Mrs. M has closed up her classroom for the summer, while the Spawn and I have 15 class days left in summer term. I just finished my dinner, which consisted of Southwestern/Black Bean hummus and chips, and we’ve already had the pop-up thunderstorm that is a near-daily occurrence around here. So what else to do but blog a bit?
Yesterday, my paperback copy of Lawrence Block’s Resume Speed and Other Stories arrived, so that took care of an hour or so last night. It’s a gathering of seven stories (a baker’s half-dozen?), one of which is the titular novella (which I reviewed a while back.) These hadn’t been collected before (indeed, one had been misplaced in LB’s files and was previously unpublished), and include work from across the decades of Mr. Block’s career. Unsurprisingly, the stories are well executed, typically leaving the reader with a satisfied nod and perhaps a slightly disturbing smile.
I’ve always been fond of reading short stories, and given the choice between a top-flight collection/anthology and a very strong novel, I’ll frequently choose the assortment. As I’ve noted before, that seems to be a bit against the grain in this era, as novels dominate the market (which in turn encourages writers to work at that length, and the cycle continues.) But several of my favorite writers — Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, William Kotzwinkle, and the abovementioned Mr. Block — have spent much (or in Ellison’s case, nearly all) of their careers working in this less fashionable genre.
And from time to time, I wonder if conditions might not be favorable for a renascence of the form. We live in what feels (to me, anyway) like an increasingly fragmented age. I’ve joked before about living in an era in which people get impatient waiting for microwaved popcorn, and certainly the rise of electronic media appears to have taken its toll on attention spans. Certainly I see a fair number of folks turning out flash fiction (what we used to call short-shorts, typically 1,000 words or under), and apparently there’s something called the drabble, a short of 100 words max, and even 55 Fiction, the limit for which seems obvious. These two latter breeds don’t hold much appeal for me — the stuff of stunts and gimmicks — but given that more and more people seem to have less and less time or attention span, maybe the audience for short fiction is re-forming.
In any case, folks with an interest in short, effective, well developed fiction have something to enjoy in Block’s new collection, and who knows? You could be getting in on a trend.
After jumping through a couple of interlibrary hoops, I’m working my way through Sixpence in Her Shoe, a mid-60s collection of essays on domesticity from Phyllis McGinley. Apparently the essays were originally published in such venues as the Ladies Home Journal and Glamour, and were assembled into book form by an editor who saw them in some regards as a reply to such writers as Betty Friedan and Richard Yates.
Reading McGinley’s essays today is challenging. It’s difficult to try to take them on their own terms, precisely because of the influence of writers from the Beats to the Friedans and Yateses, who have given us an image of suburban domesticity as the stuff of nightmares. The burbs, we’ve been told, are gulags of conformism and the crushing of souls, from Yates’s Revolutionary Road to Ira Levin’s Stepford, Pleasantville, Rush’s “Subdivisions“, or Sam Mendes’s production of Alan Ball’s American Beauty. The people of these neighborhoods are either stifled or hypocritical, and all you need to see it is, oh, an ice storm.
Even people who look back on the era with fondness — like James Lileks, whose writing online and elsewhere I strongly recommend — feel obligated to focus on images of suburban 50s/60s life that will be perceived as the antithesis of cool. (And in some ways, he has a point, as any reader of Lileks’s Gallery of Regrettable Food will attest.) If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone use the 1950s as an epitome of political and psychological repression, I’d have several nickels.
And of course, there were problems in that era — we have to remember that Utopia means “no place,” after all. But there are problems in our era as well, and it serves us to remember that when all is said and done, a hell of a lot of people found things to love about life in the burbs, and enjoyed those lives unpoisoned by the irony of those who saw themselves as more enlightened and authentic. My grandparents were thrilled to have a two-bedroom, one-bath house in a subdivision of 2,000 homes in 1965, and they spent the rest of their lives there. I’m a child of suburbia myself, and I can imagine worse childhoods than the one in which I could play ball in my yard, retreat to the basement to read, or get an Icee at the local convenience store.
But to get back to McGinley, her essays recounting her upper-middle-class life (she wrote at home, where she also worked as a mother and homemaker) now seem like dispatches from alien worlds. It’s a world of dinner parties (ten is the ideal number of guests) and domestic help (There’s an entire chapter on being a good employer and a moment that is heartbreaking now, when one live-in maid leaves her job because her 9-year-old son is uncomfortable in their Connecticut surroundings. The two return, we’re told, to their home. . . in Harlem.) This was not the world in which I grew up — its pressures were different from those my parents faced. It is certainly not the world in which I now live.
But at the same time, there are points I think are worth remembering. She speaks of the honor and importance of housewifery. She sees it as a genuine vocation worthy of value. She takes pride in making her home welcoming for her friends, her children, and above all, her husband. And this last charge she sees not as settling for or giving up anything — she sees it as a fulfillment of her purpose and a complement, rather than a burden or state of subservience. (Interestingly, by the 1960s, she was likely outearning her husband.) McGinley is grateful for her life — all of it.
And there is none of the emotional sterility or rigidness that we now associate with the setting. The life McGinley describes is one she clearly finds fulfilling and joyous, both when she speaks of her current comforts and when she and her young family faced the typical struggles of getting started. What makes a home is not the expense of furnishing it or the quality of the window treatments, she says — it’s the expression of personality through choice that makes it real, rather than a stage set or a department store’s showroom. She advocates thrift, but not as an end in itself. Rather, it’s a means to make sure that the family can have the things its members really want, whether that’s a new TV or a trip to Ireland.
She also recognizes that individual mileage may vary. She mentions women she knows who are temperamentally unsuited to the exclusive pursuit of homemaking, and says that when those women are denied other avenues, the results can be disastrous for everyone around them. Nonetheless she argues, those women who choose to stay at home should be respected and honored as well.
A particularly interesting early chapter examines the complaint that educated women who choose homemaking as a career are somehow wasting their educations. She argues that this complaint is based in a utilitarian view of education — that education not deployed into the marketplace is squandered. Instead, McGinley proposes that education (and particularly liberal arts education) is an end in itself, for women or men:
“For a liberal arts education is not a tool like a hoe or a blueprint or an electric mixer. It is a true and precious stone which can glow just as wholesomely on a kitchen table as when it is put on exhibition in a jeweler’s window or bartered for bread and butter. Learning is a boon, a personal good. It is a light in the mind, a pleasure for the spirit, an object to be enjoyed. It is refreshment, warmth, illumination, a window from which we get a view of the world. To what barbarian plane are we descending when we demand that it serve only the economy?”
I’m only about halfway through at this point, but I’ll probably have a few more comments as I continue.
A band I’ve come to love in the last few years, The Green Pajamas, have announced their retirement from live performance with one last show in their hometown of Seattle on 29 June. They will apparently continue to record, but they’re now yet another addition to the list of bands I never got to see on stage. And with that, I’ll share one of their songs. It’s the title track to their 1990 Ghosts of Love album, and while in many regards it’s just a I-IV-V workout, it has spoken to me since I first heard it, and it still does. It’s a wonderful and somewhat trippy observation on the things we see in those we love.
See you soon!