#ReaderLeaders

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Back in 2004 I was living in Southwest Missouri and suddenly had the opportunity to move to California. My brother was in the Bay Area, still single, and we decided that when I did move we would be roommates. I packed most of my Missouri life in a storage unit and the rest into my car: clothes, cat, notebooks, and books (but just a few because this was a 1998 Chevy Lumina, not a bookmobile). The books were the following:

  • AAA state guides for Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California (this was before smartphones as we know them now, after all);
  • Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris (he had just died that May);
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac;
  • Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama.

I had no clue how to pronounce the last author’s name at that time, but that’s the book I read first at each hotel on the way west. I would turn the cat out of her carrier, set up her self-care station, go fetch ice and maybe dinner, review the next night’s plan for a hotel from a guidebook, and then crack open Dreams From My Father while I ate in the hotel room. I have had the gift all of my life of finding books that needed to be present for a reason, just when I picked them, and for some reason the narrative of a guy with such a jacked-up name running for Senate in a midwestern state like Illinois spoke to me. The premise only got me started, however, because what kept me reading was that a) the book told a compelling story that didn’t sound like a political resume. It was well-written. I hoped this guy would write again.

Flash forward to later in that month, Sunnyvale, California. My brother and I have a few weeks left in his old apartment before we move into a bigger place across the pool with two bedrooms. I’m sleeping in the living room on my futon for the time being, still looking for a job, and one late afternoon, waiting for my brother to come home to see what he wants to do about dinner, I’m bored and I turn on the Democratic National Convention. I’m not crazy about John Kerry, but I certainly didn’t want Bush the first time, so I’m just kind of listening, kind of not, when a speaker is introduced with a name that sounds familiar, and which I finally know how to pronounce, now. He strides to the mic, and he starts speaking, and it turns out he can speak as well as he could write. The voice is the same on paper and on camera. I’d been watching political stuff for years (history minor in college), but this guy was political to everyone else but me. To me, superficial woman with a preference for poets first, I fell in love with Barack Obama because he could write. That sealed it.

And then some pundit chimed in as Obama left the podium, mentioning something about someday that guy should run for President. I thought that might be too good to be true (with a name like THAT? And he’s a WRITER…), but it was nice to chew on that for a minute, dream on that for a minute.

*****

I’ve never read Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. I was afraid (and still am) that Audacity would read like a stump speech, like a campaign publication. Don’t tell me if you’ve read it and it does read like that, even though it probably won’t change my mind. My sister-in-law and I always wondered what kind of job his speechwriters had while he was in the Senate and then President; I liked to muse that they probably played solitaire and, at the end of his term, maybe spent their days watching Netflix, but something tells me he was either keeping them busy with mentoring them, pushing them to develop themselves as political operatives, or making their lives hell by debating their own writing. Even if it was the last option, I would have killed to be on that writing team.

When Obama left office I forced myself to accept two probabilities: that the next Democratic Presidential candidate or series of candidates would also write or have written books, and that they would be written in such a way that I wouldn’t want to read them…unless I was suffering from insomnia.

*****

In addition to being a writer I loved to read and listen to, Obama also had this nifty trick of being a passionate lover of literature. Every so often the press would report on his visits to independent booksellers in the DC area and what he bought from them; most of the list was literary fiction. I occasionally would pick something from the list to read just to get a feel for his preferences, and I enjoyed his selections even more that I enjoyed his writing. He was the Writer/Reader Leader, always looking for ways to broaden his mind with fiction, and I loved that he got that.

*****

Here is just a starter list of 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates who have written books. I am probably missing some; this list is from Rolling Stone, a January issue this year:

  • Kamala Harris
  • Joe Biden (although undeclared, for the moment)
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Julian Castro
  • Beto O’Rourke
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Cory Booker
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Sherrod Brown
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Howard Schultz
  • Pete Buttigieg

About that last guy…with the unpronounceable name…

*****

Other people, a great deal of other people, had reasons for why Barack Obama wasn’t supposed to be elected President. The biggest reason was he was black, and there was general talk that the country was not ready for a black president, especially a black President with an Islamic-sounding last name.

Again, about the country being ready for things, and that last guy…

*****

When all of the Democratic Party started firing up their list of candidates back in December and January, I watched with interest. I picked favorites, even on a ranking. I liked the idea of Kamala Harris because she was from the Bay Area, she was a minority in more ways than one, and she was a treat to watch in Senate hearings. I liked what she said on Twitter about the Dreamsicle in Chief, too, so, if you asked me in January who I’d pick, I would have picked her. I also liked Cory Booker (although I’m not fond of his interviewer interruptions) and was a big fan of Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 congressional race. To be honest, I would have been fine with any of them. I was happy with all of them, but not…excited.

I didn’t read any of their books. I knew them all except the last guy, and he was a mayor, so THAT’S not likely, right? I stuck with my list.

And then toward the end of February and beginning of March that last guy, the guy with the funny name who was “just a mayor” started showing up on my book publication news feeds. He was in my literature stuff. Something about how he could speak Norwegian and read Norwegian. Something about how he taught himself to read and speak Norwegian because of a novel.

Full stop.

So there are others, I thought. There are others like Barack Obama and they are running for President, too. I tried not to hope too hard; surely this Norwegian stuff was a stunt? But no, Pete Buttigieg, who already was fluent in SIX languages, wanted to learn Norwegian because he couldn’t get any more novels of one of his favorite Norwegian novelists in English, so he taught himself Norwegian to read the rest of the books.

As if that weren’t enough…Pete Buttigieg did his college thesis on the foundation of another novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

And…God help me…

Amazon’s Kindle has this neat option where you can sample a book (sometimes the first chapter, sometimes less, depending on the publisher), and I loaded the sample of Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home. I was raised about two and a half hours east of South Bend.

That goddamn book is like going home. In the opening chapter Buttigieg talks about his first winter in South Bend as mayor, for about a paragraph, and then he flashes back, to winters and the city in his childhood. I am old enough to remember the Blizzard of ’78, and even though Buttigieg is a decade younger than I am, he relates the narratives of people who remember it, too. THE BOOK STARTS OUT WITHOUT HIM. He is a storyteller, he is telling someone else’s story, and he truly conveys that story is important, even before it is his.

Okay, okay, so the guy can write. I pulled up some YouTube interviews, and watched them with a collection of other interviews of Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, Warren, Sanders. The best, most entertaining, and easiest comparison is The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Same interviewer, different candidates. With everyone but Buttigieg you get the feeling there’s a canned answer for the question asked (in the case of Booker he gets so eager to answer that he often interrupts the end of the question), and the canned answer is sort of close…

Buttigieg just answers the question. Even better, he gets lots of practice, because he gets the same questions from everyone (with a little straying from Bill Maher, but I expected that). And even though he gets the same answer, he never sounds rehearsed. You get a feeling of patience, and maybe an underlying hope of expansion (maybe THIS person will be edgy and ask me something else, fingers crossed), but he never rolls his eyes in disgust. Even better, when he’s in a panel setting he does not jump in like everyone else on the panel; he waits to be called on. (If nothing else it should be interesting debate behavior.)

Here’s what I can’t bring myself to do, yet, because I’m afraid to pop the bubble of adoration I have this Writer/Reader; I have not watched any speeches of his. Lots of interviews, no speeches. Will he be able to do it again? Can my superficial love of all things literature bail me (and Buttigieg) out one more time?

Oh, I hope so, she writes, knowing empathy follows fiction. And empathy is sorely missing right now.

#SelfDoubt vs #SelfConsciousness

There’s this actor, maybe you’ve heard of him, a fella by the name of Tom Hanks.

Mr. Hanks has been in a fair number of films, he’s produced some, he’s directed some. My personal favorite of his movies is the one pictured above, Cast Away, and it was my favorite movie of all time for a long time. I still watch it about once a month; it helps me process loneliness back in solitude and gratitude when I need to.

Cast Away did not make Tom look glamorous. Hanks’s character (and to play the character you have to look the part) started off the story overweight and a control freak of time (which he tries to explain to the Russians, if you want irony in 2017); by the end of the story he is shaggy and rail thin, no longer a lover of seafood, grateful for something as small as a Swiss Army knife, and someone in awe of time and fate. There are now a lot of photos and memes of this film on the web and social media of Hanks looking nearly gross; ain’t nothing gorgeous in it.

For the past three years Hanks has also been working on a collection of short fiction for publication. The work isn’t necessarily Pulitzer-worthy, but it’s entertaining and touching in some places; one short story is so funny it took me about two hours to read it. Shortly after I finished the book I looked for media supplements on the book; this task was a bit of a struggle because the book was released right before the release of Hanks in the film The Post, and most interviews involve the book for about 30 seconds and the film for about 12 minutes. But there was an interview filmed for The New York Times, on their program Times Talks, where Hanks was interviewed primarily about the book and answered questions from social media and the audience.

One question asked Hanks how he overcomes self-doubt. The question was ambiguous enough to apply to any career in creative work, and Hanks answered as though it applied to his acting, since that was the creative work most folks knew him for. His belief is that self-doubt is the same as self-consciousness; get rid of both and you can create. Sometimes the role requires that you look ridiculous or that you do something you don’t want to do to play the role because there might be a picture of it later…you have dispense of that. You have to make the mistakes and trust the process, he explained.

Just before I read the Hanks book I read another book, Sourdough, by Robin Sloan, that took me to the same place as Hanks’s thoughts on creative process. In the book the main character of Lois has to deal with Silicon Valley hipsters who are too cool for school in product development and nutrition; she also has to deal with analog purist foodies who think that anything high-tech is a fad or corruption. Lois, from the Midwest and feeling far from cosmopolitan, finds joy from simple food and makes mistakes in learning to cook and bake, not to mention making lots of mistakes in marrying tech and life hacks in that cooking and baking. Lois looks silly a lot. Lois is nowhere near glamorous.

Yet, in the reading of Sloan’s book and Hanks’s book and his interview, I feel like I’ve got a standard to move toward. Make mistakes, Jo; so I go back to cooking myself, making messes. I pull out the baseball novel I was working on and botch it up or improve it for one of my writing sessions; I do the same with sessions devoted to other writings. I very well may be making all kinds of mistakes right now in this blog post. I think that’s the place where the best stuff comes from, and I’ll continue to do so. ✨

#RapidFire

There’s are several unofficial mottos here in the Golden State, and one of them is “Work hard, play hard.” I have been resisting this approach for ten years of living here; it seems like if you have to play just as hard as you work, then it’s kind of like, well, more work, right? But this doesn’t ring true with the culture around me, particularly in this part of the state, so I try to play along.

When something new comes up on a weeknight, I try to buy in, even though my job has turned into an exercise in anarchy management, not workforce management, lately. Last Thursday night was no exception; my sister-in-law asked me to go to the Oceanside Farmer’s Market with her. I have been to farmer’s markets in San Diego’s “Little Italy” neighborhood, in Encinitas, and in Carlsbad, and prefer the Encinitas market best for vendors and venue (the market is held at a civic and environmentally minded elementary schoolyard and holds mostly farmers, with a few artisans and about a third of the booths being prepared dishes served). The Oceanside market intrigued me for a number of reasons: the location is near the pier, which is a pretty commute in; the Oceanside community is known for being a little rough and tumble, and I imagined this as a rare night of peace and harmony; and I was trying to imagine farmers traveling to Oceanside.

Sadly, I think that the farmers were trying to imagine it, too.

To begin with, there were about four times as many people at the Oceanside market as the other markets. Parking was choked up for blocks around the four block intersection that was the market. There was also no sign of a pause in the Oceanside culture, but more of a confirmation of it; in the first half hour at the market a skateboard rider took out a side mirror of a moving Prius about four feet from me, a half a dozen people stepped on me or into me by not paying attention, and two dog owners had to pull apart a German Shepherd and a Saint Bernard that got into a fight at my right hip. That last one was the snapping point–I had been attacked at work all day long like most managers wouldn’t want to be (and I’m not a manager), and this was supposed to be my “play”? It was too hard, not an even balance, and felt like I was just working overtime. I told my sister-in-law I would meet her at the entrance to the market. She tried to get me to stay, but any argument was moot; if I could have caught a plane to Montana that moment I would have taken it.

I settled for an excellent blues band and bad samosas instead, but my good sport inclinations are running thin. I don’t see a way out of this culture, but I am doing my best to just survive in it, hold my own, looking for little filings of silver in these abusive clouds, and find…solitude in a riotous crowd.

I wonder how long I can do this…without too much lasting damage. I think I’m over trying to be a good sport or fit in.