Monday, November 05, 2012

Fernham has moved

You can find me here, with a spanking new website and all of Fernham folded within. If I were a better IT guy, you'd get an automatic redirect, but you're just going to have to click. And soon enough even the sad, temporary will point here, too. And a new blog post on Sandy the Terrible to get us started.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The blog is dead! Long live the blog!

I miss blogging.

2012 has turned out to be my worst year for blogging yet. And, alas, one of my best for facebook. Now, I love facebook. I would never bore you with pictures of my daughters swirling apples around in a bowl of melted caramel, but there, in that happy let’s-pretend stew of friends from kindergarten up through now, there is something comforting in getting a few “likes” for that image of happy childhood.

Still, this was better. A better discipline for me and better for my writing.

I submitted the mss of my edition of Mrs. Dalloway on January 31. But it wasn’t quite right, and so the editors asked for a bunch of changes. I resubmitted it in June, but I didn’t send it to right batch of editors. Finally, every superior editor signed off on my work in August and, two Fridays ago, on 9/28, I submitted it a third time. I’m hoping it’s the charm.

And, part of that hope is all about the hope that I can return to writing little tiny essays here from time to time.

We shall see.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Speaking of Woolf….

I’ve now done two of four sessions on Woolf for a book discussion series at the Brooklyn Public Library. They have been amazing. Preparing to talk about Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse with a group (how big? somewhere between twenty and forty) of adults, some of whom have been reading Woolf since before I was born, others who’ve never read her is thrilling and nerve-wracking. I can do little else on the day of a talk.

But then, to get into a room with other adults who’ve chosen to spend part of their day thinking and talking about a writer is a deeply moving thing and, once we get going, the time takes care of itself.

The conversation I had on Sunday, however, was unlike any other conversation I’ve had about Woolf in all my quarter century of studying her.

Luna Stage, just down the road from me in West Orange, is mounting the New Jersey Premier of Vita and Virginia (Eileen Atkins’ wonderful adaptation of letters to tell the story of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf’s love affair and of their continuing friendship thereafter) and they invited me to give a talkback after one of the performances. Of course, I said yes. A friend and I were already planning to go.

Then they asked me if I would speak with the director and the actresses.

On Sunday, I did.

We planned to talk for an hour, but it quickly grew to two. I did my best to tell them how to pronounce Lytton Strachey and Violet Trefusis. I tried to explain, not as an intellectual, but in ways that would help an actress, what I thought drew these women to each other, how I understood their sexualities and their attraction to each other. By the end of the time, the actresses were more in character than out, “I think I’m jealous…” “I say you don’t get anything done, but you get so much done…”

What a magical thing: to knock on a door, meet a group of strangers, and, within moments be passionately debating what it might have been like to be another woman altogether.

I’m still smiling.

If you’re in the area, I’ll be talking about Between the Acts on Wednesday, 9/19, 3:00-5:00 and about Moments of Being two weeks later, on 10/3. Both of these events are at the Brooklyn Public Library. These discussions are free and open to the public.

My talkback at Luna Stage is after the 3:00 PM performance on Sunday 9/30. The actresses are amazing and tickets are only $25.

Friday, August 31, 2012


In the spirit of the new year, here are the remarks I gave earlier this week at a Convocation for first-year students at my university:

A Jesuit educator wrote about the challenges of designing a curriculum for the rapidly changing world: “Current problems will in all probability no longer be current when the youth completes his [or her] education, and so by attempting to fit him for the present the school may unfit him for the future.” Now, Allan P. Farrell was writing about the 1930’s and it would be easy for us to laugh--if he thought that was a rapidly changing world, he should take a look at 2012.

But it’s not so simple as that: one of the challenges of college education, whenever one embarks on it, is the challenge of trying to learn what one might need for a future that one cannot fully imagine. What I love about liberal arts education is that, in all its wild impracticality, it refuses to try to predict. In fact, rather than narrowly striving to guess about the thing that’s about to happen in a year or two, the liberal arts education that you’re embarking on is designed to teach you about the past, help you ask big questions, and to demand that you work to shape the future--your own and that of your generation.

In order to get the most out of your education, however, you are going to have to step away from the now for a moment. This morning, Colum McCann said that some of what you’re facing will be very hard. One challenge that you can be sure to face is the challenge of moving being a consumer of information to being an active thinker, striving to educate your mind. We live in a thrilling world, one full of evil and danger and also full of great joy and we know this because every time we look down at our devices, every time we pass a monitor, every time we turn on our tablets and laptops, we can see what is happening anywhere in the world. But that glorious instant access comes at a price. We skim and click, we text, forward, like, and share, but rarely do we ask ourselves to pause and think. As one journalist describes his own love/hate relationship to Google “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Carr 227).

I exhort you to dive. Dive as deeply as you can. You are great Jet Skiers. But you didn’t come to Fordham to get better at skimming the surface. That’s not what this four years of your life is for. Your college education is the moment to learn how to dive, to dive deeply and discover the treasures buried far beneath the surface. That means training and practicing, remembering how to be still and just read--doing nothing other than reading--for longer and longer stretches of time.

In her 1929 essay on women’s education, Virginia Woolf writes about trying to follow an idea as it swims away from her--her thought, she writes, “to call it by a prouder name than it deserved, hat let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until--you know the little tug--the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line…” Her thought swims away from her grasp when a guard shoos her from the riverbank--she’s interrupted by another.

Now, it is we who interrupt ourselves. As you embark on your college education, I wish you patience and I exhort you to cultivate the strength to dive deeply into your studies. You can always go jet skiing next summer. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Cathi Hanauer’s Gone

I read this book because I needed a summer beachy read and saw that Hanauer was the editor of the collection The Bitch in the House. Knowing she was a feminist, I hoped that this would be a light book that also wouldn’t make my reading stop short with some moment of feminist outrage.

It was all right but not nearly as great as it could have been. Boy, does it ever capture something about the zeitgeist, though—both of my own life right now and, as I understand it, of a big sliver of lives of people in their 40s. So, on balance, I am glad I read it to the end. Gone tells the story of Eve Adams (that name! So unsubtle—it in itself almost made me stop), a nutritionist, and her husband, Eric, a sculptor. When the novel starts, Eric has run off with the babysitter. I can see why.

Eve is my worst version of myself: wound way too tight, working way too hard, primarily responsible for the home, food prep, and children, she is also having a great moment in her career: things are really taking off for her. Eric, by contrast, is struggling. Uninspired, he hasn’t completed—or sold—a sculpture in a long time and is wondering if he has it in him to ever create art again. (Now, since I’m identifying, let me clarify and say that this—the dry spell or the running off with the babysitter part—is emphatically not a parallel to my beloved’s life.) There’s no room for Eric in their lives at home and he’s frustrated with his career. They need a marriage reset. It’s a great and interesting problem and the unfolding of the novel is interesting—just the right combination of surprising and predictable to make it a reasonable read. And, having spent time this year renegotiating some of the balances in our marriage now that I’m (still) working too hard but that our youngest is in school and the demands of parenting have changed, too, I was interested in their problems.

But I was disappointed to see Northampton, Mass. given a fake name: after all the pleasures of recognition in Goodbye, Columbus, I felt the lack in Gone (which I read first) all the more keenly: why not name the town where the poor, obese white client lives? The juxtaposition of poverty with the appealing, fancy, yoga-and-tolerance filled communities of the Happy Valley are one of the most interesting things about that region.

More than that, again and I again I found sentences that I wanted tighter and assumptions that I wanted looser. Too often characters are identified by their census categories and shown to be lovable for conforming to what we expect of the black teen mom, the plump chatty Jewish lady, the hippie white girl in the coffee shop. It was never offensive, but it felt lazy and unimaginative. When Eve plays her “game” of trying to see if she can find twenty people in the food court who do not need to lose twenty pounds, I hated her. Listen, Eve, I wanted to scream, stop being so judgy!

Still, as a fictional counterpart to those lifestyle pieces about families where the wife outearns the husband, Gone held my interest even as it made me feel like I’d be boxed into one of Eve’s narrow categories: just another tired mommy in the food court who could stand to lose a few pounds.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Goodbye, Columbus; Hello, Newark

When we moved from Jersey City out to South Orange not quite two years ago, my friend Lenny, who’d been in nearby Millburn for a while, took me under his wing, driving me around, taking me to lunch in various spots around Essex County.

We were talking about Short Hills and he said, in passing, that of course I’d read Goodbye, Columbus. But I hadn’t. I didn’t know it and didn’t know that it was all about a version of the very move we had just made, for it’s the tale of Neil Krugman, a young worker in the Newark Public Library, and his love affair with Brenda Patimkin of Short Hills.

It’s a wonderful story about a summer romance across class barriers—funny and sharp and sweet. And there is a great, jolly pleasure in reading the real names of the towns that I pass through every day on my commute in to the city—to listen to Neil look at the Lackawanna Train—which then went into Hoboken but now is my train into Penn Station—and imagine the commuters from Maplewood and the Oranges, whizzing through Newark on their way to New York.

Philip Roth published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but if you’ve never read it or haven’t read it in a while, let me tell you, this novella is a great little summertime read.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Indeed, if we want to describe a summer evening, the way to do it is to set people talking in a room with their backs to the window, and then, as they talk about something else, let someone half turn her head and say, A fine evening’ (Woolf E3 239).