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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

E. B. White, What a Writer

Because a friend on Goodreads raved so passionately about Melissa Sweet's Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White that I could not wait to get my hands on a copy, and because said copy was not immediately available at the local branch of the blessed New York Public Library, I found myself drawn to a languishing edition of One Man's Meat. It is ridiculous to review a seventy-five-year-old book, but that hasn't stopped me:

One Man's Meat by E. B. White

This house, this house now held in Sunday's fearful grip, is a hundred and twenty years old. I am wondering what Sabbaths it has known. Here where I sit, grandfather H. used to sit, they tell me—always right here. He would be surprised were he here this morning to note that the seams in the floor have opened wide from the dry heat of the furnace, revealing the accumulation of a century of dust and crumbs and trouble and giving quite a good view of the cellar. (46)


For the last six days, I have been inhaling my mother's 1944 edition of E. B. White's volume of heavenly essays, written between 1938 and 1943 when White was both farming in Maine and doing his duty as a watchman to support the War effort.

My edition lacks a dust cover but has an inscription dated 10/27/45 from a long-dead friend to my now-dead mother, Edna, on the occasion of her twenty-fourth birthday. This browning tome has been on my shelf for decades. And when I finally took it down and began to read, I almost drowned in the accrued feelings: This book, this book is seventy-five years old. And I am wondering about all the hands that held it—from the printer's to warehouse workers' to bookstore clerks' to my mother's dear friend Tommy, to young, optimistic Edna, a budding writer, who—once we were both finally grown up enough to be friends—often mentioned E. B. White and kept this book through marriage, popped fantasy bubbles, and numerous dwellings. We never talked much about books, and although I remember her expressing reverence for White's writing, in my arrogance, ignorance, and youth, I never thought to explore his work beyond Stuart Little, which was enough to make him my hero for life. (I didn't see the need to read Charlotte's Web until a few years ago when it beckoned from my top shelf and ended up being a driving force in my own novel, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg—so it was research. I blush at my oblivion.) Edna died in 1990 at age sixty-eight, the age I will turn in two days, and I want her back so we can talk: "I get it! I get it!" I cry. "If only I had known more when you were alive so we could share our love for Andy White."  Read More 

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Benefits of Becoming — Much More than a Memoir

A page and a half into the preface of this book, I found my heart pounding, as if syncing up with an all-consuming life force. It consumed me, made me tear up, and I had to stop reading to type the previous sentence.

Every writer has an energy. Some write from a shallow pool, and I really don't care about those books. Others, not that many, write from an ocean — a place much bigger than their everyday self — and it's called Love. Becoming has an almost palpable pulse as strong as the ocean tide.

There is something for everyone through this pulse:

    • If you are an inveterate skeptic, or an order devotee, or someone who has been torn apart by seemingly opposite obligations and doubts about being good enough, Michelle Obama speaks for you.

 

    • If you're black or brown, you'll probably nod a lot with recognition.

 

    • If you're white, same thing, even as you relate to unfairness you've never faced; Obama's openness, vulnerability, and warmth make her experience feel as if it is your own — no small trick.

 

    • If you have ever felt in over your head, with more responsibility than you can handle, yet simultaneously in awe of the situation, your experience will both resonate with and be dwarfed by this story.


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Favorite Books Read in 2018

links in text lead to my Goodreads reviews

I want to read and I want to write "stories that have to be written." Everybody will have their own definition of that, but mine is stories that scratch an itch I might not have known was there, and once scratched, I feel relief; stories that express something in a particular writer's essential voice (a voice that doesn't belong to or mimic anyone else) and move the culture or change a perspective; or stories that make me laugh really hard.

This year was low on comedy, but high on scratching itches. And if I couldn't stop talking about a book, or if I didn't talk about it at all because it was too personal, or if it left me with flashbacks that are between me and myself, it's on this short list of 2018 favorites.

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (Steve Almond) got below the surface of our politics, biases, and affinities and told the truth about how we created the swirling mess we're negotiating.

Circe (Madeline Miller) uses mythology in a way that feels current and more truthful than truth to tell a strong woman's journey—the journey of a woman who could be any of us.

Cove (Cynan Jones), in a mere 92 pages, makes you feel how badly we really want to live and survive. After reading a library copy, I had such a craving to be able to pick it up whenever I wanted that I bought a copy and read it again. It gets better every time.  Read More 

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Bob Woodward's Fear: a review

About a quarter of the way through this comprehensive history of everything leading up to the election of Trump and all the current events, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs who is the president's top economic advisor, attempts to explain our economy to Trump. He brings him copious research and data and finally makes it as simple as possible by asking: which would you choose—to go into a mine and get black lung or to make the same salary doing something else? He is attempting to intrude into Trump's belief that our trade agreements are disgraceful because we're losing manufacturing jobs—despite the data that more than 80 percent of our jobs are not in manufacturing and that a trade deficit is not a bad thing since it allows people to spend more money on what they're spending it on anyway—services. Nothing seems to penetrate.
Several times Cohn just asked the president, "Why do you have these views?"

"I just do," Trump replied. "I've had these views for 30 years."  Read More 
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The Overstory by Richard Powers

What keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness and our place on this planet in the context of all that is—and responding rationally? And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not? These are the questions at the heart of Richard Powers's powerful new novel The Overstory as he attempts to tell us "something [we] need to hear."

 

This is a book for right now—a time when we face the possibility of the extinction of democracy and the extinction of human life as the planet screams and we ignore it, placing our addiction to consumerism above the right to life of trees and subsequently all living things (including us) who are connected to the lives of trees.

 

In The Overstory, Powers gives trees, our closest plant relative with whom we share most of our DNA, a voice, a voice that is praying for us to change our ways and let Life live.

 

Maybe we'll listen; maybe we won't. But for me there is one small consolation: if we don't listen, if we kill ourselves and our environment, life will not end. In the wonderful PBS documentary, Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl, we get a glimpse into such a future, where twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, scientists have found life flourishing—"a sort of post-atomic Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons, and ruled by wolves."

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What Would Mister Rogers Do?



The new documentary about Mister (Fred) Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, could not be more timely. Some of the seasoned professionals at the Directors Guild screening last night wept—with longing. Mister Rogers's message was simple: Be Kind. A Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers never "preached." He just loved. He looked deeply into the eyes of children and said, "I like you just the way you are." He embodied the Golden Rule. He knew that at the core of every person is a small child who wants to be loved and valued as they are. He knew that human beings start in this world filled with a desire to be good.

It is no coincidence that director Morgan Neville received unprecedented support to get this movie into theaters as soon as was humanly possible. The message from everybody who helped—financially and otherwise—was "We need this movie!" And in fact the film ends on questions about what Fred Rogers would do right now, in our current political and cultural tumult. "I think he would try to make it bend," says his widow Joanne. I interpreted that to mean that rather than rail at the reprehensible behavior of President Trump et al., he would look this man deeply in the eyes and try to address the hiding child full of goodness inside. Read More 
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A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

James Comey is a very good writer, storyteller, and teacher, so on a literary level (except for one odd plot order choice—the highly dramatic John Ashcroft hospital showdown between Comey and Bush representatives—which I suspect has to do with the need to insert a ton of detailed background information), this book works.

Comey is a man who is in love with the law and justice and has a loathing of bullies. He is a student and practitioner of ethical leadership—which is really the topic of this book. He is a deeply reflective person. Yes, he tries to make himself look good by talking about his noble motives, but, unless he practiced introspection, he could not relay his introspective self-interrogations about his motives and whether something is ego-driven or directed for the higher good. If he were not compelled to know what's honest, he would not have told the story of the time he was the very thing he loathes—a horrible bully. I relate to this introspective inquiry because I do it myself—constantly, relentlessly—and I'm amazed so many other people don't. But I shouldn't be surprised. As Comey writes, "It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future. (137)" One can only know this pain by experiencing it, so I believe he is committed to this. Also like me, Comey has had a lifelong struggle with his tendency to think he's right—overconfidence—and he has had to learn to check his opinions with others, let in belief-disputing information, and monitor his tendency to be impulsive and arrogant. He freely admits all this, and he sees and admires Obama's enlightened ability to believe in himself yet remain humble enough to learn from others "which doesn't often exist alongside overconfidence. (155)"

I like this guy. I really, really like him. We are made from a lot of the same stuff.  Read More 
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White Houses by Amy Bloom: Truth-telling through Fiction

Whitewashing, denial, gaslighting, saying black is white, Mad Hatter's Tea Party, 1984 doublespeak—all descriptors of our present condition with a President of the United States who seems to decide what's true with the casualness of a four-year-old playing an "invent-as-you-go" game. But although current events seem extreme, they are not without precedents. After all, we have long denied the facts of America's founding (see What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted blog), and we comfort ourselves with all sorts of blatantly untrue Bad Stories (per author Steve Almond).

In her new novel White Houses, Amy Bloom has lovingly exploded the lies of historians about Eleanor Roosevelt and renowned journalist Lorena Hickok, and oh, how exciting it was last night to sit in an audience at The Roosevelt House (where Roosevelt and Hickok first met) and listen to a discussion between Bloom and Blanche Wiesen Cook, historian and author of the Eleanor Roosevelt biography that inspired Bloom's novel. Read More 

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Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond Offers Clarity

This book is staggeringly good. I was familiar with Steve Almond from his short stories, but this is straight journalism at its best (which he teaches at Harvard). (It is clear from Almond's thought processes and messages to students, presented in this volume, that he is a great teacher and seasoned journalist.)

In reviewing, there is a tendency to break down books about politics into bullet-point messages, and I hesitate to do that because it would misrepresent Bad Stories as something much smaller than it is.

So what is it?

Because of Almond's conversational writing style, it is easily readable and offers up documented mind-blowing insights like hors d'oeuvres. Hence, Bad Stories is a huge, readable 237-page revelation of profound insights gleaned from connecting dots that we-the-people largely prefer not to see.  Read More 
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Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

The reason more than 80 percent of New York City dwellers voted against Donald Trump was because we knew him—his history of pathological lying, his grandiose credit-taking for things he had nothing to do with, his cheating almost everybody who worked for him, his serial misogyny and complete lack of scruples. Mayor Mike Bloomberg said it straight at the Democratic National Convention: "I'm a New Yorker and I know a con when I see one." For people who liked Trump, his charm had to do with the fact that he was an unapologetic con artist who laughed at his own antics (for an example of the old Trump charm and humor at his own expense, listen to the Howard Stern interview about how he reacted to someone else's trauma). The mistake New Yorkers made was thinking that of course everybody could see the act.

I certainly saw it, but I was also so clobbered by the Recession that I saw the rage, desperation, and racism that was throbbing in our culture, and I was terrified that, with his P.T. Barnum instincts, Trump would trump his own plan (to lose) by having the con succeed. Wolff delineates the shock of the turnaround, obliterating the game plan to "win by losing" and become the most famous person in the world, making more money.

All of it is chronicled in Wolff's free-wheeling book, and really there is nothing new about Trump here. But it is somewhat pleasurable to read confirmation of what we knew and saw, reported by somebody who was a self-described "fly on the wall" of the West Wing and has actual tapes of Trump machine insiders speaking the truth.  Read More 
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What's After #MeToo? Send in the Clowns! Read Paul Beatty's The Sellout

Timing is important. There is a time for rage and a time for laughter, and right now rage reigns—as it should. After centuries of suppression, critical mass has been reached, the #MeToo movement has exploded, and male bodies are flying. Time magazine has put it on its cover. It's about time!

Like any other human woman, I have a litany of stories of men abusing their power. I admire the women who have spoken up. I quickly learned that would not work for me: Although I'm a clown, I couldn't laugh. As a child, I wasn't believed; as an adult, there was nobody to speak up to because the abuser was the boss. My M.O. was to cut and run, resulting in what might be politely referred to as an "attachment disorder" and "an eclectic" work résumé.

But I do believe there is another way, and eventually the clowns will have their microphones.

I recently read a "holy cow"-popping, rib-crackingly funny book that gave me a clue about how that might be.

In Paul Beatty's Man Booker-prize-winning, esoteric-reference-riddled novel The Sellout, an outsider black man "leans in" (thank you, Cheryl S.) to prejudices, actually reestablishing segregated schools and slave trade in his small California town of Dickens.  Read More 
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What Happened by Hillary Clinton

What really happened? What always happens: Politics, like life, is not fair. Nobody tells the whole truth. Everybody thinks they're right and excoriates everybody who doesn't agree with them. And the best we can do with this mess is try to listen to everybody with an open mind, make the best choices we can—knowing that none of them are perfect, and when we are in peril, choose whatever compromise most assures life.

I voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries, and his book, Our Revolution, was the first I read about the election.

The second related book I read more recently, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, and it was like an infusion of sanity.

What Happened by Hillary Clinton feels like the third in a medicinal trilogy. It is healing to read a funny (the specifics of the phone and email stuff are laugh-out-loud funny!), articulate, sane person admit her flaws, take responsibility for most of them, introspectively process what happened, learn, and consider new policies and future actions in a more open way because of it. Read More 
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The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump by 27 Shrinks

I've been waiting for this book—the words of highly trained mental health professionals who are brave enough to risk backlash from their own associations by putting the safety of all people ahead of their rules to say nothing about individuals they have not treated. In a meticulously written foreword, one of the authors makes the case that "duty to warn" people whose well-being is in danger trumps the "Goldwater Rule" about silence. (There is an entire section of chapters on the ethics of speaking out—far too much to reduce into a review byte.) We are all in danger from this individual we have installed in the highest office in the land, and I consider the 27 authors of this step-by-step analysis of Trump's severe psychological impairments to be whistle blowers.

But what are the political affiliations of the contributors and are they biased? This is immediately addressed: it doesn't matter. The content is pedagogy not politics: the nature of psychological disorders. They are described in all their variations; they are all recognizable as played out by this president—the proofs are provided; and their dire results are delineated, well researched, and broad. And the final chapter regarding recommended immediate action to assess presidential fitness now and in the future—grounded in Section Four of the Twenty-fifth Amendment issues of "a written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office"—are required to be nonpartisan in nature.


Personality Disorders

Extreme Present Hedonism—impulsiveness of thought and therefore action with no awareness of consequences; propensity to dehumanize others in order to feel superior.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder—superiority, exaggeration of talents, emotional, dramatic, lacking compassion and empathy (inability to recognize other people's feelings), low self-esteem.

Bully Personality—physical, verbal, prejudicial, relational, cyber, sexual.

Possibility of a neurological disorder—based on delineated observations.
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Team of Rivals—What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted

This is a wonderful nuanced book that resonates mightily with and informs what is going on today. Read it if you want to understand any kind of historical basis for what is now happening in the U.S. Read it if you love the minutia of history—every conversation ever recorded during the Lincoln period, every permutation and convolution of the Civil War, the complex emotional motivations behind the factions (a lot of people fought more for preservation of the union than out of any conviction about slavery)—or if you feel as if you need to learn U.S. history. This book has garnered enormous public attention as well as an award-winning movie based on it, so I am not going to write more commentary on what is in it. Instead, here are some opinions about the very important content that is missing.

At more than 900 pages, the book was so heavy, I broke down and bought a wretched Kindle version so that I could read without straining my tendons. But still, it was too short. Why? Read More 
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What's Not Dear about Dear Evan Hansen

After I saw actor Ben Platt perform on the Tony Awards, I couldn't buy my ticket to Dear Evan Hansen fast enough. (I should preface all this by saying that I worked in the theater as an actor and playwright for more than a decade, so my awe was informed by knowing how almost impossible some of what he did was.) What I saw in Platt was a combination of musical genius, vocal and acting depth, technique—equal parts spontaneity and control—that delivered a once-in-a-lifetime performance that might end up on my list of spiritual high points in the theater—which has only one other member, Peter Brook's 1970 Broadway production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"I want to be guaranteed to see Ben Platt," I told the box office clerk.

"His contract runs out in November," he answered.

"Okay, what's the first ticket where you can guarantee he's in the show?"

Three hundred dollars later, I walked home stunned. But it was once in a lifetime. Read More 

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