Clan identity

(I was going to write this livid post about how all conservative religion wants to do is control women’s bodies, but, eh, been there, done that, so you’re getting this bit instead.)

Family weekend

Someone (a novelist, I think) somewhere said something to the effect of: A family is just a group of people who think they’re better than everyone else.

I think this is what people mean when they talk about “blood ties.” Love them or hate them, your family is going to inspire these super-intense reactions from you, because you’re part of their clan, for better or worse. And part of being a clan is the belief in your inherent superiority to every other clan.

Arrogant and self-serving as this is, I like this part of being a family. Of reveling in each other’s company and in your relatedness. Of feeling surges of pity for everyone else because they don’t get to be part of your clan. (This is why clubs and memberships are so appealing to us on the whole; we all want to belong to something that excludes other people, by definition.) It’s easy for me to feel this way, frankly, because I have this really fabulous, funny, and talented family.

I also feel this way about this band of friends I had during my freshman year at college. We operated like a mini-family (again, for better or worse). We ate daily meals together. We got all up in each other’s emotional business. We exchanged gifts and aphorisms. We created observable traditions. We were proud of each other and we bragged about each other’s accomplishments and talents, like cheerful siblings. We fought and forgave. And we eventually disbanded, but I still feel this surge of intense feeling when I remember them or see them, even from afar. It was a fraught family unit, but we loved each other, in our own clumsy ways.

Remnants of my freshman-year family.

Of course, the intense pleasant feelings for one’s family are always paired with intense unpleasant feelings too. It’s part of the bargain of clan identity. You will love and hate your family more than you will love or hate almost anyone else.

These are not especially profound or novel thoughts, but they’ve been taking residence in my brain. My family is traveling to the Midwest for my grandmother’s memorial service, and I am mulling over all of those little sayings (“these are the ties that bind,” whatever that literally means) about family and family identity. But on the whole, I am pleased to be a member of my clan and to bear all of the psychological luggage that comes with it. There are very lovably complex humans in our family unit, and I delight in being with them.

Best wishes for a pleasant Memorial Day weekend to those in the US and to all those who will be plunged into clan identity gambits.

To be Chekhov

Senior year of college, I took a course on Russian literature that I loved. We had to write our final paper on various themes from our favorite short story of the semester. I chose Chekhov’s brilliant “The Lady with the Little Dog,” but I didn’t want to write another generic paper, so I made a request of the professor. What if my paper was a short story, written from the perspective of Gurov’s wife, making her the sympathetic character instead? He thought about it for a moment and said he loved the idea.

I worked hard on my little story and had fun with it, even though I knew it wasn’t a mini-masterpiece. But I was pleased with my effort. When I got the paper back, I got an A–. Overall, my professor liked it, but his closing comment read, “Interesting attempt, Abby. But I do wish that the writing sounded more like Chekhov himself.”

Oh, I thought, OK. So write it more like the greatest short fiction writer who’s EVER LIVED? OK. Sure thing. I’ll get right on that.

Frisbee nights

Late at night, Emily and I would cross the street from Winston over to Hooker Field as everyone was gathering. Young and fit and beautiful, everyone was converging for ultimate. We would run and run for hours under those dazzling lights. I don’t know if anyone was ever keeping score, but everyone was fiercely competitive, always vying to annihilate the randomly chosen opposing team.

Afterward, we’d talk about the gender politics of Frisbee, how we respected the men who would take a risk and throw to a woman. The Hyltons and Lydia were always the outstanding women on the field; the men trusted them. I was never remarkable, but I became somewhat dependable. I remember with great clarity the few glorious passes I threw. The surge of self-pride was something to reckon with. But it was always such an emotionally tense action, as a woman, to risk a play. If you messed up, even once, you might never get to touch the Frisbee again.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Marriage Plot (#8)

The Marriage Plot.

#8: THE MARRIAGE PLOT, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

2011 was a year of discovering great writers I had never previously read: Marilynne Robinson (more on her later) and Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides was a name I was familiar with, but I’d somehow never gotten around to him. In 2011, I read the vibrant and sprawling Middlesex with Lulu; The Virgin Suicides and then watched Sofia Coppola’s excellent adaptation by myself one night; and then, just a few weeks ago, I read his long-awaited new novel, The Marriage Plot.

I had a good feeling about this book. Twenty pages in, I was totally engrossed. It’s been a long time since I read a book that was hard to put down on the nightstand. I finished the novel quickly and triumphantly and my mind was spinning. I say this with a bit of reservation. This is why: I admit that The Marriage Plot held my rapt attention because I am an English major. If there was ever a novel written just for English majors, this is it. I hesitate to write this, for the admission makes it sound like non-English majors wouldn’t enjoy this book. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think the pleasure of this story is greatly enhanced if you are–like its characters–also a university-educated, drifting, literary snob.

It’s 1982. Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate with a degree in English from Brown University. She is kind of a mess, but a restrained mess. She, like most of us, is striving to stay in control of her life. But her desire for control is lost when she falls in love with a completely uncontrollable young man, Leonard Bankhead. Leonard is almost everything Madeleine is not, except for the fact that they were both literature majors from Brown. That sounds like a strong and compelling similarity, but in Eugenides’ world, it’s not enough to keep them together. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder and drags Madeleine with him, causing her to realize he is one thing she cannot analyze, describe, and control.

The novel could be entirely about Madeleine and Leonard’s love affair, but then Eugenides makes it a little more interesting by establishing a trio. We are introduced to Mitchell Grammaticus, also a classmate from Brown, who has been infatuated with Madeleine for years. Mitchell was my favorite of the these three main characters. He is thoughtful and lovable and pitiable; Mitchell’s story is the most vulnerable and relatable of the three. Like so many college students today, Mitchell graduates and wants to do something with his life, so he goes abroad. He volunteers with Mother Teresa’s infirmary in Calcutta. He looks for answers and Eugenides does not give him many. But we like Mitchell. We want him to “win,” in whatever form that takes, and we are given a gentle conclusion.

The brilliance of The Marriage Plot, for me, was Eugenides’ profound ability to read one’s thoughts. He has a prescient way of writing about people that reminds me of a more basic Proust. He loops in and out of characters’ minds, examining and explaining them with mercy and patience. It is a human novel, a clever reminder of the weakness we all bear. Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell had nothing to do with me and everything to do with me. This, I think, is a mark of an enduring, worthwhile novel.

Monday Snax

Quiet hallway.

A quiet weekend at home was just what we needed. I got to read, work on a lot of copperplate calligraphy, volunteer two mornings at the SPCA, and watch “Mad Men” with my husband. We didn’t have any big plans and that was just what I needed. Now it’s time to gear up for yet another NC wedding this weekend (congrats to Shaun and Ann-Marie!). In the meantime, I will be thinking about all of the daily kindnesses of a quiet house.


I Miss New Zealand, Queenstown, and Bungee Jumping. It’s a miracle that Grace made it back to us alive. I love the peaceful expression on her face when she is diving down into the depths. And now our little adventurer has started a new one: COLLEGE. Happy first week at UNC, Gracie. (Como Say What?)

New Copperplate Styles. Motivated by my work for a recent wedding job, I’m debuting four new styles with a copperplate nib. (AFP Calligraphy)

The Depressing Truth about Why Women Need College Degrees. Because they can’t just coast like men can. (Good)

Eudora Welty’s Jackson: The Help in Context. Eudora Welty’s short stories provide a better, more realistic alternative to The Help. (NPR)

Sweetheart Come. The fascinating and heart-breaking “letters” from a woman committed to a German mental institution in 1909. (Letters of Note)

New Notepads and Calendars. Rifle Paper’s 2012 suite is very charming. (Rifle Paper Co.)

NYIGF August 2011, Part 3. This place looks like heaven to me. (Oh, So Beautiful Paper)

The History Page: Exactly Your Type. Katherine Eastland explains how Times New Roman got to be the most popular font in the world. I’ve always wondered this myself. (The Daily)

Cutting Onions. And this photo is definitely proof of that statement. (Paper Tissue)

Japanese Etiquette: How to Save Yourself from Embarrassment in Japan. So many of these social codes wouldn’t even cross our radars as Americans. I had to learn a lot of them the hard way: Trial and error. (Tofugu)

New Discoveries. A series of very enchanting iPhone photos. It often depresses me that Guion’s space phone can take better photographs than my digital camera. (Eye Poetry)

My life in chapters

Chapter One: A blissfully happy childhood, in which my greatest concerns are how many library books I am allowed to bring home and how many baby rabbits we can smuggle over from the neighbor’s back yard.

Chapter Two: The dark days of middle school, in which I fill up many dramatic journals and feel murky and confused inside.

Chapter Three: High school, in which my weirdly conservative debater identity takes hold; in which I feel that I am very popular, even though I am homeschooled and my entire social circle is about 40 people.

Chapter Four: Freshman year of college, in which I feel elated and totally excited about everything; in which I date a boy for the first time; in which I am still very judgmental.

Chapter Five: My sophomore year in college, in which everything falls apart and I am rebuilt again.

Chapter Six: My summer in Tokyo, in which my entire worldview is broadened; in which my Japanese language abilities make exponential strides; in which I have never worked harder in my entire life.

Chapter Six: Junior year in college, in which I am in love with Guion and find that he changes everything; in which I am happy, genuinely happy again.

Chapter Seven: Summer working for the Denver Post, in which I become an adult; in which I find a new, bold, extroverted self emerge, a self who makes new friends and invites them hiking every week; in which I am more fit and joyful than I have ever been before.

Chapter Eight: Senior year of college, in which Guion decides to marry me; in which I live in an almost constant state of stress; in which I learn that living in a house with six other women is difficult but has its benefits; in which I finish my thesis and feel very accomplished; in which I plan my wedding and graduate.

Chapter Nine: Our first year of marriage, in which we are excited to be together every single day; in which we move to Charlottesville; in which I get my first full-time job and he starts graduate school; in which we fall in love with a town and its people.

Chapter Ten: Our second year of marriage, which has just begun; in which we think we might just stay here forever, for who could feel this content?