Sunday, June 23, 2013

Talking Small

When I began to date after my divorce, I cried every night.  Just the idea of dating made me sick.  I attributed this to the fact that dating involves small talk, and I loathed making small talk

Small talk—the polite social banter in which you engage with people you hardly know—shouldn’t be so hard.  It’s fairly formulaic.  You commiserate about the weather, say you love someone’s shoes, ask what someone does for a living.  It’s not intellectually challenging.  And yet I hate it, for two reasons: 1) I don’t really care about the things that get talked about and find it exhausting to have to pretend as though I do, and 2) I always worry that I’m terrible at it.

After only two or three dates, I came to realize that my worry was unfounded.  It turns out that I am a spectacular small talker.  I am a genius at small talk, a Rhodes Scholar of inane queries, polite laughter, and feigned interest.
My dates, on the other hand, were morons in the small-talk department.  From the man who informed me that he didn’t have any male friends because he was so good-looking, to the virulent anti-Semite, to the gentleman who confided via telephone that he was wearing a thong under his Versace suit, they were all sadly inept at the art of graceful, innocuous conversation.
Fortunately, a tall, handsome man asked me out, talked about his family in a way that was both fascinating and appropriate, and kissed me in the elevator down to the parking lot.  My dating days were over.

So why am I thinking about small talk?
Yesterday I went for a walk through my neighborhood and encountered an unfamiliar woman about my age throwing a ball for her dog.  The dog was darling, and I smiled as I passed them.  The woman smiled back at me wanly.  Then she looked me up and down and said, with equal parts condescension and weariness, “I see you walking a lot.  You’re always so good to yourself.”

Her tone indicated she was taking me to task, as if walking was a self-indulgence that was interfering with all the cancer-curing I was supposed to be doing.   Apparently no one ever schooled her in the finer points of small talk, the most important of which is, Be nice.

As I walked on, I started thinking about middle school.

Middle schoolers are notoriously bad at small talk.  In the first place, they haven’t yet learned the nuanced distinctions between pleasantries (“Who do you have for Algebra?”) and heartfelt confessions (“I, like, hate her.”) 

Also, middle schoolers are assholes.  And I say this as someone who has spent the better part of my adulthood writing books for this segment of the population, mainly because I love them.  But, come on.  We all know it.  (And if you are a middle schooler reading this, you know it better than anyone.)

Middle schoolers are at the mercy of other middle schoolers.  They don’t know from nice.  (Okay, some of them do.  Some of them can make you cry with their sweetness.)  They say unspeakable things to and about each other.  Moreover, when a middle schooler is unspeakably spoken to, she doesn’t have an arsenal of coping tools at her disposal.  (As one gets older, these may include hanging up phones, pretending not to care, and saying mean things about one’s tormenter in one’s blog.)  She may cry, or tell her mother, or swear.  (Older people do these things, too, but not as well.)  But she will feel victimized and wretched, and she will not understand why anyone has cause to be so mean.

So as much as I hate small talk, it does serve a purpose.  It allows us to connect to strangers without saying hateful things about their eye makeup or inadvertently divulging the details of our own battles with bulimia.   And we can go to cocktail parties and high school reunions knowing we are likely safe from everyone’s inner seventh grader, who is just dying to bust out and tell us how, like, fat our ankles are.

As for my neighbor?  I know she meant well.

And a little cosmetic dentistry couldn't hurt.

Monday, June 17, 2013

And the Livin' Is Easy

In general, I am not a summer gal.  By this I mean that I detest heat, am indifferent to ice cream, and long ago gave up my preferred warm-weather activity, which involved slathering Johnson’s Baby Oil on myself and lying in the sun.

To me, summer has always been a time of lassitude and boredom.  I liked school and always noticed that late June was accompanied by a profound sense of missing something.  I felt incomplete, at a loss.  I yearned for routine, which is embarrassing, because most people crave excitement and distraction.  But there it is.
Of course, I’ve been out of school for a long time, but even now I am bedeviled by that sense of absence. So I’ve decided, in my plodding, methodical, routinized way, to make a list of all the things that make summer pleasurable for me:

         Fog:  I live near a coastline and, somewhat paradoxically, our summers are replete with foggy days.  Fog enables me to exercise without passing out, wear chunky knits, and make soup.

         Road trips:  Robert and I like to get in the car and drive on unfamiliar roads without knowing where we will end up.  Even though I have lived in California for all but seven years of my life, I still find lots of unexplored terrain, complete with back-road diners, dive bars, and Mexican-restaurants-qua-biker-hangouts.

         Kids: Until about a month ago, at least one of my adult children was in school.  Summer meant seeing them, and occasionally housing them.  The housing part is over, but I still get to see them now and again.  Summer weather makes it easier for me to navigate a perilous highway for a quick lunch or dinner, during which time I harangue them about various life choices and leave them thrilled to be living on the other side of a mountain range from me.

         Lettuce: We have a vegetable garden in summer.   Just reading this last sentence is astounding to me, as I have always loathed all aspects of gardening and preferred to buy whatever I wanted to eat at the store.  Living where we do, though, has compelled in me a change of heart.  I marvel at our small patch of lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, squash, and potatoes, nurtured from seedling-hood, now healthily leafy (except the squash, which I think might be dead).  Vegetables from the garden taste better than anything you can buy.  The smell of a tomato just-plucked from its vine is evidence of divinity.

        Books: I seem to read more in the summer, possibly a vestigial response to the absence of school.  Right now I’m reading Philip Roth’s THE HUMAN STAIN, which I always avoided because the title sounded icky.  What a mistake.  The best kind of writing.  Nothing beats a long summer evening with a good  book, except, perhaps, a long winter evening with a good book, but only because the latter includes a fire in the fireplace and tea.

        Food: In summer, I make lemonade (with Meyer lemons growing outside the kitchen door).  I make fried chicken (which I know is bad for me, but so what, it’s only for a few months, so don’t start).  I make tarts with nectarines and peaches.  I make Italian rice salad a la Marcella Hazan.   Not big on grilling, but I will say that a Polish dog eaten while cheering on the A’s makes me inordinately happy.

        Fourth of July: Our town hosts a hilarious parade.  I make fried chicken and lemonade.  At night, fireworks on the beach.  ‘Nuff said.

        Trips: None currently planned.  Also, we mostly travel in the spring and fall.  But I seem to start thinking about travel during the summer.  Currently on my mind: a trip to Philadelphia and other points east next May.

That’s it for the time being.  Enough to remind me that there is much to be happy about even when it’s stinking hot and the tourists clog up the beach and all the movies suck.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Good Teachers

Last week, my son and daughter went to a retirement party for their second-grade teacher.

Karen Noel is one of those teachers everyone wishes she’d had, and into whose class every parent angled to get her child.  She is smart and wise, crazy funny, and, maybe most importantly, she knew exactly who every kid in her class was.  She made every day a blast, and yet somehow she managed to brook no nonsense.  And the kids all knew it and loved her anyway.

She had lots of stories to tell us parents.  (To me: “Do you know what your son did today?  He asked me how old I was!  And when I told him, he thought for a second and then said, ‘You’re eleven years older than my mom’!”)  She made us understand that she saw our children as they really were and adored them just that way, as they were meant to be.  (“Your daughter is exactly like you,” she told me once.  “Are you kidding?  She’s nothing like me,” I said.  Karen [eyes closed, exhausted by my silliness]: “She is exactly like you.”)

For years, Karen directed the school musical, in which fourth- and fifth-graders displayed their budding thespian skills.  My son was the Beast in fourth grade (despite Mrs. Noel’s assertion that he sang “in the key of H”) and the Tin Man in fifth.  My daughter was Fagin in fourth grade and Ruth (in The Pirates of Penzance) in fifth.  If you have never seen pre-teens put on Gilbert and Sullivan, you have no idea how spectacular it can be when someone wise and compassionate and insistent on doing one’s best directs it.

Most of us remember our worst teachers.  (Mine were, in order of increasing suckitude, 1) a lovely man who let us watch cartoons and game shows in sixth grade; 2) a very learned professor from a neighboring college who delivered the same lecture two days in a row, probably because he was roaring drunk; and 3) my tenth-grade geometry teacher, who picked his nose all day, every day.)
But our favorite teachers commandeer a special place in our memories.  (Mine was Jim Killian, who has become a lifelong friend.) We get weepy when we remember them, and we feel unable to make clear to other people just how marvelous they were.  My theory about this is that school (and possibly life in general) is terrifying and grueling and intimidating and just plain hard.  And when you are young, you can be cowed by that, to the point where you don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.  But a great teacher changes all that, if only for a year.  And we can’t seem to find enough grand words with which to express our gratitude.

(Mr. Killian, you made every day of high school an adventure and a joy, and you are always in my heart, no matter how often we try to call each other and end up getting sent to voicemail.)

Mrs. Noel was given a proper send-off by the community whose children she nurtured and loved as if they were her own.  Lots of kudos; lots of testimonials; lots of love.  But I’m willing to bet that when my kids talk about her (as they will all their lives), they will say something like, “She was just amazing,” and then be at a loss as to how to convey what she really meant to them.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Elinor Lipman (Almost) Sent Me a Direct Message on Twitter

Elinor Lipman is a writer I’ve loved for a long time.  She writes comedies of manners that are at once gentle, scathing, and hilarious, among them THEN SHE FOUND ME, ISABEL’S BED, THE INN AT LAKE DIVINE, THE WAY MEN ACT, and THE PURSUIT OF ALICE THRIFT. She is a Jewish Jane Austen (the author with whom she is most often compared), an astute observer of modern experience and sensibility.

I’ve read most of her books.  I’ve gone to several of her readings.  And I follow her on Twitter.  She is, in fact, one of the few celebrities I follow, along with several other authors, Lena Dunham, and a couple of reality TV housewives who don’t yell too much.  I’m not sure if Elinor Lipman thinks of herself as a celebrity—I’m willing to bet that she doesn’t—but I have decided that as one of my favorite contemporary writers, she qualifies, whether she likes it or not.

So you can imagine how I felt when I woke up yesterday morning, checked my e-mail, and came across the subject line reading “Elinor Lipman Sent You a Direct Message on Twitter.”  It was comparable to the way my daughter would feel if she were sitting at a bar and Benedict Cumberbatch sidled over and asked if he could buy her a drink.

Delirious.  I was delirious.

My fingers shaking, I opened the e-mail.  In the split second that elapsed before it appeared on-screen, I tried to imagine what Elinor Lipman could possibly want to talk to me about.  I teased myself with various scenarios: she had stumbled on my blog and wanted to let me know that my musings mirrored her own.  Perhaps she was a closet middle-grade fiction reader who had come across PRETTIEST DOLL and THE HARD KIND OF PROMISE and just had to tell me how compelling she found them.  Or maybe she had just laughed at one of my tweets.  Not as exciting as the prospect of being able to discuss literary craft, but then, who was I to complain?  The important thing—the thrilling thing—was that Elinor was reaching out to me.

And then, I read the text of her e-mail: “Someone is starting a rumor about you,” it read, followed by a link.

Technologically na├»ve, I nonetheless realized it was highly improbable that anyone would be starting rumors about me likely to have commanded Elinor Lipman’s attention.  I reluctantly deleted the e-mail without opening the link.  To be sure, I checked my Twitter feed. Moments before, Elinor had indeed tweeted that she had been hacked, and that she was sorry.

I thought about it all morning: my excitement, followed almost immediately by disappointment and a return to the gloomy state of being entirely unknown to Elinor Lipman.  I cheered myself with the realization that if I was ecstatic at the possibility of direct contact with a writer I love, then surely others feel the same way.   I allowed myself to imagine all the readers on Twitter searching out their favorite authors, scanning their feeds each morning, hoping for the tenuous sense of connection that a tweet provides.  And that struck me as an encouraging, even a glorious state of affairs.

A nice way to start the week.