Archive for February 2009

Mama at the Movies: Must Read After My Death

My latest column is up now at Literary Mama:

When I first learned I was pregnant, I started a journal on my computer; seven months into the project, my hard drive crashed and the most detailed journal I had ever kept was lost. Since then, I fill Italian paper notebooks that I buy in bulk at a local art store; I keep one next to my bed with a pen marking my place and the journals from earlier years are piled on a low shelf of my bedside table. If I ever had to flee the house, I would scoop the journals up on my way to get the kids.

I do this for myself, to keep hold of my sons’ fleeting childhoods and to make sense of my life. I reread the journals frequently. I am a researcher searching for patterns, seeking context or comfort in the midst of challenging periods, and I am a writer looking for anecdotes for my public writing. But I wonder sometimes, what will become of this private record when I’m gone? Will my children preserve it? Do I want them to read it? Will their children be interested in their grandmother’s life?

The documentary film Must Read After My Death (Morgan Dews, 2009) has me thinking about these questions of legacy and privacy more pointedly than usual. Filmmaker Morgan Dews composed the film entirely of the 300 pages of transcripts, fifty hours of audio diaries and Dictaphone letters, and 201 silent home movies he discovered after his grandmother Allis’s death; the boxes were all carefully labeled in thick black marker with her initials and a message: “Must Read After My Death.” The film makes a searing portrait of a typical American family, one that slips gradually, mysteriously, from happy to tragic while they all unwittingly document the change.

Click on over to Literary Mama to read the rest…

Flying Solo

I was so looking forward to two long flights alone last week when I flew to Chicago for the AWP conference. I carried a good book, Revolutionary Road, which I’d read enough of to know I was hooked (I didn’t want to board the plane with a 500 page novel only to find it didn’t capture my attention). I had a manuscript on my laptop (my dad’s newest project) and I had the latest New Yorker and NYT magazine in case my attention span waned.

I claimed my spot – window seat on the wing—and sat ready with my story (“First flight in 7 years without kids; back off!”) in case a talkative passenger settled in next to me, but I was in luck. A young couple sat down. The man immediately put on his headphones and closed his eyes. His partner put on headphones, too, and got out two magazines, Maxim and Esquire. She laid them on her tray table and moved back and forth between them, not so much reading as studying, like a photo editor would. Periodically, she carefully folded them up and put them neatly away and took out her make-up case. She powdered her nose and chin, then took out a tube of black liquid eye liner and reapplied it, bottom and top. She didn’t look any different to me after these attentions, and her traveling companion never opened his eyes. After the make-up refresher, she’d get the magazines out again and study them until some internal clock signalled that it was time for more make up. So it went until Chicago.

My return flight was so delayed, I wound up flying stand by on a flight to a different local airport. I was 10th on the list of 12 stand-by passengers, and when I finally boarded, it looked like I had two choices: between two men so big that I couldn’t at first see the middle seat between them, and between a pair of grandparents already struggling with a tiny baby. I considered. I remembered this was my childless flight. I squeezed between the two men. They didn’t much care; they carried on their conversation as if I weren’t there. At one point, one of the men got out his computer, a dvd, and a pair of headphones. “Let’s watch that Dead concert!” he said to his friend. And so they did, the volume loud, the headphones ineffectual, the friends singing along happily together, me with my book smushed between them.

I thought of the time toddler Ben and I whiled away an hour of a plane flight taking the plastic lid off a cup and putting it back on. I thought of the time baby Eli and I spent 45 easy minutes on a plane tearing a piece of paper into tiny pieces, and counting each piece before putting it into the airsick bag. I thought of the time I sat on the floor of a plane, facing the two boys on their seats, and read them book after book after book. I thought of hours spent nursing them both, my arms aching, my legs falling asleep, through take-offs and landings and all the long hours of flight in between. And I returned to reading my book, and tuned out the Grateful Dead, and I missed them.

Ten Quick Notes from AWP

The conference so far:

One blood orange margarita at Frontera Grill

Two meals with great writers and fans of Mama, PhD: Elline Lipkin and Elizabeth Coffman

Three sighing, meaningless invocations of the word “craft” (in one panel!), as in
Question: What makes this writing stand out?
Answer: Well [long pause], I’d say, really, well, it’s just … the craft.

Four (out of five) speakers on the Fictionalizing the Family panel who don’t have children, and so advised “Write as if everyone you know is dead.” Kill your darlings, indeed! I can’t write like that.

Five speakers on the fabulous Writing as Parents panel — Kate Hopper, Jill Christman, Shari MacDonald Strong, Sonya Huber and Jennifer Niesslein — who spoke much more relevantly to me. I loved all their presentations, and am thinking this morning particularly about Sonya Huber’s anecdote expressing the whiplash of talking with small children. Her son asked her one day, “How many days until the day we die?” When she responded, “We don’t know,” he asked, quite reasonably, “Why don’t we ask the one who made all our parts?” And then, as she was still struggling with her answer to that, he tossed her a softball, “How do you spell Chewbacca?”

Six more meals until I head home.

Seven readers at tonight’s Literary Mama reading at Women and Children First bookstore; if you’re in Chicago, please come!

Eight panels today that sound interesting to me, so many that I may not make it to any.

Nine times I laughed out loud during Art Spiegelman’s brilliant, funny, keynote talk, a swift survey of comic strips and his place in them.

Ten minutes in the bookfair before I was weighed down with free chocolates, pens, and subscription forms.

Countdown to AWP

Ten months of planning (thankfully quite intermittent)

Nine Literary Mama editors and Mama, PhD contributors I’m looking forward to meeting, talking to, sharing meals with, and getting to know much better

Eight panels I could attend each day, if I have the energy

Seven lunches and dinners without children

Six-plus years of mothering with only a couple nights away

Five writers on the Literary Mama panel: A Model of Grassroots Literary Community Building.

Four nights away, for the first time ever

Three guys I’m going to miss

Two flights alone

One big milestone

Mama at the Movies: Fly Away Home

Eli is standing by the side of my bed in his pjs, clutching his patch blanket, Little Blue Bear, Moosie, and his small pottery train engine. He is angling for some Saturday morning television. “Let’s watch the goose movie again, Mama!”

“Yeah!” adds Ben, walking down the hall, “Let’s watch the goose movie!”

“Do you want to watch any of the story,” I ask groggily, “or just the geese and planes?”

“Geese and planes!” they chorus happily, “Geese and planes!”

Click on over to Literary Mama to read the rest!