In glowing words I’m trying hard

This time last year I was in New Mexico and we had just opened a cache of family stuff that had been packed away for years.  Not just the photos I keep mentioning, but papers and letters and scrapbooks and notebooks, old receipts,  ration cards, newspaper clippings, jotted notes. Lots of things looked like they could crumble into soft little scraps before I figured out their significance.

I insisted on opening up the boxes in the first place because I was looking for things about my great-grandfather, who was a writer. (He is the boy in this photo. And here is a short biography I wrote for him, on a site I’m slowly building. It should give you some idea why I’m fascinated with the guy.)

I was hoping to find manuscripts. Instead I was flooded with all these other pictures and relics that needed sorting, and it had to be done in the short span of my holiday visit. I would up spending an entire day in a spare room at my dad’s house making piles of photos and trying to figure out who was in each picture. I had a terrible cold that was so bad I lost my voice, and the dust from the boxes felt like gravel in my lungs.  I was overwhelmed and exhausted and more than a little sad to be surrounded by all this family I never knew, whose histories I hadn’t bothered to learn back when there were people around who could tell me about them. And then I kept picking up this thing, this bit of wood:

My great-grandfather Malcolm, living in New York City, had written these wobbly verses and used a heated tool (possibly a small icepick) to burn the letters. In the 1930s he’d devised a hobby where he’d copy antique maps onto wood using the burning tools and Mercurochrome paint. We had couple of the pieces he’d made in our living room when I was growing up. He’d sold a few of them, too. By 1938, though, he was starting to move on to another creative pursuit. He had published his first two stories in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction this year, and he had likely already sold a few others. He was just in time for what is now called the Golden Age of Science Fiction, though he wouldn’t live to see the end of it.

He may have made this card for his wife (who is in the photo here); maybe he made others, too. It wasn’t until I’d picked it up and looked at it for the fifth or sixth time, in the midst of all my desperate sad sorting, that I remembered that it was Christmas Eve. And that my great-grandfather was wishing me a merry Christmas and a happy future.

Road post!

Posting from the road! The car! Headed to Michigan to visit Chris’s folks for the holidays. This will be brief and filled with blurry photos. I do it for you, Holidailies.

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We take the Skyway, which we get to from a ramp that swoops up absurdly high from Stony Island Avenue; driving up it makes us feel like we’re launching into the air like in a cartoon. A few minutes later we reach the bridge, and after that, the steel plants and Gary. It’s the loneliest landscape ever and it’s always either overcast or impossibly bright bleached-out sunlit (it was this morning). You always feel like you’re the only ones on earth on that part of the trip, just you in your car hurtling through.

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We made it through the snow corridor (southwest Michigan) without snow, which is swell from a weather standpoint, but I miss the way it makes the trip a little more epic.

We’ve passed three billboards for Bronner’s so far. Also, Larry The Cable Guy is appearing at the Firekeepers Casino, and his face appears on a giant LED display the size of a trailer and I bet it looks terrifying at night.

On tiny road trips like this it feels like anything goes. We only have to follow the directives of the Garmin Lady Voice, and even then we tend to leave her huffily RECALCULATING a lot as we stop to get gas and jerky and Taco Bell (we will not speak of Taco Bell). Even when it’s not Christmas it feels strange and time-suspended, and now, with carols playing at the gas stations, it’s even more so.

I leave you with this amazingly emphatic sign. I don’t quite understand it, but hey, it has spirit. Not Christmas spirit, but Almost Holiday Transitional Time spirit. God bless us everyone, and here’s some cheap cookies.

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Retreat to win

I used to try a lot harder to win at Christmas. I’d be strategic about the cookies I’d bake and the music I’d play and the time I’d spend under Christmas lights, trying to increase my levels of holiday joy like it was some kind of hormone. I’m not sure when all that changed but I suppose it was gradual. I think to some extent it was something I did more when I was single—some need for joyful mindfulness that lost its focus once I met Chris. And then we travel for most Christmases these days, and there are now significant parts of my life that are ruled by deadlines, so it comes as no surprise (and with not much regret) that the little rituals dropped away. And then do you remember a few years ago when LED holiday lights first came on the market and they were weird and strange and cold, like cyborg tears? I think that sort of broke the spell and set me free a little.

And so I manage, not quite winning at holidays. (And clearly not at Holidailies either, though if I wind up with a dozen entries this month I’ll be happy.) I did make some cookies on Saturday, because I’d had a box of gingerbread cookie mix that had been in the pantry for a couple years and had been meaning to use, and it was a rainy gray day where I kept meaning to run errands but couldn’t quite bring myself to leave the house, and instead I’d been writing and running the hot water kettle all day for tea, and suddenly I felt like using some of the old tin cookie cutters from my mom and grandma that my dad had sent me last year. And so I made the dough and rolled it out and cut it and baked the cookies in the same amount of time it took to play the Carpenters Christmas album on the TV room turntable. So score one for me.

Bird by bird-ing it

It happened: I got the editorial letter for my children’s novel on Monday. It’s fifteen pages long (“we always give very extensive notes,” the editor warned me) and comes with a deadline in mid-January, a couple weeks after I have a column due and a week before I give a big lecture. And through it all I am working-full time, driving out of state for Christmas, and trying to keep up a fabulous lifestyle of staying mostly awake.

It’s not that I didn’t know the letter was coming. I handed in the first draft the Monday before Thanksgiving and then waved a turkey leg in the air to celebrate. Obviously some kind of tryptophan amnesia ensued, followed by jetlag and then a mild case of seasonal tinsel trance, because here I was sailing along Holidillydallying and feeling things were under control, until boop went the email and I remembered I have a novel to work on. A novel full of people with undeveloped emotional arcs! And now they are calling to me, their voices full of (unexplained) sadness, begging me to come back and give them terrible early childhoods and stuff.

But you know, I think I’ve got this. I have to keep remembering revision is one of the most bird-by-bird processes of writing. Some of the revisions amount to reworking several pages; others are a matter of adding a sentence or two, or changing a name. There are things I can do when I only have an hour free. When I was working on changes to The Wilder Life I figured out how to manage the workload using the magic of office supplies, and I’m doing it again with this project. And because I’m a dork, I’ll show you.

Here’s the hard copy of my first draft, stuck in a binder. I work onscreen, but it’s awfully handy to have the hard copy at my side, since the page numbers in my editor’s notes refer to this draft, and when I start making changes, things will shift. I added some stick-on index tabs that let me go straight to a chapter as well. It’s a little bit of a pain to set up, but it saves a lot of flipping around later.

My editorial letter includes a set of notes organized by chapter. I printed up those notes on some colored paper (goldenrod!) and then cut out each note or direction and taped it to the relevant page, usually near the paragraph in question. I tape the notes with Magic tape on the back of the page and then fold them over.  It’s similar to the way we used to attach manuscript notes at my own editorial job, back before we were all using Track Changes in MS Word. If I really wanted to be old-school I could attach the notes with STRAIGHT PINS, which is what the old editions of Chicago Manual of Style say to do. HARDCORE.

It’s a little tedious doing all the cutting and taping, but since you’re being so hands-on with the manuscript, it really gives you an opportunity to review the notes right alongside the text.

The point of using Magic tape is that when you’ve made the changes each little note calls for in the Word file on your computer, then you can just pull it off the manuscript hard copy. And then ritually burn it. Or whatever. And then you keep going, dealing with notes, in whatever order you like, taking care of the little ones when you only have an hour to work, the bigger ones when you have a whole evening. And you just keep going until there are no more notes Magic-taped to the manuscript in your dopey binder.

And then you will celebrate. Or I will, about a month from now. Here I go.

The Jamesons

I first discovered the photo a year ago, in a trunk in New Mexico when I was visiting my dad for Christmas. It was with hundreds of other photographs—snapshots and portraits and cabinet cards and even daguerrotypes—in a collection I had never seen before, though they were family pictures. I took a stash of the photos back to Chicago with me last December, but this picture stayed behind, and it was only last month that I saw it again when my dad brought it. You can click on it to look closer.

These are the Jamesons. They are my mother’s paternal family, my great-great-grandparents, Ammie and Joe Lee; the boy in the hat is Malcolm, my great-grandfather. The girl at the end is Vida, his sister. They are on the San Antonio River and it is 1893.

In 1893 they are in San Antonio because Joe Lee is the bookkeeper and steward at the Southwest Texas Insane Asylum. They live there, actually, on the asylum grounds in an apartment in the administration building. Other staff members live there, too, including, in 1896, the  superintendent, a Dr. MacGregor and his wife, who will be my other great-grandparents.

Later the Jamesons will move to Austin so that Joe Lee can work in the Capitol as the State Revenue Agent of Texas. Curiously, he will endorse a popular line of adding machines and his name will appear in hundreds of turn-of-the-century magazine advertisements that will come up in a search on Google Books. Thanks to scanned ephemera, his name lives on in a way he hadn’t planned.

In Austin the Jamesons will live in a big house that they do not own, a tall, narrow mansion with ceilings so high that when Vida, age five, leans too far over the stairway banister, she will fall nineteen feet. Somehow she will survive the accident, but die a year and a half later, in 1900, from meningitis. I will find yellowed newspaper clippings, an account of the governor’s wife draping ropes of violets over her casket.

I will at first wonder why Joe Lee left his government job to work for an oil company in Beaumont, Texas, until I figure out the connection to Spindletop, an astonishing geyser of oil that bursts out of the ground in 1901 and begins the modern oil industry. To pursue the opportunity, the family moves to Beaumont, to an address that Google Street View shows as an empty lot now. The address came from newspaper clippings, too, reporting Joe Lee’s death, from typhoid fever, in 1904, at the age of thirty-four.

Joe Lee is buried back in Austin, in a plot with Vida and Ammie, who died much later. This spring I saw their graves and the place where the big house stood across from the Capitol. In a city where I’d never been, in the weedy grass of a cemetery, there were the stones of these people who sort of (for lack of a better word) belonged to me.

This is the story so far. I keep trying (and, I think, failing) to express what it’s like to put together the pieces these people left. For no reason, really, except that the pieces are there, the scrapbooks and the photos and, sometimes, a detail that I remember hearing from my mother or or someone else. There are other pictures, of course, but this one really stays with me. I’m sure part of it is the nature of the photo—posed not as a portrait, but as a moment.  It makes me feel like I’m encountering them in a dream.

I think about how they stopped in the river to take the picture, to look across the water toward the bank, at all of us here on shore.

A life more ordinary

Last night Chris and I watched a Netflixed DVD of the 1980 film Ordinary People. I’ve been on something of a mission to find and watch movies that I watched repeatedly on cable during my childhood, movies that imprinted on me for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s a movie like The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, where you feel compelled to simply confirm that yes, there really was a disco sports movie about a basketball team that harnessed the power of astrology to win the championship (also they rode in a sparkly hot air balloon). And sometimes it’s a movie like Ordinary People, which is one of those dysfunctional-families-of-the-80s award-winning things. As a kid it fascinated me because it was set on the North Shore of the Chicago area and portrayed an affluent lifestyle that I both resented and envied. Somehow I couldn’t get enough of the Ordinary People family, with their golf games and Nordic sweaters and their many, many psychodramatic tics.

Donald Sutherland plays the most sensitive and kindhearted tax lawyer ever in the history of the North Shore, and he lives in a big white house with his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, and his son, Timothy Hutton. Mary Tyler Moore puts silver napkin rings on napkins and lines them up just so in the buffet drawer, which is how you know she’s an asshole. Timothy Hutton has a bad haircut that he gave himself in the mental hospital and he spends the first half hour or so looking (and kind of acting) like he’s been punched in the face. They’re all trying get past the boating-accident-death of the oldest son, “Buck,” who appears in flashbacks as the only one in the family who isn’t brittle and awkward. Timothy Hutton is so guilt-wracked as the surviving brother that he attempted suicide, and now he’s trying to get his life back together and date a very young, baby-faced Elizabeth McGovern. Judd Hirsch is his outpatient therapist; he smokes and swears and wears ribbed cardigans and has a dingy shitburger office. I know it sounds like I’m making fun of this movie, but it’s honestly good. You can laugh at the on-the-nose portrayals of classic dysfunction even as you admire the performances.


I am kind of sad Mary Tyler Moore didn’t spin off this role into a TV show called Brittle, Privileged Mother, where every week a guest star tries and fails to emotionally connect with her. It would be a sitcom, because apparently I am at an age where I find that premise hilarious.

But I also find myself remembering my younger self when I watch this movie, and how I gazed at the autumnal landscape of Lake Forest and the preppy outfits and the tidy homes. Much of the setting resembled Oak Park, where I grew up, but with the patrician affluence cranked up an extra few notches. The Ordinary People family didn’t resemble mine at all, but whenever I saw the movie I liked to imagine I was looking into my future, when would wear tartan skirts to choir practice and come home to a beautiful and oppressive household and run upstairs to my room in anguish. I liked to think that by watching I was getting ready for all that.

I am not terribly disappointed that my life turned out differently. Except, I guess, for the part where Judd Hirsch was supposed to be my therapist.