Last weekend at a dinner party, I watched a guy bury his dreams. I stood awkwardly, hands in my pockets, while he threw clods of dirt around, willy-nilly.
My daughter, Julia, and husband, Ricky, love to recount the time mommy dragged them around the lake path on a 10-degree day. (Of course, it was really 20 degrees — but with every telling of the story, it has gotten colder and colder.)
Julia, then 4, stumbled around the lake in a puffy pink ski suit, looking like the Gerber baby with her Renoir-rosy cheeks. It took the promise of a rather large doughnut to get her to complete the one-hour walk. My husband — usually a hearty soul — was whimpering most of the way.
Such is the spell cast on me by Rockland Lake State Park, a 1,079-acre rural retreat two miles from the end of my driveway.
Almost daily, I head to what feels like the middle of nowhere. The freshwater lake is nearly visible along most of the 3.2-mile trail. Encircled by mountains, a walker feels hemmed inside an isolated ecosystem where rabbits, deer, squirrels, swans, geese, ducks and even egrets and herons are constantly visible.
It’s by dumb luck that the lake is in my “back yard” — or, really, is my back yard. When I moved from Manhattan five years ago, I could tell the county was filled with beautiful spots, but I had never thought to ask the real estate broker, “Is there, perchance, a gorgeous lakeside trail where I can walk, two minutes from home?”
Too many suburbanites take their constitutionals in cul-de-sacs, on high-school football fields and at the (gasp!) mall. The lake is my sanctuary. Images from its shore are burnished in my mind. Like the cross-country skiers scissoring across on an icy day. And the heron lifting off the shallow bank, its skinny legs dangling. And the doe nursing its fawn six feet from where I stood.
Rockland Lake was the center of ice-making in the mid-1800s. The Knickerbocker Ice Co. harvested ice and hauled it over Hook Mountain along the Palisades to steamboats and ice barges waiting on the Hudson River. Ice was shipped down to New York City and beyond. By 1926, the advent of refrigeration killed the ice industry. But every winter, artists carve enormous ice sculptures for a festival.
Most days, nothing happens on the lake. On weekdays, faithful walkers, cyclists and joggers do laps. We nod at one another. I’ve given them some names: The demon-fast 80-year-old skater is Speed Racer; the woman with the meringue of white hair coiled atop her head is Her Majesty. Someone out there has probably named me The Woman Lost in Thought, because when I’m alone out there I’m suspended in space and time.
When I’m joined by a friend, the lake walk has a wonderful way of drawing out childhood stories. I’ve learned more about a person on this trail in an hour then I ever could over months elsewhere. The calm waters lull you into a state of remembering. My days at sleepaway camp upstate in the Catskills are conjured by the sweet scent of summer grass and the thick clumps of water lilies at the banks’ edges.
The lake is peaceful — except at that moment when you’re ambling along and an enormous maple falls right across your path on a perfectly clear, still day. No warning. No groaning sound. A reminder to take nothing for granted.
My 8-year-old has been given a first-class education at the lake. She perfected riding her scooter. She’s learned to cycle and row a boat. She possesses a natural-world vocabulary I did not have until my 30s. She can spot a cormorant sunbathing on a rock. She knows baby swans are called cygnets. She finds it intriguing that a flock of crows is called a murder.
Of all the things I do with Julia, walking around the lake with her is my favorite. I love that she knows the contour of the lake as well as I do. I know she will scale up and down the giant boulder near the trail’s end or pick up acorns and shove them in her pocket.
One day this summer, she and I walked around the lake when the temperature reached 100 degrees. I know we’ll recall that hellish-hot day a year from now. One of us will say, “It was 110 degrees that day.” And the other will say, “Oh no, it was hotter than that.”
Read more about Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” an e-book now on Amazon.com. E-mail: [email protected]
The way to Hidden Beach is down, down, down. Drive out on the highway, through the endless Upper Peninsula woods full of birch and pine. There are no signs. Past Sugar Loaf Mountain, past the rocky outcrops that crowd the highway. Pull off of the highway at just the right spot, where you can finally see all the way to Lake Superior from the road. Colin will tell you when. Remove the old blanket from the trunk, the raw hamburger, the Doritos. Others take out their tents, which you don’t have. You walk a bit through those beautiful woods, the long, thin pines rising far overhead until you see it, far below. I can’t get down there, this is insane, you think. But, stop that, you can get down. You might scrape an elbow or smack your head on an uprooted tree leaning almost in line with the horizon. In fact, you will cut yourself on the way down, repelling in the mud and grass and grabbing at loose branches that fall away as you reach for them. That’s nothing, bruises and scrapes fade. Others will take the hard way to the beach, climbing down the sheer rock wall. Take your time. Admire Anna’s poise and the ease with which she moves toward the beach. Make sure each step is firmly rooted in the ground. You will shake and pull at trees and roots before you hang from them or use them to swing around to a more manageable route to the sand below. Lake Superior will guide you, will call to you, and unlike Odysseus, follow her siren song despite the danger in it. Rocks will tumble away beneath your feet, you will slip in the mud and slide down the steep decline. You will attempt to throw the blanket to the beach, it being too awkward to carry on your shoulders, and it will float and snag on an out-of-reach tree. You will curse the tree, the blanket, but be calm. Take your time. You will look back toward the car, to the highway. Smell the lake, the fresh water scent rare in Nebraska. Inhale. Look to where the land levels out, to the sand. Look at the tide as it rolls. You will make it to the beach and there will be blood. You’ll make it. Just head toward the lake.
From August 16 – 20, Erika Rae, Megan DiLullo, and Slade Ham joined me in Tulsa, Oklahoma to film a documentary about the evolving state of literature and the arts. We also spent a lot of time goofing around like children.
In this short clip, we try to recall TNB authors from memory and struggle to pronounce their names properly. We hope you won’t be too offended if we missed yours. We were very tired. Plus, I was driving, so you can’t blame me.
I wonder if going to the woods, Thoreau-style, is still possible? It is sadly troubling that my first response to this not-so-rhetorical question is: Ted Kaczynski. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” So begins the so-called Unabomber Manifesto, or, as Kaczynski titled it, Industrial Society and its Future. The influence upon Kaczynski by the Transcendentalist from Walden is well documented. Kaczynski even modeled his Montana cabin after Thoreau’s. But of course one of the men was a paranoid schizophrenic.
It never changes. Every time I even think of-let alone read or watch-the penultimate scene of Macbeth, I don’t just sit up, I stand up. I’ll stand right up in a theater-I have no problem with the violation of decorum in public places.
I know Macbeth is guilty of heinous crimes. I know, as he does, that he deserves his fate. I know he is the most despicable of men, a faithful general and friend-a true hero turned traitor, murderer…psychopath. I know he has sold his soul and become a greedy, power hungry madman. And yet…
I rise to my feet in respect, whether at home alone in my office, or in a theater in one of the world’s great cities. When Macduff reveals his prophetic magical protection of being “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb,” Macbeth at first acknowledges his cowardice. And then the old soldier in him, the noble though fallen inner man shines through, and he says for all time: I WILL NOT YIELD.
Though the line, “Lay on, Macduff” has become caricatured in many contexts, no one can ever minimize or demean the power of Macbeth’s assertion, “Yet I will try the last.”
With blood on his hands, doomed to die, he still draws his sword and calls upon the courage that made him the leader and warrior that has been his life. I get out of my seat and want to plunge into the page and the scene-because I want to help him. Despite his crimes, I want him to somehow triumph.
Hamlet, near the end, says, “We defy augury,” and goes on to fence to his appointed death. But my sympathy isn’t so much with him. I appreciate his predicament, but he seems a dithery sop to me-death is an easy way out. He’s a prince and fencing is something he learned indoors.
Macbeth wants to live. A Captain of Men, he’s seen the blood of combat and survived. He is in fact a professional murderer. Confronted by the same dark magic that had earlier protected him, he draws his sword one final time. I think I’m not alone in hoping against hope that somehow he will prevail.
The moment is a great triumph for Shakespeare. The fact that he could produce such remarkable comedy alongside this bewitched darkness is beyond saying. But to create a villain of Macbeth’s complexity-in this, his shortest tragedy-leaves me standing.
Richard III, Iago, Edmund-are all great villains that any actor of substance would kill for to play. (Richard Burton said, “Any actor given the chance to play Richard III who doesn’t take it, should be immediately executed.”)
But there is an undefeated humanity to Macbeth, and I long to join him…to bring Macduff’s head back on stage and not his.
I count this one of the finest, truest moments in fictionalized Western Civilization. There is Christ on the Cross, anguishing in vinegar and blood-but he had his Father’s many mansions to look forward to, and knew all along he was the sacrificial Lamb. Socrates? He knew the payment for the gadfly is hemlock. Odysseus? He would’ve run away. Macbeth draws his sword and says for all of us, YET I WILL TRY THE LAST.
The only moment to compare is early in Paradise Lost, when Satan sits brooding amongst his monsters and the exiled gods, and speaks with disturbing calm about “What reinforcement we may gain from hope…if not, what resolution from despair.”
Think about that…when the fallen angel of the morning star-a lieutenant to Eternity-speaks to monsters of “resolution from despair.” The vanquished ministers of vengeance and pursuit…under house arrest in Pandemonium, debating rebellion by either covert guile or open war against the tyranny of Heaven.
This is a moment in artistic civilization…not Mr. Darcy.
But oh, for Jane Austen, relative to her disciples today. Give me Jesus long before Paul. Holy shit.
I’m now very tired of warm fuzzy characters. I’m tired of the endless yeast infection of what is really chic lit, masquerading as serious fiction. I’m tired of the miserly boredom of figures as real and thin as toilet paper that get flapped in the published breeze just because someone is well connected and lives in Brooklyn.
And I’m sick to nausea of fantasy hijacks of darkness, where witches and black magic are the stuff geeky boys and a politically correct girl have to deal with-like fodder from a bad Disney movie.
Macbeth, the warlord, met witches. Shakespeare always brought out all the tricks. But still, there is that final moment, when he draws his sword-and transcends gender, race and class in the doing. I WILL NOT YIELD. Though prophecy and fate be against me, he says…bring it on.
Makes me want to climb on stage.
In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’s “Everyday Drinking,” Christopher Hitchens (may he live to down another thousand martinis) notes that while alcohol itself does a good job of making life less boring, alcohol enthusiasts are always at risk of becoming bores on the subject of their enthusiasm. The tequila enthusiast, for example, may unwittingly one day find that he is a man with twelve unique hand-blown glass bottles of craft-brewed tequila on his mantle, each with a thirty-minute story behind it that he is eager to share, and every one of those stories deadly—because the alcohol bore (of course) fails to note that his enthusiasms aren’t necessarily the stuff of deep interest to others. That’s what makes them enthusiasms.
We stood outside The Copa watching drag queens pull suitcases tied with feather boas, smeared with lipstick and glitter into the infamous nightclub. The air was thick and still. Instead of moving around, it pushed in and down on us, like gravity.
The barometric pressure drops lower than low before a hurricane.
My boyfriend, Jimmy, and I took a final breath before dragging our own things, two suitcases, sleeping bags, our cockatiel, Sonny, in his cage along with the tension of our precarious relationship through the doors of the Italian restaurant where we would be riding out Hurricane Georges – a category three hurricane headed directly for our island home of Key West.
Fourteen people, four dogs, two cats and our bird gathered in the restaurant to wait out the storm. While most of the residents and all of the tourists had evacuated the island, we’d opted to stay, and in little groups of threes and fours we listened at the back door and peeked through the cracks in the plywood covering the windows, waiting with a combined excitement, dread, for the forces of nature to remind us of our particular human- ness, to demand that we relinquish ourselves, powerless before the face of God as it surged forth from the heavens.
Dining tables were transformed into activity centers. Someone had set out puzzles on one, and another had a couple of guitars, and a harmonica. Another was covered with paper, scissors and paints. That’s where Maggie sat. The beautiful girl from Queens that Jimmy was falling in love with. It was obvious how much he was into her, preferred her company to mine. He told me he liked the way she said “Moms.”
“There’s a whole group of people here that get up in the morning and go kayaking and biking and aren’t hung over everyday.” He had said to me when he first met her.
I responded by looking at him like he was crazy talking.
While some sat around putting the puzzles together and strumming the guitars, others filled the bar stools sipping wine, rolling joints and giggling through hazy, gray smoke rings.
I was one of them.
The part of me that could deny my own rampant infidelity and nurture monster-sized jealousy of Maggie could fill the room, hang off the edge of the island, spill onto the reef and impale itself on the jagged edge of a wrecked ship.
I drank to that.
Jimmy said I should come home before dawn once in awhile.
I said, Don’t cramp my style.
By the time the storm hit, it was demoted to a category one. But it was still strong enough to bend palm trees in half, send rooftops flying like carpets down the center of Duval street and blow thousands of terrified little birds with bright orange and electric blue wings all the way from Cuba. One would land shivering underneath the Bougainvillea bushes outside the back door.
I tried to save it, cupping it in my palms and nestling it into a box with water and some of Sonny’s birdseed. I tried to save it by sheer-willing it to live. It was lying all cold and stiff the next morning, its tiny legs curled like telephone wire on its chest.
The parallel was completely lost on me.
We were fortunate to be connected to a small generator and propane tank and we heartily took to the task of emptying the walk-in refrigerator before the food spoiled and wasted.
By candlelight, the chefs prepared buffets of cheese and berries for breakfast, antipasto for lunch and for dinner we pushed tables together, set them with linens, silver and crystal stemware for family-style Italian dinners; heaping trays of medium-rare filet mignon, baskets of crispy carta de musica, toasty brushettas, pomodoro pasta and spicy arugula salads dripping with truffle oil.
Afterwards we sipped creamy cappuccinos till nothing was left but the sweetest, foamiest bits to mix into our tiny glasses of grappa. Like jet fuel, we joked. Drinking grappa made our eyes become glassy little slits, caused our laughter to break out in gusts.
As I worked my way to the back door to smoke my mind burned with the image of Jimmy, at dinner, leaning in to Maggie’s every word, unabashedly held rapt by her perfect bone structure and bright, salty eyes.
It was obvious.
I held onto the door jam for support, my legs, full to the thighs with Barolo and Aquavit, and lit the wrong end of my cigarette while the wind blew the whole entire sea right up onto the island with a howl, a force, a screaming gale that shook the walls, ripped holes in the rooftop, sent briny rivers down the sidewalks.
Cayo Hueso shook and rattled its long dead bones.
I’d like to scream that loud, I thought. I’d like to blow the whole world down.
I imagined Jim and Maggie would be caught in my outburst and be thrown out into the atmosphere until they were just tiny specks that eventually disappeared. Like debris.
During the ethereal eye of the hurricane that passed directly over us we cautiously opened the doors and took intrepid walks through an atmosphere, heavy and silent as a wool cloak, a vacuum. We said Hey to the drag queens peeking their stubbled chins out of the Copa before we all had to hide away again from a wind that blew in from the opposite direction, bending the palm trees over to the other side. Their fronds would be left vertical and askew, like wild, punk rock hair.
The giant banyan in the front yard of Shel Silverstein’s house on Williams Street fell over during this backhanded wind. Rumor said it was the tree that inspired The Giving Tree, a beautiful book about a tree that loves, unconditionally, a selfish little boy.
Its enormous root ball lay wet on the sidewalk, exposed and vulnerable, its trunk, cracked and broken.
I would read in the Miami Herald about the death of Shel Silverstein seven months later, an event that lay to rest a powerful piece of my childhood. He was downed, like his tree, by a massive heart attack at the age of sixty-eight.
We became goldfish in a bowl, swimming circles around the dining room during the second half of the storm. The novelty worn, everyone wanting a shower, some privacy. Round and round we passed, wearing expressions that said, “You again?” The smell of wet leaves, algae and unearthing seeped in through the leaking ceiling, dripped with a plipplipplip into plastic bus tubs on the floor.
Georges raged on by his own set of rules.
The great storm ended, as all things do, even trees, and birds and poets. Even love. It eventually dissipated, melted into driving, then drizzling rain, and moved up into mainland Florida late on a Sunday night. The next morning, as the sun peeked through the cloud cover, the DJ’s on the crackling transistor radio that had kept us connected to the world that week chose Jimmy Buffet’s Come Monday as the first song since the evacuations began.
Someone, maybe even Beautiful Maggie From Queens, turned up the volume.
Come Monday, it’ll be all right.
Come Monday, I’ll be holding you tight.
To this day, that song transports me.
And, of course, we were all right. We had survived the storm and would come, over the years to survive many other things.
But it was she, not me, that he was holding tight.
As I was buying a copy of Moneyball at an airport bookstore in Dallas a few years back, the cashier asked, “Are you Jonathan Franzen?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m a better writer than he is.”
Okay, I didn’t really say that. But I sure felt that way. I’d just read his infuriating best-seller The Corrections, so my indignation can be excused.
Fast-forward almost a full decade to last month, when my airport doppelganger became the first writer to appear on the cover of TIME magazine since…I don’t know, Mark Twain or something. There he is, gazing Obamalike (if not Olearlike) into the wild blue yonder, above the enviable headline great american novelist.
I felt the same rush of vexation that came over me that day in Dallas. Here is a guy who looks like me and who does what I do and who lives where I once lived, and he has again managed to not only make the mainstream media take notice of him—that TIME cover is in the freakin’ iPad commercial!—but shower him with near-universal acclaim.
Do people genuinely admire his work, I wonder, or is the coronation of Franzen merely the result of lit-crit groupthink? Does no one else see what I see? Is no one else put off by this?
Even its champions concede that The Corrections is an uneven novel. Its opening is notoriously dull (apologists excuse this “post-modern” introduction, preposterously, on the grounds that it is a “challenge” to readers). Its central plot device is something from a forgotten sit-com’s Thanksgiving episode (or a John Hughes movie). And the prose reads like a high school English assignment in which a list of fifty-cent words must be strung together to make a story.
(Ironically, the same problems Franzen exposes in the William Gaddis opus The Recognitions, the supposed inspiration for The Corrections, he replicates in his own book).
All of which is neither here nor there. As Orwell said, every novel is a failure. And there is plenty to like about The Corrections, if you can ignore those fundamental problems.
My beef with Franzen—and it’s unforgivable—is that he condescends to his audience. If you’re going to name your fictional Midwestern city St. Jude—and you really shouldn’t, because the symbolism is so glaringly obvious—you cannot, you cannot, have a Danish tourist on a cruise ship ask, late in the book, “Isn’t St. Jude the patron saint of lost causes?”
It’s an insult to our intelligence, a violation of the one inviolable writer’s commandment, namely, Thou Shalt Respect Thine Readers. It’s the literary equivalent of Pete Rose gambling on his own team, and warrants a lifetime ban, a metaphorical death by stoning—not a prominent magazine cover.
If Jonathan Franzen is the king of American letters, as TIME suggests, the emperor is naked.