Norwegians

I was ahead of the curve when it comes to the Norwegians. Finding Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses felt like a personal discovery in 2005. I’ve always loved a good translation, one that retains a book’s original idioms, place, and cultural details. A good translation gives you the illusion of reading a book in its original language. Ann Born translated Out Stealing Horses. She died a few years ago and I have to think that Per Petterson must miss her. I’m sure she was a good part of the reason that the novel sang the way it did. Its publication in 2005 coincided with a year I was hungry for distraction. I had fallen in love with another Norwegian and although we spoke on the phone every night and spent our weekends together, in between there were all these days to fill where I tried to live in my own skin. Falling in love was like being kidnapped from myself. It was a kind of agitated madness. I was well into my forties when this happened and it caught me unprepared. Maybe love always does. The songs it inspired were pretty good but they didn’t provide relief, really. Books, on the other hand, could be escaped into. A couple of days a week, I rode my green Schwinn over to the Mattituck Library, checked out the new fiction, and talked to anyone I could about books. I was devouring three or four a week. There was a nice man who worked behind the counter, not a librarian, but a local man who loved to read and volunteered there. I would talk to him for an hour. I remember recommending Out Stealing Horses to him.

Since then, I’ve read everything by Per Petterson that has been translated into English. None of his other books is as structured or formal as OSH, but I’ve loved some of them even more. In The Wake may be my favorite. Petterson spoke about that book last week at the New York Public Library, where he was interviewed for over an hour, on the occasion of his most recent publication, I Refuse. His new book was reviewed in the Times last weekend, was on the cover of the Book Review, alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Book Four, also just published. (I have a first row ticket to see Karl Ove read at the 92nd Street Y next week. I guess I’ve got a thing for the Norwegians.)

After Per’s reading, I stood on line to have him sign my copy of his new book, and we talked for a few minutes. It turned out he shared my love of Jayne Anne Phillips’ work and we spoke about that. He was lovely. I was able to tell him that his writing has influenced and inspired mine. Then I left the magnificent New York Public Library and walked to the subway, thinking of my old green Schwinn (now stored in my mother’s garage) and the modest but really excellent library in Mattituck. 2005 was ten years ago, unbelievably, but it doesn’t feel like that.

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Ghost of Itself

Sometimes when I’m brushing my teeth before bed, I hear the traffic on Lexington Avenue through the skylight and it gives me a feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on. Like these pictures taken from the window of a train. It’s a feeling that I get sometimes playing guitar too, singing, and remembering the different phases of that. It becomes its own ghost. Things not only what they are but what they used to be. This is what it must be like to lose your memory.

Earlier, I picked up the guitar and played a song written some months ago. The lyric goes: It’s easier now/to think of you as lost/like summer and childhood and the city as it was. It felt good to play and I wondered if the song was as good as other songs I’ve written. I remembered what it was like to be ambitious, to want people to hear the songs, and do what I had to do to make that happen.

I heard Michael Cunningham, the writer, speak a few weeks ago about ambition. He said that writers feel both ashamed of their work – it isn’t as good as you meant it to be – and confident that it has to be heard. I suppose I still have those feelings – about my fiction at least. But I no longer have the expectation that others should care as I do. It strikes me now as childish, like a kid demanding, “Look at me!” I want to share myself with others but not with any urgency. I guess it’s one of those things that’s become a ghost of itself.

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Old Dog, New Trick

If I wasn’t in school five days a week, I’d probably be hibernating this winter. As it is, I can’t say I mind the weather so much. I’ve managed to get those little rubber boots on Doe’s feet, which has eliminated a lot of the anxiety I felt last year; She started having seizures that I was sure had to do with the salt and ice – mostly the salt. Anyway, this winter she’s scrambling around like a champ in those little red boots and, so far, no seizures.

I leave her every afternoon to go to class. I don’t have any classes before two. That gives me time to write in the mornings, and take her for a walk before I leave. The writing I’ve been doing has been mostly homework but today I dropped math, which should free up about ten hours a week. I don’t know what I was thinking to sign up for that class first semester. I was never any good at math and now I’m rusty on top of it. Also, it brought up memories of my father that were painful. Yesterday, I was in tears about it. I can’t remember the last time I was in tears for any reason, let alone math!

I’m writing a lot, of course, which I love to do. My brain works in that realm. How can you be smart in one thing and so completely out of your depths in another? It’s interesting to have assigned reading too. I’m so used to choosing what I want to read, but part of going back to school is letting go of this idea that I know better. It’s always been something of a handicap, I think – that arrogance. Math should be all the reminder I need that I’m not as smart as I think.

I’ve been trying to get Three A.M. Analog off the ground, too, which means finding the musician/writers to begin. A lot is already in place but, without the stories, it’s just an idea: A literary press for musicians who write fiction and creative non-fiction. I think it’s a pretty good idea. Turns out there are quite a number of us out there. I’m looking forward to working with other writers on their work. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

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Small Things Become Big Things

In reverse order: Saturday morning buildings, yesterday’s recording session with Paul, studio set up by the window, last flowers from Della and Michael. Small things have become big things.

Small things wait. You can live inside them. Cats sleep at your elbow, dog at your feet. It’s quiet. Songs come.

Big things are a carrot on a stick. You chase them. They make your stomach hurt. You can’t sleep. Big things are fast and hard to see. They don’t fit. They block out the sun. It’s better to remember them.

Small things accumulate. They’re yours. You mull them over, turn them in your hands.

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Lists of Things


At the end of the year, NPR, The New York Times, and my FB feed are full of Best Of lists. Music and books and movies. I could make a list of my own favorites this year, and perhaps I will. I’ve seen a few movies: Boyhood, Birdman, and Interstellar. Also lots of documentaries and indies, mostly on my computer screen, via Netflix and Amazon. I could make a list of books, of course, because I’ve read many this year and have lots of passionate opinions about the best ones, and why they are the best ones. All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wylde, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend trilogy, Linn Ullman’s The Cold Song. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Book Two. These are off the top of my head.

Of the three categories, I’m least able to make a list of the best music of the year because I’m aware of so little. Friends sent their CD’s and I enjoyed those. Through NPR, I learned of Luluc. Through Jeremy, Mark Kozelek’s (or rather Sun Kil Moon’s) new one, Benji. My friend and former songwriting student Geoff Schroeder has a band called Second Hand. I listened to their blue-grassy debut quite a bit. I bought Haley Boner’s, War, and Aaron Lee Tasjan’s EP, Crooked River Burning. My friend, Amanda Kravat’s EP, and most recently, I’ve been listening to Sylvie Simmon’s record, Sylvie, produced by Howe Gelb. I’m writing about it for Salon. It’s very good. Maybe everyone’s music list is like this now. Songs you happen to come across. There is so much out there. How to even find it, let alone absorb it?

I could make a list of other things, such as: best days, best friends, best dog, best three cats. Best cake eaten all at one time. Best nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital. Best poem for a friend’s lost son. Best reason for a resentment. Best sleepless night. Best things to forget. Best song I haven’t finished yet. Best laugh. Best silly moment. Best reunion with an old friend. Best sentence written today. Best hope for the future. Best wishes for the new year.

Yeah, best wishes for the new year. Love, health, happiness, and prosperity. Now, there’s a list. x

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I Don’t Take it Lightly

It’s hard to take for granted
This gold light, these cool nights
It’s almost fall again
This is our time

Paul’s father passed away on Saturday. The funeral was yesterday and it was heartbreaking, but also good to see Paul’s mother, Norma, and spend the day with the family sharing remembrances of him and crying together. It was a bright fall day and at the cemetery all the trees were red and yellow.

Paul’s dad was a beautiful man in every respect: handsome, warm, strong, funny, and charismatic. Alvin was ninety-six and lived an amazing life. Leslie and I were talking about it and acknowledging that every life has its frustrations and hardships, even his – he walked 300 miles into Poland as a prisoner of war, for God’s sake – but it was also just a spectacular life. He was accomplished and adored. He and Norma were married for sixty-seven years, and happily. Norma is still beautiful at eighty-nine, and looked glamourous in her soft gray sweater and scarf. She was pure, raw grief and it was hard to witness but also magnificent because she was utterly real and herself.

I was eighteen when I met them both, invited to dinner at their apartment on Central Park West. I was very intimidated by the paintings on the walls (Alvin was an artist and fashion illustrator), the stylish furnishings, and their glamour. Norma served cornish hens (she was a spectacular cook) and I didn’t know how to eat mine. I stabbed at it cluelessly until it flew off my plate, but they were kind and generous to me that night and over all the years. I loved them and felt loved by them. I told Norma how much I loved Alvin and she said, “Everyone did.” I told her I loved her too, and she asked me to come visit.

Of course, Paul was everywhere, being his kind, capable self, taking care of all of us and everything. He is the best man I know.

In The Ones I Loved (the name I gave the book I’ve been writing over the past two years) Alvin inspired the drawing teacher my character Mara studies with when she takes a life drawing class (in an effort to begin living again). This scene takes place at the last class as it is just getting to be summer.

For our last class, we meet at the Gansevoort Street entrance to the Highline: Tamir, Ayako, Eileen, Lucas, Lauren, and the others. We climb the steel staircase to the elevated train tracks, now a park. We’ve brought our sketch pads and charcoal pencils, watercolors, and pastels. Mr. P is wearing a beautiful summer weight blazer, a sky-blue shirt, a silk scarf. He must have been quite something in his prime. He’s still dashing at whatever age he is, which I suspect is older than he seems. We’ve learned that he is a World War II vet, was taken prisoner in Poland. Later went to Cambodia and Vietnam as an artist for the Air Force. Married Mrs. P and had two sons. Became one of the best known fashion-illustrators of his time, a time when illustration was more popular than photography.

Mr. P asks us to notice the light – early, almost-summer evening light. Without any eye at all, you could see that it’s a special time of day. He calls it the magic hour. We walk the whole length of the park. A new section has opened that extends it into the thirties. The path narrows as we go. Plantings and surrounding architecture shift subtly from landscape to landscape: Steel beams and wildflowers, rooftops and tall grasses, trees and brick buildings.

We scatter to find benches and lounge chairs, take supplies from our bags: charcoal pencils, watercolor, pads with thick paper. Mr. P gazes out over the Hudson River. I wonder what he’s thinking? Maybe only of how beautiful the light is as the sun goes down.

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Heads and Bodies

I’ve always had a thing for Buddhas. These are from an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Viewing them, I couldn’t help but wonder how they’d been procured. And there are so many. I was also reminded of hearing once that it is disrespectful to separate the head from the body of a Buddha statue but many are displayed that way. I have a couple on my fireplace mantel too – one a gift from Anton. The other, from a trip to Malaysia, many years ago. Just heads.

I went to hear Simon Van Booy read at the Strand the other night. G. took me and afterwards he told me that I had behaved badly, not at the reading but in my dealings with WM. I found myself wondering about it after. Do I burn bridges? Am I hard to deal with? I don’t mean to be difficult but, when you’re fighting for something that’s yours, sometimes it’s appropriate. Maybe G. has never had to fight like that. I don’t like to fight. (G. thinks I do.)

People are complicated. People are more than one thing. People are vicious and sweet and pissed off and sorry. People are lazy. A long time ago, Gary Baker (my music attorney) told me that no one would ever care about my music the way I did. It was a revelation.

G., if I don’t fight for it, who will? They separate the heads from the bodies. That’s what they to do.

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Beautiful Day

It’s such a beautiful day today. There’s a cool breeze and the sun is shining. This photo of Paul and Doe was taken in Central Park on another beautiful day.

I’ve gotten many get well wishes from fans and friends and wanted to say thank you. I appreciate it. I’m feeling much better and less gloomy. Many of you shared stories of your own hospital stays and I wish you good health and no return visits. I guess we all end up there eventually, but I’m going to resist thinking about that today. The sun is out and, although it may not seem like it at times, I know I can choose to focus on what is right with the world (even if it’s only the weather!)

I’ve been reading a lot this summer. I always do, but more than usual. Last night my friend Chris said he was excited to recommend two books to me, and I was excited to get a recommendation, but it turned out I’d already read: Kate Atkinson’s, Life after LIfe. And Rachel Kushner’s, Flamethrower. Both were good, smart, and interesting.

I just finished Elena Ferrente’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, and A New Name. They are two in a trilogy and the third is to be released in September. She is a wonderful story-teller. I’m very addicted to her characters and their stories, and can’t wait to get my hands on part three.

I’ve already recommended Donna Tartt’s book (not that she needs my help) and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first two of his six part, My Struggle. (He doesn’t need the plug either. His handsome face has been everywhere.)

I think my favorite book of this year has been Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. It’s perfection in its own original way: Economical, brilliant, subtle, and real. I loved it and it inspired me to do certain things with my own book that I might not have otherwise.

My book was returned to me for revisions. I made a few (including changing the title) and sent it back to Lisa B. who has promised another read by September. I found I couldn’t change what I’d written to make it more suspenseful. It became what it is, and I like it that way. I can only hope that someone will fall in love with it as is, and give it a proper launching, because It isn’t a potboiler. I know that.

I’ve also been writing songs this summer as I mentioned in an earlier post. I’ve got five new ones so far. I’m feeling pretty good about them.

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View from Room 826

I have no denial about the age I am, or what it means. People start to get sick at this age. The body fails in all kinds of ways. I’m aware of that. I’m conscious of my own mortality. I get it. We’re here for a certain number of years.

In our prime, we allow ourselves to feel powerful for a time. It’s not even that we “allow” it. We just do — feel powerful for a time. We think we’re just living and we take all the connectedness and intuition and flow for granted. It just IS. But later, it changes and we slip out of the flow. It’s natural. It happens to everyone. Like illness.

This was the view from my hospital room, the first one, when I woke up. Two days later, I was moved to another floor because I no longer needed to be connected to so many machines. The woman next to me was older and sicker. Still, she was working hard to get better and I know she was disappointed when I got to lose the nose tube first and the catheter and then was moved to the ninth floor. Goodbye, Anne. The sound of her oxygen monitor had kept me awake all night, but she was a sweet lady. I hope she’s doing well.

On the ninth floor, I met a girl who had had skin grafts. She’d had fake silicon injected into her hips a couple of years before and it had gotten infected. She’d spent a month, the previous year, at the hospital. She knew every item on the menu. She told me some of her friends loved hospital food (hard to believe) and they came to visit her and she shared it with them. She was twenty-one, which meant she’d had the silicon injected (in Brooklyn) when she was just nineteen. She asked me if I had any candy and I shared my lifesavers with her. I couldn’t eat anything. At first, I wasn’t allowed to — nothing for four days. A portion of my small intestine has been removed. I was getting my nutrients through the IV in my arm. The other IV’s were for an antibiotic and other drugs. Even after I was allowed to eat, I couldn’t because by then I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to be hungry. I had lemon ice. I got out after five days. My seventy-nine year old mother came to pick me up with her driver, Sal. He took us back to her house, where I slept and slept. The hardest part of being in the hospital was not being able to sleep. The machines make so much noise. They have alarms that go off. Some are just inherently noisy. I dreamed the sound of one was a horrible song that I was forced to listen to over and over. It began its pattern every thirty seconds. (I’d watched the clock and timed it.)

The illness happened so suddenly and though I have no denial about my own mortality, I was shocked to find myself in an ambulance and then a hospital room. It was five in the morning by the time the results of my MRI came back. It was an emergency. I was given papers to sign and was in surgery by six. I remember asking my surgeon if he had ever performed the procedure before and he laughed. That’s the last thing I remember until I woke up in room 826.

It lifted my spirits to see the cityscape and the blue sky and dramatic clouds. Such a beautiful view.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been reading. (Karl Ove Knausguaard, books one and two, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.) Doe was freaked out at first. She’d been rescued by Jen, my sometimes dogwalker, who stepped in and took over, took care of the cats and Doe without notice. Bought supplies, took Doe home with her. I’m so grateful to her. All of my friends have been great, just generally wonderful and generous and kind. I’m lucky.

Meanwhile, I wait for my agent to read the new book and get back to me. She has had her own emergencies and life takes precedence. If I needed a reminder of that, I don’t now.

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Cat, Dog, Music, Books

I turned in my third draft to Lisa B. a week ago, and have been writing songs since. I’m rusty but today recorded one in order to hear it back and I think it’s not bad. My goal is to write two a week while I spend a little time each day cleaning up my draft. If it sounds ambitious, I guess it is. But the songs will be mostly rubbish at first. I can feel that it will take me a while to get back into it.

I’m unsure as to whether the book is any good. I think it might be, or pretty good, or not bad. Again, there are structural problems that I’ve been unable to solve to my satisfaction, but I have to remind myself that it won’t be perfect. It will be what I wrote as a second book. I want to write as well as the writers I love, but that’s not realistic. Of course, my editor will have suggestions and I need a new title. I haven’t found one yet that feels right.

I’m very disciplined about working, although it doesn’t feel like that. It just feels like habit or routine. The day I turned in draft three, I decided to add a morning run to the routine. I’ve been going every other day — just a mile or two. I’m out of shape. Writing is so hard on the body. All that sitting. When you write music, at least you’re picking up the guitar, putting it down, singing and playing.. Writing prose you just sit in one position for hours.

Leon is in town and last night we watched the sun go down at 90th Street by the reservoir in Central Park. Then we sat on a bench and watched people go by as it got dark. Doe was there too, glad to be outside. Leon was telling me about a friend of his who lost all of his cherished memorabilia to Hurricane Sandy. He was trying to replicate it and Leon felt that was sad. How could it ever be replicated? He was thinking about all the stuff he has accumulated too. What to do with all the stuff? I told him when I sold the Mattituck house, I threw most of mine away. Photos and tapes and sheet music and everything. After a while, you get tired of carting all your junk around. I was going to say that the past has little bearing on the present anyway, but of course that’s not true. There I was with Leon, my friend of thirty plus years, and the past was thick between us. Sometimes the present doesn’t seem as real.

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