Category Archives: A Little Bit of Everything

The Dangers of Writing in the Wild

IMG_1869Rural Vermont is, it turns out, very rural. When we arrived, the gray-haired tour guide, who also doubles as the office secretary, detailed which walking areas were safe and which were not. It’s hunting season, she said. You know those blaze-orange beanies you’ve been seeing in town? That’s to set you apart from the deer. I nodded soberly, immediately recalled this horrific hunting “accident” I’d seen on the Investigation Discovery channel months before. Spoiler alert: the dead guy was wearing an orange hat. Stay on the marked trails and you should be fine, she said half-joking. And everybody laughed. But here’s the thing: she was only half-joking.

            Later I saw a woman in running clothes outside my studio building. Where’s the best place to go around here? I said.

            Up the road, she said, past the lumber store, take a left on the trail. It’s a little secluded, but totally beautiful.

            Clearly, I thought, this woman does not watch Investigation Discovery. Do you know how many women runners are accidentally, or not-so-accidentally, hunted when they’re out alone? I don’t have the exact figure, but thanks to a mass chain letter my mother once emailed me—PLZ READ IF YOU LOVE WOMEN, said the subject line, and so I did because what kind of person would I be if I didn’t?—I no longer wear my hair in a ponytail when I run.

            And it’s safe? I asked the woman.

            I’ve never not felt safe there, she said, shrugging. Which I guess is the most assurance we can get in life, but still.

            So, five days into this residency, I’m learning some uncomfortable truths about myself. Like I have a lot of disturbing stereotypes about rural settings. And I watch way too much crime TV.       

            Also, this: when all you do is hole yourself up in a little room to write made-up stories for days on end, personal hygiene seems pointless. Who do I have to impress? I shower every other day at best, let my body hair grow out, wear the same clothes for days at a time. If I catch a whiff of myself, I pull out a stick of my husband’s deodorant, which I sometimes take with me on trips when I travel alone, both to ward off body odor and occasional swells of homesickness. You don’t have to tell me how sad/unsettling/surprisingly effective this is.

            Lately I’ve been skipping a lot of meals to work. The muse and I have an on-again/off-again relationship (okay, more off than on), so when she decides to show up, however belated and bedraggled (muse-work, I imagine, is an exhausting gig in this place full of writers and artists), I stick around. This morning, to make up for last night’s missed dinner, I ate two breakfasts: first, an unabashedly mountainous bowl of Rice Chex in the dining hall, and then, immediately afterward, a maple-chai latte and maple-oatmeal scone at the indie coffee shop around the corner (did I mention I’m in Vermont?). Breakfast(s) of champions, I know.

            So far I am learning that too much solitude can drive a person mad (see above notes on personal hygiene). But so can too many people. There is no such thing as small talk at a residency program for writers and artists. The dial is set to eleven, always. Where are you from?, that most basic staple of conversation between strangers, is neither a simple nor an innocuous question. What are you working on?, even less so. In my experience, communal meals often require a nap afterward—to digest the conversation as much as the food.      

            As for the writing, here is what I’ve learned most of all: it’s really, really hard.

            But there are things that can help. A bottomless supply of mass-manufactured, processed snack foods, preferably beef sticks, Ritz crackers, and oversized chocolate Crunch bars. Frequent, if unnecessary, bathroom breaks. A swipe of said hubby’s deodorant. The view of the river just outside my studio window, where, by my rules, if I happen to nod off on a gray and rainy day like today, I fairly count as writing time. (The runner wasn’t wrong: rural Vermont is totally beautiful.)

            And, maybe, just maybe, a blaze-orange hunting hat for protection here in my little writing studio. Because if I’ve learned anything from Investigation Discovery, it’s that the real wild is inside.  

Leaf-Peeping on the New Jersey Turnpike

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Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.

– Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction”

 Say what you will about New Jersey: beauty abounds.

It has taken me nearly three years to see it, but now that I have eyes, I see it everywhere. Part of it, of course, is the seduction of an east coast autumn, that mythical season I grew up learning about from my mother, a California girl who spent four falls staring up at the treetops, wide-eyed, as she walked to and from classes at Vassar (followed by four winters blow-drying her waist-length hair so it wouldn’t freeze whenever she stepped outside).

New Jersey, of course, is not New York. New Jersey, in fact, is the very opposite of New York, as any New Yorker will be the first to tell you. 

Still, whenever fall descends each year, it graces New Jersey with a rare and unexpected glamor that manages to surprise me every time. The leaves on the trees transform so rapidly, fierce and brazen in their new and changing colors, that, for a brief time each year, it looks as if the world this side of the Hudson will burst into flame at any moment.

 The days take on an oddly apocalyptic feel and, as if in response, my heart takes on a new and sudden greed. 

I want the autumnal world to stay like this forever, eternally suspended in its state of ever-changing-ness. I want the dying leaves to change colors perpetually, taking on ever more spectacular slants of light, keener and more vibrant hues. I want to feast on the sight of the natural world as if it were a performance meant for me and me alone, as if I myself have willed it into being simply by witnessing it.

I want permanence and possibility both; I want things, impossibly, to stay the same and never stay the same again. 

This is the state of my own deeply conflicted heart. I want, I suppose, time itself, that most obvious and cliché hunger of the human heart. I try to quiet it on my daily commute, the solitude of the drive and the transient beauty of the fall lulling me into a rare state of contentment that dissipates the moment I park the car and open the door, set my foot on solid ground again.

Sometimes, on the long drive home from work each day, I find myself staring dumbly out the car window, marveling at the changing colors of the leaves, the muted light of lowering autumnal skies. It is dangerous, this dual vocation of leaf-peeping and commuting, but I cannot help it. (At least if I die in some horrific traffic accident on the back roads of New Jersey, I’ll have died distracted by beauty and not, say, my cellphone.)

Other drivers honk at me occasionally, or tailgate me until they see I will not be moved, then speed angrily around me. I don’t mind. I give them a friendly, unapologetic wave in the rearview mirror. I am an unabashedly west-coast driver. 

Even on the Turnpike, that infamous stretch of road uniting city-dwellers and suburbanites alike as we trudge along on our daily commutes, I feel a naïve and irrational love for my fellow drivers, all of us joined as one in our lonely, slow-moving sedans or SUVs, listening to the floating voices of beloved audiobook narrators and NPR commentators, the glow of our brake lights igniting one after the other like so many altar candles, our curses and complaints rising to the heavens with each tap of the foot, as if driving were its own prayer and not just the desperate thing we do to get from one place to another.

 But at last, three years into this little life of mine here in New Jersey, I have vision: I am finally wide-eyed and greedy for the blazing world around me.

An Ode to Watching Television, Old-School

unnamed-1To be clear, I got it for free. A postdoctoral fellow in mathematics had posted it on the university’s classifieds page.

27”, I read in the ad.

27”, I thought. The perfect size for our humble living room (which, it should be said, has an orange vintage settee in place of a couch because, let’s be real, I’ll choose orange tufted velour over practicality any day of the week).

But I had forgotten: 27” was much bigger a decade ago than it is today.

Especially when said 27” comes in the form of an old-school tube television that a skinny, bearded mathematician has to wrestle into the back of your economy-sized hatchback car.

The last time we owned a television set, we were newlyweds living in a tiny in-law unit in the backyard of a mansion in the Berkeley Hills. We kept it on a rollaway cart in our lone miniature closet and pulled it out whenever we had the hankering to watch a movie.

Then we’d climb into our little secondhand Honda and drive to The Silver Screen, a dingy video rental shop at the height of its dingy-video-rental-shop glory, with stained carpet that smelled of stale popcorn and burnt plastic, endless rows of DVDs catalogued like so many library books (the “Adults Only” section tastefully cordoned off by a hanging beaded curtain, through which forbidden lights glowed), and always the same gentle giant behind the counter, a large man made larger still by the tiny toy rubber ducks he brought out for every customer: if you picked the right duck—the one with a sticker dot on its underbelly—you walked away with a free DVD rental.

Somehow, though, even picking the wrong duck felt like a prize all its own, with that moment of hopefulness hanging in the air as your hand hovered over the tiny rubber ducks, mysteriously gravitating toward one or another, lingering, before finally settling on the chosen one, presenting it, belly up, to the man for inspection.

We were loyal customers long after Netflix came into fashion. (Say what you will, I will always mourn the loss of the dingy video rental store. I believe firmly that a neighborhood is not a neighborhood without one.)

So I submit that, driving back home with this behemoth of a television in my trunk, I was happy.

Granted, the first night we had it in the house, we could not sleep—its blank face an enormous abyss in the corner of our living room, amassing an unnamable and ever-growing energy—but we covered it with one of my old scarves and now we sleep like babies.

There are other problems. It rings obnoxiously if it runs too long, which apparently is after about eight minutes or so, but if you turn it off and then back on again, the ringing is replaced only by a low and steady humming. And, of course, there is the issue of its size, which, apart from that mild embarrassment all its own, blocks half of our only window in the living room.

But now I can snuggle with my man on our vintage settee as we watch Jeopardy in the evenings, stuffing our faces with popcorn and calling out all the wrong answers. I can spend my Friday nights falling (even more) in love with Alice Walker on “American Masters.” And I can engage in that long-forgotten, oft-forbidden act that has fans and haters everywhere: channel-surfing.

So a free, 27”, CRT tube television with absolutely no bells or whistles (unless you count the ringing, of course)?

Best. Prize. Ever.