Monthly Archives: November 2013

November 22, 1963

I was 14, in my last year at Court Junior High in Las Cruces, New Mexico. For one period of the day, I was an “office girl,” a dubious privilege which entailed running errands for the Principal’s secretary. The assignment got me out of P.E. (hooray!), and I enjoyed roaming the halls of Court Junior High when everyone else was in class. I snatched the pink attendance slips from the clips outside each classroom door and delivered them to the Principal’s secretary, who tallied student absentees. But aside from the freedom to roam, an office girl’s one-hour shift was boring.

Until Friday, November 22nd. It was sometime after 11:00 a.m. I don’t remember my principal, but I do remember phones ringing and his radio suddenly coming on. The secretary told me, “the President’s been shot.”

The President. Our handsome, wisecracking, good-guy President. My parents admired Kennedy and I was so excited when he was elected. At last, I thought, we’ll have somebody cool in the White House. How could a kid relate to bald, old Eisenhower? JFK had a beautiful wife that reminded me of my mom. His little kids were cute like my little sister and brothers.

I’m ashamed to admit that when I heard he was shot, the part of me that’s hungry for new experience wondered what would happen if he died. Instead of saying a little prayer for him to survive the shooting, I wondered what it would be like to experience a President’s funeral. I remembered reading about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege. I also wondered, selfishly, if school would be cancelled, hopefully for, like, a month?

Despite the horrible news about JFK, the principal’s secretary sent me on my rounds to collect attendance slips. I went to the gym where a group of girls clustered on bleachers. This was the P.E. class that I’d gotten out by virtue of being an office girl. The class was a mix of Anglos and Mexicans. Some of them were pretty intimidating. One Anglo girl in particular. I’ll just call her ‘Z.’

Z had big boobs, and big hair ratted into a brunette bubble above her head. She hung out with an equally sarcastic pal and the two of them would make rude commentary on anyone and everyone. I’m sure she thought of me as a nervous nerd, and I steered clear so I wouldn’t be the butt of her cruel jokes.

I ran into the auditorium, breathless with the news about President Kennedy. I told them, though maybe they already knew – I’m foggy on the details. What I do remember vividly is how Z laughed out loud when she heard the President was shot. I was shocked, and I walked out of that gym feeling shaken. In my naivete, I thought everyone loved the President.

JFK died minutes later. That afternoon, I had a dentist appointment that my mother wouldn’t let me cancel. The dentist was the father of my sister’s good friend. I was sitting in his fancy chair, waiting for him to come in and work on my teeth, when I overheard him tell someone, “I’m glad the sonofabitch is dead.” I was sure he meant Kennedy. I’d never had to think about my dentist’s politics before. He came in and while he examined my mouth for cavities, I was scared he’d find out I was a Democrat and he’d use one of those sharp, ugly picks to poke at my tender gums. Or drill needlessly into a perfectly healthy tooth. After the ordeal, I hurried home and told my mom about him. We never let him look at our teeth again!

I felt guilty that my “what if” question was answered – I got to experience a President’s funeral. I wanted him back immediately. I wanted to rewind that day, change his itinerary, keep him away from Dallas. My family huddled around the T.V. with its grainy, black-and-white coverage of his death. He was our loss and the T.V. let us share that loss with countless others who felt the same way. The weekend was an unfolding origami of grimness, one unbelievable event followed by another. JFK gone; Oswald gone; plump Jack Ruby in jail; and jowly LBJ (a Texan!) sworn in.

I never believed Oswald acted alone, though I’m not much for conspiracy theories. I can understand how such theories give comfort to those who want to organize chaos. But conspiracy theories require a suspension of disbelief for explanations that are as unbelievable as those crazy events on the weekend of November 22nd, 1963.

Of course Oswald didn’t act alone, but to me it no longer matters to find out who specifically funded his sniper attack. Whether directed by others or acting solo, Oswald rose up from an inchoate groundswell of rage against democracy. He was the jerky trigger finger of a powerful hatred. “They” lost the election and got even the only way “they” knew how. Whether “they” were anti-Castro, anti-Civil Rights, or pro-Mafia, “they” have been around forever, in all ages, all countries. They’re with us now. “They” mutate into different organizations, causes, and methods for extinguishing the enemy. But their fundamental rage and intolerance is the same.

I’ve been reading excerpts from The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy by political scientist and analyst Larry Sabato. He details the different forces behind Kennedy’s powerful enemies. Sabato believes it was “almost unlikely” that JFK would make it out of his presidency alive. The political climate was toxic to his life; Kennedy himself had a “false sense of invulnerability;” and the security forces protecting him were undermanned, by today’s standards.

Back on that November Friday, 1963, I was naïve about all of this. And maybe most of us were, regardless of our age.

“We have Art so we may not perish from the truth”

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’ve been telling anyone who loves books to read Donna Tartt’s latest novel, one that took her eleven years to write, “The Goldfinch.” I’m going to give it to my mom for Christmas because she’s an artist and loves beautiful things. I couldn’t stop listening to the story because of its twists and turns, its vivid use of language, and most of all, its narrator, Theo. As a reader and a writer, I found this book deeply satisfying and moving. At 771 pages, it’s a big boy. But the story flew by for me. I didn’t want it to end.

Tartt deals with a theme that has always fascinated me, and one that I explore in my own work: why do some of us stay stuck in grief over the loss of love?

Here’s what the writer in me appreciated: Tartt’s brilliant use all five senses in her descriptions. The way she builds layer upon layer of shrewd detail. Her deft scene setting, from Manhattan to Las Vegas to Amsterdam. Her keen depiction of characters with different economic class and backgrounds, from doormen to drug dealers, from Upper East Side matrons to failed actors. Her totally believable creation of two teenage boys on their own in a literal and metaphysical desert.

As a reader, I was caught up in the characters and willing to suspend my usual disbelief (though there are a couple of ‘really?’ moments). I love stories where the characters are sometimes acting stupidly and you find yourself saying, “No! Don’t do that!” But I was so invested in Theo Decker, that I couldn’t give up on him.

Thirteen-year-old Theo, in trouble at school, is scheduled to visit the headmaster with his mother (his father has abandoned them). His mother loves art and since they’re early for the school appointment, she and Theo duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view an exhibit of Flemish masters. In one shattering blast, Theo loses the only person who loved him unconditionally. Dazed and disoriented, Theo obeys the ravings of an old man dying in the bomb’s wreckage and steals a small masterpiece. The painting is of a tiny bird tethered to a perch by a delicate gold chain.

That Theo possesses (or rather, thinks he possesses) “The Goldfinch” for so many years, hiding it so well that he won’t let himself admire it, is the mystery at the heart of this immensely entertaining and moving meditation on the power of art and beauty over grief and guilt.

“The Goldfinch” is a modernist take on Dickens, with orphans, scoundrels, cruel and selfish fathers, kindly substitute father figures, rich families, greedy villains – even an innocent and unavailable heroine. But Tartt has updated Dickens by stripping her tale of any sentimentality.

Also, her protagonist is the antithesis of Dickens’ David Copperfield. Theo is the Hero as Self-Medicated Male. In the aftermath of the museum bombing, he resists offers of therapeutic help offered by well-meaning adults. He doesn’t want to “deal with” his grief – it keeps him connected to his dead mother. As he grows older, Theo consumes vast amounts of alcohol and opiates to deal with his never-ending post-traumatic stresses. Deep into the novel, we suddenly realize that Theo is an unreliable narrator. He has the same realization: the drugs he took as a teenager have erased a crucial moment from his memory, with terrible repercussions in his adult life.

“The Goldfinch” is a story of the illusions of memory and art. Theo makes a powerful case for the love and pursuit of beautiful things. A masterpiece can be reproduced in cheap prints and loved by many people through the ages. And Love can be kept alive in the face of Death. Theo concludes that “…as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” He could be talking about the canvas-and-paint illusion of a fragile yellow prisoner chained to its perch. He could also be talking about his love for his mother. “The Goldfinch” was her favorite painting.

The small masterpiece actually exists, one of the few works to survive an explosion in the 1600s that killed the 32-year-old artist, Carel Fabritius. Theo’s guilt for the theft of this masterpiece is as strong as his guilt and grief for his mother. Yet possessing such a beautiful work of art is the secret joy that lets him to keep his mother’s memory alive. As Tartt quotes from Nietzsche, “we have art so that we may not perish by the truth.”

On the Pleasures and Perils of

Last year, I started listening to books on my smartphone via I spend so much daily time looking at a computer screen that my eyes are tired at night, making it hard to read. And listening to books gives me greater flexibility. I can be absorbed in Ruth Ozaki’s For the Time Being while I’m housecleaning, walking the dog, or working out at the gym. But there are other, deeper pleasures.

For one thing, as a writer, I learn my craft by listening to another writer’s cadence – the way a sentence strikes my ear, the nifty turn of phrase or dialogue, the artful (or clumsy) unspooling of the narrative.

On another level, listening to stories is an exercise in childlike nostalgia – I remember how soothing and nurturing it was to have my mother read to me.

When the human race was at a more child-like level, stories were told aloud. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were structured so they could be memorized and recited in rhythmic incantations. In my mind’s eyes, I see those ancient audiences, sated by wine, warmed by fire, listening in trance-like pleasure as the poet recounted tales of their mythical gods and heroes.

Nowadays, my metaphorical campfire is digital (plugged into earbuds and smartphone), but the powerful spell of a well-told story is the same.

However: there are cons to listening versus reading. For instance, I live in the Seattle area on a traffic-heavy street and it’s suicidal to run while listening, AND running with a dog.

Also, listening means the narrative is in your head, not written on a page. So if I want to go back and reexamine a certain part in the story, it takes much longer to find that place. Audible has “bookmarks,” but that feature doesn’t allow for a reader’s “backward reflection.” I can’t always tell at the moment of hearing that I want to bookmark something. It’s tedious to replay a digital download, especially since Audible’s breakdown of chapters is so ridiculously different from the written book’s delineation. Much quicker to leaf through a book to find that special scene or bit of beautiful writing.

So far, I can’t determine if I remember audible books differently than real books. Maybe there’s a special neural pathway connection between our eyes, our brain, and the written word that can’t be duplicated with aural words. If anyone knows of research done in this area, let me know.

Regardless of whether I “hear” or “read” a book, what sticks in my memory about a book is character. The narrator Ruth in Ozaki’s For the Time Being. Eli the patriarch in Philipp Meyer’s The Son. Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s historic novels. Gatsby and Nick Carraway.

What do you remember from books? Character? The plot? Theme?

If You Buy the Candy, They Will Come


We live on a street that used to be called Cat’s Whisker Road, the oldest street in Kenmore. Maples line both sides of our area and form a canopy of leaves that turn flame-colored in the fall. Our sidewalks are buckled and poorly maintained. The residences are a mixture of apartment houses, homes built in the 70s, a few McMansions and a sprinkling of old cabins that date back from the 1930s.

The traffic is ridiculous. Commuters use the two lane street to get to and from Seattle, and the 35-per-hour speed limit signs are a joke. A frail older gentleman lives a couple blocks down from us, and I shudder when I see him tottering along on the narrow sidewalk.

All this to say, if I was a kid, I wouldn’t want to trick-or-treat on this street. Just crossing the road is a challenge. Still, every year I buy a couple bags of candy, in case some brave souls come by. They don’t. Most of them head for the swankier neighborhood on the hill above us. We eat the candy instead. We are our own trick-or-treaters.