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Month of Letters: Week 2

It’s another Sunday.  The first full week of “LetterMo” is over.  I’m feeling pretty good.  I had a bit of a setback–not concretely, but mentally–last Monday when I tried to send a letter in an elaborate envelope, which I will probably post a picture of soon, as I assume it’s arrived by now.  Anyway, I put it in the mailbox, but when the mailman came the doorbell rang.  “I love this, but it will never go through,” he said.  “It’s unmachineable.  You’ve got to take it to the post office and mail it as a package.  I saw that one you made with the map the other day, really cool!  But this, I know they’ll send it back.”  It was really great to hear his enthusiasm, but I was surprised, because it was really not that weird.  It was the size and shape of a regular envelope.  Back in college, I sent (and, especially, recieved) much more strange items, for standard postage, as far as I remember.

The worst part was that at the post office the ugly postage printout thing wouldn’t stick where it was supposed to, so they had to stick it on in such a way as to completely uglify my beautiful envelope :( Hopefully it just peels right off and the recipient can see what it was meant to look like.  Anyway, the whole thing was a bit of a momentum-breaker, right at the beginning of the week.  I also had very little resources in terms of art supplies–I’ve just moved, and all the various papery bits, half-exhausted markers, stickers, worn-down crayons, and so on, got left behind.  So my intention to make the letters, and particularly the envelopes, beautiful was really putting me to the test.  I cannibalized everything I could find, and hopefully the results were OK, but I was really getting worried that I would have to recycle envelope ideas, whcih I didn’t want to do.  Especially since the mailman was noticing!

Luckily this weekend I got to go to the craft store and I got some stuff, and in writing my first letter to a relative stranger I came up with a ‘format’ which will hopefully get me through all of those while still being entertaining.  It’s a little weird, but that’s fine.  I didn’t expect to write anyone I didn’t know this month, so I had to wing it!

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A Final Valentine: The Berenstain Bears’ Almanac

At some point in my life, I lost all connection to the seasons.  One memory stands out as an example: I think it was New Year’s Eve of 1996 or ’97, as a teen, I went to New York City with two friends to experience New Year’s there, and see the ball drop if we could.  It was extremely cold, with icy wind cutting through the skyscraper canyons, and everyone in the city was bundled up against the weather.  Everyone except me.  What did I wear?  I wore a rather thin coat, and underneath, a T-shirt and jeans.  No gloves.  No hat.  Just a coat and T-shirt.  I was miserable; every bit of wind sliced right through me, and my hands felt like they were going to break off and shatter on the ground.

Why had I worn such ridiculously inadequate clothes on such a cold night?  Because I had lost touch with the outdoors.  Whenever I went anywhere, I would simply run from my house to the car, from the car to the building, and never spent any time actually outdoors in the cold.  For this kind of life, all I needed was a thin coat, to keep me warm for the few seconds between climate-controlled interiors.

Life after high school has been a long process of getting reacquainted with the seasons.  College, and living in New York City (both pedestrian lifestyles) certainly helped.  At least I started dressing weather-appropriately.  But I think what changed my way of thinking was really living in Japan.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but nevertheless true, that Japan is a very season-conscious nation.  Everything has seasonal variations.  Restaurants, from the highest kaiseki ryori to McDonald’s, vary their menus by season.  (God I loved the autumn-only chestnut cream donuts at Mr. Donuts!)  Pretty much every advertisement will have some kind of seasonal reference, if only the appearance of cherry blossoms in spring and snow in the winter, red maple leaves in fall and fireworks in the summer.

For many people perhaps these commercial acknowledgments of season, more because they are expected than because of any feeling, are meaningless; but for me they made me think about and notice the changes as the year rolled on.  Mindfulness.  I don’t know if I would even have noticed the tsuyu or “rainy season”–not so much rainy as drizzly and humid–if people didn’t talk about it and the flowers that bloom then, but it became my favorite time in Tokyo and especially in Kamakura nearby.  In Japan I paid attention to the cicadas singing in the summer, the moon in autumn, all the conventional symbols, and it led me to notice more and more, to pay attention to the world and its changes.

When I got home and found this book, the Berenstain Bears’ Almanac, I realized that in some way I was just re-learning what I had always known as a kid.  This is a book about, as it says on the title page, “holidays, seasons, and weather.”  I’ve always loved it, especially the large illustrations with rhyming captions showing attributes of the seasons: “eggs hatching, bear scratching” in Spring, for example.  And every page brings me back to childhood, when I spent enormous amounts of time outside, unsupervised, running amok with my brothers and sister.  We knew nature intimately then, in our backyard and all the surrounding area where we would wander.  I knew what flowers bloomed when, and when the raspberries would come, and how long the shadows got at different times of the year.  I’m still working on re-learning all this.  But I think I’ll get there.

There’s something comforting as well as awesome about the seasons.  They are irrefutable evidence of enormous forces entirely beyond our control working on us; but they have worked the same way on all the people of the past.  To look at the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the prints of Hiroshige, or even at Stonehenge, is to see how universal their influence is.  Think of it as Persephone underground, or the Earth spinning tilted around the sun; either way the world around us changes into unrecognizability, and then it comes back again.

It’s New Year’s Eve!

A whole year ends.

Tomorrow we’ll start

A NEW YEAR, friends.

So, now, we can all turn back,

to the beginning of our Almanac.

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Valentine to a Novel: Sixth Grade Secrets

This is another in a series of love letters to favorite books.

For the most part, when I read the standard-issue advice to writers I despair: “Show, don’t tell”, or “Murder your darlings”, etc.  Because this advice seems custom-made to eliminate everything that I love best in books.  I like writing that calls attention to itself.  I like long authorly digressions.  I like abrupt shifts in the point-of-view.  I like books where keeping the plot moving is the very last concern.  I even love adverbs!

I’m also not a fan of Aristotle’s theories, if that’s the word, about tragedy, at least not in the form that they’ve been corrupted and passed down in every discussion of plot from high school onwards.  (For one thing, they don’t fit a single Greek tragedy that I know of, not even the supposedly illustrative Oedipus Rex.  What’s his tragic flaw supposed to be?  You’ve got to really, really stretch to make the case for hubris–what causes his downfall is nothing about him, just his circumstances.)  His followers’ advice too: the “rising action-climax-falling action” diagram, for example.  Fairy tales follow none of these “rules”, and obviously very many of them are completely satisfying and great.  Rapunzel meeting the blinded prince in the desert is pure coincidence, and nothing has “established” that her tears will heal his eyes; but no one complains about it, unless maybe they’ve been reading a bit too much discussion of plotting.

All that said, there’s certainly something incredibly satisfying about a good plot, a perfectly constructed machine that fits together just right.*  That’s what I love about this book, Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar.  If there ever was a story which fit the high school English class description of a Greek tragedy, it’s this one: all the action and trouble flows directly and logically out of the hubris of the main character, who comes to a recognition of herself after an apocalyptic downfall which brings great catharsis to me at least.  And it’s a silly, funny kids’ book about dueling secret clubs in grade school.

If it is a Greek tragedy then it’s a lighthearted one, with no sadness to be found; none of the melancholy that Sachar put in Holes, another perfectly-plotted book.  As far as the “dignity and importance” part of the definition, there isn’t much to be found.  But everything runs like clockwork in such a way that you say, “of course, of course it happened that way.”  I especially like how certain things become important simply through the silly non-sequiturs of kids under stress–like one character says “bacon and eggs” instead of “bacon and ham” when prank-calling, and for the rest of the book, eggs are a major part of the war between the clubs, because obviously they couldn’t admit to blowing their lines!  Sachar really gets how kids’ minds work–or at least, I recognize myself and my friends, at that age, in the way that the kids in his books think.

If the idea of Sixth Grade Secrets as tragedy seems strange, well, there is another form of play, which requires perfect plotting, and is about as applicable: farce.  In a farce there is a single crucial misunderstanding or misrepresentation which leads to all the ridiculous situations that follow.  Just like in a 19th Century play, the plot of Sixth Grade Secrets depends on a letter gone wrong, and if the characters would just sit down and talk openly and honestly to each other for a moment, they wouldn’t end up covered in mustard, forced to eat a raw egg, humiliated in front of the entire school, or any of it.  But of course that would be no fun.  And tragedy or not, fun is what this book is all about.

*Probably my favorite movie moment of the past couple years was the literal deus ex machina towards the end of Toy Story 3: it so perfectly brought together things set up in all three movies, while being a joke on the term itself, while also being a perfectly timed and edited moment which, both times I saw it, caused the entire theater to burst into applause.

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Valentine to a Novel: Jacob’s Room

Kat suggests that in February we write some love letters to books we’ve loved over the years.  I thought that was a great idea.  I have trouble coming up with reviews for Goodreads,  because that implies a level of objectivity that is hard to muster; but a love letter I can certainly do.

The reason I read Jacob’s Room, the first book by Virginia Woolf I ever read, was because I liked the cover design of the edition we had, pictured here.  I wanted something “summery”, I remember, and this book, which had both Jacob’s Room and The Waves in it, appeared to fit the bill.  I’m not sure how summery I actually found it, but I’m glad I judged this particular book by its cover, because otherwise I might not have discovered my single favorite author (if I was forced to choose.)

I had pretty much no idea what I was getting into; although we’d read A Room of One’s Own in high school, I’m not sure I even remembered that Woolf was the author of it, and in any case I’m sure I didn’t know what era she lived in or what kind of writer she was supposed to be.  I’m a slowish reader, and I remember laboring a bit through the beginning, not knowing what kind of book it was going to be, not sure it had been such a good idea to read it, until I got to the end of the first chapter, and then I was in love:

Outside the rain poured down more directly and powerfully as the wind fell in the early hours of the morning.  The aster was beaten to the earth.  The child’s bucket was half-full of rainwater; and the opal-shelled crab slowly circled round the bottom, trying with its weakly legs to climb the steep side; trying again and falling back, and trying again and again.

Jacob’s Room has one of my favorite things in a novel: an omniscient narrator with a personality.  This kind of beautiful little lyric image is one of her trademarks, as is passing over large portions of event and conversation by presenting a few telling details.  She will directly accost the reader: “Now let us consider letters,” or “As for the beauty of women,” and present little mini-essays.  She has some of that cruel Virginia Woolf wit.  I love it all, and I will take it over a thousand “well-made plots” written in “transparent prose” that “gets out of the way of the story”.

Another thing about this book is that it is so angry.  It’s pulsating below the surface, but it’s furious.  Jacob is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women, who will never have his privileges and possibilities; Woolf is often unsparing towards these women, whose constrained world has made them conventional and insipid: “But Mr. Letts allows little space in his shilling diaries.  Clara was not the one to encroach upon Wednesday.”  But she’s even more unsparing towards Jacob and Timmy and by extension, well-educated young men in general: self-absorbed, sexist, shallow, pretentious.  “‘Probably,’ said Jacob, ‘we are the only people in the world who know what the Greeks meant.'”  But despite this deep resentment towards these young men, the whole book is kind of a cry of rage against the systems, “men in clubs and Cabinets,” which have killed them, so pointlessly, in World War I: “With equal nonchalance a dozen young men in the prime of life descend with composed faces into the sea; and there impassively (though with perfect mastery of machinery) suffocate uncomplainingly together.  Like blocks of tin soldiers the army covers the cornfield, moves up the hillside, stops, reels slightly this way and that, and falls flat, save that, through field-glasses, it can be seen that one or two pieces still agitate up and down like fragments of broken match-stick.” Through all the beauty and humor and observation there is this kind of scream, why do you give them everything, and then destroy it all?

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