because at this point I'd just like to know what the rules are.