The Mind-expanding act of giving in / by alix clyburn

Ok, I’m getting the hang of this do-nothing summer I’m having. Apparently, the world is not going to end if I just chill out and be sort of unproductive for a few weeks. I'm leaning into the idea that my life isn't a waste of time just because i'm wasting some time. Maybe I’ve transcended middle-aged-mom-having-an-existential-crisis and gained some deeper understanding and wisdom? Or maybe I’m just good at being lazy. I can’t keep up with all those hotshots with their big careers and interesting summer travel, anyway. If I can just be ok with my essential lack of consequence to all but those who love me, I could be ok with this low-key life I’m leading.  

It's an effort on my part. I can reach out and grab giant handfuls of anxiety about how unstructured my life is these days. I am stepping over great piles of nervousness and uncertainty on my way to the sofa to read my book. To get into Julius's bedroom fort, I need to wiggle past a shaky tower of regret. Fear of the future is curled in a ball in the basket of my bike. But if I don't bother them, they don't bother me... as long as I don't wake up at 4 am.

My days are mostly just me hanging out with Julius and Naomi, and thankfully I've realized this is actually pretty fantastic. We go to the pool, we ignore each other while gazing at screens, we read (me by choice, them by mandate), we watch movies, we stay in pajamas until noon. We painted a little wooden set of drawers. They built a complex fort, I tied up my tomato plants, we rearranged their bedrooms. We made lemonade from scratch in a blender. Homemade lemonade is better than anything, by the way. Except for maybe homegrown tomatoes.

We watched North by Northwest. It was a hit with the kiddos, and it made me realize how much tougher we Americans were 40 years ago. Cary Grant is given a brand new pair of dress shoes (think slick leather soles), and Eva Marie Saint is wearing heels, yet there they are, creeping along Washington’s schnozz on the nearly sheer face of Mt. Rushmore. No athleisure for them.

We are so weak. I need a special pair of sneakers for tennis.

Anyway.  Here’s some other stuff I’m enjoying these days.

The vibe of 10 year old girls at a slumber party

About a year ago I moved away from almost all podcasts. It just became so much dull conversation, everyone trying to capture the intrigue of Serial or the a-ha-ness of Radiolab. Once on a road trip, we actually listened to a 30-minute podcast about—no lie—whether or not dental floss was really worth the trouble. (Spoiler alert: yes, it is.)

Thanks to a small project with Audible, I started listening to audiobooks. Thanks to a president who makes my stress spike on a daily basis, I have dramatically curtailed my news consumption and now listen to fiction nearly all the time. And New Yorker short fiction, something I almost never read in the magazine, makes for perfect audio fare.

I can polish off a story in one run, or one afternoon of doing housework. (Housework. HA! Anyone who has happened by my house in the last few weeks can tell you that I don’t actually do housework. Housework is my euphemism for painting my toenails.)

Anyway, I digress. My favorite New Yorker fiction podcast by far is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Show Don’t Tell. Others are great—David Sedaris reading Miranda July is 20 minutes so rich and entertaining you’ll wish you could pay them for it, and Sittenfeld’s Prairie Wife is delicious fun with a surprising finish.

Show Don’t Tell is the one that really stays with me, though. Its vaguely autobiographical tone is only heightened by the fact that Sittenfeld herself reads it. It’s about a young woman in an MFA writing program, waiting to find out if she received a highly desired grant. It’s very internal which is a writerly word that those of you who favor plot-driven bestsellers would say is code for “boring, nothing happens”, because it’s mostly stuff in her head. In Sittenfeld’s case, however, that’s not fair. She’s really good at balancing the literary internalness with terrific dialogue, action, and plot. The party in this story, for instance, is as sloppy as every college house party I’ve ever been to, and thanks to her ability to write the internal stuff so well, even seemingly mundane scenes (i.e., buying beer at a convenience store) ripple with humor and even suspense.

At the story’s end she jumps ahead in time to when the character is now a successful novelist. She says her work is classified as women’s fiction and writes, “This is an actual term used by both publishers and bookstores, and means something only slightly different from “gives off the vibe of ten-year-old girls at a slumber party.” (See, it is vaguely autobiographical.)

This line comes in what is nearly the last paragraph of the story and along with the actual ending, it reframes the way I think about the whole piece. So much of this story is subtly about being female. With a few well-written paragraphs at the end, she makes it also feminist. She has such a light touch. I’m still thinking about it.

Men will be boys... if they're white and rich

Speaking of feminist thinking, please read Jennifer Weiner’s New York Times essay called The Men Who Never Have to Grow Up.  It’s a quick read but so satisfying for anyone who, like me, felt their stomach lurch when Trump referred to his 39-year-old son as a “good boy.” If that characterization of a grown man with enormous privilege and power didn’t bother you, this essay might. For years I’ve been annoyed at this trend of letting certain dudes off the hook for stuff because boys will be boys, and clearly Weiner does too. Along the way she does name check my pal Matt Klam and his new book’s anti-hero, but the best part for me is the ending. She sticks the ending. 

Rollin’ with the homeys

I’ve never seen the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, so when I read Emma this summer, I had to repeatedly match characters in the book up with the characters in Clueless. Mr. Elton is of course Elton, and Mr. Knightley is Paul Rudd. What does it say about us that the formerly hard-working yet modest farmer Mr. Martin is updated to be a goofball stoner?

Mr. Woodhouse never says, “I have a .45 and a shovel,” so Amy Heckerling has that on Austen. Emma was good but it’s no Pride and Prejudice. I’m so loath to admit this but I kept thinking about Middlemarch as I read this book. Middlemarch, the book I crawled through last summer and ultimately didn’t really think i loved, was a superior work of literature.

Courage doesn’t mean you're not afraid.

Naomi went off the diving tower at my pool. It’s really high and scary. Many adults can’t do it. She did. When I praised her courage, she resisted, said that she was scared. I told her courage isn’t about not being scared it’s about what you do even though you’re scared. She still resisted and said, “I only did it because I didn’t want to chicken out.” Again, I explained to her that often, that's where bravery begins.  I hope she never loses that. And I hope somehow this little experience justifies all the Mario Kart she's been playing this week.