Monthly Archives: March 2014

Going north

Dear Blog,

I don’t remember the name of the hotel, or even the name of the street it was on. There was a note for me at the front desk from an American named Brian. It was a friendly note, an I-heard-a-Canadian-was-staying-here note, a let-me-show-you-around note, a come-knock-on-my-door-I’m-in-room-302 note. I should have known better, but I was twenty, I was in Paris by myself, I wanted to meet people and have adventures. So I went and knocked on the door of room 302.


Seventeen years later, I’m reading Stuart Little to my four-year-old son, J. All I remember about E.B. White’s first novel is the premise: a mouse born to a human family in New York City, bravely navigating the Great Big World. We get stuck on chapter 7, in which Stuart races a boat at Central Park, because J wants to hear it over and over. I’m surprised, because I don’t think he can possibly be following all the sailing lingo, but apparently it is enough for him that a race is happening, even if he doesn’t understand every sentence. Also, a policeman is knocked into the water, which he finds hysterical. After reading chapter 7 for several nights, we finally move on to chapter 8. Stuart meets the bird Margalo, who tells him, “I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadowsweet, and I love to whistle.” J cheers wildly when, in defense of the sleeping Margalo, Stuart shoots the cat Snowbell in the ear with his bow and arrow. I have a feeling we’ll be reading chapter 8 for the next few nights.


I don’t know why I assumed that American-Brian-in-room-302 would be a young student backpacker, like me. I hoped that he would be handsome and hilarious and that we’d have a torrid summer fling. But when the door to room 302 swung open, there stood a gangly, unkempt man in his mid-forties with black teeth. He beamed, boomed niceties, and ushered me into his room. Because I was an idiot and did not learn how to be rude until I was 25, I went into his room, wondering if he was going to cut my throat and stuff me under the bed. Instead, he made me dinner, which was canned tuna mixed with canned corn (I ate it, wondering if it was drugged) and told me his Life Story. He had a free room at the hotel while he waited for a settlement in a case he’d brought against the police for beating him up some months ago, but he had previously been “on the streets,” as he put it. He told me he had no problem with work, but he would never take a job, he would never let himself be tied down. He told me he’d started traveling the world at my age, footloose and fancy-free, but while others went home, got jobs, got married, he just kept on going. Once I had adjusted to the reality of Brian not meeting my hopeful expectations of summer-fling material, and once I had concluded he was probably not a murderous psychopath, I found him excellent company. When he asked how long I planned to be in Paris, I told him I’d wanted to stay a month but that it was too expensive and I would have to head somewhere cheaper for my money to last. Brian scoffed. I can show you how to have a good time in Paris without spending a centime beyond what you’re paying for this hotel, he said. Well, but even food… I said, and he cut me off. You don’t need to buy food.


Stuart Little comes and goes as he likes, and he never lets his small size deter him from doing things, or the larger size of others intimidate him. The book passes lightly over the odd fact of Stuart being a mouse born to a human family, and J does not question it. For a good laugh, read some of the one-star reviews of the book online. “There is no explanation for why he is a mouse!” But J gets it. Stuart is small and the world is large. Stuart is a little different. In spite of being small and different, Stuart does as he pleases and has wonderful adventures. It is the perfect story for an intrepid, self-absorbed young person, dwarfed by the Wide World.

Then Stuart’s beloved Margalo disappears, frightened away by a murderous cat, and the book changes. Instead of one amusing episode after another, we have a Quest. Stuart leaves his family behind, taking only a hair from his mother’s comb to remember her by, and sets out northward to find the bird he loves. Every night, settling down to read, J asks me anxiously, Does he find Margalo? And every night, I tell him, I really don’t remember, because I don’t. I sort of assume he will find her and they will return to their home in New York City or something. I keep forgetting to check the ending after he goes to bed. I should have guessed how it would turn out, though. One should never look to E.B. White for a pat, happy ending.


Brian talks a lot about Josephine, the woman he’s been in love with for twenty years, as long as I’ve been alive. It didn’t work out, but they still love each other, he tells me. She has kids – two of them are his – and she lives in the south of France. She’s still a crazy hippie, he says, laughing warmly, his eyes full of love. I ask him how old his kids are, and he struggles to remember. “That’s terrible, isn’t it?” he says, and I shrug and laugh along with him. I’m not sure if he really can’t remember, or if he doesn’t want to admit that they are my age.

In the evenings, we eat canned corn and tuna in his room and he reads Simenon detective stories to me in French. He sits on the bed. I sit in the chair. He asks if I want to sit on the bed with him, patting the blankets invitingly, but I say no, I’m comfortable. In the mornings, we go to church basements for a free breakfast. The nuns pour porridge into a bowl for me, “pour la jeune fille,” and I wonder if this is horribly immoral. We sit at long tables with the broke and homeless of Paris. Everybody is curious about me, of course. Brian tells my story for me in flawless French. If the people here think it odd or improper that I am a tourist eating free church meals, they don’t say so. They are kind and welcoming and want to hear my impressions of Paris. We fill a bag with bread and cheese and fruit for lunch, and then we walk – to parks, to churches, to cemeteries full of famous graves, to free galleries and free performances, along the Seine, up to Montmartre. Brian is right. I’m falling in love with the Paris he shows me, and I haven’t spent a franc or stepped inside the Louvre.

We lie in a park, chatting dozily after lunch – one of the parks where you are allowed on the grass. I’m almost asleep when I feel his hand on my bare back, under my shirt. I move fast, yank my shirt back down. He says, I was going to give you a backrub. I say, No thanks. He doesn’t try again. I’m a little cool to him for the rest of the afternoon, I go off on a walk by myself, but come evening I knock on his door. After ten days, we are set in our routine. He has dinner for me, reads me the next detective story chapter, and doesn’t invite me on the bed.


Stuart’s journey takes him to “the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky.” Here, he meets Harriet Ames, a two-inch-tall girl, pretty, sporty and good-natured. She is Just The Girl for Stuart, and for a moment one wonders if he has found a place for himself in this ideal town with this ideal girl and will leave off his impossible quest, his journey without end. But Stuart sabotages his date with Harriet, becoming moody and petulant when the perfect evening doesn’t go quite as he’d planned. She is willing to try again, to give him another chance, but Stuart is too wrapped up in his own disappointment and frustration to bother about Harriet anymore. He carries on, traveling north. Oh Stuart – you don’t know a good thing when you find it. My husband asks J, “Do you think he should have stayed with Harriet?” But J is young, like Stuart. The very suggestion shocks him. No, he says. Stuart can’t stay with Harriet. After all, he has to find Margalo.


I ask Brian if he thinks that he and Josephine will get back together one day. He says he has no doubt. They will be old together, toothless and wrinkled, gazing at each other over a bottle of wine. This thing with us, it never changes, he says dreamily, and I don’t ask him, Then what are you doing here?

One evening, we break our routine and meet some of his friends at a bar. They are a bunch of miserable, grey-haired Frenchmen, but I am feeling like quite the seasoned anthropologist, ready to absorb their tales of woe. Brian knocks back a glass of wine and abruptly declares that he’s tired and is going back to the hotel. Startled, I say, Wait, I’ll go with you, but No, no, stay and have fun, he says, and the other guys are clamoring, Stay, we just bought you this drink, stay! Because it is another five years before I learn to be rude, because they bought me a drink and I haven’t touched it yet, I stay, sipping at my beer and quietly panicking. It is dark and I realize I’m not even sure where I am. I don’t have a map. I’ve just been following Brian around, passive and puppyish. Denis sits too close to me, shows me the scars on his wrists from his suicide attempts. I say, I really have to get back. Or what? he asks. I turn into a pumpkin, I say, trying for levity. I bet you’re a beautiful pumpkin, he says.


If you look at reviews of Stuart Little on amazon or elsewhere, those who don’t love it complain about the ending. SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t read it: Stuart doesn’t find Margalo. He doesn’t go back to his family. He keeps on traveling North, hoping to find her. J is unsettled. I think there’s another book, he says, having learned about sequels. No, I tell him, there isn’t. That’s how it ends. His brow crumples. E.B. White, you piece of shit, I think, even though I love this ending. I suggest writing our own sequel. J enthusiastically agrees. In his sequel to Stuart Little, Stuart turns around. He goes south instead. He finds Margalo. There is a mouse vs. cat battle, and Stuart shoots the Angora cat through the eye with his bow and arrow. Margalo comes back to New York, and when they are seventeen years old, they get married. All the mice and birds in New York come to their wedding, as well as some of the nice cats. I can’t believe he is four years old and, I swear, he is not fed on Disney, yet we are ending with a wedding. Well, there we go. Happily ever after. He falls asleep quickly, satisfied, and the following day he asks me to read him the “sequel” several times.


Denis offers to walk me back to the hotel. You don’t want to walk alone in this neighborhood! I am furious that Brian, having been rebuffed, left me with his friends so that they could have a go. We are in a park, climbing a hill. Suddenly I’m dizzy and confused. There’s a great view up here, says Denis. My head is spinning, my heart racing, my mouth dry. I ask Denis, Did you put something in my drink? What did you give me? Nothing, nothing, he says. This is how girls end up dead in the woods. I keep telling myself to run, but I can’t seem to do anything but follow him up the hill. He’s right, the view is sensational, Paris lit up below us. He leans in to kiss me. I beg him to take me back. I promise that he can come up to my room. I let him kiss me, once. I let him hold my hand. I am so scared, so scared. He walks me to the hotel, past the front desk, up the stairs. Outside my door, lurching a little, I tell him: I think I’m going to throw up. He takes a couple of steps back, holding his hands up as if to say, not on me, girly. I get in the room and slam the door on him. He starts pounding on the door, screaming obscenities. I throw up in the sink, because there is no toilet in my room. I yell at him that I’m really sick, I’m throwing up everywhere. He calls me some more names and goes away.

In the morning, I go up to Brian’s room and lay into him for leaving me with his scary friends. I tell him that Denis tried to attack me, tried to force his way into my room, though in retrospect I realize that’s not how it went down. I don’t know if they slipped something in my drink or if I was having a panic attack. I don’t know if Denis was dangerous, or just thought we were on a date and got mad when I freaked out. Brian brushes the whole thing off. He says, you didn’t have to stay if you didn’t want to. He says, why didn’t you have a map, why didn’t you take a taxi? He says, you need to grow up. He says, I’m not your dad, OK? All fair points, and I know I’ve been unforgivably stupid, but I also know that he set me up.


Stuart finds himself telling his troubles to a repairman from the telephone company at the side of a long road heading north. The repairman has stories of his own to tell, but Stuart sullenly declares that he doesn’t want to hear them. He is too wrapped up in himself. I may have wanted to hear Brian’s stories – I fancied myself the sort of person who was interested in other people, a good listener – but the less flattering truth is that I was wrapped up in The Story Of Me Befriending A Vagrant In Paris Because I Am Such A Unique And Original Sort Of Girl. When I left, I told him, “I thought you were my friend,” and he shrugged, like I was being ridiculous, which I was. We could have been friends. Conversation was easy, we laughed a lot, I think we genuinely liked each other, but we each had our own idea of what the other might be good for, and neither of us really had friendship in mind.

The repairman doesn’t take offense at Stuart’s rudeness. I suppose he remembers what it is like being young, just setting out on a journey, and how hard it is to see outside oneself. He tells Stuart, “There’s something about north, something that sets it apart from all other directions. A person who is heading north is not making an mistake, in my opinion.” And Stuart replies, “That’s the way I look at it. I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days.”


I leave the hotel that day. I go to a youth hostel on the left bank, where a bed has opened up, and there I make friends with a group of girls my own age. I still keep in touch with them, but I don’t know what happened to Brian. He must be 60 now. I would like to think that he and Josephine are gazing at each other over a bottle of wine but I somehow doubt it.

At the time, I wondered about his kids. What would it be like to have this man as your father? Now, I wonder about his mother. I never thought to ask him about her. I pass men on the streets all the time, staggering, ruined men whose bodies are failing them, whose brain chemistry has betrayed them, or whose open roads led to one dead end after another until they landed here. I think of my own soft-cheeked boys and I wonder about their mothers. It gets harder to see the difference, as one gets older, between being tied down and being anchored. We all yearn for freedom, but we all need a safe harbor, too. Maybe they had no mothers, or maybe their mothers were terrible and cruel and that is why they are here, but that’s too easy, and anyway, they are everywhere, these men, all over the Green in front of the library, in the plaza outside the food coop. There must be legions of mothers out there who may or may not have known how to be mothers, who may or may not know what has become of their dear little soft-cheeked boys, who couldn’t help them. It gets colder as you go north, too.


 J knows how a story is supposed to end. A great battle. A wedding. There may be a journey, but in the end, you go home. E.B. White would no doubt spin in his grave if he could see J’s sequel.

I like E.B. White’s ending, myself. The happiest moments of my life have been in transit, depending on how you define happiness, I guess. At some point, you have to choose a life for yourself, close some doors, or at least, there are consequences for not choosing. That doesn’t make it easy. My own choices feel so accidental, even the well-considered ones. It seems random and strange to have washed up on this particular shore, and the longer I stand still, the less I look around and really notice things.

In the Sahara desert late at night, nothing but dunes and stars around our little camp, I asked our teenage guides where I should go to the bathroom. OK, it was a dumb question. They fell around laughing, pointed to the horizon, and shouted Libya! I wandered into the dark, so far that I could hardly hear their voices, the light of the fire hidden behind a dune, and I scared myself thinking What if I just keep walking? It seemed like it would be so easy to just disappear, out there.

Trying to find Rose Spit in Haida Gwaii, where we intended to camp, my best friend and I found ourselves on a wooded path where the moss on the trees was so heavy it broke the branches, and the moss on the ground was like a thick blanket, and he said, We’ll never get home, we’ll just have to lie down here, pull the moss up to our chins and die. It seemed so funny at the time because of course we were young immortals, and so far we’d always found our way home.

Our car broke down on the Karakoram highway between Kashgar and Karakul Lake and I sat on the hill, useless but happy, watching the driver tinker with the engine, watching the man I would later marry photographing the long, long road. I felt that anything could happen, anything at all. Maybe we would never arrive anywhere. Maybe the changing scenery would be enough to live on forever.

And before all of that, Brian and I climbed the steps leading up the hill towards Sacre Coeur. There is a poster on a wall for a circus of some kind, with a picture of a tiny giraffe in the palm of a person’s hand. We examine the poster, trying to figure out if this is something we can attend for free. Brian says wonderingly, Do you think they really have a giraffe that small? I give him an are-you-kidding-me look, and it’s like sunshine breaking through cloud when he guffaws. We laugh so hard we have to sit down on the steps, nearly weeping.

It seems unlikely that Stuart Little could ever find Margalo, but you never know. Surely it broke his mother’s heart, the way he left without a word, and maybe he’ll never go home, maybe he’ll really just keep on going North forever. It’s not a happy ending, but I don’t think it’s a sad one, either. The very best we can hope, for ourselves, for our children, for anyone, is that we are heading in the right direction.

Yours, writing-E.B.-White-fan-fiction-with-a-four-year-old,



Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch

Dear Blog,

I did a lot of back-and-forthing on what to call this blog post. I kept trying to come up with good alternatives to Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch, but in the end, there was no avoiding the obvious title. I admit, it makes me a little nervous. I’m not sure who reads this stuff. Could be anyone. It’s an ugly sentence, as well as an uncomfortable one, and though I enjoy cursing I don’t like the word “bitch” and really never use it. Still, I figured all the reasons for coming up with a different title boiled down to cowardice, so I typed it into the title line. Looking at it, half-wanting to laugh but also feeling uncomfortable and anxious about who will see it takes me right back to eighth grade. Plus ça change, etcetera. It’s not far from how I felt when I sat down at my desk in grade eight French class one morning and saw that somebodyhad penned this sentence across my desk in small, neat capital letters: CATHERINE EGAN IS A STUPID BITCH.

Horrified, I tried to rub it off with my thumb, but the ink barely smeared. Who would write such a thing? Who had seen it? It came to me, as I failed to rub it off, that surely it was no accident, me finding this on my desk. I was meant to see it, of course – it had been written for me. I looked around and caught a boy I’ll call M watching me. He looked away quickly, no expression on his face, but I remembered that he sat in this same desk in another class we shared. Clearly, he’d noticed that we shared the desk too, which surprised me a bit, because I didn’t think he noticed me at all. I’d known him since kindergarten but in all our years of school we’d barely spoken. He’d been a noisy little boy who hung out with other noisy little boys, and now all these little boys were much bigger but still just as noisy. We moved along parallel tracks, never intersecting.

If I’d been a different kind of girl in eighth grade, I might have confronted him. I was annoyed that he’d caught me trying to rub it off, but more surprised than upset that he apparently disliked me. As far as I knew, nobody had ever disliked me. People either liked me or they were indifferent. I was a very inoffensive personality. Soon enough, I would give all kinds of people plenty of reasons to think ill of me, but I had just turned thirteen and I still flew under the radar most of the time. I dressed boringly and inexpensively. I was on the plain side of pretty. I did not do anything particularly well or particularly badly. I got average grades. I was nice. I was practically invisible. I had no real interaction with M at all. And yet, here it was, on the desktop. Catherine Egan is a Stupid Bitch.

I was less concerned with M’s motives than I was worried about who else sat in this desk, who had seen it, what they would think. Written down, the sentence seemed to have power. Since I couldn’t rub it off with my thumb and didn’t want M to see me expending further effort on it, I added a question mark after the word BITCH, then put two little boxes underneath, next to the words YES and NO. I was tempted to check NO, but decided to leave it.

I thought my response was charming and light-hearted. I didn’t tell my friends about it, but I couldn’t put it out of my mind either. I was back in the same classroom after lunch, but at another desk. M was in my French class desk. I did not let myself so much as glance in his direction. I passed notes with a friend, braided the hair of the girl in front of me, and spent the fifty minutes acting like a girl who could not care less what some dumb boy might have written on her desk. But I felt like I’d eaten rocks for lunch.

After school, I ran straight back to the classroom to check the desk. He had checked the YES box, and added FUCK U. At least, I assumed it was him. Maybe it was somebody else. That was an unsettling thought, and I wished I’d never added the checkboxes. Feeling sick, I got wet paper towels from the bathroom and wiped the desk until there was just a smear left.

For weeks, I approached that desk with trepidation, wondering if he would write something else, if the incident might yet turn into all-out desktop warfare. I considered leaving a message for him on the desk. I wrote “why are you so mean?” once but rubbed it out immediately. It sounded weak, pathetic. I thought about penning our initials in a heart, but worried he wouldn’t get the sarcasm. He never wrote anything else on the desk, and eventually I stopped thinking about it. We kept on ignoring each other, as if nothing had happened, as if we hadn’t known each other forever.


Two years later, on a Friday night, I was down at the beach with a friend. Friday nights were epic back then. I could barely sit through classes on Friday. I often didn’t. The weekend felt like an oasis after our long journey through the desert of the school week. We came to Friday night parched and desperate for adventure. It was May, and still chilly after dark, but we went out as close to naked as was legal, our young faces unskillfully caked with make-up, because we figured this was sexy and we hadn’t learned yet that a) we looked ridiculous and b) looking the way we did was dangerous. For now, it felt like power, the way even grown men would look at us, stop to talk to us, call us beautiful. Give us a couple more years to figure out how this works: the game of attraction, the many ways of losing at it, what is at stake. We were not really innocent, or even all that inexperienced, but none of our experiences had added up to wisdom yet, and nothing so far had truly prepared us for the risks inherent in being a young woman in the world.

We were at the beach because we’d heard that if you dropped acid and let sand run between your fingers, it would look like your fingers were crumbling away. Turns out it’s true. My friend thought it was funny but it freaked me right out. The mountains across the bay had gone blue as a painting even though it was dark, and I thought I could hear every single grain of sand rasping up and down the beach as the waves came in and pulled back out, great curls of silver-black rolling forever towards us and forever away. I wanted to get away from the water and the sand and my disappearing fingers. I pulled my friend up the beach, towards the parking lot, and a boy called something to us from a parked jeep. They were high school kids, like us, which made them seem harmless. I don’t remember how many of them there were, but it seemed like too many for the jeep. They were passing around a bong made out of an empty coke bottle, and one of them said excitedly, “Hey, I know those girls!”

It was M, of course. I heard myself squealing hello like we were great buddies and I was happy to see him. He asked if we wanted to hang out with them, so we climbed into the jeep. I was squeezed between M and another boy. We talked loudly, without quite making eye contact. We told them we were tripping, and they flashed their lighters around to make us scream. I was seeing fire everywhere.

At some point, I said to M: “Remember what you wrote on my desk in grade eight?” He gave me a blurry look, like he really didn’t remember at all, and then he started laughing at something one of his buddies said. I wanted to ask him, Did you mean it? Did you really hate me? Or were you just curious to see what I would do, how I’d react? Was it an experiment in being a jerk? Did you want to know how it would feel? Were you sorry, or was it funny? But I didn’t ask those things. Some people really did hate me now, but not M, not tonight, and anyway, surely I was no longer the kind of girl to care.

We went downtown, crossing the bridge. The whole city seemed to be dripping with lights, every doorway spilling out the sound of revelry. The boys were going to an arcade. My friend and I got all cooler-than-thou on them, declared we were going clubbing. Suddenly we were all sneering at each other. You won’t get into a club! You guys look twelve years old! —  Says the guy playing video games on a Friday night! We have fake IDs, loser! We left the boys at the arcade and cuddled together, shivering, on a bus stop bench. We didn’t really have fake IDs. We waited a long time, the city a cartoonish carnival whirling around us, before we realized the buses had stopped running. It was a long walk back to my house, but we were young, we were invincible, and there were warm beds and pajamas waiting for us back in that other life, where my mother would make us pancakes for breakfast and we would be children again, for a while.


On Monday, I passed M in the hall. Maybe there was a nod, a vague smile. Maybe he said “hey” while I waggled my fingers. No more than that. We went back to amicably ignoring each other, the way we’d done almost all our lives. I never saw him again after graduation. We were at school together for 13 years, and all I remember about him are a few hazy snippets of being high in the same jeep, and that nasty note on my desk, greeting me like a slap. He wasn’t habitually a jerk, I don’t think. But then, I never really knew him at all.

Yours, writing-on-my-own-desk-now,


An Open Letter To Alec Baldwin

We were standing in a garden
And I had a machine that made silence
It just sucked up the whole opinionated din…
–Ani DiFranco, From “Garden Of Simple”

 Dear Alec Baldwin,

I read your piece in New York Magazine announcing your retirement from Public Life with great interest. I can’t help having some opinions about you – about your work, your rage, your letter, your not-so-private life – but those opinions are irrelevant and certainly not the point here. The point, if I have one (and part of the point is that I probably don’t), is about the noise that surrounds us and the noise we make. That’s what I was thinking about, mostly, when I read your letter. All this noise.

A while back, my whole twitter feed exploded with contempt for Jonathan Franzen, who doesn’t think much of twitter. Jonathan Franzen thinks we all make too much noise. Jonathan Franzen likes to think deeply, because it helps him to write Serious Literary Fiction, and he does not like yakking and bragging. My twitter feed was of the opinion that Jonathan Franzen is a great big clueless snob, which might be true. There are worse things to be, but my twitter feed was not interested in those things. There were some very funny remarks made about Jonathan Franzen. The whole thing had a party-ish feel to it, this making fun of Jonathan Franzen. Being a Great Writer doesn’t get you off the hook on twitter, and neither does being a Great Actor. For the record, my twitter feed has had nothing to say about you at all, there being less to say, perhaps, about a famous man at the end of his rope using hateful language (again), but it still seemed relevant, the Jonathan Franzen thing.

He was (partly) wrong, after all, and it is terribly satisfying when somebody is wrong. There was this piece in the Huffington post recently, in which the author said that JK Rowling should stop publishing her books because she is crowding out less famous writers. She also mentioned that she found it a bit sad that adults were wasting their time reading children’s fiction. I follow a lot of children’s authors on twitter, and so there was a Big Response. I read the article – I couldn’t help it! And as I read it, I found myself, almost against my will, tearing it down in my head – effortlessly, like a reflex – because it was such a dumb and trollish article. The comment section was, as you can imagine, vitriolic. Twitter was annoyed and did a lot of snorting and eye-rolling. And surely, surely that was the point of the article, its entire raison d’être. It was just noise, meant to garner angry clicks, spark some outrage, feed the scorn-junkie in all of us so we could have a grand time yelling about it, making some more noise. And we did, Alec, we did. We had a grand old time. But I did think Jonathan Franzen would not have approved.

You might not know this about me, Alec, but I have been keeping a blog for over a year now. I was trying it out and I found I liked it. I’ve always enjoyed blathering on about whatever half-baked thoughts I’ve got drifting through my head at any given time. Just ask my friends! I am known to be a great bore, but I will laugh at all your jokes, which makes me not entirely disagreeable company. I find myself drifting occasionally into an oversaturated genre called mommy-blogging, and these posts are always by far the most popular. I have mixed feelings about it. I enjoy it and I keep on doing it, but every time I hit “post,” that line from the Ani Difranco song “Garden of Simple” floats through my head – the bit about “the whole opinionated din.”

I’ve been thinking about this because I don’t feel the same discomfort about having a book published. Jonathan Franzen would agree with you, Alec, that the world doesn’t need my books. Still, when I put one out there, I am proud of what I’ve done. I feel I have dropped my own carefully polished penny in a great vault of treasure. It may not be worth much, the book itself, but it still belongs in that vault, or that is what I feel. When I am writing a book, I feel productive, creative, I feel loving, strange as that sounds. I feel like, by making a book, I am giving something to the world that I made with love, no matter that the world doesn’t much care. The making and the giving are immensely satisfying.

I don’t feel that way about blogging. And I should be very clear here that I am talking only about my own books and my own blog, I’m not attributing value to books vs. blogs in general. When I blog, I am having fun, but I also feel noisy. But if nobody reads the blog, am I really being noisy? If a tree falls in the forest, etcetera etcetera. Isn’t it just a lonely silence I can’t fully erase, bobbing around out there like a message in a bottle? And if people do read it, and they enjoy it, and they write me messages about it, then is it just noise, or is it – la di da <tapdances> – entertainment? I mean, I’m not making you read this, Alec, sitting in your fancy NYC penthouse (is it a penthouse? surely it must be), bent over the glare of your laptop screen, wondering if you’ll ever have the life you wanted. I don’t know why I feel as I do. Maybe I am doing it wrong. Maybe, like you, I should Retire From Public Life. Maybe, instead of contributing to the “opinionated din,” the really valuable contribution would be making that silence machine.

Imagine turning that on, in New York City. Or in cyberspace.

The truth is that, outside of fiction, I have nothing to say – you may have noticed that by now, Alec – but I still enjoy the noise I make. I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. And I’m trying to figure out what to do with the buzz of indignation, the irresistible put-downs, the judgment, the lure of feeling snarkily superior that seems to leak into my internet use no matter how I try to avoid it. I love the internet for how it connects me to people I want to be connected to, and for how it gives me access to people who have seriously (or hilariously) got Something To Say. I want to hear them! But I’m struggling with how to carve out the positive and meaningful spaces I want, without all that other stuff flooding in. Maybe I am the problem. I read your letter, Alec, and I sort of felt like I am better than you, even though you are a Great Talent, because I’m not a huge narcissist with anger issues. It wasn’t how I wanted to feel. I worry sometimes that I don’t know how to really listen.

Here is the thing, Alec: I feel like I know you, and my gut tells me that you should not leave New York City. I think you would miss it terribly. I think it is the right city, the only city, for you, and I think that no matter where you go, everything will still piss you off. If I had a machine that made silence, I would offer it to you for a while. You could point it at the crowd – the one in your head or the one outside your apartment or the one on the internet. You’d flick a switch and everything would go quiet. You’d see their lips move, but no sound would come out, and eventually they’d give up, drift away, pointless now they are soundless. Maybe everything inside would go quiet as well, without all the noise on the outside. Maybe you’d be able to hear your own thoughts happening slowly, or maybe you wouldn’t have to think at all. You could walk down the silent street, where people nod hello but say nothing. The cars would hush by and the sky would smile down, empty and blue. You could get a cup of coffee and read the paper in peace.

Pointlessly, noisily yours,


…But in the garden of simple
Where all of us are nameless
You were never anything but beautiful to me
And, you know, they never really owned you
You just carried them around
And then one day you put ‘em down
And found your hands were free…