Hank, Your Brother Made Me Cry

We braved the middle school girls yesterday and saw The Fault In Our Stars, which if you don’t know is an adaptation of the novel by John Green, who if you don’t know is the brother of my friend Hank, who if you don’t know is awesome.

The movie was awesome too (as are the novel and John and probably the middle school girls when you get to know them). There was love and there was cancer and death and Big Questions and a blind kid egging a fancy car. Hollywood didn’t take all the smart out of it. I cried and the middle school girls laughed inappropriately so they wouldn’t cry and then cried anyways.

The strangest thing was that Gus, the boyfriend in the movie, had John and Hank’s mannerisms. He had the eyebrow lift, the hand thing, the quick delivery of the witty line. Either he watched a million of their videos or they mimic the mannerisms of today’s awesome eighteen-year-olds. Either way, it’s weird to see a movie star doing someone you know’s mannerisms. Even if that person also happens to be a teen heartthrob of the internet age.

Anyways, go see the movie. Read the book. Buy stock in Kleenex. Be good to the people you love before the inevitable oblivion.


Alaskan Retirement Continues

Like any retired people worth their salt, we play games. I have relearned cribbage, which I used to play with my mom, back in my youth. I’ll tell you something — cribbage is why we learn arithmetic. I must say my knowledge of numbers that add up to fifteen was embarrassingly rusty.

We also play hearts. Hearts is an excellent metaphor for life. For most people, the way to win at hearts is to be very quiet and play very safe and not take the lead too much. However, if you do that to a fault, you lose really badly. Also, playing hearts that way is pretty boring, whereas trying to shoot the moon whenever it’s remotely possible is challenging and exciting. It is also unpredictable and doesn’t necessarily help you on the score pad. What I am trying to say, is I’m someone who would prefer to shoot the moon, in life and in hearts, even if I don’t make it very often. I say better play an interesting, challenging game than win a boring one. See how wise retirement makes you? I recommend it to all of you.

And I recommend the book Living High, by June Burn, as an inspiration. She was a free-spirited lady in the early 20th century who did things like homestead in the San Juan Islands and walk across a few states with her toddler in a handcart. She and her husband had the plan that they would retire first and have a career later, and her descriptions of her consequent adventures are adventures themselves.


Anna Louise Strong: Kick-Ass Woman of History

I want to introduce you to a fascinating woman : Anna Louise Strong.  She was a journalist and witness to much of the revolutionary history of the 20th century. I just read her autobiographical account of the Seattle general strike (novel research!) and Soviet Russia in the 1920’s, called I Change Worlds. I’ve had this book out from the library since January, late fees be damned. It is an eyewitness view into history that I knew way too little about, written by someone who is inside it all enough to be enthusiastic about revolution and communism and uncynically critical of capitalism — no 21st century apathy here — and yet analytical and articulate enough to voice the complexities of what she sees unfolding. More than that, it is a view into an independent, articulate woman’s mind, as she explores class issues, the logistics of post-revolution Russia, the mechanisms of social change, and her own progressive American childhood.

This lady can sum things up.

But today I would like to give you a long quote of hers, which is her description of the origins of American psychology and our attempts to evade class dynamics. She nails it like she was in the heads of my ancestors.

Neither their fortune nor their brains had made them masters and they disdained to be slaves. They chose the wilderness to conquer, finding it easier than man. They left the complex problem of human society to the men who served oppressors and the men who were oppressed. They chose the simpler task: to conquer the earth and hold it. Thus they held each new bit of earth for a generation, till human society arose with its struggles around them and drove them into the wilderness again….

From this life came their virtues and their weaknesses. They were proud of physical strength, of daring optimism, of resourceful invention, of quick adaptability to new conditions. They rejoiced in the power to survive in isolation which they called “independence,” and in agility to flee and change, which they called “freedom.” They were “practical men” with little use for “theory”; for they shrank from analyzing those social and economic forces by which other men from a distance controlled them, cast them into the wilderness and entangled them again. Having neither the shrewdness which serves oppressors, nor the guile that lawlessly outwits them, nor the solidarity that in the end destroys them, they lived by faith – and evasion. As they gave up old lands to tyrants, they dreamed always of new lands without slaves or masters. From the German tribes that overran imperial rotting Rome for the stronger, more imperial papacy, to the settlers who won the west for Jill Hill’s railroads, they were daring and free and equal – and easily deceived. For they substituted energy for thinking, and optimism for analysis. Cast forth by great struggles of classes, they refused to believe in classes, but had faith that somewhere “beyond the ranges” men might be free and equal still. But they never clearly analyzed how this might happen.

Thus came into being Americans – of all men strongest in subduing nature, most inventive in the use of machinery, most determined to optimism, most naïve and credulous in social relations…. 

I know this way of being. I was raised in it. That was what was behind my childhood full of Laura Ingalls Wilder, my teenage wilderness survival daydreams, my endless college conversations about utopias and collective farms. That’s why I like to live near Canada, which in my head is basically a big wilderness. That’s why I am an entrepreneur.

She comes back to that idea towards the end of the book, when she is visiting with Diego Rivera. (That’s the other thing — she got to hobnob with about a zillion notables, from Trotsky and Stalin to names we think of as corporations, like Morgan.)  He saw the wrongs of capitalism and the beauty of the future world of workers as I had seen it Seattle but he did not see a path. He admired peasants who withdrew into smaller and smaller lands yet maintained through art their independence of soul. Was that anything more than the old retreat if the independents before the triumphant march of the octopus? Was not his art a solace like that of religion, expressing dreams for which he saw no road of realization? 

Reading that leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling of looking at hard truths. It feels so much easier to see the far away mountains than to know how to get to them, both as a society and in my own life.

No answers here, not tonight, but let’s keep mulling. And walking. Being both passionately engaged and articulately analytical. And learning from kick-ass people of history.

A House is a House for Me

Not only is my mom awesome roller derby company, but she knows her children’s lit quotes. (So does Barb — my mom was just quicker on the draw.) “Once you get started in thinking, you think and you think and you think” is a quote from A House is a House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman.  My mom better recognize it — she only read this book to me nine million times between 1982 and 1985.

I still love this book, and I still read it whenever I can find a kid who will sit down and listen. This is why: in rollicking rhythm with beautiful, detailed drawings, it goes through how everything “is either a house or it lives in a house.” Pickles in their barrels, hands in their gloves, worms in their peaches, duchesses in their castles, bedbugs in the duchesses’ beds: I could think about this all day. All that belonging! That chaos and order! All those cool things in the world! Find a kid and read this book to them, ok?

And mom, what would you like a post about?

I Guess I’m Happier than Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore is one of my favorite nature writers.  For a long time this was hinging completely on the one essay I had read by her: “Refrigerator Fungus.”  The essay was just that good.  Then I stumbled on an entire book she wrote and decided to bring it to Paris, just in case I needed a dose of Pacific Northwest nature in the City of Lights and Pavement.  I started reading it today, down at the Paris Plages.

I should tell you about the Paris Plages.  Maybe you have been to Paris, and you know that the walkway along the Seine usually looks like this:

Well, right now, it looks like this.  That’s right, they’ve carted in a bunch of nice, fine sand,  beach umbrellas, striped beach cushions, a pirate ship playground, a bunch of ice cream-and-beer stands, toilets, and some palm trees.  And the place is packed.  Music, naked children, picnickers, dogs, sunbathers — it has everything you could want in a beach except for swimming.  Some people I know think it is cheesy and artificial, but you know what? Civilization is artificial.  I mean, everything about Paris was made, so why not make something awesome like a beach?

Anyways, so there I am on the beach in the middle of Paris, reading Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, while scoping out the scene through my rockstar shades.  And the book is awesome, even if it does feel like writing that must be called nature writing, meaning it feels like it’s part of one long circular conversation around an isolated campfire by a group of people who all know what each other are going to say, which is basically this: lots of sharp, particular description of the natural world, some deep human ruminations, and too many sloppy, vaguely Mary Oliveresque phrases.  Like “The Solace of Nature,” for example.  And don’t get me wrong, I love Mary Oliver and nature and ruminations on humanity, but I studied this shit for a long, long time, and like the Delmore Brothers, sometimes it seems to be on repeat.

But back to the book: sometime after the one where she imagines what it would be like if we could understand air through our brains like snakes can (hint: it would be awesome), she has this lovely essay about a year when she wrote down every time she was really, really happy, and put the slips of paper in a basket to examine later for life-data.  Which is a really cool idea, and the slips she shares in the essay are beautiful.  I want to try it.  But the thing is, I think I might be happier than Kathleen Dean Moore.

This is what I have so far today:

When the old woman with the word search sat on my bench in the park with the fountain of roses and talked to me, and kept talking to me even though I’m pretty sure it was clear I didn’t understand too much of what she was saying, and I wrote so much and the sprinkler made the air smell like water.

When I got a great email from someone I like, (Hi Nate), and every time I reread the email today.

When I thought about reading something I wrote at this lit thing in Paris.

When I felt the pure exultation of pedaling a bike through Paris.  (This was, I should say, mixed with big chunks of terror.)

When I was people watching on the Plages, and being a rockstar in my sunglasses.

When I was window shopping in all the schmancy boutiques and French underwear stores in the stone streets as the sun was going down and everyone seemed to be out being happy.

When I was caramelizing onions and rolling out pastry dough with a wine bottle for a quiche (still baking) and new, free music was playing by the Dust Busters, who are a really cool little old-time group, and the light in the apartment was golden.

No offense, KDM, but that’s like a month of happy in your essay. And I haven’t even eaten my quiche. Maybe I’m not being as selective. Maybe today’s results are skewed by sunshine and emails and Paris itself. Maybe the happiness two people feel is incomparable.  I guess what I’m saying is that I would need a big Happy Basket.  I bet, too, if we did Sad Baskets I’d need a big one of those, as well.  I cried, for instance, reading things on your happy slips….

Thank God for rockstar shades.

More Important Than Justin Bieber

Let me tell you about my friend Hank.  He is lanky and geeky and as smart as he looks and he dances a whole lot better than you’d guess, given his lankiness and his geekiness and his whiteness.  In fact, he and his wife Katherine are just about the best dance-party dancers I know, even in full wedding regalia, and they can take down the house at karaoke, as they did one memorable night in the VFW bar in Missoula.  That bar is a story in itself.  But back to Hank: he’s the kind of friend who is easy to hang out with, even if months pass between interactions.

Also, he is a YouTube star.  Or perhaps, phenomenon? Here is an example:

Last week, I went to see him and his brother, John Green, the Best-Selling Young Adult Author, perform for 800 teenagers in a bookstore in the suburbs of Seattle.  Ostensibly, it was a book reading for John’s new book, but it is the only book reading I have ever been to that involved any of the following: 800 teenagers, a sock-puppet, Hank appearing in drag as John’s wife, confetti, or songs about the mating habits of angler fish.  This is because of the previously mentioned YouTube stardom, and how most authors whose book readings I attend are not teen idols.  I should maybe mention I tend to attend poetry readings.

In any case, Hank and John are teen idols, and this was their second to last stop on a sixteen city tour, with a specially painted John Green Tour van and the whole shebang, including autograph-induced carpal-tunnel.   I got there a couple of hours before the show so I could actually talk to Hank and Katherine, but already a line of teens stretched from the door around the edge of the strip-mall.  They seemed so happy, messing around with their phones and talking to each other.  Someone was playing the ukelale.  Inside, an acned boy wearing a hat with tentacles on it (which turned out to be a head crab hat, whatever that signifies) was wandering around the bookstore with a video camera, talking to himself.  I went backstage and drank bottled water with Katherine while Hank and John pre-signed about a trillion books.

After a while, I ventured out to the bookstore bakery, the sister bakery to one I used to work at, to see if I was still sick of their devil’s food cupcakes.  Two teenage girls were in line before me, and just when they got to the cash register, a scream went up from outside. “Have the menfolks arrived?” asked one of the girls, and the other ran out to check.  The first girl dug frantically for her camera.  “I know I have my camera on me somewhere!” she said, apologetically, as if the barista was in fact waiting for the camera to be produced, rather than the girl’s wallet. “Oooo, it’s Justin Beiber!” said one of the baristas, as the shrieking continued. “He’s way more important than Justin Beiber,” said the girl ahead of me.

I happen to agree with her that what Hank and John are doing is significantly cooler than what Mr. Beiber does, however perhaps you and I can share the irony in it all that she missed.  Looking around that room at those 800 over-documenting, pedestal-erecting, happy, nerdy teens, WHO WERE ALL BEING NICE TO EACH OTHER was pretty cool.  They have built some strange community based on their love of Hank and John’s videos, songs, and books, and the videos other people make in dialogue, and probably some other things I don’t really understand because I live in a parallel universe where Hank is not someone you swoon-scream over.  They have inside jokes and the whole deal.  It is its own subculture, one based on being nerdy and tech-savvy and young and wishing Harry Potter books were innumerable, and it seems, on being generally nice to each other.

“I like your hat!” yelled a girl in the row ahead of me, after we had all sat down.  She had short hair and hip glasses and plenty of confidence. “Thanks!” said the boy with the tentacles on his head.  “It’s a head crab!” “Cool!” she said, and it was, because they decided it was.  Then Hank sang a song about particle physics, and the kids danced so hard the floor shook, and old lady me started planning which way I would run when the whole place caved in.

Then, I watched Hank and John sign a lot of weird stuff for happy teenagers, and talking to Katherine while she hoped no teenager would swoon-scream at her, which they have the distressing habit of doing even though she doesn’t even want to be famous.  (Reminder, everyone: people are just people, even if you’ve heard of them on the internet and now they are standing in front of you.  Be cool.  Say hello instead of squealing.  Even Justin Bieber would probably appreciate it.)

Then I left, though there were hours worth of teenagers waiting for Hank and John to sign their bacon wallets, Head Crab hats, ukeleles, and of course, their books.  I drove home with a strange feeling of limitlessness that comes from watching people’s dreams take on their own life, and also a lot of nerdy social-anthropology thoughts.  The most interesting being this: it’s pretty cool that all these smart, different kids have this safe haven of the subculture they and John and Hank created.  Watching them all interact made me happy for their generation.  And yet, something about it is weird, besides that it is Hank on that stage.  And it isn’t the tentacle hat, or the 800 teens at a book reading.  It’s the “menfolks.”  In my mind, that’s a word reserved for family, not someone whose books and videos you like.  Maybe this was just the awkward word choice of a star-dazzled girl, but it seemed indicative of a sense of false intimacy.  I know that people can give each other a lot through words.  Hell, they can save your life, and help you remember who you are here to be.  But that doesn’t make them family.  It doesn’t even necessarily make them your friends.  Especially if you squeal at them.  I just hope that all those kids remember that, and ask more of their friends and families than they do from Hank and John.

My Friends Are Right

This is a book report on why I should listen to my friends.  They have been telling me and telling me I should read the Hunger Games books, and kept telling them, yeah, but I have this big stack of impressive books written by people I know from Sewanee, not to mention this D.H. Lawrence novel and this long line of library research on subjects like the Asian Exclusion Act  and What Corpses Do in Water and Popular Hair Styling Methods of 1927, so I probably just won’t get around to it. Aren’t-there-just-always-too-many-good-books-and-too-little-time?  Yes, it’s true, there are, but that was no excuse for not listening to my friends.

Finally, one dark night when I couldn’t deal with this artsy novel about screwed-up relationships I was attempting, I picked up my brother’s copy of The Hunger Games.  (Side note — he had not actually read it either, because he doesn’t often sit down to read whole books.  Aidan, I know you’re reading this: get the fricking thing on CD already.  You’ll like it.)  I started reading.  And I was gone.

I realize I am probably preaching to the choir, as I may be the only person besides my brother who has not read these hotcakes.  I may also be preaching to the disenchanted ones who didn’t like these books.  Oh well.  I have some things to say.

First, this lady knows how to write a plot.  But beyond that, this is one of the most interesting and resonant explorations of  speaking truth to power I have read in a long time.  And of being human in an inhuman imperial culture.  And of wealth disparity, war, and loving more than one person.  This is a heck of a lot more relevant to my world than, say, abstinence-promoting vampires.  Not to mention it’s written by someone whose sentences I can read without cringing.  It made me squirm even as I could not put it down, as I watched myself be entertained by the violence-as-entertainment — the Hunger Games — that act as both a repressive force and as the nation’s main pastime in the story.  It felt very close to home.

Last, all of you friends — and there are a lot of you — who write post-apocalyptic fiction, use this as your bestseller-inspiration and please write us some more.  And meanwhile, I will take your advice and get around to those Dragon Tattoo books.