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Friday, September 28, 2012

The DC Metro

I'm happy to announce that I started my new job on Monday; it's not the post as an editorial assistant with a university press or Norton that I was hoping for, but I am very glad to be here, and pleased as punch that my new job title is officially Writer and Editor. I'm getting PAID to write! I just sent off my first batch of shiny and meticulously edited articles to the design guy, and I can't wait to see them in print.

One of the biggest challenges of the first week has been deciding how to get myself here in the morning. Waking up, of course, is a good start. (Today I slept right through my alarm and had that horrible experience of blissfully and well-restedly coming to the certain knowledge that it was far too bright outside for me to still be in bed.) But once awake, there are so many choices. Bus? Metro? Bus and Metro? Metro and Walk? Drive and Metro? Drive and Metro and Walk? Which is the least expensive? Which takes the longest time? Which is the most reliable? I suspect, given the amount of variables, that it will take me more than just this first week to figure it out. And now, though it isn't about writing or reading at all, I have to make a few comments about the DC Metro.

I'm a small-town girl. I didn't grow up using a metro, and I'm still ridiculously excited each time I get on a train, and a little terrified each time one whooshes up to the station. My first regular acquaintance with such transportation was during my study abroad in Rome when I was 18. Now, if you have lived in Rome, I'm sure you have your own store of memories regarding their public transportation system. It's not just that the workers are always on strike, or that the trains are so overcrowded that your nose is forced into the armpit of a deodorant-ignorant man who unabashedly looks you up and down the whole time, or that you have to fight with miniature nuns to get yourself a spot on board. There are also the sweet little children who turn out to be vicious pick-pockets, the belligerent beggars with self-inflicted injuries, and the musicians who ride the cars all day with battered guitars and powerful voices. And, of course, there's the character-rich blue line, graffitied till kingdom come.

I cannot imagine anything so different from all that as the DC Metro. Things look mostly bright and clean and new, but all in sterile way. Everyone is silent. Everything is air-conditioned. Sometimes I can smell perfume and cologne. If a train looks crowded, people wait for the next one (except for me -- efficiency, people! Come on!). There are signs threatening fines if you play music that is not through headphones, or if you have a drink with you. There is no conversation, no emotion, no display of personality, and (here's the kicker), when going up the stairs, hundreds of people mechanically form two long, straight, orderly, single-file lines, stretching out across the platform. I almost laughed out loud when I saw that happen. Can you imagine the Italians doing such a thing? Unheard of.

The most interesting person I've seen so far was a little boy (I say little boy, but I guess he was probably in his younger 20s) who was just too adorable for words. His blond hair was neatly parted, Leave-It-to-Beaver-style, he was wearing a tidy polo shirt, a proper knit sweater with a solitary stripe across the front, carrying a backpack, stood about 5'5, and was earnestly engrossed in his big, white, hardback book on marriage. Part of me wanted to say, "Awww, sweetie, what a little cutie you are." Don't worry; I didn't. And then I noticed that he was holding his place with a boarding pass. Riiiight, I thought. You're not from here. That's why you look like a real person.

I had thought the morning metro ride would be a good time to listen to books on tape, but, in protest to the general lack of anything other than insularity, I'm sort of thinking that I won't.  Luckily I'm too disorganized to charge my Ipod, so I haven't had to make the choice yet. People assure me these feelings will wear off. I suppose they will. I mean, I used to read on the metro in Rome, so I guess they did there. I suppose having a physical book would be better than listening to one; I've noticed a couple of things people were reading and started to form character sketches of them based off of that. I know, don't judge a book by its cover and all that, but it helps!

Between moving all my stuff down from New England last weekend (and thank you all you wonderful people who helped me!), still recovering from that blasted tooth extraction, and the business of navigating a new job, I am sorry to say I've made absolutely no progress on The Idiot and very little on The Beautiful and Damned. Oh, and freelance work. And letters. So much to catch up on. Hah! That sentence ended with TWO prepositions! What are your thoughts on that rule, anyway? I used to be a stickler, but I find myself relenting.

Until next time.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Painted Veil

It took me a long time to warm up to this book, about 90 pages, in fact. As it's not even 250 pages long, that's a sizable warm-up period. I suspect that the original editors didn't do such a good job, but, since it is at this point a book with a history, their original mistakes were left (lots of run-on sentences, a word missing from a sentence here and there, you get the idea). Also, it struck me as a trashy romance novel with no admirable characters. I was dismayed, as I generally trust recommendations from Heath Misley, a compatriot from my Wasting Time in the Western Tradition days in Manchester. So, I gritted my teeth, and pushed on. And I'm so glad I did.
I know a movie was made based on this book. I think I even saw it a long time ago, but I don't remember much of it. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the book, even if you have already seen the movie. I don't want to say too much about it because I don't want to give anything away (there were a lot of things that surprised me as I was reading, and I want you to be surprised, too). But, why should you read it? It admirably handles the problem of human weakness, pettiness, silliness and selfishness. All of the characters are so real, and even uncomfortably so. It's never pleasant to realize that a writer so clearly understands human failings. It's rather like when you go to mass and come away feeling like the sermon was written with your unholy soul as a target. But, it's also comforting to know you're not the only one who's ever been an idiot, to whatever degree that might have been. Maybe we're not all so tortured as the whiskey-priest in The Power and the Glory, but a failing is a failing. So, with that vague summary in mind, read it and prepare yourself to become attached to some less-than-worthy fictional characters.

The novel is set in the British Empire during the 1920's, and is primarily about the development of one Kitty Fane. Out of boredom and some curiosity, she acquaints herself with the Mother Superior of a Catholic convent (she herself is not Catholic.) As she leaves the convent for the last time, the Mother bids her goodbye. I've truncated the scene:

Kitty had a wild impulse to shake her, crying: "Don't you know that I'm a human being, unhappy and alone? Can't you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion?" To Kitty's surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. She held her for a moment. "Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding." (Vintage, 204-06)

Kitty is deeply flawed in many ways, but her biggest problem is that she is incredibly selfish. I suppose one might say that the book is really about her learning what it means to love. She goes through the paces of a few things, such as marriage, because they are what she is expected to do. But, never having received real love from her parents, and being encouraged in a solipsistic existentialism, she is, quite simply, a brat. The mother superior has told her exactly what she needs to hear, and, really, exactly what all of us need to hear.

If we gracelessly go through the paces of life, grumbling as we take out the trash, swearing at other drivers during the morning commute, blandly reciting our prayers, impatient at having to change yet another diaper, angry at disruptions of our dutiful routine, we'll be utterly miserable, and so will everyone with whom we come in contact. It is far better to be 5 seconds later to work than to cut off someone trying to merge onto the highway. No one will be thankful that you took out the trash if you guilt-trip them about how much work you do around the house. A grumpy recitation of a 20-decade rosary has less merit in it than a 2-second shout-out to God of sincere gratitude for a piece of chocolate. And if you resent every diaper you have to change, or even every other diaper, don't think your child will grow up unaware of that resentment. Kitty isn't perfect at the end of the book; she does progress, but boy, she sure slips up pretty horrifically. Sadly, so will you and I (as we're both already aware, I'm sure). I know it sounds trite and corny, but at least try to love people, really love them and be kind to them, as you go along making mistakes and inadequately performing your duties for them. Love covers a multitude of sins, and leads you to that happiness which surpasses all understanding. So go have some chocolate, or, better yet, buy chocolate for someone else, and thank God you can.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Justifiably Petulant Beauty

I've made that wretched and oft-repeated mistake of starting two books simultaneously. And I haven't even said anything yet about The Painted Veil, which I finished last week, and needs to be discussed. Nevertheless, we begin what I'm sure will be a long chapter (I'm sorry -- I couldn't resist) as The Idiot and The Beautiful and Damned are both fairly sizable. I've been working up to The Idiot for months, so, since I feel like I have the energy to tackle it now, I think I'd better take advantage of it. Dostoevsky makes his characters so sweetly and charmingly lovable -- those that are supposed to be, that is. I mean, seriously, I might have to name my first three sons Alyosha, Razumikhin, and Myshkin. More on that later. Meanwhile, I've become increasingly enchanted with Fitzgerald after my recent reacquaintance, and feel it necessary to indulge said enchantment. Hence, my happy conundrum. 

Over the next several weeks, then, don't expect too many solid, well-reasoned and pithy posts of my own making. The most I'll attempt for now is sharing some good passages with you. I'll wait to pontificate on deeper meanings until I've actually finished the books. On today's menu, a dialogue from The Beautiful and Damned.  I've italicized my particularly favorite lines for those of you in a hurry, but, really, it won't take a great deal of time to read the whole exchange. This is from chapter 2, under the section entitled "A Flash-Back in Paradise":
_Beauty, who was born anew every hundred years, sat in a sort of outdoor waiting room through which blew gusts of white wind and occasionally a breathless hurried star. The stars winked at her intimately as they went by and the winds made a soft incessant flurry in her hair. She was incomprehensible, for, in her, soul and spirit were one -- the beauty of her body was the essence of her soul. She was that unity sought for by philosophers through many centuries. In this outdoor waiting room of winds and stars she had been sitting for a hundred years, at peace in the contemplation of herself._
_It became known to her, at length, that she was to be born again. Sighing, she began a long conversation with a voice that was in the white wind, a conversation that took many hours and of which I can give only a fragment here._
BEAUTY: (_Her lips scarcely stirring, her eyes turned, as always, inward upon herself_) Whither shall I journey now?
THE VOICE: To a new country -- a land you have never seen before.
BEAUTY: (_Petulantly_) I loathe breaking into these new civilizations. How long a stay this time?
THE VOICE: Fifteen years.
BEAUTY: And what's the name of the place?
THE VOICE: It is the most opulent, most gorgeous land on earth -- a land whose wisest are but little wiser than it's dullest; a land where the rulers have minds like little children and the law-givers believe in Santa Clause; where ugly women control strong men ----
BEAUTY: (_In astonishment_) What?
THE VOICE: (_Very much depressed_) Yes, it is truly a melancholy spectacle. Women with receding chins and shapeless noses go about in broad daylight saying "Do this!" and "Do that!" and all the men, even those of great wealth, obey implicitly their women to whom they refer sonorously either as "Mrs. So-and-so" or as "the wife."
BEAUTY: But this can't be true! I can understand, of course, their obedience to women of charm -- but to fat women? to bony women? to women with scrawny cheeks?
THE VOICE: Even so
BEAUTY: What of me? What chance shall I have?
THE VOICE: It will be "harder going," if I may borrow a phrase.
BEAUTY: (_After a dissatisfied pause_) Why not the old lands, the land of grapes and soft-tongued men or the land of ships and seas?
THE VOICE: It's expected that they'll be very busy shortly.
THE VOICE: Your life on earth will be, as always, the interval between two significant glances in a mundane mirror.
BEAUTY: What will I be? Tell me?
THE VOICE: At first it was thought that you would go this time as an actress in the motion pictures but, after all, it's not advisable. You will be disguised during your fifteen years as what is called a "susciety gurl."
BEAUTY: What's that?
(_There is a new sound in the wind which must for our purposes be interpreted as _THE VOICE_ scratching its head._)
THE VOICE: (_At length_) It's a sort of bogus aristocrat.
BEAUTY: Bogus? What is bogus?
THE VOICE: That, too, you will discover in this land. You will find much that is bogus. Also, you will do much that is bogus.
BEAUTY:(_Placidly_) It all sounds so vulgar.
THE VOICE: Not half as vulgar as it is. You will be known during your fifteen years as a ragtime kid, a flapper, a jazz-baby, and a baby vamp. You will dance new dances neither more nor less gracefully than you danced the old ones.
BEAUTY: (_In a whisper_) Will I be paid?
THE VOICE: Yes, as usual -- in love.
BEAUTY: (_With a faint laugh which disturbs only momentarily the immobility of her lips_) And will I like being called a jazz-baby?
THE VOICE: (_Soberly_) You will love it....
(_The dialogue ends here, with _BEAUTY_ still sitting quietly, the stars pausing in an ecstasy of appreciation, the wind, white and gusty, blowing through her hair._)
 The confusion over the word "bogus" is probably my favorite. For some reason, it makes me think of Yoda. More to follow shortly, I am sure.