Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Teen for God" by Dar Williams

This is one of my favorite Dar Williams songs, from her album "My Better Self." The melody is relentlessly upbeat, bright and cheerful, just like the camp; but it slows down to reveal a longing in some sections not just for "the boy's skin drying in the sun," but for the purity of the original faith, the original God . . . sweetly ironic and wistfully funny. It's a wonderful song, well worth iTunesing or eMusicing.

The sun burns down
Leaving God's bright stamp
On Peach Branch Horse and Bible Camp
Where we're splashing in the water
Joined in song
Swimming with the Spirit the whole day long
I'm a teen for God

God is watching - Teen for God
God is watching - Teen for God

The girls have looks and the girls have rules
They came here from their Bible schools
They can make you pay attention
To the way you dress and eat
Make you trip over your own two feet and they
Kneel down on their towels at night
Their nightgowns glow with a Holy light
And we pray for the sinners
And their drunken car wrecks
And vow that I'll never get high
And have sex
I'm a teen for God

God is watching - Teen for God
God is watching - Teen for God

And God made every leaf on every tree
Each grain of sand
God has a plan
For what we're meant to be
I gotta wait for God

Dear Lord
I plan each day
The things I will not do or say
But I'm driven by a passion
Is it only there to tame?
It fills my heart and it calls my name and
This world that you made for us
I know, I know, is dangerous
So I ride a lot of horses
And I never even swear
Sorta like praying I'm just not there

Oh God - God is watching
Oh God - God is watching

But God made love
God made the rivers run
And cowboy boots and bathing suits
And the boy's skin dries in the sun . . .
You gotta help me, God

Help me know, four years from now
I won't believe in you anyhow
And I'll mope around the campus
And I'll feel betrayed
All those guilty summers I stayed
But then I'll laugh
That I fell for the lure
Of the pain of desire to feel so pure
And I'll bear all the burdens
Of my little daily crimes
Wish I had a God for such cynical times
Far from today

But for now I'm a sacred vessel
Rip me open - I spread your word
Like a milkweed pod
I'm a radio station -
Your Holy transmission
Even more, like a lightning rod
I'm a lightning rod - a Teen for God

God is watching - Teen for God
God is watching . . . a Teen for God

Friday, September 26, 2008

The End of an Era

It's 2:10 a.m. as I write this, with bags and boxes and suitcases and paintings and the other miscellanea of my life piled around me. Tonight is the last night I'll spend in this apartment, 402-404 7th Avenue in Park Slope, where I've lived since I was 22 and almost totally new to New York. My studio is on the top floor, and I can hear the rain roll over the roof as I type, as it's pounded above me many nights and lulled me to sleep, like the sound is another blanket. I've been wonderfully taken care of by this apartment: It's a beautiful space, in a good neighborhood, with many friends, comforts, and conveniences nearby -- which is why I haven't left for eight years, when most of my friends have moved apartments every three or four years at most. But that's also partly why I feel ready to move: There is still a lot of twenty-two-year-old Cheryl here, when thirty-year-old Cheryl is a different person, older, presumably wiser, ready to have a different life, not to mention room decor.

(Thirty-year-old Cheryl is also terrified by the change, needless to say. But breathing deeply, and hoping.)

I don't have anything profound to say here, or a good narrative ending to round this off. It's too late to think, really, and I have to be up early in the morning to finish packing. But here's an invocation to last as long as this blog or the Internet does: I am grateful to God/the Universe/what-have-you for leading me to this place, and I hope the same will continue to bless the people who live here, and me elsewhere.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Very Important To-Do List

I believe firmly in spending your birthday doing all of the things you like best and planting seeds for the coming year. Here, then, is my schedule for today, which I officially have off work:

8:15 a.m.: Get up -- check
8:20 a.m.: Go for run -- check
9 a.m.: Return, shower, eat breakfast, check e-mail -- check
9:52 a.m.: Blog (evidently)
10 a.m.: Line-edit a lovely book (Sara Lewis Holmes's The New Recruit)
Noonish: Prep for rest of day
12:30: Head into Manhattan
1 p.m.: Have lunch with friends from work
2 p.m.: Spend the afternoon at MoMA
5:30 p.m.: Something of unutterable awesomeness, still to be determined
7:30 p.m.: Dinner with James and more dear friends
9:50 p.m.: See a Bollywood movie (maybe) -- Loins of Punjab Presents

Not a bad way to begin my thirtieth year on earth, I hope.

Wishing you all equally productive and pleasurable days!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gaaah!! -- A Musing on Characters and Plot

So I just taped down a box that contained, I was sure, the absolute last unpacked book in my apartment besides the ones I'll be reading in the next week (Seaward, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Lady of Quality). And then I saw The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles lurking sinisterly in a corner of my bookcase! Gaahh!! It is a good book to have lurking around, however. . . . From my very favorite chapter, number thirteen, whose first line made me catch my breath aloud when I first read it (this is not that first line, for the record):

You may think that novelists always have fixed plans to which they work, so that the future predicted by Chapter One is always inexorably the actuality of Chapter Thirteen. But novelists write for countless different reasons: for money, for fame, for reviewers, for parents, for friends, for loved ones; for vanity, for pride, for curiosity, for amusement: as skilled furniture makers enjoy making furniture, as drunkards like drinking, as judges like judging, as Sicilians like emptying a shotgun into an enemy's back. I could fill a book with reasons, and they would all be true, though not true of all. Only one reason is shared by all of us: We wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was. This is why we cannot plan. We know a world is an organism, not a machine. We also know that a genuinely created world must be independent of its creator; a planned world (a world that fully reveals its planning) is a dead world. It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live. When Charles left Sarah on her cliff edge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis. But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the Dairy.

Oh, but you say, come on -- what I really mean is that the idea crossed my mind as I wrote it that it might be more clever to have him stop and drink milk . . . and meet Sarah again. That is certainly one explanation of what happened; but I can only report -- and I am the most reliable witness -- that the idea seemed to me to come clearly from Charles, not myself. It is not only that he has begun to gain an autonomy; I must respect it, and disrespect all my quasi-divine plans for him, if I wish him to be real.

In other words, to be free myself, I must give him, and Tina, and Sarah, even the abominable Mrs. Poulteney, their freedom as well. There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist. And I must conform to that definition. The novelist is still a god, since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modern novel has managed to extirpate its author completely); what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority.
I must say that as an editor who loves structure, planning, intelligent design, the first paragraph makes my heart sink a bit. I have been that person saying, "Oh, come on," to an author who insists, "But that's what he did!", and thinking in response, "Well, can't you make him do something more useful to the plot?"

I have very mixed feelings about this reaction whenever I have it. On the one hand, I know absolutely (and I learn over and over again) that the best books are driven by their characters, not their plots or structure, and you have to give the characters their heads and room to run. On the other, I think the characters have to earn that freedom through their reality and complexity; and if they're not achieving that, in my view as a reader, then the author's protestations sound like excuses for silly digressions or plot developments. And then the work that needs to be done is either A) showing us more of the character to make the supposedly silly developments make sense -- after all, the author has full access to the character's backstory and psychology, so of course the character's behavior seems perfectly natural. But we readers don't have that access, so perhaps the author needs to add a scene or narration revealing more of those for us. Or else B) revising said developments. Or sometimes C) both.

The thing about the example Fowles offers here is that Charles's behavior is not only realistic as that of a complex human being, it is useful to the plot -- it gets him back in contact with Sarah, which furthers his attraction to her, which furthers his internal conflict (he's engaged to someone else), which makes the plot engine go chugga chugga chugga forward. And therefore it wouldn't have raised my hackles as an editor, no matter how nonsensical his (Charles's) decision to go back to the Dairy may be on the surface. Also, this is a deeply existential novel, in case you couldn't tell from the excerpt, where Man (Charles) does not have a Fate but only a series of decisions, which are interrogated and commented upon by the narrator; as existential meaninglessness is part of the point, events don't have to add up the way they do in Victorian novels, as Fowles says here. And those are the kinds of novels I usually like (and edit), I have to say.

Anyway, much to think about there, as there is in all of The French Lieutenant's Woman. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend getting a copy to lurk around your bookshelves too.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Quote File: Bertrand Russell

Whenever A.Word.A.Day offers a Bertrand Russell aphorism as its Quote of the Day, it describes him as "philosopher, mathematician, author, Nobel laureate (1872-1970)". I just read his biography on Wikipedia, and good grief! He was also an earl, an activist, a four-time husband (and even more frequent cheater, apparently), a father, a hippie hero, a professor, and the godson of John Stuart Mill. That is a full life.

Oh, and he said some wise things along the way:

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin—more even than death. ... Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side: one which we preach, but do not practice, and another which we practice, but seldom preach.

Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.

Two different versions of this one appear in my Quote File; I am not sure which is accurate, or if both are.

  • The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
  • The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wonderful Essay about Editing

Brian Doyle has a typically lovely essay up at the Kenyon Review on the art of the rejection letter and the joys of editing a literary magazine. These two excerpts especially resonated with me:

My friend James has a lovely phrase for the joy of actually editing a piece: mechanic’s delight, he calls it, and I know whereof he speaks, for I have sipped of that cup with a deep and inarticulate pleasure. I have been down in the engine room of very fine writers’ minds, my fingers following the snick and slide of their ideas into sentences. I have worked like hercules to clean and repair a flawed piece and bring out the song fenced round by muddle. I have distilled vast wanderings into brief journeys. I have snarled with delight to discover a writer deliberately leaving a fat paragraph for me to cut, a gift he confessed with a grin.

. . . I still, even now, often feel a little sadness when I say no. Not always—I feel nothing but cold professionalism when I reject a submission from someone who clearly hasn’t the slightest idea or interest in the magazine itself, and is just using the magazine as a generic target for his or her work; for example, people who submit fiction, which we have never published—or never published knowingly, let’s say. But far more often the writers have looked at the magazine, and are submitting something we might publish, and did make it with all their hearts, and it just doesn’t make it over the amorphous and inexplicable bar set in my head, and I decline their work with a twinge of regret, for I would so like to say yes, to reward their labor and creativity, the way in which they have opened their hearts and souls, the courage they have shown in bleeding on the page and sending it to a man they do not know, for judgment, for acceptance, for rejection. So very often I find myself admiring grace and effort and craftsmanship, honesty and skill, piercing and penetrating work, even as I turn to my computer to type a rejection note, or reach for one of our own printed rejection slips, to scrawl something encouraging atop my illegible signature. So very many people working so very hard to connect, and here I am, slamming doors day after day.
Mr. Doyle incidentally wrote my favorite piece ever about 9/11, an essay that finds a crack of hope and love in the darkness of the day; you can read it here, but be warned it will make you cry.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Of Palin, Politics, and Plot Twists

(a slightly random thought-dump)

Bob Herbert's column today pretty much sums up everything I think about Sarah Palin: decent woman, nice family, but based on all available evidence, absolutely not ready to be president. (Need more evidence? Check out this open letter from a Wasilla, AK, resident, which has been repeatedly verified; that link includes some minor corrections to the original e-mail.) I understand totally how Governor Palin appeals to working moms across the U.S. -- she reminds me a lot of all the sports and church moms I knew in the Midwest (including my own, in her multitasking and balancing of work and family life). But as many commentators have pointed out, I don't want someone "just like me" to be President of the United States (or in line to it); I want someone smarter than I am, better informed, more articulate, more creative and thoughtful when it comes to policy, better able to understand, consider, and integrate multiple viewpoints, all that. And I have seen no evidence that Sarah Palin is any of those things.

(Plus, as I understand it, George W. Bush got elected because he was "just like us," and based on the evidence of the last eight years, that is the worst reason to pick someone for president EVER.)

And of course what is really awful about this is what it shows us about John McCain's judgement -- that he would pick someone who has apparently never thought deeply about foreign or domestic policy, who doesn't even agree with all of McCain's own policies, to be #2 in line for the most influential job on Earth. "Lose a war to win an election"? McCain seems not to care about the world if he can win the election. Oy.

Apologies at the slight tone of hysteria there. This election is making me crazy, like a really good, suspenseful, character-driven novel that I never want to end because I'm loving the drama (and afraid of the ending), but I also desperately want to finish (with a happy ending) so I can have my life back. It's Life As We Knew It or The Hunger Games or Bleak House or The Subtle Knife -- though thank God it's not any of those really -- but the consequences of the conflict are real, and the chance that the person I regard as the antagonist might triumph is nerve-wracking. The Palin pick was a brilliant plot twist on John McCain's part, I have to say; and now we're all awaiting the four big battles -- the debates* -- before the final climax.

Lastly, I just finished reading All the President's Men, the fascinating definitive account of the Watergate investigation, and I was startled to come across these lines from a Nixon White House aide: "We believe that the public believes that the Eastern press really is what Agnew said it was -- elitist, anti-Nixon, and ultimately pro-McGovern." "Elitist" -- just the label the Republicans seek to apply to the press and Obama now. (The new book Nixonland is all about this, according to reviews I've read.) It worked in the 1970s, and it keeps working, I imagine because the part of the brain that feels it's been insulted, the short-term hurt, floods out the part of the brain that is able to reason and think long-term. I felt that happening to me when I listened to Ms. Palin's unnecessarily nasty speech** at the Republican National Convention: The part of my brain that objected to her lies and insults flooded the part of my brain that would have said, "I'm rubber and you're glue and how about an actual policy proposal, please?" That's what Barack needs to do in the debates, particularly if McCain goes after the patriotism nonsense again; that's what all of us need to do, keeping our eyes on the changes we really need given the challenges we face, and which candidate has proven to have the vision and character to make them.

* And oh man, am I excited for the debates. A full schedule here.
** Best line I read about her speech: "Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Moving Sale!

Because I'd rather do business with my lovely blog readers than, you know, absolutely perfect strangers: If you live in NYC and you're in need of cheap, attractive, serviceable furniture, I am selling my loveseat, table, and a kitchen chair. You can see descriptions and pictures of all of these things on my craigslist posting here. (The bookshelves have been taken.) The apartment itself is also still up for rent, if you're interested in a gorgeous studio in Park Slope.

The state of said studio right now can best be described as "bookish yuppie refugee" -- I have a bunch of scrounged wine and FreshDirect boxes filled with books and knickknacks and stacked in the center of the floor, and then odd gaps on the walls where the bookshelves and pictures were, and empty spaces in the remaining bookshelves -- certainly not something that's happened before. A suitcase full of books waits to go to the resale counter at the Strand; others will be taken to the giveaway boxes at work. Lots done, lots still to do.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Election Approacheth

The excellent moderate political blog Obsidian Wings recently posted the voter registration deadlines for every state, with links to each state's information. If you aren't yet registered to vote, please check it out, and change that fact about yourself. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, these next four years will be crucial in defining the direction of the country, so it's essential you take a stand in how they will go. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Interns Wanted

It's that time of year again -- the movies get serious, the college students come back to the city, the stores put out their sweater collections, and I look for an intern. As I wrote at a similar time last year:

If you'll be in New York this fall, you're passionate about really great children's and YA books, and you have eight to ten hours to spare during the business week, you're welcome to apply for an internship with Arthur A. Levine Books. Our interns help us track, read, and respond to manuscripts; perform basic clerical tasks like opening the mail and making copies; and complete special projects based on personal interests and need. The position is unpaid, but if you're a college student, we will do whatever's necessary to see that you get college credit -- and there are always lots of free books around the office! Preference goes to college students and people interested in pursuing an editorial career in children's publishing, but anyone is welcome to apply. For more information, see our FAQ page here, and mention that you found this through my blog.

Also, on a completely unrelated note: New poll at right! It's "Survivor: Cheryl's Library." At least one must go . . . (and yes, Bullfrog, you can have THE GREAT BRIDGE).