Tag Archives: Books

On Frazier and Baldessari and Stories of New York

Before leaving New York I caught an exhibit at the Met that, I’m afraid, closed today: a collection of works by the seminal Los Angeles artist John Baldessari. I love his work because it’s conceptual while also being playful—clever and thought-provoking but not at all pretentious.

One of the ideas he plays with is the complex, and sometimes arbitrary way we make meaning. He puts together found, seemingly unconnected images and inserts barriers between them. One piece juxtaposes a stylized photo of a woman with a nosebleed, and a picture of pelicans. Another takes four plain black and white photos with captions and arranges them in every possible permutation.

Adjacent to one of the photos is this quote, from the artist : “As soon as you put together two things you have a story.”

I loved that. And it seemed a perfect coda to end my time in New York.

Allow me, in my usual circuitous fashion, to explain.

For the most part, my experience with the city on this trip tended toward the negative.

First there was the whole stolen wallet thing. Then the twenty minutes it took me to walk two blocks of midtown logjam following my nausea-tinged bus ride. There was the response from one well-meaning employee to my alarm at paying $6.75 for a child-sized popcorn (“It’s freshly popped.”) And that of the horribly sour moviegoer who I asked whether anyone occupied the adjacent seat holding his coat (turning, in slow-motion, to look at me as though I’d interrupted his private meditation with a high-volume shriek).

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Blogger’s Block/Back to bell hooks

“Did you really not blog yesterday?” my grandmother–one of my subscribers, bless her soul–asked me on the phone this morning. “You’re just really, really swamped with student papers, right?”

“Um,” I replied. “Actually I finished grading over the weekend. I guess I’ve been busy…”

Folks, I wasn’t sure what to tell her–or how to explain, to anyone, my two-day absence from writing. That I was able to write so regularly for so long suddenly seems as shocking to me as I know it did to some of you.

Honestly, I’m not much more occupied with school than I was before. But I do find myself, lord help us, without much to say.

I’d like to blame this predicament on external forces: on a suddenly heightened awareness of my self-exposure and its inherent risks, courtesy of my parents’ visit, or the fact that I am unable, for various, excellent reasons, to write openly about my Present Interest (new nickname: don’t look for it much).

But alas, I guess it was unrealistic to suppose that inspiration would always come so readily. Which leaves me with two choices: one, I could accept my shortage of material, focus on other things, and hope it comes back. Or, I could force it.

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Men, Women and George Eliot

Even more enjoyable than re-reading Beloved, I have discovered, is re-reading Middlemarch. (And no, I am not actually that virtuous–again, it’s for class.)

With Beloved, there’s really no way to do any sort of skimming; you’re either paying attention and getting something out of it or you’re not. With Middlemarch, though, it’s not too difficult to breeze through the parts about taxes and local politics while savoring those about marriage and relationships.

Which I am clearly, and quite happily, doing. I know a lot of people hate this book. It’s written in a bizarre and antiquated omniscient voice, is not far from a thousand pages long and has more characters than most books have chapters. I understand. But I don’t agree.

Because the thing about that weird all-knowing voice–as well as the reason I love this book and the reason I do think it might be one of the best novels ever written–is exactly how brilliant that voice is. Nearly every page is littered with insights into the human experience so piercingly accurate that one can’t help but consider the possibility that George Eliot actually did know everything that every person has ever thought–not just in the fictitious country village of Middlemarch but in the entire history of the planet.

Pardon my enthusiasm. But this is what I found myself thinking as I lay in bed reading last night and came upon passage after passage that resonates with how I think about the world. Especially, of course, how I think about love.

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Survey Says, and Word of the Day

First, I feel obliged to report–since most of you apparently prefer cryptic Facebook messages to public commentary–that the answer to the question I posed in my last post is seemingly unanimous: there is, in fact, no one to date here in Albuquerque.

I will respond to these discouraging results only be informing you that this afternoon I had a brief and vaguely flirtatious interaction with an attractive male who may or may not be underage and may or may not be a drug dealer. (Don’t worry, he’s not my student). I tell you this as fair warning: if no one can muster some suggestion that doesn’t involve moving to a different city, things could get ugly.

Also by way of response, I should probably confess that rather than going out with friends after workshop tonight, I opted instead to come home, eat popcorn, blog, and watch ice dancing. (Has anyone, by the way, ever seen an Olympic sport so overtly racist? Or involving so many siblings and people from Michigan? Just curious.)

Anyhow. No Golden Rules today, but a new–and, to me, revolutionary–word: cathexis. Brought to you, of course, by bell hooks.

Well, actually, bell hooks via some other guy, less popular in liberal arts college curricula, named M. Scott Peck. He wrote a popular self-help book called “The Road Less Travelled” that I gather may be familiar to those of you who grew up pre-Saved by the Bell. To “cathect” with someone is to “invest with mental and emotional energy.” And it is what, Peck and hooks say, we frequently mistake for love.

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Getting There: Thinking About Reading About Love

So, the lack of response to my desperate plea for someone to find me a date leads me to believe that one, or all, of the following three things is true:

a) Really, you all secretly want me to stay single for your own amusement.

b) There is, actually, no one to date in Albuquerque.

c) I need more local readers.

Discuss.

In the meantime, I did get one helpful email from an old friend. This friend, who I have known since I was about five, has exhibited an unparalleled enthusiasm for setting me up; unfortunately, she lives in New York. Once, during the brief period I was living there and single, she did try and introduce me to someone: by the end of the night he was drunkenly making out with a different friend of hers, who he went home with and soon later screwed over.

As usual, I digress. This friend did, however, demonstrate her cross-continental helpfulness by sending me a couple of names of books about relationships that she’s lately read. And so, readers,  I spent the weekend–again–reading about love rather than doing anything to find it. (Actually, I did make one trip to Whole Foods in faint hope of spotting the cute guy I saw there last week; needless to say I left with only a three-dollar cabbage).

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Breaking Up, or Settling

So, everyone I know is breaking up.

Literally. As in, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that at least half of my closest girlfriends have, in the last couple of months, either left a relationship or begun to contemplate leaving one. (I should say, half my heterosexual girlfriends: as we’ve discussed, the lesbians are pondering babies, not separation.)

I have put off writing about this trend because, really, I have no insight to explain why this is happening–other than it is now the Chinese Year of the Tiger, which sounds vaguely appropriate. But then, most of these breakups were already underway. Go figure.

There is a striking pattern, though, among these splits, that has got me thinking. It’s that with all the short-term dissolutions, all the early-on flaking out and commitment-panicking, it’s the guys who are running away. No shock there. But with all the longer-term couples, the ones who’ve lived together or stayed together or even been married, the women are the ones breaking things off. Continue reading

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“Eat Pray Love” vs. 18-Year Old Men

I swear, this will be my last post featuring Elizabeth Gilbert for at least a week.

But, having written about my experience reading “Eat Pray Love,” and having been counseled by several of you–you clandestine”Eat Pray Love” non-readers and dislikers, you–not to finish it, I feel obliged to report that I did indeed make it to the end. (In case you’ve missed it there is a small “Eat Pray Love” hate-fest going on in the comments section, and I must say that I find it perfectly and hilariously awesome that my blog, of all places, should become a forum for such views.)

In my reading, I encountered two main obstacles. Neither is related to her narcissism. I mean, I know hypocrisy is inevitable, but a girl can try.

My first problem, in fact, has absolutely nothing to do with the author. It’s that, when she talked about Felipe–the Brazilian lover who she finally takes in Bali and who drives her to marriage however-many-millions later–I kept picturing this faculty member in my department who is middle-aged, vaguely Brazilian-looking, and definitely gay. I don’t know why I did this, but without a true image I couldn’t stop and it made the whole scenario quite difficult to believe. It also kept making me think about this woman at the reading I went to who raised her hand merely to thank Gilbert for posting a picture of Felipe on her website, and I felt bad for thinking she was crazy and wished that airplanes had internet.

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On Reading “Eat Pray Love”

(Note to Readers: Is anyone besides me starting to think that rather than calling this blog “Dating In the Odyssey Years” I should perhaps have called it “Not Dating in the Odyssey Years, But Thinking About Someday Dating While Reading Bestselling Books by Elizabeth Gilbert”? Just wondering.)

There are a multitude of lame explanations for why I’ve gone this long without reading “Eat Pray Love.” They include: laziness, bitterness, and the persistent anxiety that there are other More Important Books that I am more ashamed of not having read.

But perhaps the most significant reason—as well as the most lame—has been my stubborn resistance to doing exactly what I did this morning: that is, being That Girl on the Plane Reading “Eat Pray Love.”

(I must tell you that my resistance was not helped by the fact that my friend and colleague D, who insisted—heroically—on getting up at a ridiculous hour to drive me to the airport, casually and sincerely mentioned in the car that he likes to read Dickens on airplanes; as I told him, this made me feel bad about myself not just because of my chosen travel book, but because I like to read Dickens exactly nowhere.)

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Between Elizabeth Gilbert and Chastity: Torched Rose Petals!

Elizabeth Gilbert, I still love you. But the more I read, the more “Committed” feels frustratingly like an extended exercise in self-rationalization: of having a second marriage (would you believe some seagulls marry twice–and the second time they’re sooo happy!), of not having children (did you know Leo Tolstoy and the Bronte sisters were both raised by childless Aunties??), of Felipe, husband number two, and his liberated feminism (once she overheard him say woman’s place is in the kitchen: with a glass of wine and her feet up!).

But some sections, I must admit, still strike a chord. In particular, her inquiry into the question of why so many single women are desperate to get married despite an apparently overwhelming amount of data demonstrating that marriage benefits men far more than women, in every conceivable way. Gilbert surveyed her still-single friends to ask why, and got some predictable answers–many featuring the word “chosen.” And she offers an anecdote about her friend Christine: a woman so burdened by her longing to marry that on her 40th birthday she took a small wooden boat of rose petals and rice to set aflame in the Pacific–symbolically allowing herself to “marry her own life.”

I’m not sure anything has ever made so depressed. “I have got to to go burn some rice petals,” I thought as I read this, horrified, thinking of my writing teacher’s persistent advice (echoed, I should add, by Gilbert when I heard her speak) to “marry my writing” and the similar wisdom of my dear friend J, who last week told me that I must accept the possibility of being eternally single.

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Between Elizabeth Gilbert and Chastity

Reader, I have a problem. (OK, the first problem is that I just finished Jane Eyre, and it’s going to be difficult for me to restrain myself from gratuitous, compulsive use of that horrible addressing the “reader” device, but really I should just replace it with “Peter” because as of this writing he is the only person who knows of this blog. I’ll get better, I promise.)

Anyway, the other night I heard Elizabeth Gilbert read from her new book, “Committed.” Peter, I fell in love with her. The woman is charming and funny and well-spoken on the subjects of relationships, writing and being a romantic disaster in one’s 20s–truly, the only three things I care to think about in life. As a consequence, I am devouring that new book. The problem is that it’s a book about marriage, and, after a string of romantic disappointments so close together I am beginning to contemplate my Hebrew School delinquency, marriage is the last thing I ought to be thinking about.

Additionally, I want to blog about my dating life, but I also think that perhaps the best thing I can do right now is hide under some soundproof adobe and take a vow of chastity until my 30th birthday.

Gilbert isn’t helping. I’m only halfway through the book, and frankly should have put it down on Thursday to focus on the several hundred pages I’m actually required to read (on subjects woefully less self-reflective). So far I don’t think it’s great. Janet Maslin was kinda right . At times it does read like an elaborately concocted, shoddily researched and highly self-indulgent vehicle for justifying the failure of her first marriage and the existence of her second.

But I’m sorry, Gilbert’s voice is hopelessly endearing and frequently her insights are spot-on. So spot-on, it kind of hurts. Such as her rant on infuation: what she calls the “most perilous aspect of human desire.” She cites research that humans are most vulnerable to infatuation during periods of instability: “The more unsettled and unbalanced we feel, the more quickly and recklessly we are likely (sic) fall in love.”

Which brings me back to the chastity vow. Having just moved across the country to begin a three-year masters program toward a degree (creative writing) that will situate me no closer to stability than a beat-up frisbee, the point in time when I won’t feel unsettled feels far beyond sight. So: I should probably stay celibate.

But: celibacy does not make a very entertaining blog. Stay tuned. I haven’t finished the book.

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