Hope everyone is all set to have a great weekend. T and I are driving up to Maryland for some family time. We may go sailing if the wind cooperates, fingers-crossed.
In the meantime, here are some interesting articles from the web this week that are worth a read.
How do you maintain tension in a story? (Ploughshares via @JanetUrsel )
I didn't know Dr. Seuss was a perfectionist. (WaPo)
He also has a posthumous book out this week.
Interesting discussion with Samuel Delany on the state of science fiction and minority writers. (The New Yorker)
Is it ok to admit that we prefer genre writing to the literary cannon? (The New Yorker. This one is a few years old, but the Delany interview reminded me of it).
After listening to an awesome story on This American Life about the differences between American and Japanese car manufacturing, I kind of want to read this book now.
This made me laugh. Do you have an opinion on vocal fry? I'm generally not in favor of telling women what to do with their bodies, reproductive, vocal, or otherwise. (WaPo)
Bonus pics of what we did last weekend, Jordan Lake with the pup:
I’ve recently become a podcast convert. I used to have an audible account, but I canceled it. The selection wasn’t great and I kept returning books that I actively hated. Serial came out around the same time and that was it. I was hooked.
Two podcasts quickly became my go to listens: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast and How Did This Get Made? You can probably tell from the titles and pictures alone that they are very different.
The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is understated and exceptional. It’s gentle, quiet, polite and unnervingly intelligent – pretty much exactly what you’d expect coming from The New Yorker. In each episode, an author is invited to read aloud a selected short story from the magazine’s archives. Then the guest author and The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, discuss the story. It’s fantastic. You hear some great older fiction from the archives that tend to be a little “out of fashion,” including the likes of Nabokov, Borges, Cheever, Gallant, Sparks, and Barthelme (a lot of Barthelme). It’s been a pleasure to be introduced to some of these authors for the first time and frankly, I think story telling peaked somewhere around 1965. My only criticism with this podcast is that it only comes out once a month and I’ve already finished all the old episodes.
How Did This Get Made has a completely different tone and direction. It’s hosted by three comedians/actors who watch a bad movie each week, such as Batman and Robin or Zardoz, and then they discuss why it was so bad. They are as crass and funny as you’d expect, and the movies really are atrocious, but the hosts are also really good at explaining why the story fails. What components of it could have worked, but how did it ultimately go wrong. So in between a lot of silly jokes there’s a great discussion on storytelling taking place. You also get introduced to a lot of movies that are so bad they’re almost good. Trust me, watch Zardoz. Sean Connery runs around in a monokini for most of it.
It occurred to me the other day, that despite appearances, these two podcasts really aren’t all that different and that I’ve been listening to two sides of the same coin. Both discuss stories. One just focuses on what we can learn from good storytelling, and the other, whether it means to or not, helps us understand what makes a bad story. I’ve found it very helpful to think about writing from these two perspectives.
That and I like breaking up the seriousness of The New Yorker Fiction Podcast with the levity of How Did This Get Made. You should check them out.
What’s your favorite podcast?
Have you ever read the poem, Marginalia, by Billy Collins from his collection, Picnic, Lighting? Marginalia are the little things you find written in the margins of books. Here's an excerpt from Collins's poem:
“Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page…
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward...”
I love the humor, and the way it describes the intimacy between book and reader, and the unexpected intimacy between readers separated through time and place, joined through the medium of a common book. Billy Collins is a former poet laureate and I’d absolutely suggest picking up his book to read the full poem and others.
I did my fair share of jotting “irony” in the margins of books for my high school and college English classes. My mother once read my eighth grade copy of To Kill a Mocking Bird and noted that several instances where I had written “irony” in the margins were in fact not ironic at all. I’d like to think I know better now, but who are we kidding.
I keep track of a lot of the interesting marginalia I’ve found in books. Used books and library books are obviously essential to this game. Here are a few things I have found:
o A short note, written in cursive pencil, at the end of my college library's copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that read something to the effect of “I’ve known a Holly Golightly in my life. She was the most beautiful person and I loved her, but she could never love me. I’ll always remember her.” Can you imagine the sort of guy (or woman) that reads Breakfast at Tiffany’s and writes that note? I’m actually a little suspicious of the romantic type, and although this person probably wrote that note in good faith, I don’t have a lot of sympathy. No one has an obligation to return affection.
o In my used copy of Fahrenheit 451, someone had highlighted every instance of color in the text. Can’t you just imagine this student’s paper? Yellow = greed, red = anger, etc. It’s the kind of close reading that makes you weep for the future of literary criticism.
o A long unbroken vertical line, drawn in pen, that ran down a page long section of Amy Tan’s memoir, The Opposite of Fate, in which she discusses why she quit her doctoral program. I bought this book from a used bookstore, Nice Price Books, in Durham, NC, which is across the street from Duke University. I imagine that a grad student who was already contemplating dropping out of their program read this book and highlighted that section as particularly meaningful to them. It’s a great part of the book. I could see it giving someone the guts to quit a program or job that’s wasn't right for them.
o A Christmas card that fell out of the jacket of a library book. It was a photo card and on it was a picture of a family posing with one of their sons and his new bride. The family was white. The bride had dark hair and skin and was wearing an elaborate pink and white sari. The inside of the card had a quote from the bible and a handwritten note. I won’t write the fully text of the card, but I was struck by this line:
“The experience of welcoming a Muslim daughter-in-law into the family has been an opportunity to expand my consciousness and open my heart.”
I feel that could be read several ways.
o A Patrick O’Brien book from the library covered in soup stains. Not a piece of marginalia exactly, but it connected me to this anonymous reader, wherever they are now, because I also love to eat soup while I read and it is impossible to do it without splashing the pages. See my poor copy of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader below. I suspect it’s Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup. I know better now.
Anyway, I love marginalia.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found written or sitting in a book?
I’ve had these copies since I was probably three or four years old. I think my parents bought them for me when we briefly lived in the U.K. (which would explain the ancient price stickers being in pounds instead of dollars). Before I could read, I used to sit with these books and flip through the pictures to try and make sense of the story. This illustration particularly freaked me out with that skull head above the doorway.
The Chronicles of Narnia. There are earlier examples of sword and sorcery, but no one did it better than, or with as light as touch as C.S. Lewis. If anyone were to ever ask me which books in my collection I valued the most, I'd point to this set of The Chronicles of Narnia without even thinking. The quality of the hardback covers and the illustrations by Pauline Baynes really set these editions apart from modern versions.
Although I’m a total science fiction nerd, and I certainly love a good fantasy movie, I’ve never much cared for the sword and sorcery or high fantasy literary genre. I really tried to get into the Wheel of Time series, but I could barely break past the hundred page mark. And I’ll confess, I’ve never finished The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s not a bad genre by any means, I just can’t seem to get very excited about it, because in my opinion, high fantasy peaked with these books:
Do the modern versions have the same great drawings as these? I could write for pages about the artwork, but no one would care as much as I do so I’ll keep it to myself.
Eventually my mother read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to me, and although I liked the image of Mr. Tumnus carrying presents in the snowy wood where it was “always winter and never Christmas,” I’d never choose this book as my favorite in the series. In fact, I think it’s probably the weakest story or maybe it has the weakest characters of the lot. The Pevensie children, except for maybe Edmund, were kind of dweebs. It’s too bad that this is the one Narnia book that everyone reads because it really doesn’t reflect the more mythic and medieval quality of the other books.
In my opinion, everyone should read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, which make a nice duo. Heck, The Horse and His Boy has been something of a dark horse in the race for my favorite.
Eustace Scrubb was my favorite character. He had the best arc. First he’s the little asshole kid (a familiar archetype to anyone growing up), and then he turns into a dragon and it does him a world of good. He becomes this solid guy by the end of the series. For you Harry Potter fans, he's kind of the Neville Longbottom of the series. I want my characters to start off rotten like him and then slowly get more likable.
But why does no one seem to read the entire Chronicles? What’s up with that? It would be like reading The Little House on the Prairie and never picking up, or even acknowledging the existence of On the Banks of Plum Creek. The Chronicles of Narnia are such good simple stories, why hasn’t that translated to more of an audience than say The Lord of the Rings? Rings has some great elements, particularly the idea that no matter how good we believe ourselves to be, we all possess a corruptible soul, but it gets so bogged down in its own world-building and its awkward sense of pace. The Ents always make me want to hurl the book across the room. And there's too much singing.
The Chronicles of Narnia rarely gets as dark or boring as The Lord of the Rings. In fact, I think its message is just the opposite. No matter how awful we are, redemption and forgiveness is possible. Obviously, that's the Christian element for which Chronicles is so well known, but isn’t that the best part of Christianity? The good part?
Not being a very good Christian myself, I never cared to read The Chronicles of Narnia that way, but I still felt that Aslan, the gentle lion, was always a comforting image. I guess it recalls our most basic needs from religion, to feel protected and loved. Can’t argue with that.
Do you have a favorite book from The Chronicles of Narnia? Or do you like The Lord of the Rings better? Tell me why, I'd love to know.
Somewhere in my childhood bedroom closet there is a stack of spiral-bound notebooks, each partially filled with some truly awful first attempts at writing science fiction. But you know what? When I was 11-years-old, I was doing a better job of being a writer than I did at age twenty-five, when my year's productivity maybe consisted of a single piece of awful X-Files fanfiction, because grad school. At age 11, I regularly stayed up late, school be damned, and just wrote whatever I felt like because I enjoyed doing it. None of what I was writing was good, but at least I was making a habit of writing.
It took me years to realize that's the secret to being a writer: you just have to make a habit of writing. Full disclosure, I am not a published fiction writer, but I have published journal articles and a book chapter, even if it is all related to my research. But in 2013, I had a sort of break-through when it came to my fiction. At the time, I was really struggling at work and the usual troubles that come with moving to an new area. I can't remember exactly how I heard about NaNoWriMo, but it must have been around October of that year because my circle of the internet seemed to be buzzing with anticipation for November.
For those that aren't familiar, NaNoWriMo stands for "National Novel Writing Month." It's an online event (project?) in which aspiring authors sign up for the challenge of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. That averages to about 1667 words a day, which is a substantial amount of writing. I was game and signed up.
It was a total revelation. Each day I had to hit 1667 words, or at least try to. The NaNoWriMo website lets you upload how many words you've written each day and track your progress against the projected rate necessary to hit 50,000 words by the end of the month.
Like most people, I "failed" the challenge in the sense that I didn't hit the 50,000 word mark. I had (and still do) a tendency to edit and rework what I had written. Deleting sections is generally counter-productive to hitting a word count. For this reason, some people criticize NaNoWriMo because the nature of the competition does tend to encourage sloppy writing over quality work.
But look, it's a competition with yourself. People can do whatever they want with NaNoWriMo. For some, I guess it's a chance to actually write that novel they had been planning (there are many published novels, even famous ones, that originally came out of NaNoWriMo - Water for Elephants is one example). But what I took out of the experience was the habit of regular daily writing.
Each evening, I came home from work and wrote as much as I could. Not every night resulted in much more than two or three hundred words. But some nights and weekends exploded with writing if I got on a roll. 1500 words wasn't uncommon for a Saturday, even if that was still woefully below what I needed to actually get a NaNoWriMo winner's badge. It didn't matter though. It made writing a daily habit for me that continues on almost two years later now.
Have I gone on writing breaks? Absolutely. Usually, these breaks coincide with vacation and family time or when my husband is out of town. But I always pick it up again.
So besides trying NaNoWriMo yourself this November, what are some things you can do to make writing a daily habit? I like to use a redundant calendar system. On my wall calendar, I mark X's for each day I have written. This was an idea I got from something Jerry Seinfeld once said about how to be a writer. I also keep a journal by my computer to keep track of my daily word count and any ideas I have for the next day, or long term plans for later chapters of the book, etc. And then I have a weekly planner, where again, I write down my word count.
Ironically, the word count means less and less to me. Sometimes, I spend my entire session working on a single paragraph, because I want to get the words just right. But documenting my writing using word counts is easy and keep me accountable for my main goal of writing regularly. I don't know why I enjoy writing the same things down in multiple calendars. I do that at work too. Minor OCD, perhaps.
Routine also helps me maintain the daily writing habit. I eventually figured out that I was a better and more productive writer in the mornings. So I gave up my evening sessions in favor of waking up early and writing before work. I have a long commute, so this means I get up at 4:45 a.m every day. I'm groggy at first, but after I drink my coffee, sit down at my computer, turn on my writing playlist, and read the last page that I wrote the day before, I find it's no trouble to wake up and start writing the next section. That's just what works for me, but I think it's important to figure out what time, place and set of conditions works well for you.
Admittedly, it is slow going working on a book 700 words (my daily average) at a time. I have felt despair that I'll ever have enough, that I'm happy with, to send to literary agents. It also makes it hard to keep track of long-game plot development. I personally find I can get so bogged down in one description that it's hard to feel like I'm making any progress at all. I have a full time job. I wish I could spend all day writing, but I have to support myself. So this is the best I can do and I'm pleased to do it. No self-judgement, that's another key.
Give it a shot. Write something, no matter how small, every day. Make it a long term project. Keep track of your progress. Just make it a habit. For me, it's the difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being one.
The mulch isn't just for aesthetics, though it does look good. It actually helps quite a bit with the weeds. Before, I was spending a lot of my time just weeding the paths to prevent the vines and creepers from growing up and over the short sides of the boxes.When it was raining a lot, the weeds were thriving so that a lot of my weekends were spent in a rescue weeding operation to keep my vegetable plants from being taken over. I lost my cucumbers that way after getting back from a business trip and finding that my husband had not been quite so vigilant while I was gone. That's ok, it happens.
Why do I bother with all this sweaty, bug-bitey work? For this, dear readers: the most delicious tomato sandwiches you could possibly imagine. If you don't like tomatoes, well, you've just never had a Better Boy still warm from the sunshine on a piece of toast with mayonnaise and cheese. This is a summer highlight for me. We planted so many tomatoes this year that I've practically been eating these sandwiches for dinner every night since the end of June.
I've encountered this turtle before. He was actually trying to squeeze through my garden fence to get inside. I just let him in. I figured why not. The other day I found him again, chomping away at one of the tomatoes that had rotted and fallen off the plant onto the ground. He looked like he was in heaven.
Can anyone help me identify what species he is? I guess native to North Carolina. I've only ever seen box and snapping turtles around here. The spotted pattern on his head, legs, and shell look new to me. I guess I could google it, but where's the fun in that?
I hope everyone gets to do whatever their version of gardening is this weekend. Maybe you like to go for a long run? Play a good video game? Watch a good movie? What's the thing you do that makes you the happiest? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Talk to you soon.
I also just like seeing things grow and thrive because of the care I've put into them. After I weed the garden each week and harvest the produce, I feel good. It makes me happy in that indelible way. And I get to hang out with critters like this guy:
Rarely do I get to Friday and think, "Man, I just owned that week! I was totally awesome!"
In fact, I'm more prone to getting the Friday blues. What am I doing with my life? Is this the direction I want to be going? Am I even getting anywhere? It's the sort of existential introspection that I find benefits me in no way. Mondays are their own trials, but at least they hold the promise of a new week, full of potential. Fridays, in my mind anyway, lend themselves to unsatisfactory review of the previous days. I've talked this over with some of my friends and we've decided that women are more prone to this pattern than men.
Anyway, I can usually pretend I don't have any of these worries from 4 p.m. Friday to 4 p.m. Sunday, and I am just one hour away from that golden threshold. I'm not even sure what we're going to do this weekend. Maybe get a drink at Mystery Brewing like I've been promising myself. Or try out the new ramen noodle restaurant, Dashi, in Durham. I may try and finish this book of short stories if I'm feeling ambitious. There will undoubtedly be some gardening involved as well.
For the last few weeks, entirely while my husband was out of town, I've been fixing up our garden to prevent the paths between our raised beds from becoming overwhelmed with weeds. This has meant hours of cutting and pinning landscaping fabric, followed by more bags of mulch than I care to admit. But I think the results have been worth it. Check out the before and after.
Bear with me here, because I'm not going to do a Joseph Campbell reading of Star Wars and the Hero's Journey. It's been done. It's really cool and you should check it out.
What I want to talk about is the relationship between character and reader/viewer experience. The difference between the Star Wars prequels and originals illustrates this relationship well.
As a fictional character experiences new things, thoughts, and emotions, how are these same feelings translated to the reader? I don't know how other people read stories or watch movies, but I have to "inhabit" a character to really enjoy myself. I have to participate in the story through that character's eyes and become them in my mind’s eye. If I can't make that transition, well, I'm not able to enjoy the story as much. This doesn't mean I have to want to be like the character (that whole likability conundrum), I just have to want to experience what they are experiencing; escape to their reality for a while. For simplicity, let's call this the "inhabitation effect" (and if anyone has a better name to use, do share).
The inhabitation effect is not a new idea. What is new to me is the realization that I have to create the inhabitation effect myself in order to write a good story. If I can't get the reader to take on one of the character's perspectives or motives, then I've failed.
I realized this while watching The Phantom Menace again for the first time since it originally came out. This movie is not good, to put it bluntly, but (and this deserves a post of its own), I think we can learn a lot from bad storytelling, almost as much as we can learn from examples of the good.
Here's the problem in The Phantom Menace: the Star Wars universe doesn't surprise, excite, or scare any of the characters. They seem totally blasé about everything they encounter. I think the fact that the narration almost uniformly follows highly established characters (fully-fledged Jedi, the Jedi order, a Queen, the Senate) hobbles the story’s inhabitation effect. All the characters already seem to know everything about the Universe they inhabit. Here's the best example I can remember (and I looked for this on YouTube, but there were too many fan videos to wade through and find it):
Which brings me to my counter example. The Star Wars episode IV cantina scene is one of my absolute favorite in all cinema because it communicates so much information, so quickly. Luke enters the cantina and we learn not just how many aliens there are in this universe, but also implications from that regarding inter-stellar travel, galactic economies, and probably crime. Up to this point, I guess we had encountered people, droids, and Jawas. The cantina really shows the diversity of life that’s interacting in this galaxy. And Luke looks utterly out of place there. He’s the farm boy. He clearly doesn’t normally hang out with bar-scum. His body language in that scene says a lot. He’s trying to act cool. He orders a drink to seem normal, but he’s also looking around at everything. He’s clearly very uncomfortable and out of his element, but also incredibly curious.
Therefore, you, the viewer, are a little uncomfortable and curious. You feel that sense of wonder, which is also kind of scary. You feel at risk, because he’s feeling at risk. This is the inhabitation effect at its best. This is what makes great storytelling. It’s not just about plot movement. It’s about getting the reader/viewer to follow an emotional arc through a character that gives a shit about their surroundings.
So how do we do this in our own writing? First, I think we need to choose characters that are inexperienced or uncomfortable with the situation we place them in. I guess this is usually referred to ask the problem element of the story, but problems mean more than just plot driven issues. The character needs to have an internal problem with the situation. They should be unfamiliar with it and their setting to some extent.
I don’t know why, but that’s harder to do than it sounds. Maybe when you are a young writer, you feel insecure about your stories and so gravitate towards characters that are confident and knowledgeable. I think we need to fight this tendency. I know I struggle with it. Or I struggle to write characters that are emotionally engaged in the story. So I’m trying to remind myself as I write to let my characters be uncomfortable. Be like Luke and use the force badly at first. That opening light saber scene in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke has been capture by the Wampa…kills me every time. It’s so good because it’s unexpected. We didn’t know he could do that, which makes it so much more exciting.
Anyway, clearly you can tell I’m a Star Wars nerd. The originals aren’t perfect movies, but they have some great elements of storytelling.
What stories or movies have inspired you or helped your writing? Drop me a line. Or, feel free to nerd out with me about Star Wars. I'd be cool with that too.
In the scene where Qui-Gon Jin and Obi Wan Kenobi meet Jar-Jar Binks, Jar-Jar suggests they follow him to the Gungan city. He dives into the water and swims away. The two Jedi don't even blink. They just whip out their fancy under-water breathing devices and wade in. See, they aren't impressed or excited to be traveling under water, so why would the viewer be impressed either? This is totally boring to them, by all outward appearances. Just another day on the job. You could go through this whole movie and find example after example of exactly this type of behavior that completely ruins the inhabitation effect. Remember Anakin Skywalker jumping into the fighter ship at the end and owning everyone in the space battle? I mean he’s small child and yethe doesn’t even seem remotely scared or surprised by it all. How about the prequel’s explanation of the Force? It’s not a mystical energy that surrounds us and binds us. It’s just microorganisms in your blood…where’s the mystery there? Anakin is like, oh ok, cool, and wanders off after Qui-Gon tells him this information.
If the characters of the Star Wars prequels experience this world with total boredom, then why wouldn't you feel bored too? I think Lucas would have been better served to concentrate from the beginning on a story from Anakin Skywalker's perspective instead of getting bogged down with master Jedi and politics. I think it's natural to be more interested in a character that has new things to learn, rather than follow someone who has already done it all.
You may remember that I checked out a few books from the Pittsboro library this past weekend. Well I finished Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant late last night. I started it around dinner and stayed up late to finish it.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is categorized as a graphic novel, but that’s a misnomer because it’s really a memoir of the artist’s experience caring for her aging parents. Chast is a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker and I think most readers would recognize her work. The jokes are usually about anxiety in some form. The drawings even look like anxiety personified. The characters have birds nest heads and look like they're grinding their teeth. Everything is squiggly lined. Like everyone, I have anxiety that grows and ebbs depending on the day, so her cartoons have always seemed a little too close to home for me to really enjoy or seek out. They’re good, she’s funny and a good cartoonist, but it’s just not what I gravitate towards in terms of artwork or subject.
But I thought More Pleasant was very well done and explains a lot about why her cartoons are so anxious. Chast grew up with a couple of kooks for parents, a pair of comically stereotypical old-school Brooklynites. The memoir gives an account of her dealing with her parents’ aging bodies and minds, and it’s not a pretty story or future for any of us to contemplate. Chast doesn’t sugar-coat it and we’re shown very private thoughts about love competing with a litany of other feelings like anger and disgust, money concerns, selfish inheritance thoughts, and of course, grief. All thoughts I think everyone has, but people aren’t usually honest enough to share.
Chast draws and writes in detail the extent that her parents deteriorated in front of her. How filthy their home became. How her father lost not just his short-term memory, but his ability to do simple things like unlock a door. How her mother’s body became increasingly weak and septic even as she retained an almost abusive level of anger and stubbornness. It was sad, but also not that shocking or unfamiliar, I think for most readers.
I remember seeing something similar happen with my grandmother, who went from being this amazing independent woman, who was a talented artist and something of beauty back in her day, to a broken, morbidly obese stranger who had no idea who or what we were. It was a total transformation. She lost everything, except a sturdy if mangled (and I mean, completely mangled) body that would not die. Despite everything, she seemed happy and comfortable enough until a day or so before she finally did die. But no one would say it was a high quality life during those last five or six years. She was kind of like a very old cat. She liked having us around to hold her hand, but she just physically and mentally couldn’t do anything more. When she died, although my family was obviously upset, we didn’t really cry or go through an extensive mourning period, and that’s because we’d honestly already been crying and mourning for years before she actually passed away. It was like we had already lost her a long, long time before then.
I think this is a good book for thirty-years old to read. My parents are in excellent health. They’re active and smart. They love each other and love my brother and me. But I know one day they’re going to die. That’s what honestly scares me about getting older. I don’t care that I’m turning thirty in a year. It’s that the older I get, the older my parents get too. I get a little bleary-eyed trying to imagine what life would be like without my parents. But before we even get to that point, if they are fortunate enough to live a long and good life, then there’s also a strong possibility that they will go through a similar degradation and humiliation of body and mind like the one Chast describes. I don’t want that to happen, but I’m slightly, very slightly, more prepared for the worst now.
What sets More Pleasant apart is its honest, darkly comic account of an inevitable part of living; that dying is not always fair or fast, but it’s going to happen. We’re not going to be ready to help our parents, or maybe forgive them for the past, but we have to bear up and do our best. That’s all that you can do and what every generation before you has had to do too.
Recently, I stopped by Pittsboro, NC to get a new library card. Pittsboro is such a classic example of Mainstreet, USA that I felt it deserved a brief spotlight so I could share a few things I really enjoy there.
Pittsboro is located about 45 minutes west of Raleigh, not far from Jordan Lake. It’s not a large town, but there’s a nice collection of small, family owned businesses. If you’re in the market for reasonably priced antiques that make good hipster home décor (e.g. wire bird-cages, typewriters, rococo mirrors, etc.), then you should visit Pittsboro. I like Reclamation Home Furnishings and while I was there I nearly bought a set of bar glasses that had this fun fox pattern, but I’m trying really hard to not fill my house with too many “things,” books not withstanding…
The Phoenix Bakery is on the main drag (Hillsboro St.) in Pittsoboro, actually right across the street from Circle City Books & Music. The doughnuts are baked, not fried, but the dough tastes more akin to croissant than cake. They are chewy and snappy and usually filled with some delicious crème. They’re not completely glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut, so it’s not a sodden bite of corn syrup. There’s just the right amount of icing or ganache on top. The Phoenix Bakery has a lot of options as you can see below. There are also cupcakes and bread, and I believe they bake cakes for special occasions, but I’ve only tried the doughnuts so far.
…because there’s also an excellent used bookstore in Pittsboro, called Circle City Books & Music. This is a classic used bookstore. You walk in without any expectations and walk out with three or four books you had no idea you wanted to read until you saw them sitting there on the shelf. I love used book stores. They break you out of reading ruts and expand your sphere of influences. The last time I visited I picked up Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, two classics I've always wanted to read.
Books and hipster-ware aside, the thing I may like the most about Pittsboro is the doughnuts. My god, these doughnuts. I’m not even a real fan of doughnuts, but these are just so good that I’ll make an exception. If you are in the area, you must go to the Phoenix Bakery.
My favorite is the boston crème. The filling is not like the usual syrupy custard you usually find. Phoenix’s uses more of a whipped crème filling, so it is super light and fluffy. I bought this doughnut ($2.75, totally worth it) after checking out my library books. I wasn’t actually that hungry at the time, but I still wanted a taste. So I had two bites of this boston crème and was originally planning to throw the rest away. But then those two bites turned into half the doughnut. And then I couldn’t help it, I ate the rest. That may sound a little gluttonous, because as I said I really wasn’t that hungry, but the flavor and texture was so good that I just focused completely on it and enjoyed every bite. I finished it without any guilt because it was such a high quality pastry. Normally, I tend to engorge myself on food without really tasting it. This was the totally opposite, mindful experience.
For the past three weeks my husband has been working out of state. I knew it would be difficult to take care of our home and our animals by myself while also working full-time and commuting two hours a day, but I also knew I could do it. It just meant giving up (for a finite period) most of my own personal time, and particularly my writing time, to accommodate the added responsibilities that my husband and I normally divide. In addition to all of this extra work, I’ve been pet-sitting for one of my husband’s labmates who was going on the same trip. I probably shouldn’t have said I could do it, because I knew I would be pretty overwhelmed as it was, but I wanted to help our friend and his two cats.
I wish I could say the pet-sitting went well, but pretty much the worst thing that could happen, actually happened. Just a few days after my husband and his lab left for their trip, one of the two cats I was pet-sitting became incredibly sick. I walked into the apartment and found the poor thing panting in pain and dragging her hind legs. I knew she was dying, but I had no idea what to do. My instinct was to take her to the vet where I was positive they would counsel euthanasia, but I couldn’t do that without first contacting my friend. He hadn’t left any instructions about what to do in that situation. It took several hours, but eventually I got a hold of him and he made the appointment for that afternoon. I left work early and raced back to get the cat to the vet. They took one look at her and said she was dying and there was nothing they could do. The owner was called, tearful permission was granted, and the cat was put to sleep.
It was awful. After returning that sad empty cat-carrier to my friend’s apartment, I went back home to my own pets. And instead of being sweet and loving with them, I found myself getting super annoyed. One of my cats wouldn’t stop smelling my hand. Maybe he smelt death. I yelled at him and pushed him away. Then I yelled at my dog for wanting to play, which is what puppies generally want to do. I was wrung out, I guess. It was just totally draining and upsetting to have to bring someone else’s loved animal to the vet to be put to sleep. But it was even harder to watch the cat struggle in pain.
Then, the next evening, this happened.
I was outside weeding the garden when I heard a little thunder in the distance. When you’re gardening, you’re very focused on the soil, so I had no idea until then that a storm was approaching. And then I saw these fingers of clouds reaching down. I’ve grown up on the East Coast for most of my life. I’ve never seen a cloud move vertically or twist like this one was doing. It seemed incredibly close. In no time at all, it was reaching down over the woods that surround our house. I ran inside and threw my dog and cats into our bathroom, because they don’t build houses with basements in North Carolina for some reason. I ran back outside and saw the funnel cloud, pictured above, twisting right over the field in front of our house. Those woods that are behind it make up one of the borders of our property. So the funnel cloud was literally in my front yard, just hanging there, hovering. It seemed almost alive and cognizant of where it was and what it was doing. Full of intention. I know that’s silly, but that’s what it looked like. It reminded me of this old Disney cartoon:
I took a picture, because I’m a millennial idiot, and ran back inside into the bathroom with my very confused animals. My little grey cat, Hans, took one look at the rest of us (me, his brother, Bunbun, and the dog, Ham), and was like, “Nope!” He opened the cabinet beneath the sink and slipped inside. The cabinet door closed behind him and he stayed there for the rest of the storm.
It started pouring rain. The wind, oddly, for a storm that was moving so fast right over my house didn’t seem that bad. I mean, it was blowing hard for sure, but not what I was expecting for a storm with so much rotation. I kept waiting for that “train” sound my mother always told me a tornado makes. In fact, when I called and told her this story, the very first thing she asked was, “Did it sound like a train?" It didn't. Now I’m wondering if this train sound is just part of my mother’s lore. Readers, can anyone who’s ever heard a tornado confirm or deny whether it sounds like a train?
The storm passed over us in ten minutes. It stopped raining and the cicadas started buzzing again en masse. It was like the funnel cloud had never been there. I don’t think it ever touched down, thank goodness, but it was still very frightening for me. I let the animals out and then I went back out to the garden to finish my work.
So do you see what I mean? Draining, right? Normal life is hard enough, especially when you’re all alone. But when you add events like these it can feel like everything is on the edge of out of control.
I’m just glad my husband is coming home. So glad. I’ll get my writing time back, for one thing, and a little more help with the dog walks and the gardening. And of course, I missed my husband’s company. The first thing we’re going to do (he doesn’t know this yet) is get a beer at Mystery Brewing in Hillsboro, NC. That’s been my goal these last three weeks. I’d tell myself I could make it. I’ve gotten past all these animal troubles and all those trash hauls to the dump; past the non-weather related power outages, and the weeds that never stopped growing, all in anticipation of the future reward of beer and BBQ with T.