Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Book That Taught Me Not to Judge A Book By Its Cover

During my time as a book reviewer I learned that in order to actually sleep, eat, interact with my family or operate in any vertical way I did in fact have to judge books by their covers. It was brutal. It was unfair. But it was survival. Otherwise, I was sure I would be eaten alive. There was simply not enough time in the day to pay attention to anything that didn’t already appeal to me, look like me, or scream at me loudly enough.

And so, one glance at the distraught overdressed heroine thrusting her cheek away from what was either a plantation fire or a bloody sunset confirmed what I already suspected. I would never read Gone With the Wind. I was torn between dismissing this high strung Southern belle and overly-relating to her. Another melodramatic soap opera, I moaned, but the opportunity to interview the man who wrote its sequel arose and duty called, so I picked up my 959 page copy of the book. And found it impossible to put back down. I read it while I was working. I read it when I should have been sleeping. And it’s the only book I’ve read while driving, balanced precariously from cover to cover across my steering wheel.

Within the span of a week I was a fanatical convert. I inhaled “Rhett Butler’s People” and interviewed its gruff sheepherding author, Donald McCaig, moving on to read biographies about Margaret Mitchell as long as her own lifetime opus. They were all fascinating.

And so, when right around this time, I met former environmental lawyer and journalist Ellen Brown at a swanky literary conference party and she asked if I thought a book about the writing and subsequent success of Gone With the Wind was a salient project I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. But why would this perfectly put together, completely adorable, well-spoken lawyer with unwrinkled clothes value my opinion? We chatted for a while, but then I wandered over to pick at the Hors D'ouvers, trying to control my urge to stuff some rare roast beef into my purse. Later, I learned that Ellen went home and started writing her book that night.

And published it, to great acclaim, two years later. Joining forces with all things GWTW collector and enthusiast, John Wiley, "Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey" came out this February and has made it big not only in dozens of bookstores around the country, but also in USA Today, the CBS Early Show and NPR.

In January, I interviewed Ellen for an article about her own writing process. Our conversation was to me, as fascinating as any of the books they were about. The archeological literary discoveries, the wild coincidences, the hard work of writing around the clock and the labors of love that went into the research and writing of Ellen’s book led me through a house of mirrors I never wanted to leave.

But even better, Ellen was kind, generous and humble. She told me ghost stories and hair stories, asking me continuously about myself and my own projects. She offered me suggestions, encouragement and advice that scratched all the right itches. It thrilled me to no end to see that she had quoted a line from my interview with McCaig in her book. I had made it into an index! This in itself was exciting, but recognizing that this smart, tough-cookie and I had more to talk about than we could squeeze into the coffee shop was even better.

And, since today is the 75th year anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, I thought I’d take a moment to remember the importance of not only not judging books by their covers, but their authors as well.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Poor Dirty Virginia Girl Makes Good at Local Furniture Store

For our wedding, my husband and I were given a $60 gift certificate to La Diff, the outrageously gorgeous avant-garde furniture store downtown. While the sentiment was beautiful, the reality was bleak. Would we even be able to buy the leg of one chair? We didn’t know, but we decided to find out.

It just so happened La Diff was having their annual 4th of July sale, in which anyone who sang a patriotic song at the register could receive a discount. I am tone-deaf, but have been able to recite the pledge of allegiance in sign language since 4th grade summer camp so we were able to buy one half of a lawn chair set from the discount room in the back for 20% off. But boy, was that one beautiful lawn chair.

Unfortunately, however, while scouring the three floors of warehouse sized rooms, I’d lost my new husband and had even run out to the parking lot to see if his car was still there. To see if he’d left me, even though we’d just gotten married three weeks earlier. Because, you know, the idea that he-- or anyone-- would want to love me forever was unthinkable in my not-so subconscious. I saw myself as a dirty, poor Virginia girl who wore her heart on her ripped up thrift-store sleeve.

In the car on the way home, my husband gave me a super-hero nickname which has stuck ever since. Fatal Leap. To this day we refer to La Diff as more of a mind-set than a place. “Are you getting all La Diff on me?” he asks if I make a mountain out of a molehill. “Don’t leave me like you did at La Diff!” I say when he goes for milk.

You get the picture.

But yesterday, my first time back to La Diff in ten years, was a little different. I’d been asked to give a 13 minute presentation with artist, Susan Singer by a new Richmond City initiative called i.e., (Innovative Excellence) meant to both high lite and jumpstart innovation, creativity and collaboration amongst individuals and businesses in RVA. The big screen, stage and microphones were on the third floor, but this time I didn’t get lost because I was wearing a lanyard and there were lots of nice people showing me where to go and how to get there.

The room was electric with both smart phones and energy. I’m usually skeptical about words like innovation and synergy, but yesterday I encountered them in action.

The room was full of superstars and suits. World-renowned creative geniuses and mega-business masterminds. Cutting edge entrepreneurs and people who know not only how to balance their checkbooks, but the definition of a stock portfolio. Whatever that means.

When it was our turn, Susan opened with her intention to use her art to change the way the world views women, to honor all body types, not just those with physics-defying dimensions, like Barbie, which led nicely into talk about her upcoming show Not Barbie: A Celebration of Real Women and the seven week event/lecture series that will accompany it, Beyond Barbie: Piecing Together Today’s Woman.

As the backdrop for our talk were Susan’s paintings--- two of me as well as her own nude self-portrait. Directly next to our nude paintings sat the Mayor of Richmond, who had a front row view of both Susan and I a la carte. For a second I thought I might die, but once again I did not.

Instead, I talked about how having Susan photograph and paint me naked helped me confront and overcome one of my biggest fears. That it had allowed me to be more naked, more vulnerable, more honest and more real in other ways, like in my writing. That since our collaboration this February I had written about what a disaster my house is, surviving 6 miscarriages and a hysterectomy, the almost-dissolution of my marriage last year. That sharing these things with others had made me feel less alone, less ashamed, less isolated and less weird, like when you’re shopping for a new orange VW bug and suddenly EVERYONE has an orange VW bug. Like that, but instead of with an orange VW bug, with what I had once considered my darkest, deepest most shameful secrets. There were a million more things I could have talked about had our timer not gone off, but they are future thoughts, future posts, future collaborations, future explorations and conversations that I now actually think I can- and will- have in this city. Not that they weren't happening before- but I had failed to see how my voice could have been strong enough to hear.

Afterwards, when not only people who looked like me, but men in suits came up to shake my hand, I discovered what may already be obvious to everyone else—that their hearts beat, too. The big man president of a big successful company had shared a story about accidentally peeing on himself after a really huge big deal event at a really huge big deal place. Was that story naked enough for you? he asked me. Yes, it most certainly was, I said. Suddenly, this poor, dirty Virginia girl felt like she was on the same floor as everyone else.

So, not only did I not die in front Susan last year, I did not die in front of the Mayor and a whole room chock full of CFOs, CEOs, executive directors, ad execs, musicians, artists and my own mother sitting on very fancy chairs, from La Diff, all for sale, yesterday. And next week, you too can buy those chairs for a song. The important thing is recognizing that you deserve to sit in one.

Thank you, i.e.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What’s Your Name?

Valley Jane Cecelia Yane (Yanpolski) Smith Haggard

1- A baby conceived in the Shenandoah Valley in a tent on her mother’s birthday
2- A name signifying every woman. Jane Doe. Plain Jane.
3- Maternal great grandmother.
4- Mother’s maiden name before and after her father changed it during the Red Scare.
5- Father’s mountain people
6- The name her bridesmaids convinced her to take the night before the wedding

Valley of Death
Back Alley Valley
Valley of the Dolls
Valley Dale Sausage/Valley Dale Weiners

The only other Valley—spelled the same way---- that I’ve heard of living in this town was an African girl working at Hooters.

When I was a little white Jewish girl at an all black elementary school in the east end of Richmond there was one teacher who made me feel completely happy and safe and loved--- my SPACE teacher, John Hunter. He wore a green and yellow crotchet knit cap over his big afro and twirled the fuzz of his beard between his fingers while telling us stories about kids hunting rainbows. He staged a naming ceremony for us in the basement of the school that also served as a gymnasium, a cafeteria and was, we all believed, haunted by the ghost of a dead slave girl. The name he gave me was: Laughing Rainbow. John Hunter has gone on to change the world, give TED talks and inspire kids and teachers all over the country. I understand why. The name he gave me is the one I think of as my real underneath the surface of everything true name to this day.

During the first hour of the first day of most of the creative writing camps I teach I ask the children to write the story of their name. Then, I ask them to create an alter ego or super hero for themselves, writing each name on one side of a folded piece of card stock. The name they turn to face out that day is the name you have to call them.

We didn’t settle on my son’s name until we were checking out of the hospital and his birth certificate was due. I had so many names for him in my mind, having to choose one seemed impossible, limiting. Cosmo, Sterling, Elijah, Jackson, Raymond, Henry. In the end we went with the last, the name of the paternal grandfather who had died the year before, the only grandparent our baby would never get to meet. Although you can’t step into a play area or a library or a school without hearing “HENRY!” from any of the four directions (turns out lots of other grandfather’s were named Henry, too) I’m glad our son carries part of his dad’s dad into his life every single day.

What does your name mean to you?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not Such A Funny Bunny, Honey

I’ve always dreaded the inevitable moment when someone asks, “If you could be any animal, what animal would you be?” I don’t know! I am not fierce like a tiger, strong like a horse or sleek like a dolphin. One friend assures me regularly that whatever animal I am, it’s not a carnivore.

Maybe it’s a bunny.

According to my Chinese Zodiac Placemat I was born in the Year of the Rabbit, “the luckiest of all the animal signs.” But that could have been the fried bean curd talking.

According to a Feng-Shui friend’s annual newsletter 2011 is once again the year of the rabbit which should make sense to everyone in Richmond not living on the top floor of a high rise. Rabbits are everywhere. You can’t get your newspaper without being cut off by Peter chasing Cotton Tale. Rabbit ears plunge upwards out of the grass like picketers at a rally. Each sighting makes me incredibly happy. The near Westend of Richmond is not exactly a nature preserve, so I do feel lucky when I see them.

But, yesterday morning, instead of discovering outdoor wildlife Stan and I discovered that we had not in fact recorded over Henry’s birth video as we’d believed for the last 6 ½ years. For the first time, the three of us watched wide-eyed as our baby opened his eyes for the first time, his cries more like the mews of a kitten than the wails of a human being. In the corner of the video I caught site of the blood-soaked sheets into which he’d been delivered by emergency C-section, the umbilical chord wrapped three times around his neck. I cried for the miracle of it. Henry, obsessed with all things babies, asked if he could start nursing again. I said sorry honey, but no way.

This morning we all had the opportunity to cry again. After brushing my teeth I walked into Henry’s room and discovered on the carpet the still-warm body of a tiny baby rabbit.

Stan! I whisper-shouted. Dead baby bunny on the floor in Henry’s room! Stan snuck in with a cardboard box, which he then hid on the kitchen stove by the trashcan. Maybe we should tell Henry, we told each other.

Oh, how I hate the cycle of life.

Zeus brought it to you, because he loves you, Stan told Henry.

So it’s like when I eat shrimp--- I say thank you and I’m sorry. It’s sad and it’s good, said Henry. Yes we said.

Then Stan put the bunny in its box in our dumpster.

Henry and I decided we should give it a proper burial instead. He found Bread-and-Honey-Bunny, his stuffed animal and wet the fur around its eyes. He’s wet because he’s crying, said Henry.

Of course by then, so was I.

Stan took the bunny out of the dumpster and gave Henry and I shovels. The ground in our yard was hard with stone and clay and roots. We stood outside digging for a long time, messily slopping the dirt from inside the grave to the inside of our shoes. When the hole was finally a shovel’s head deep, Henry let the baby roll from inside the box to the inside of the dirt and then he said the first unprompted prayer of his life. Thank you God, and sorry.

I thought that summed it up pretty well.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pleasure Seeker

Ten years ago I married--- not the first man I was engaged to----but the first man I loved as much in my sweat pants as my wedding dress.

Up until this year our anniversaries have been worthy of mixed reviews. One year our cat died. One year our internet got shut off. One year we discussed who we might prefer to date rather than each other.

This year, since we had failed to budget for vacations that occurred outside of a tent, my mother who commented that our “ten year anniversary only happens once a year” used her barter club to book us an overnight at a luxury B&B in Orange County, Virginia.

At first she tried to reserve us the more cost-effective handicapped room but since it was already booked we were forced to stay in the honeymoon suite.

It was a bit of a shock as I am more accustomed to motels with numbers in their names, even though we'd spent the night of our wedding in a grand hotel and were made to feel special by the valet (“You’re my 8th married couple today!”). This little B&B out in the middle of ma & pa country USA was a real palace.

Marble columns abounded--- even in the bathroom. Crystal chandeliers and porcelain angels dripped from the ceilings like rich-people stalactites. Every shade of white was in attendance--- from the feather bed (that was really a leased out cloud) to the vanilla scented lotion to the cream colored leopard patterned throw blanket on the eggshell love-seat. Not a detail of our stay or our room went unnoticed-- or undecorated.

The owners (imagine the Sopranos discovering the top of a hill in rural Virginia) were eager to wait on us hand and foot. They had me with the chocolate dipped strawberries splayed across a doily on a crystal plate hand delivered to our door but it was the salami and cheese platter that won Stan’s undying affection.

We spent every second of our 22 hour stay napping, eating and indulging in the decadence of achieving nothing. No lawns were mowed or children entertained in the making of our anniversary weekend. Even though we went on a leisurely two-hour kayak trip on the Rapidan River, the hardest I really worked was raising my head to get a better view of “The Hangover.”

It did not take me long to relax fully into the lap of luxury, although I did worry for a few moments that I'd never want to get back up. And with good reason.

I have always been a hedonist.

A pleasure seeker.

In fact, I have spent almost every minute of my entire life desperately seeking the secret to unchecked bliss.

Up until my early twenties I sought it through Boones Farm Strawberry Hill, Mad Dog 20-20, Kalhua, Peach Schnapps, Jim Beam, Marlboro Reds, sex and Krispy Kreme donuts.

As I matured, I sought it through prayer, publication, hypnosis, meditation, double shot lattes, credit cards and Krispy Kreme donuts.

Something though, has changed dramatically in the last few months. I have been getting more pleasure—even actual bliss---from the process of writing and connecting with other people through their writing than through any of the outside stimuli I’ve used and abused in the past. The difference is this kind of pleasure doesn’t cause weight gain, hangovers or bad credit. And it doesn’t come with a price tag.

However, for a little while I hoped that someone would continue to serve it to me on a platter. On the drive home through the lush green mountains of Virginia, I started to regret having set foot somewhere so nice. “Next year we should go somewhere really crappy,” I told my husband. “Like an abandoned trailer park or a maximum security prison. That would make coming home seem really amazing.”

Because coming home was hard. The paint was peeling, the beds unmade, the ceiling buckled, the sink full, the food unprepared and unappealing laying wait in the back of the pantry. "What did I ever love about this?" I wondered. Then I remembered. Reservations can’t be made for the kind of pleasure I’m really seeking. What I want most isn’t available to drink, smoke or rent. It can’t be bought, pre-ordered or reserved, but to my relief, it can be found.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Wire Saved My Marriage

While waiting tables in my early twenties I became determined to learn, once and for all, the difference between a date and a one-night stand. Another waitress and I swapped dating advice books wrapped in brown paper bags at the cash register, hoping people would think they were something less humiliating, like drugs.

One of the books suggested that the basic character defects men had fell into two categories, a profound duality that encompassed all of the subtle complexities of life. Type A Men were axe murderers or pimps who refused to tell you their last name and arrived to pick you up with a police escort. Type B Men cleared their throats a tad too loudly when they were, on occasion, ten minutes late to pick you up. It was up to you to decide which kind of man you could live with.

Well, the man I wanted to live with did not have any problems at all. He was perfect. I had only known him for a few weeks and I’d already dreamt about him twice. In the first dream we’d sailed around the world visiting exotic locales on a wooden sailboat and in the second, we’d run a marathon side by side. At the end of the marathon I’d been so exhausted I’d flopped down in the dirt to sleep and he’d put his hand under my head to use as a pillow. This was a man I wanted not only to eat popcorn with, but to marry.

And amazingly, despite the counter-intuitive suggestions I actually took from the dating books, we did go on a date and we did get married, a year later to the day.

But there was a wee bit of territory my reading had not covered. Not only, I discovered, were there more than two types of men, but sharing a life, a house, a mortgage and a child with one of them was a sure-fire way to uncover a Dewey Decimal system worth of categorical flaws of my own. I had vowed to stick with one man for the rest of my life before knowing exactly who I was or what kind of life I wanted to live.

Nine years in, I began to blame him.

And so, last spring when I was ready to move out, my husband was ready to help me pack. We decided to visit a marriage counselor first. It was clear that we still loved each other but that the whole living together thing wasn’t going to work. My husband said it best: “I’d like to date Valley again after our divorce.”

Our counselor was skilled enough to avoid taking sides while making us both feel heard. I’m sure that she offered lots of helpful advice, but one suggestion stood out. She asked us to rent and watch HBO’s “The Wire.” Every night. Together. Even though we weren’t speaking during the day and were sleeping in different rooms at night.

It seemed like such an absurd suggestion that I was willing to try it. And eventually, through five complete seasons of Baltimore cops chasing, arresting and building intimate bonds with Baltimore drug dealers, my husband and I began to inch closer together on our chair and a half. Compared to McNulty’s relationship with his ex-wife, ours didn’t seem so bad. I began to realize that, married or not, I’m still responsible for running my own race. Having the chance to rest my head on my husband’s shoulder at the end of the day is a lot better than demanding he carry me through it.

And now that we are celebrating our ten year wedding anniversary this June, we can’t agree on which series to watch next. But, I would say that’s a Type B kind of problem to have.