See you in 2010.
For the last six weeks, I have been a lot of places and talked and talked a lot about Tinsel. One of my favorite questions that I got along the way goes something like this:
What do hope this book will do? What did you want it to be?
I can answer that. My ambitions for this book are really not very high. In my wildest dreams, Tinsel winds up cited as a footnote in someone’s dissertation 50 or 100 years or more from now (if there are still dissertations; if there are still footnotes), as a document that shows how people lived in the early 21st century. There is simply no in-depth reportage about the lives of everyday Americans in the exurban-consumer era and how they expressed themselves at the biggest cultural/commercial/quasi-spiritual moment of the year. There is now.
My other idea, which is a little Cormac McCarthy and doomsday-ish, is that someone pulls a copy of Tinsel from the rubble (of the apocalypse? The post-oil riots? The inexorable rise of the oceans?) and is able to understand it and say: This is how they lived. This is how it was when they had the most of everything — the most money, the most stuff, the biggest houses, the biggest cars, the most comfort. This is how it was when they were happiest, but, strangely when they were saddest, too. This is what it felt like, back then, at Christmastime.
Treasure this time. Savor these moments of togetherness and material bliss, and if you’ve got the spiritual part figured out, then treasure that most of all. Do Christmas in whatever way works best for you and try to worry less about making it perfect for everyone else.
And thank you for being with me through this very long story. It’s been a load of work to find and write and then promote this book, but it has brought me many moments of true joy.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
Christmas Eve, and it’s time to wind down. It will be a very long time before I can fully appreciate and express my thanks for all the many generous things people did to help get Tinsel out there, but I am forever grateful to you all, and I hope to get around to thanking many people individually.
I’m tired. I’m happy about the book, and a little sad, too. Over the last several weeks I have met or heard from so many people, and listened to so many of their stories about the package of joy and confusion that is American Christmas. It’s been a real pleasure to have that conversation — with readers, with reporters and hosts in the media, and from your comments here and on Facebook, and with feedback from good and bad reviews, including the 49 and counting on Amazon. I’ve read, and will re-read, each and every one with a willingness to learn as a writer. (And also to pluck blurbs for the paperback edition!)
There is something I wanted this book to be, something specific, which I’ll deal with in my very next posting (above).
Meanwhile, I have a few more links to share, if you can stand it…
• I met Terry Mattingly, a writer whose weekly column on religion is a mainstay in several hundred newspapers, at Union Station on Monday for lunch, and we wound up talking for two hours — and I could’ve gone longer, but I had to scoot over to NPR. He put his finger on things about Tinsel that I knew intuitively but not academically or theologically. He wonders if the book might fit the definition of “humanistic existentialism.” He also came up with a perfect thesis statement for the book, based on a section title and quote from one of the characters. Without endorsing the sentiment, Terry said Tinsel‘s main message goes something like this, more or less: Fake is okay here. Fake is all we’ve got in this culture. Deal with it.
Terry’s column about Tinsel is here.
• Meredith Simons at Slate would give a hearty AMEN to Terry’s thesis statement, especially the “deal with it” part, which Meredith thinks I don’t deal with so well. I respectfully disagree, but this is just the kind of intelligent take on the book that I prefer to engage with.
• If you get The Week (not since the heyday of Reader’s Digest have downstairs toilets been so well-served, and I mean that as a sincere compliment), the current issue’s “Last Word” pages in the back of the magazine feature a very tightly-edited 2,000-word excerpt from Tinsel. I can’t find it on their web site (maybe they don’t have e-rights), so check the downstairs bathroom.
• I did NPR’s Talk of the Nation show on Monday afternoon — great questions and callers. Have a listen.
• Thanks to more than a few of you, I got some great questions at The Washington Post’s live online chat on Tuesday morning.
• The New York Times’ Thursday Styles section has an article today by Hilary Stout about people who “opt out” of Christmas once in a while. I’m interviewed midway through.
• Carol Kaufmann from AARP Bulletin‘s web site and I had a nice, long interview while I was driving from the outer Houston suburbs back to Dallas one month ago (seems like much longer!). She’s very nice and asks really smart questions, but what impresses me is how deftly she condenses this blabbermouth.
That’s it, I think, except for a lot of chatter about the book that showed up on other people’s blogs this week, which I wish I had time to link back to, or the power to resist the lure of the Google RSS alert. Thing is, I’ve got laundry and TV reviews to do. Christmas isn’t at my throat this year, but everything else is — and then, Friday morning, vacation at last.
Time for presents! Pace yourselves!
What a week, what a week. I think I’ve done just about everything I can do for Tinsel. (Can you think of anything else I could have done? Short of breaking into Oprah’s house and threatening her at gunpoint?) I’m ready (almost ready) to let go, and come to an end, at last, of a project that took four years to do. But first, a very long blog post. We must beat the horse to make certain it is dead.
On Monday, I took the train to New York and back to read at the Half King bar in Chelsea, and was glad I did. (It cost me $175 to go, but I tried to drink it back at the bar. Maybe all my readings should have been in bars?) I got there early to have drinks and dinner with Amazing Andrea Schulz, the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor in chief who helped me so much with the final drafts of the manuscript. We were busily sending pages back and forth this time last year; how time flies. Andrea has given me so much time and attention, even now, when I should be the last thing on her mind. I hope I get to keep talking and laughing with her, occasionally, even if there’s no new project on the immediate horizon.
Andrea brought me a hilarious little Christmas bag filled with “lumps of coal” (chocolate, actually) and some sobering but expected (and almost encouraging, certainly not discouraging) news about sales. But more on that some other day in the future.
As Andrea and I talked and I was getting antsy about reading to strangers in a strange bar, the room filled up with familiar faces: Jenny Strasburg, Rob Landry, Ray Schroth, David Carr, Rebecca Dana, Adriane Quinlan, David Segal, Robert Lanham, and others. And my sister, Ann South, and her husband Glenn, who took three trains to get there, and once again have been true Tinsel champs. If I keep typing about this I’ll get verhklempt. It was wonderful to see everyone and I barely had time to make it worth their while. Being on book tour has been a little like being on a neverending wedding reception — never enough time to talk to all your friends who actually show up!
My luck with good and decent friends continued Tuesday afternoon, in D.C., reading at the monthly book salon at Dezenhall Resources, thanks to my friend, the book writer and public relations guru Eric Dezenhall. You know what Eric does (among the many things Eric does)? Invites an author once a month to speak to a select gathering of his staff, business associates, friends, whoever. And get this: Everyone gets a copy of the book, thanks to Eric. I mean, who does that anymore? There’s always good food (Buca di Beppo!) and good questions. It made me feel okay about the book’s central appeal once more — people love to talk about the suburbs, the economy, and the holidays. Thanks to Eric and his trusty assistant, Malinda Waughthal.
Next, day it was off to L.A., with a layover in Houston.
(I was going to write an entire blog item calling BS on the world’s gripes about airlines and air travel in the post 9-11 era, which I am so sick of hearing. In the past month I have flown about 15,000 miles on American, Alaska, United, and Continental, with checked-on bags, through several connecting cities, across the country and back and then across and back again, and I have not been late, delayed, poked, prodded, or missed a single piece of luggage. Not once. And so what if I had? I would have survived. I still find it all to be an absurd miracle — flight. Getting from Dallas to Seattle in four hours. Think of the Donner Party, for Christ’s sake. People can run half-marathons but they are such babies in airports, expecting the worst, and getting the worst. It’s no big deal, so long as you get to the airport the way I do: I expect to die. Every single time, I figure I am partaking in my last few hours of life. Anything better than that is a bonus.)
Got to L.A., early of course, just in time to sit in traffic in a cab. Spent the night at the Palomar hotel, courtesy of CBS, so that I could do this on Thursday.
Awright, already, I’ll tell you all about it. Bascially, I spent 16 hours in my hotel room being nervous and trying to decide some things, such as what to wear, and whether or not to shave off my entirely unsexy two-week facescruff. (Did it! I did the whole exfoliating, steamy shower, carefully against-the-grain, Kiehl’s shave balm thing.)
I took a walk around supersunny L.A. on Thursday morning. Later, the producer, Lisa, called to go over everything we had already talked about, but to really go over a few more times all the far too many potential subjects that might come up during a five-to-seven minute segment; which is an act of futility, because Craig Ferguson hardly ever follows any set of questions or plan. But it does wonders for calming down the jumpy author-guest, I must say. My basic approach to doing this show is that anything besides throwing up on Craig’s desk (or tripping on the two steps up to the guest’s chair, or forgetting that you don’t stand up until they’ve gone to commercial) is SUCCESS.
Come to think of it, this is the same exact approach I have to airports and flying — if you aren’t killed, everything else is a plus.
Howard the very pleasant Town Car driver came and got me about 3:30 and took me to Television City, over by The Grove. (I’ve been here a couple times before — once to do a profile of Craig Ferguson, in fact, in 2005; another time to profile Bob Barker and watch a taping of The Price is Right, in 2007.) An assistant met me at the door and away we went into the bowels of CBS. Yes, I got a dressing room with my name on it. Yes, I met Sigourney Weaver and told her how much Ripley means to me. (“I do that a lot,” Weaver said. “I ask myself: What Would Ripley Do?”) I saw Betty White walk by, wearing a Santa suit for a sketch they were taping for a later show. She waved hello. A nice man named Trent did my makeup and hair. The producer above Lisa came in and shook my hand and looked at me and asked that I change my tie; I was originally wearing a Hickey-Freeman red plaid tie. Apparently there’s some sort of strangeness going on with discouraging guests from bringing up Scotland or things Scottish — even though Craig talks about it all the time, you’re not supposed to. I honestly hadn’t thought “Scotland” when I picked the red plaid, and true, it might be a rival clan or something. Lucky for all: I brought four ties. And a sweater. And a different jacket. Or no jacket. Oh, the ways I could’ve gone!
Craig was extremely nice (he remembered, or claimed to, my Post story about him) and jouncy and frantic and I tried to keep up. If I have any advice for anyone who has to do a late-night talk show (or any show where you have to come out, wave, macho-hug the host, make your way to a chair, sit and be smart and jovial) it would be this: Don’t try to be funny. Just riff right along with whatever’s happening. Keep eye contact. Pretend it’s not happening. Smile. Laugh. Really pretend it’s not happening. Say thanks. Wave. Sit still through the applause until the host gets up. You’re done!
And boy, are you done. You will then be lead through a phalanx of show staffers all wearing headsets who say you did grreeeeat, rillly grreeat. You will want to get out of there as soon as possible, and they will want you to leave very quick-like as well, but do say thank you to everyone and do have Trent wipe all your makeup off. This was a busy night at the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson — on Thursday they usually shoot both Thursday and Friday’s shows, so they were getting ready to do it all over again, with Paris Hilton (she arrived with all sorts of entourage) and chef Jose Andres. They were also shooting comedy bits for shows that will air this week. There’s a guy on the set whose job is to make sure Craig changes into the right tie, depending on what night they’re shooting at the moment. It’s all a big in-joke to the audience, who are supposed to pretend right along with Craig that it’s Tuesday, not Thursday.
I would happily do the show again and totally understand that I probably never will get asked to. Did we have a scintillating conversation about the essence and meaning of my book? No, sir, we did not. Did it go over well? Was it fun? Was it watchable? (I cannot say. Although I have the clip and have kindly embedded it for you here and for posterity’s sake, I myself have not and will not be able to watch it for many weeks or months, for reasons only Jenny Craig and a leading maxillofacial surgeon could truly understand.)
You know what part was the best, I thought? Right before I went out, watching Craig fondle my book and do a riff on book-reading in the Twitter age. That was rillly grrreat. I don’t think it moved a stone, sales-wise, but so what? You can’t beat this sort of loving attention:
So, a million thanks to the people at the Late Late Show. I got out of there a little after 6 and had Howard the Town Car driver take me immediately to Lucques, my favorite L.A. restaurant, where I met the one and only Janet Duckworth for great wine and excellent comfort food. I crashed that night on Janet’s couch, without a thought to turning on the TV and watching the show itself. Some of the best nights of sleep I’ve ever had have been on this couch — there’s something about waking up in her living room on that sumptuous sofa under a big comforter, with the windows open and the birds chirping and the cool L.A. air and light coming in. It’s a zen I’ve only ever achieved on a campout or two. Nancy Rommelmann has crashed on this couch before; she knows.
Flew back to Washington on Friday, just a couple hours ahead of this:
Michael shot this from our bedroom balcony Saturday evening, after a foot or so of snow fell on Washington, and I think you have to be one of his Facebook friends to get it to play, but chances are, you are.
What a pleasant, calming gift this storm was — at least, to those of us who live right across the street from a Safeway and within boot-stomping distance to everything we could possibly need in life. Saturday was also Michael’s birthday (he’s 36 — all grows up). Our original plan, a small dinner party, fell through (guests couldn’t get here) so we went out to dinner at Rosa Mexicano, just the two of us, and stuffed ourselves silly. My present to him this year is really to both of us: a new bed. King size this time. Mattress-testing expeditions (and trips to buy all new bedding) will commence in the new year.
My tranquil weekend was briefly interrupted by this rather nasty review of Tinsel in The Washington Post, by Bryan Burrough, a book writer and Vanity Fair reporter and, it turns out, what the kids today might call a douchebag.
You say: The Washington Post? But don’t you work there? Is there some sort of pent-up animosity toward you?
Not really. That’s how it goes. Our book review section remains clandestine and independent from the rest of the newsroom, in order to avoid just this very sort of fuss. I have no control over whether the book is reviewed at all, or who is assigned to review it, or if it’s a good review. I did see a Book World editor in passing last Friday who grimly volunteered that it’s “not an enthusiastic review,” and I said, oh, pish-posh, who cares, I’m just glad it’s being reviewed a’tall. But I didn’t know it would be this bad.
Look, it’s fine, but I will now type a couple paragraphs (and perhaps delete them, perhaps not) indicating that it is NOT fine. People are totally allowed to not like my book, and there’s nothing Bryan Burrough brings up here that I didn’t worry about while writing Tinsel. (Is the story boring? Is the book too predictable?). I have a stack of clips now where the reviewers really seemed to get it and enjoy it, all the balm I’ll ever need.
What does bother me is what an egotistical jerk Burrough is being here — deliberately dense, dismissive, and dinging me for being “condescending” to flyover country while making a “he’s from Oklahoma” joke at the same time. (Very Texan of him, no? Texans are the only people I know who think making fun of other people’s states of origin is perennially hilarious, while everyone else goes “hunh?”)
Like him, I also could criticize Scroogenomics and You Better Not Cry (for completely other reasons, and not nearly so brutally) but what seems to have happened here is that a writer (who doesn’t need the freelance pittance) took a shit all over three books for no reason other than to make himself chortle. That he has a decade or so as a Wall Street Journal reporter under his belt only hews to a certain theme from my 2009, wherein I find it difficult to get a point across to people who might have once worked at the WSJ.
Finally, I have to accept my whuppin’ here. I’m a critic myself, and I’m sure I’ve soured a few people’s mornings in TV-land with my reviews. What I don’t accept is the way the review was assigned. In my opinion, Christmas does not automatically link these three books. I would have preferred a standalone review, or at least a combo review by someone inclined to consider the material with less snark and a closer reading — or to admit that he has nothing constructive to add here and pass on the assignment. But that’s how it goes. Saying “bite me, Bryan Burrough,” is I guess just another way of saying: Merry Christmas!
Come back later this week. I promise to end all this on a good note! We’ll gather round, sing some carols by the fireplace, and say farewell to Tinsel!
Not to suggest that some of these exceptionally nice and smart reviews make me happier than others, and I know this just affirms the notion that the New York media elite has a disproportionate grip on a writer’s sense of self-worth, but SHUT UP AND CHECK OUT MY BOOK’S “BRIEFLY NOTED” REVIEW IN THE NEW ISSUE OF THE NEW YORKER, WOULDJA?
“Cultural anthropology at its most exuberant.”
Go on, go on… (Well, it doesn’t go on and on. It is briefly noted, you see. I’ll take it.)
ST. LOUIS: What you’re about to read happened days ago, and I’m just getting around to filing a blog report. I’m on a train right now to New York to do a reading tonight at the Half King bar in Chelsea. It starts at 7 p.m., if you’re anywhere nearby.
But backing up: I have to say, my stop in St. Louis might well have been my favorite. Nikki and Melissa at Pudd’nHead Books have been enormously supportive of Tinsel. They’ve been everything you’d want a bookstore to be — local, quirky, helpful and they get it. Nikki put my book on a list of her favorite books of the year and has been working on getting me to come out there since July. I’m so glad I did. Curtis Sittenfeld, newish St. Louis resident and also a Tinsel champ, came and got me Wednesday afternoon at the hotel and we went out to Pudd’nHead to say hi, shop for books and – this was really the most delightful part – gab about books we love and books we don’t. There is nothing more satisfying than two writers browsing a good store and really slagging on some overrated other writers. Whom did we agree that we despise? Oh, wouldn’t you like to know. Not to worry, neurotic literati: we did a lot of kvelling, too. We probably spent more time talking about what we lurve.
The Puddn’Head-ers, along with Curtis, put on an excellent event at COCA that night – we had cookies, egg nog and a super-smart audience of 40 or so people. I got to hang out with my friends John and Mary Pat O’Gorman at their house for a while beforehand – and get just a sample of life with their all-girl band: Lucy, Edie and Alice. At the COCA event, people had excellent questions and several had read the book already and wanted to know more, more, more. One woman needed to talk to me about her theory that I really am a “believer” and I just don’t know it. (“You believe in things,” she persuasively scolded me. “You believe, for example, in journalism ethics. …”)
Another woman brought me her homemade monkey bread, the delectable poppin’-fresh dessert that makes a cameo appearance in Chapter 15. How wonderful is that? I can’t believe someone actually made me monkey bread and I also can’t believe I forgot to get her name and e-mail so I could properly thank her. But these things move really fast when the Sharpie is out and the line is forming. While I signed copies of Tinsel, Curtis signed her 1,000-times-more-superior novels, American Wife and Prep.
After that, a gang of us adjourned to Pi, which, as I was told a few times, makes President Obama’s favorite Chicago-style pizza. (I believe it!) I am ready to move to St. Louis just to hang out forever with Curtis and her husband Matt and their daughter (whom I saw only via iPhone movies, but still). I’m sure this is not at all what they had in mind, but I hope that they had fun.
And not hours after I left did Curtis pick Tinsel as her favorite book of the year in this Salon round-up of writers’ favorite reads of 2009. I mean, gosh.
And that monkey bread? It was perfect. I ate some on the plane back to D.C. and saved the rest for Michael, as instructed. Man, I was glad to see him when I got home. I was gone 11 days this trip. What will we ever do in a few weeks, when Tinsel isn’t hogging all our time?
RESTON, Va.: Tinsel went back to the exurbs on Saturday. My friend Tamara Jones threw a sweet little get-together at her NoVa house that afternoon for old friends. Then some of us went on to the Reston Barnes & Noble for my reading at 5 p.m., smartly bribing customers with Tammy’s famous brownies. I think the combination of free sweets and my (ahem) reading style may have attracted a few new fans. Thank you, Tammy, for the good times.
REVIEWS AND MORE: They’re still coming, and they’re still pretty good, thank Baby Jesus …
• A San Jose Mercury News review is here.
• A San Antonio Express-News review is here.
• The West End Word (that would be St. Louis’s west end, cue Pet Shop Boys) had this to say here.
• The less said about Steve Blow, the better, but still, what fun it is to ride in his one-horse open slay. (Har.) Especially with the Frontburner chatterers coming so swiftly to my defense. (Because frankly, I was stumped: How do you tell — or do you even bother to tell — a guy named “Steve Blow” to go fuck himself? I decided you just don’t. But, as it turns out, they’ve been doing it for years in Dallas. And when they do, he takes his football home.)
• Moving on to cheerier things, yes? Such as Debbie Gallagher of Cedar Hill, Texas, who read the book and then had something incisive to say about it.
• Also, the ol’ Life & Times section at The Maroon (my alma mater) wrote this story. Thanks to the reporter Ashley Stevens, who kept me company on the road to Bellingham, via a phone interview. Not to make myself feel superold, but this would be the equivalent of me getting assigned to interview an alum from the Class of ’70, which might not have interested me in the least. But Ashley did a great job of humoring this old ’80s-era Maroon-ie.
For those of you in Dallas or anywhere near Frisco, I do hope you’ll find time to check out Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski’s lights this year. I won’t be able to — which feels strange after spending so much time over the last three Christmases doing just that — but I very much recommend it. It’s on every night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. until Dec. 30 or so (and not when it rains or snows). Check out Jeff’s website for the details with directions for seeing the house. Don’t forget there’s a YouTube video of what you’re in for (though this is a few years old now — much has changed!). If you do go to the Trykoski house, please remember to bring non-perishable food items for the donation box out front — Jeff and Bridgette have collected tons of food for Frisco Family Services Center food bank. No cash, please!
And as for Jeff’s much bigger project, Christmas in the Square, which features several songs in a light show that stretches from Frisco’s City Hall and across the Frisco Square retail and residence development, you can get all the info you need at the web site. I still think the best thing is to watch other people watch the lights. They get this giddy look in their eyes …
All these books-of-the-year and books-of-the-decade lists are out now. I’m too far behind on ’09 to make any sort of guess about what book I liked most. But I can feel some coalescence about the decade by just looking around my study. If a book stuck around from my circa-2000 apartment and made it here to my 140 square-foot retreat in 2005, and is still here today, it must’ve meant I thought it was a pretty freakin’ good read. Here are faves from the ’00s, I think. I’m sure I’ve left something out, likely because I gave my copy away to someone else to read. There has to be more to this list, and I’ll realize later “Oh, no, I left off [blank]!” but I also like the pop-quiz nature of this blog post, on which I’ll spend no more than 15 minutes throwing together a list. No particular order…
• “Harbor,” by Lorraine Adams. Best 9/11-era novel, in my opinion, and really gripping. Also, if you’ll notice (which you shouldn’t), fantastically researched and reported.
• “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon. More like this, please, and less of Chabon mucking around on collaborative comic books, children mysteries, unfilmed screenplays and essays about fatherhood. Get to work, genius.
• “Gilligan’s Wake,” by Tom Carson. The 20th century as reimagined through the prism of TV’s castaways. I am a freak about this book. I think it is amazing and re-read it every couple years.
• “American Wife,” by Curtis Sittenfeld. I know, I know — enough with the Hank/Curtis lovefest, but I think this is a brilliant, towering novel by a writer who is really going to last. (“Prep,” too!)
• “Everything is Illuminated,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Hard to not be jealous of this one.
• “Home Land,” by Sam Lipsyte.
• “Pastoralia,” by George Saunders.
• “March,” by Geraldine Brooks. Still gobsmacked by how good this one was. (Also her “Year of Wonders.”)
• “The Blind Assassin,” by Margaret Atwood.
• “Dear American Airlines,” by Jonathan Miles. Heartbreaking and hilarious. Made even better by the fact I read it on a nice vacation.
• “Lying Awake,” by Mark Salzman. Gorgeously spare novel about cloistered nuns. Amazing. I still laugh about the sin of “wasting Joy.”
• “Shopgirl,” by Steve Martin. The movie was kinda meh, but the first time I read this, I thought it was so beautiful. I still do.
• “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. On the afternoon I finished it, I just stared at the ceiling for an hour and mourned for a world that was not yet technically gone, but felt gone. That’s what I call good.
• “Nickel and Dimed,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, a shining example of two things, I think: morally conscious journalism and hilariously illuminating feature writing.
• “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” by Marjorie Williams, someone who has been dead almost five years and whose work I still hear about (or think about) all the time.
• “Where I Was From,” by Joan Didion. She finally became household-namous in 2005 by writing about her husband’s death (“The Year of Magical Thinking”), but I think this book, two years earlier, was better — it’s about the death of her California notions and ideas.
• “The Whole Equation” by David Thomson (and also his “Nicole Kidman”). I’m late to the game when it comes to savoring Thomson’s film writing, but I really do.
• “Pictures at a Revolution,” by Mark Harris. Loved this book, which was well-assembled and fascinating and not only explains a lot about our movie culture, but scintillates the ’60s as well. (The actual ’6os, and not “the Sixties,” if you know what I mean.)
• “The Beatles,” by Bob Spitz. I read someplace that the original draft of this book was twice as long as the 800 pages that were published. I would have happily kept going. It’s still amazing, after all these decades, to have the story of the Beatles told in a linear way.
• “Heat,” by Bill Buford. You don’t have to care about cooking or Italy. This is just an amazing work of reporting and synthesis and good writing.
• “Dog Man,” by Martha Sherrill. Made me cry. Such a strangely inviting and determined little book about living and aging in a faraway place.
• “The Fabulous Sylvester” by Joshua Gamson. I think this book has one of the most amazing opening chapters I’ve ever read. And I’ve never read such a compelling biography of such a marginalized celebrity. An excellent book made possible by deep, deep reporting from primary sources.
The TV listings don’t lie! Barring some misfortune, I’ll be a guest on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson next week – Thursdsay, Dec. 17 – so set the DVR or stay up and watch! It’s on CBS, after Letterman.
I like the show a lot and not just because they’re having me on. I wrote a Style section profile of Ferguson in March 2005, when the show was just getting going, but this seems to not factor into their decision to have me on, since nobody there remembers it. (I suppose I could tell you the reason why I think I’m on, and it’s completely legit, but for now can we just bask in the delusion that people everywhere care a lot about my book? Yes?)
Want some more excitement? The other guest that night is none other than Sigourney Weaver. Man, if the opportunity presents itself, do I ever have things to thank her for, namely her timeless portrayal of one Lt. Ellen Ripley. I’ve watched Aliens more times than I can count. (That one’s my favorite, though I love Alien too, and I ache for the potential seen in Alien3.) You can keep your Tony Robbins, your Paolo Coehlo, your Joel Osteen – Ripley is my life coach, my spiritual center, my rock and my salvation. She’s my framed Successories poster of the mind.
“If just one of those things manages to get down here, then all this, this bullshit that you think is so important? Well, you can just kiss all that goodbye!!”
Bliss. I love those movies because she’s so damn right. She’s scared shitless but she goes forward. Want to get out of here alive? Then Do What Ripley Says.
Reached a Yuletide peace in Seattle. The book is out there and doing whatever it’ll do. The flights have all been on time. The hotels have offered solitude and quiet and high threadcounts. The morning TV anchors at Seattle’s Q13 were perky and interested for exactly four minutes, which in their world is lavish attention. The public radio station hosts are always so deft with their questions. The December sky is beautiful; the temps dropped below 30. I queued up my Czars playlist on the drive down to Seattle from Bellingham on Sunday afternoon. Discovered that Seattle does a nice Christmas vibe, with lots of street bustle, lights, pedestrian-shopping. The very thing exurbanites crave this time of year, so long as it doesn’t get too … edgy. Anyhow, enjoy some Czars, and keep reading:
My friend Dan Savage – the syndicated and world-renowned sex-advice columnist, book author, and Xacto-sharp cultural pundit – had me over to dinner (lovely salmon, buttered carrots, delish cookie bars with ice cream) at his house Sunday night, with Terry and The Kid. They’d just put up their tall, aromatic Christmas tree, which Dan trimmed into perfect symmetry, and which Terry very intricately swathed in a multitude of clear mini lights; furthermore Terry insists the tree be adorned with only top-quality glass ornaments. Tammie Parnell would give him a grade of “absolutely phenomenal.” (I showed up with junky ornaments from Bellingham’s Xmas store — absolutely unphenomenal.) It’s interesting to watch what I call “PhD-level homosexuals” in their natural habitat of householdedness: longtime partnered, with an actual child that they raise, living in well-appointed, still-in-progress property refurbishment; add a tiny deaf dog with one eye and chenille-soft fur, and give the whole scene clarity and a sense of absurd purpose. And yet they are still utterly hip and plugged into the world at large. The Kid is a tween now and uses a steely glare to leaven the household snark, such as when both Dads excitedly explain their idea for a rather gay iPhone app; The Kid also hates it when the grownup talk goes down to a whisper. Boy oh boy, do I ever hope he writes a memoir someday! Don’t you?
From his Grand Poobah day job at The Stranger, Dan wrote a nice blog item about me on Monday, trying to get people to come to my reading. He referred back to some of the essays I’d dashed off for The Stranger’s annual, counter-programmed gay pride issues in the last decade or so. I’d forgotten how much fun I had writing those.
Alas, the low temperatures combined with a Monday night ennui combined with my chronic failure to become famous and beloved all o’er the land meant Monday night’s reading remained low-key, but pleasant:
About 15-20 people were there, and they turned out to be a perfect audience. I’ve reached a zazen point with these things. I’m thrilled when anybody shows up and I make it work and I don’t fret about it one bit — no, really I don’t. At this reading, I tried doing the Cookie the Elf scene from Chapter 12, and might do it again in St. Louis, if the situation calls for it. There were lots of good questions afterward.
The fate of the Elliott Bay Book Company is in flux, or so I’ve read, and I wish them well. Frankly, Mr. Shankly, it wouldn’t hurt the store to get out of that neighborhood – historical though it may be, among pretty 19th-century buildings, old-fashioned streets and all. That neighborhood gets slummier and crackier (heroin-ier?) every time I visit Seattle. And that basement off the café, where Elliott Bay stages their readings, a sacred literary space that they are so proud of? Yeah, not so much for me. The upstairs is so much nicer. The bookstore in Bellingham does the same thing – welcome to tonight’s author reading/signing … in the dreary basement! And Powell’s puts you up on the top floor, awash in fluorescence and gray concrete and safely away from, you know, the customers.
So far, I give ambience awards to the brand new Legacy Books, the indie store in Plano; with a close runner-up being Full Circle Books in OKC.
**UPDATE, 12/9: Breaking news: Elliott Bay is moving to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Kim Voynar, a film writer whom I knew in 5th grade and 9th grade (it’s complicated; she transferred schools a lot), came to the reading and we went out to dinner. Twenty-five years is just about the maximum amount of time that can pass before a person simply has too much tell you to bring you up to speed; it’s on the precipice of being strangers. So in a way, Kim, it’s nice to finally meet you! She’s having some pretty scary surgery on Wednesday; I’ll be thinking of her.
I think we’re pretty much caught up on Tinsel press, and arn’cha relieved? Hold on, hold on:
• There’s an excerpt in Wednesday’s Washington Post – nice front display from my Style peeps: Thanks, Lynn Medford — and HJ and Cavna and Padget.
• And there was a delightful 20 minutes spent on New Hampshire public radio’s “Word of Mouth” on Monday afternoon, if you want to have a lis’sen.
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MEANWHILE, THERE’S a whole world going on out there that has nothing to do with me. Imagine.
I have been so bad about keeping up with my news diet, but did anyone read this riveting, cannot-put-it-down dreck in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday? Who’d wanna be married to either of the people in this story? Show of hands.
I have seen this marriage – not this specific one, but I’ve seen its many analogues. Two self-reflective quasi-hipsters meet and marry. The husband comes standard-bundled with some all-consuming passion that must be treated as lifestyle, not mere hobby, and preoccupy the entire household. (In this article it’s gourmet cooking, but it could be anything: building a “sanctuary” shed out back, from scratch with reclaimed wood. Carpentry. Rebuilding vintage autmobiles. Growing all your own food. Brewing your own beer. Playing lead guitar in a band. Starting a record label. And the worst: getting a book contract.) The wife plays along until the baby (babies) are born and then she goes understandably batshit on his stunted ass. The grandbaby-obsessed in-laws (her parents, usually) encroach. The blog posts and freelance articles become increasingly personal. Suddenly all this crap ain’t so funny anymore and before you know you it, you are building an entire NYT Magazine cover story around the clever idea of getting your husband to go into all sorts of marital therapy with you. Oh, those straight-n-married white people problems: the NYT will never tire of them, will they? Let’s hope not. Two dollars a word! (Right? More? Less? How would I know.)
Gays, besides the $2-a-word-to-write-about-our-emotional-travails (which the NYT doesn’t buy so much), are we sure this is what we want? Or should we be paying more attention to George Michael, who said this week that he smokes seven joints a day and that he gets casual, outside-of-his-relationship sex twice a week?