30 March 2008

Travels in Chicago and Abroad....

Yesterday, my mother came down to Chicago and hung out with me for the day. Ostensibly, she was here to help me pack (which she did) and take me out for my birthday (we went to Zia! New Mexican food in Chicago! Best of both worlds!) but actually we spent the majority of the day driving around the city looking for baby hats. It's a long story.

Anyway, even though tromping all over the city with my mom was fantastic, and the sun even came out for a few minutes here and there, the highlight by far was "Mamabackes's Tour of Homes (and everyone who was stabbed when she lived there)" in which she drove us around Old Town and Lincoln Park, showing us all the different houses and apartments she lived in when she lived here in her twenties. Every apartment came complete with a story like, "Oh, and that house three doors down? That's where a pregnant lady was stabbed in the stomach and pushed out a third floor window..... and that place had the BEST Italian bread! ....Where that bar is used to be our laundromat, where my neighbor got stabbed and then he was so scared he had to borrow my German shepherd for the night.... did I tell you about the ladies who used to make big plates of fried chicken and spaghetti at that church?.... and over there is where your cousin got stabbed in the neck......"

It was awesome.

I made her give me a similar tour a few years ago, when I was here taking a summer class at Second City, but I didn't yet have any frame of reference for the city, so I didn't really understand where we were at any given time. Yesterday, I saw that she lived in a pretty close range, and after taking the Armitage bus every day for six months, I am all too familiar with the area where the pregnant lady was stabbed. Luckily for pregnant ladies, and probably unluckily for local color, the area is now mostly full of ladies who are far too rich to do anything so undignified as get stabbed in the belly. The back, certainly.

I love hearing my mom's stories and trying to imagine what Chicago was like thirty years ago, even as I learn what it's like for myself now. Because my parents both lived here when they were my age, this place sometimes feels a little bit like an ancestral home. In a nice way.

So thanks Mom. You can tell me about walking your dog and people getting stabbed any day.

In other news, I'm heading off to Barbados tomorrow for my college roommate's wedding. Five of us lived in a house senior year at Grinnell (White House, for you Grinnellians) which we called "The Funnery Nunnery -- the last stop before hell." We were the Fun Nuns, also known as the Bad Habits. We're reconvening on the beach for a week of nuns in the sun, which will likely culminate in some sort of leaving the sisterhood ceremony. She may be leaving the sisterhood, but she'll always be our sister. Awwwwwwww.

So: I'll see you when I get back! Have a great week!

27 March 2008

March: The Book You Should Have Told Me To Read

Last fall, I wrote about my lifelong fondness for Louisa May Alcott’s timeless Little Women. I may have also mentioned, once or twice, my deep and profound love for reimagined stories. If you know me well, you also know that I love song covers – same basic concept. You take someone else’s story (or song) and spin it in a slightly different way. When you’re successful, you gain the ring of truth in your own story, set as it is in a world already established, and add depth to the original.

Knowing all this as you do, how is it possible that NO ONE has thought to recommend Geraldine Brooks’s exquisite book March to me? Come on, Bloglandia! Where were you? You made me wait until my father just happened to pick it off the book table at church a few weeks before my birthday? In 2008?? When it won the Pulitzer Prize TWO YEARS AGO??

You guys!

Even MORE troubling than this gross oversight on the part of everyone I know are the blank looks on the faces of the people I’ve recommended this book to in the last few days:

Me: OMG, I just read this fantastic book.
Book-Loving Friend: Oh, I love to read! What is it?
Me: Geraldine Brooks’s book March. It tells the story of what happens to Mr. March when he goes off to the Civil War. It’s so good!
Friend Who Actually Might Not Be That Much of A Bibliophile After All: Who?
Me: Mr. March. You know! Marmee’s husband? Meg and Jo and Beth and Amy’s father?
Friend I Previously Considered to be Literate: (blank look) Uh… who?
Me: You know, like Little Women?
Friend Who Clearly Hates Books and Maybe Isn’t Actually My Friend After All Because How Can I Be Friends With Someone Who Doesn’t Know Who Marmee Is, I Mean Really: Oh yeah, I never read that book. Should I?

People!! I expected this kind of nonsense from my students, but from my friends? From adults? From the WRITERS in my workshop? You can’t not read Little Women!

I’m serious. Go read Little Women, and don’t come back until you can tell me what Teddy Laurence has in common with Sir James Chettam. I’ll wait here.

Okay, from here on out I’ll assume you’ve now all read Little Women. Isn’t it great? Don’t you love the part where everything’s just awful and Beth has scarlet fever and Marmee’s away in Washington and the girls are all by themselves, trying to keep poor little Beth alive, but then Marmee comes home and Beth can breathe and THEN Mr. March comes home on Christmas and everyone flies to him and smothers him in hugs and Amy falls at his feet and hugs his ankles and the girls make him go around and tell them how they’ve all changed in the year since he left them?

Ever wonder how Mr. March changed?

Geraldine Brooks did. In her splendid March, she tells the story of what happens to Mr. March during his year in the Civil War, doubling back in the narrative to cover his youth as a traveling salesman, his courtship and marriage to Marmee, how he won and lost his fortune, and why he decided to leave his four little women and his wife for the grueling hardships of war. Just as Louisa May Alcott drew on her own family to craft her novel, Geraldine Brooks turned to the journals of LMA’s father, A. Bronson Alcott, to fill in some of the narrative gaps, lending historical and familial truth to the figure of Captain March. Additionally, Brooks peoples her narrative with familiar figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Day, and Henry Thoreau, with whom the Alcotts themselves were acquainted.

As the best retellings do, March adds layers of pathos and depth to the pages of Little Women, its shift in perspective bound to change the way you read the homey scenes in the March home forever. After what he witnesses on the battlefield, the carnage and the cruelty, how can Mr. March possibly come home unchanged? And yet, the story of his family is clearly the story of the women, who focus on their growth and development without allowing much room for their father to do any of his own.

I don’t even like historical fiction, and the Civil War is by far my least favorite period of time to read about – and yet – I love this book. I read so much and so quickly that it’s rare for a book to strike at my heart. Even more rare are the times I find myself looking up from a page in quiet thankfulness, almost disbelief, that this book is SO GOOD and doesn’t lag or lose my interest at any point. March defied my every expectation.

It was folly to let him go. Unfair of him to ask it of me. And yet one is not permitted to say such a thing; it is just one more in the long list of things that a woman must not say. A sacrifice such as his is called noble by the world. But the world will not help me put back together what the war has broken apart.

21 March 2008

It's supposed to be spring. SPRING!

An Open Letter to the State of Wisconsin

Dear Wisconsin,

How’s it going? Things are pretty okay here, I guess. I mean, Illinois is all right and everything, even though we used to make fun of it a lot. Those were good days, huh Wisconsin? Remember? Those long lazy days of summer, when it seemed like everything was funny and nothing could go wrong? I know you’re one hundred thirty two years older than me and everything, but our age difference never seemed to be much of a big deal, back then. We were pals.

Wisconsin, I have a confession. I took you for granted. I know I did. I didn’t realize how much I cared about you until I left. I went off to Iowa and though – I know this is hard to hear Wisconsin, but it’s true – though Iowa is very lovely in its own way, and will always be dear in my heart, it was YOU that I missed, Wisconsin. Did Iowa introduce me to deep fried cheese curds and beer baseball? Does Iowa have a cave full of smurfs and towns full of trolls? Can Iowa brag about its Circus Museum & Mustard Museum? No, Wisconsin. That’s all you. Iowa doesn’t even have a professional football team, babe.

I tried to make it work, Wisconsin. I came back to you, remember? I came back. We had a whole summer full of five mile walks at midnight, the Milky Way spread thick over the quiet cornfields, wildflowers by the sides of the highway, bobbing with fireflies. Music on the Union Terrace, the colors and textures of the Farmer’s Market in June, ambling through the prairie grasses of the biggest dog park I’ve ever seen… the hills of Lacrosse and the Mississippi bluffs… Picnic Point in autumn, with merlot and burgundy leaves overhead and orange and gold at our feet…. You, Wisconsin. It was you I loved.

Okay, okay, I know I left again. What can I say? New Mexico had a certain je ne sais quois. It was exotic, all those lavender mountains and wide open skies. I never left you for very long, though, did I Wisconsin? I came back to you at least twice a year, and believe me, I thought about you a lot. Look, New Mexico’s gorgeous, but it doesn’t have your trees, Wisconsin. It doesn’t have your gorgeous autumns or your velvet summer nights. All that humidity we used to complain about? Turns out it makes for some pretty fantastic early summer mornings, the mist rising off the lake…. New Mexico doesn’t even have lakes, baby.

Look, Wisconsin, it’s always been you. You’ll always be the one I come back to. You’ll always be the one I’m talking about when I talk about home. But honestly Wisconsin? I have to admit that I’m getting pretty tired of this winter shit. I know, I know, you’re in your rebellious phase. I get it. You’re trying to punish me for leaving you. Last winter you rubbed your mild winter in my face with your 55 degree days and your sparkling turquoise lakes as I flew out of Madison for the tundra that was Albuquerque, and this year, now that I’m back, you’re nothing but snow and ice. Just like your heart, right? I get it, Wisconsin. You never were very subtle with your metaphors. But seriously, enough. Enough.

Wisconsin, it’s spring. It’s March 21, Wisconsin. It’s Easter. If you weren’t in such a snit today I would be with you RIGHT NOW, Wisconsin. That’s right! I was going to drive up today and hang out with you all weekend, did you know that? Until Monday, Wisconsin! I always spend the holidays with you, Wisconsin, you know that. Of course I was going to spend Easter with you. But no, you had to be all 8-10 inches of snow, winter driving emergencies, winter weather warnings, Dane County Sheriff’s office sending out memos begging people to stay off the roads if at all possible…. And then you drag Illinois into it? That’s pretty childish, babe.

I’m losing my patience here, Wisconsin. Look, of course I love you, but if you’re going to be nothing but winter from October 1 to April 1, then maybe it’s not worth it anymore. No, this isn’t an ultimatum… I’m just saying, Wisconsin, that… you know, I’m still friends with New Mexico, and I could always go back. I could. Cause babe, I really don’t need this right now.

Give me some sunshine & I’ll reconsider.

Love and kisses,

19 March 2008

The Mysterious Elderly Gentleman

By Mamabackes

When I got home from work yesterday, 15 year old Zeke was not at the back door to greet me. About half of the time he seems to hear the car or otherwise sense that I will be opening the door and is there waiting. I let Basil out of his crate and went to tell Zeke that it was time for a walk. When I left the house nine hours earlier, Zeke was sleeping peacefully on the couch, but he was not on either the couch or the loveseat. I went upstairs to look for him on his bed and he was not there either! I did a frantic search of the entire house, including the closed bedrooms and closets, under beds and in hidden corners and Zeke was no where to be found! I thought maybe Molly had been homesick and had driven up and taken him for a walk but that didn't make any sense. Then I (seriously!) thought that Zeke had died while I was gone and the creatures from his planet had landed in the back yard and retrieved the body of their king to take back home.

Finally, I went to the basement and found Zeke disoriented, sleeping on a pile of dirty laundry. I do not believe that he has ever been in the basement before, and I can't even imagine how difficult it would have been for him to make it down the cement stairs when he has such difficulty with the carpeted ones. I don't know if he went looking for a quiet place to die or he got lost looking for cheese. He was unable to climb up the stairs by himself so I carried him up. Once he was back in the kitchen he started bugling his moose call and jumping in the excitement of being readied for a walk, all thoughts of demise banished, for now.

Love, Mama