Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Bring the Funny

“Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”
~Anne Lamott,
Bird by Bird

At this time last year I was an aspiring comedienne. Most of my drafty eight minutes of stand-up consisted of one-liners about coffee, cookie dough, and looking for staples at Staples. I had been unemployed (by choice) for six months, and my sabbatical had been fruitful if not funny. I did have a nice little riff on what happens domestically when the woman stops working: “My husband would come home and I would say things like, ‘Honey, I washed my coat!’”

When asked by the Songwriters Association of Washington, DC to describe my music, I had once offered “Sad, funny, and female—in the tradition of Dar Williams, Meryn Cadell and Danielle Ate the Sandwich.” (I got to tell Danielle this in person when I was cast as an extra in one of her music videos.) Those three ladies really know how to bring the funny in their lyrics. I’d had the sadder-but-wiser thing going on for a while, but I couldn’t let go of the notion that I had some humor in me. In 2009 I completed a manuscript as part of National Novel Writing Month, and while my prose description was terrible, my dialogue was hilarious. Screenwriting seemed too daunting at my age, but I thought I could squeeze out fifteen minutes of stand-up to perform at an open mic.

I had the open mic all picked out. It was to be at Sojourners Coffee and Tea in Denver (I was living there at the time) last July 18. I wrote and rewrote and edited and timed my routine, but it just wasn’t happening. I learned that if you’re not careful, many attempts at comic writing just end up being rants. Truly funny, non-negative, non-gross stuff is hard to create. I abandoned the project without looking back. I knew it hadn’t been a lack of desire or hard work—I just couldn’t write stand-up. Sometimes, Eileen can’t

In January I joined an online songwriting group and have dutifully turned in each assignment on time. I never considered them “real” songs, however. It’s as if each one had an asterisk by it, like I hadn’t created Song 13 as much as Song 12.5. I thought of them as “exercises” with some distain, vainly guarding my writer’s heart. It took three rounds of trying out these random monthly, at times gimmicky, exercises to realize that the songs were real enough, but I had parted ways with my plaintive female ponderizing. It was finally time to bring the funny. Somehow these contrived prompts brought it out of me, precisely because I wasn’t taking them very seriously.

The anecdote about writing—or anything, for that matter—that I quote more often than any other is Anne Lamott’s notion that writing is like milking a cow. The cow gets relief even if the milk is discarded. Yes, I am the cow in this analogy. And yes, writing to a perfunctory assignment generated by a stranger brought me much comic relief, not to mention a built-in opportunity to write about The Big Lebowski. (The songwriting group is taking a break for the summer, so I should be back to maudlin very soon.)

Prompt 1: Write a "feel good" theme song. Try to create the chorus so that whatever the hook is the listener can feel/know that you are "feeling good" "happy" etc.

I Don’t Mind

I'm out on the curb, feeling absurd
I left the house after our fight
Now I'm in the yard, it's getting hard to stand the cold

But I don't mind when our house is cold if we're in it together
And it's alright if your jokes and puns just really aren’t that clever
I don't mind

When you're on a trip
I always save your last voice message on my phone
Even if all that you say is all that you've eaten
and what time to pick you up

And I don't mind if your flight is late as long as you're home safe, dear
And it's alright if your bag is lost and then we have to wait there
I don't mind

And if our street is taken over by zombies asking
for whatever zombies ask for we'll give it to them because...

It's alright to stand with your lover during Armageddon
And I don't mind holding hands with you until our fingers deaden
I don't mind

Prompt 2: Write a song about life and renewal....with a reference to a hedgehog.


Low clouds for miles over Kansas
Thousands of steel windmills turn
The landscape is changing as cities collapse
There's less here and more here to learn

Pull the car up through the road rocks
See the noon sun on our place
It's just as you remember and not what I thought
The east wind grazes my face

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, and nothing's as firm as it seems

Your pitch for this plot was convincing in our stubborn battle of wills
Now add to the mortgage a trailer out back, and a lifetime of pest control bills

The old man says, “Just get a hedgehog--it'll eat up those critters right quick."
You say, "It's worth a try," and then I start to cry
This farmhouse is making me sick

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, just those termites working in teams

The kitties press their ears to the floorboards; for a moment it's quiet except
A split in the distance, a crash in the yard
I say, "Honey, there goes our deck."

There are no mountains in this town, just a path through the woods to the streams
There are no ghosts left in this house, just those termites working in teams
Like alarm clocks that cut into dreams, underfoot buzzing like tiny screams
And nothing's as firm as it seems because these termites, they're eating our beams

Prompt 3: Write about a 'comedy of errors.'

Comedy of Errors

And there goes Bunnie in a halter, unaware she’s being tailed by Walter
Me, too, I’m mixed up in this crime with some of the greatest actors of all time

Chorus: It’s a comedy of errors featuring one of history’s most famous bathrobe-wearers
When it’s on the screen, I’m tied there like a tether ‘cause you know that rug, it tied the room together

That Maude is such a special lady, but her father seems very, very shady
The Dude is trying to untangle this mess, and what it all means, well, that’s anybody’s guess


Interlude: Poor Donny, with his haircut and his soda. Is it true that he doesn’t even really exist? We only ever see him at the bowling alley. Is it true that he is just a figment of Walter’s imagination, an old Nam buddy? And the Dude goes along with it, just to be a good friend

I can’t get enough of Jackie Treehorn, and I know all he does is make porn, but it’s all right

It’s about a rug, and a couple of thugs, and other things that I dug, some guys who love to bowl, and being on the dole, and saving your soul. (Da Fino’s a mole!)

This movie gives me a good feeling; I can’t follow it, but I know that it’s healing

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Poet in the Laboratory

Marie Curie“If all the stories are placed on top of each other, everything ultimately becomes invisible. Then you have to choose.”  ~from The Book about Blanche and Marie by Per Olov Enquist

I read a lot of biographies, mostly of women. And though I am not a feminist (it gets in the way of being a humanist), I find that immersing myself in the life of another woman through reading conveys lessons to me that are not transferable through any other medium. Audrey Hepburn is brilliant on the screen, but it was not until I read a biography of her that I learned what a great cook she was (and got some of her famous recipes). Fans of Marlee Matlin know her strengths as a dramatic actress, but parts of her autobiography were laugh-out-loud hilarious in a way I hadn’t expected. A fair chronicle of Joni Mitchell's life gives equal coverage to her painting and her music. And Shawn Colvin had a new memoir out this year that left me soaked in her struggle for survival, her love of clothes (Who knew?), and a wholly intimidating sense of her expert guitar skills, told through anecdotes from her years on the road.

Some women I become truly obsessed with. Last year it was Diane Arbus and this year it was Marie Curie. As women go, the two probably could not be more different, yet biographies of each of them had similarly profound effects on my grasp of modern history; of couples working as partners in their professions; of mothers and daughters; and of tireless, relentless efforts toward what each considered her passion. Both criticized for their sexual choices, each woman consumed in her work, and each leaving behind a remarkable legacy. 

When we read biographies, we draw the lessons that we need to, filtered through our own flaws and experience. In trying to craft a fictional narrative in this song, I explore the motivations of a young girl who has drawn different lessons from the life of Marie Curie than perhaps you or I would. It is not as successful as my non-fiction songs, but I was ready to try something new.


Shine Like Marie Curie                                    

The evening star is rising with all the owls advising. Her teenage body wising up for good
A girl like many others, she courts her best friends’ brothers, adventuring outside her neighborhood
Faded initials in a heart carved in a tree—a silent warning of the woman she will be
In heaven’s backroom they’re conferring on a pin. They can’t let her in because…

Chorus: She’s in a hurry to shine like Marie Curie would. Her parents worry for her and themselves and all the rest. She’s chasing Saturn and she sees a pattern: her world is flatter when saints are conspiring overhead.

A humbled adolescent, she lay there luminescent, staring at the crescent high above.
The planets all revolving, and all her problems solving. The Earth, in turn, absolving all her sin.
She tells him, “I can’t give you any less of me.” She begs him, “Promise not to make a mess of me.”
Those helpless angels, now they’re off on spinning spheres whispering for years, saying…


With August disappearing and autumn surely nearing, the cricketsong is steering her to sleep.
Her father in hysterics consults suburban clerics: oppression so generic she’s ashamed.
But when it’s over she shows off her battlescars, proudly displayed like streamers from her handlebars.
Her friends will tell her that she’s just like all the rest, but she’s got an answer:

She uses science to channel her defiance and she stands on giants—their shoulders grow limp beneath her weight.
They call her sorcerer. They know the force of her. There’s no remorse in these women who get their hands so dirty.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Empathy Problem

I feel it all. ~Feist

I’ve cracked the code. People have been telling me all my life that I’m too sensitive. And I think they’re right. I absorb everything that goes on in a room, and I am not easily able to forget stuff. I usually stay up all night processing it all – everything anyone did or said throughout the day, as well as my reactions. It’s a problem. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between my own emotions and someone else’s. It’s also very hard for me to deliver bad news or stand up for myself in a situation where I know I will rock the boat; I am simultaneously experiencing my own feelings and the predicted response of my interlocutor.

I was extremely fortunate this summer to be gifted with a half-day horseback ride through Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, perhaps the prettiest place I’ve ever been. I’d only been on horseback once before, but was told then I was ‘a natural’ at it. However, I wouldn’t want to discount the importance of having a good horse. This time, too, I had a great horse, and a great ride.

For hours I let my body assume the rhythm of the horse and think about only these few things: no sudden movements, no loud noises, and—no matter what happens—don’t let go of the reins unless you are already on the ground.

It became clear to me in the third hour that the way to explain being ‘a natural’ at horseback riding, though I have done it only twice, is just to say that I trusted the horse. That way, I had very little to think about and could just gaze around at the wild burros, pronghorn, and bison that dot the landscape of the Black Hills. During this time, the chorus came to me, and the rest unfolded to the reliable cadence of the horse’s movements.

I had the keen sense that the point was not for me to feel what my horse, Doc, was feeling. After all, she had shoes nailed into her feet and had to cross eight rocky streams and several narrow mountain passages. The key was to know that I was not, in fact, the horse, but the rider—whose job was entirely different: to trust the animal.

Too Much Empathy (Traveling III)

You see from my expression I’ve been taken by the reins
The slightest raw emotion and I fold like paper cranes
The body is a bellows and I soak in what I breathe
The squeals of kids on swings, the screams of babies as they teethe
The empathy’s too much, but I can’t help but feel it all
I throw back all your angst, I say your name, I hit a wall

But I trust the horse I’m riding even on the steeper hills
And I trust the healing process after cuts and cramps and spills
I trust the clothes I’m wearing—my jeans and spurs and boots
These things I’ve made mine; I have my wings, I know my roots

But I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling
I just want to know what you know
I hold fast to my own heart, high or low

The volumes that I process I’m unable to forget
My memory’s off the charts; my turning radius is set
But I’ll take the straight and narrow on the mountain that I climb
I trust the dark and stony cave; my eyes can see through time

And I trust the horse I’m on; he knows which animal he is
And I trust the bit and bridle and the things that he’s made his
I trust the clothes I’m wearing—my spurs and boots and jeans
I'm out here on my own; I know the way, I have the means

And I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling
I just want to see what you see
I need to know there’s a difference between you and me

I trust the horse I’m riding even on the steeper hills
I trust the healing process after cuts and cramps and spills
I trust the clothes I’m wearing—my boots and jeans and spurs
I keep my chin up all along. They say an optimist endures.

I don’t want to feel what you’re feeling
I just want to know what you know
I hold fast to my own heart as I go

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and know the place for the first time. ~ T.S. Eliot

Some songs whisper for a long time, while others come screaming. I have learned that when I sit down with lyrics, even half-baked or bad ones, I have to have my digital voice recorder nearby in case a melody reveals itself right away. You can make tiny adjustments until you feel that everything's falling into place, but at some point, the song emerges, wriggling through its afterbirth.

There are those who find it untoward to write negative things about one's family, or to post such things in public places. There are others who, like my favorite fiction writer Lorrie Moore, say to "write something excruciating" in order to reach into the deeper places. And while I am not in the habit of badmouthing people for sport, I side with Moore. There is indeed a cruel volley among my sisters and me, and I am in fact partially responsible for keeping it going.

I strive for transparency in my lyrics, even if it means falling through a glass door.

Venus in Transit (Traveling II)

Years are full of nighttimes, carving different moons
Days are full of mornings, blinding us in noons
And through another lens I see my journey in reverse
I practiced all my manners, but some things you can't rehearse 
I'm in transit, I'm in transit

Oh, Venus, I watch you cross the sun
Oh, Venus, how will they know my work's not done?
I'm in transit, I'm in transit

I'm standing in a room with all my sisters
We snap these little twigs, we break each other's nests
We orchestrate more cruelty, we take each other's tests
Oh, Venus, where will this volley come to rest?
Oh, Venus, how will I know I've done my best?
I'm in transit

I can't arrive before my time, but now I'm finally here
My will is louder than my fear
I can't arrive before my time, but now I'm finally here
My day is longer than my year
I'm in transit, I'm in transit

There are no pictures in my wallet
All the old and known things are worse than the unknown
I pack a few good memories and I walk away alone
Oh, Venus, my year is shorter than my day
Oh, Venus, I don't do anything half-way
I'm in transit

Friday, June 8, 2012

Flowers, Witches

Kill your darlings. ~ Annie Dillard

I was extraordinarily patient with this one. Fifty-one days of bad rhymes in ¾ time, fifty-one nights of alphabets dancing in my head. And twenty-eight days to finally process the whole thing into this write-up. I had the chords and melody for a long time before the words, which is unusual for me. At one point I was sitting in the customer lounge at a Ford dealership, waiting for a repair, and writing verses in time about how hard this song was to write. That did actually yield a seedling of something that ended up in the song, but it is probably unrecognizable by now.

On March 22, coming down off the high of Don’t Wait Til Sunday, I scribbled a note: “When my dinosaur body returns to the earth, I wanna be flowers and not fossil fuels.” For both artistic and scientific reasons, this did not make it past Day 10 of writing this song. But it got me to Day 11, and so on, and so forth.

Author Annie Dillard suggests that a good writer must learn to “kill her darlings,” meaning that some good writing (not to mention a lot of bad writing) gets in the way of other good writing. If you are not willing to cut something—even something good—you cannot move on, and you find yourself at an impasse.

This song is about the place where pacifists are buried (if there is such a place), but unfortunately I had to wage an all-out war on my “darlings” during the writing process. Many great lyrics were casualties of this war. I haven’t shredded all those pieces of notebook paper yet, but I managed to hide them away when I knew they were not going to end up in the song. Still, every bit gets me closer to every other little bit.

My Jimmy Webb songwriting book taught me that, “There is no crossed-out, blotted word on paper or half-croaked note or stumbling, tripping step toward the songwriter’s goal that is unseemly or shameful.” Jimmy recommends that when one is having difficulty crafting an effective lyric, isolating the song idea by writing a sincere letter to it can lead to a breakthrough. Dear Song 9, I wrote on April 19, I have been extraordinarily patient with you. I went on to ask the song what it was about besides pacifism, or beyond pacifism, or within pacifism. It had to be about something bigger or something smaller. I asked the song what my real issue with it was. Courage? Focus?

It turns out it is about something larger—stating one’s position unequivocally in the face of enormous opposition—but it had to be framed in terms of something much more specific. A forest grave. An unceremonious burial. An earthy dirge.

I recently moved from Washington, DC to Colorado, and while the move probably delayed the development of the song, the ubiquitous evergreen trees here pushing their way through the rocky ground is what ultimately brought the song together.

I imagine someday I could be escorted out of a room for saying some of these things, but I will choose my open mics carefully. Also, all of that is in the song: how painful that it, but also why that makes these things so important to say.

“Flowers” kept kicking around, changing in context quite a bit, but I clung to the idea of the beauty and fragility of flowers, and of peace itself. The hardest words came last. In comparing myself to others who may have an unceremonious or secret burial I had to get closer and closer to what was excruciating about writing this song. “Witches” was the final word that came and that day the song was finished.

What Glory is This

In our high school pictures we all look the same
And we were so sure we knew who to blame
Now we are flowers, we open and close
We’re risking our lives here, but nobody knows

Chorus: Bury me next to the sad punks and sailors, next to the mad monks and jailers, out beyond witches and whalers, under an evergreen tree.

We’ll find a good place for peacemakers unknown
We’ll do without caskets, the wreath and the stone
There’s no celebration, no cross in the ground
We’re buried in silence, no trumpets resound


I walk to the forest and I sing this hymn, I steady my path with a fallen tree limb
When makers of battles find out what I think, they’ll mark my grave with indelible ink
They’ll make of this place a new war—what glory is this?

So I give thanks for near misses and I fly my flag, but no son of mine will wear a dog tag
He’ll plant and he’ll weed and he’ll rake—what glory is this!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Changing My Strings

“If you’re a sloppy thinker six days a week and you really try to be sharp on the seventh, then maybe the next six days aren’t going to be quite as sloppy as the preceding six…The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”
~Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I decided to change my guitar strings. They’d all been switched out in November when I had William at the Guitar Gallery in Cleveland Park (“the guitar guy”) do some work for me. I chose the ones I wanted—Martin silk and steel folk guitar strings—and he put them on after cleaning my fret board and adjusting my action with a truss rod. It’s not as dirty as it sounds.

Four months later one of my open mic friends said, ”Your guitar would sound a lot better with new strings.” Fateful words. The moral of this story is that a guitar with old strings sounds better—and is infinitely more playable—than a guitar with no strings.

I sat on my bed--coffee and water on the adjacent nightstand, and set about my task, daunted and confident at the same time. I figured I would talk myself through it and it wouldn’t be so bad. I took off all the strings and cleaned the fret board. That was my first mistake. Not the cleaning, but I later found out that I should have changed out the strings one by one. Or not.

In all things guitar, I have found that everyone has a different opinion—how I should sit, whether or not to learn tablature, how important it is to put myself through the hell that is learning barre chords. I fall somewhere between easily led and totally stubborn, but one thing’s for sure: I ask a lot of questions. First, I went back and forth with my friend Jacob via text about whether I could combine strings from different packages (weights). I had three or four half packages of D’Addarios I wanted to use up and figured I could combine them.

Somehow when I got a guitar and broke my first string, about one year ago, I managed to order and replace the string without asking anyone what to do. It was truly a case of beginner’s mind. Now I found that I was clueless as to how to proceed. I ached with the sense that I should have left well enough alone. I put everything aside for a minute and tried to breathe. My computer was playing on random and a track called “The Elvis Song” from Liz Phair’s Girlysound recordings came on. “Elvis, be good to me,” she says in a high-pitched nasal whine. “Elvis, be true.” I grabbed my journal and scrawled out the first line of my song, which would end up being the last.

Great, a song was developing. But I wouldn’t be able to write or play it until I got the strings on. I stared at the naked guitar. While one hour previous I’d been banging away at a Loudon Wainwright tune, now the instrument sat there, defiled, and I couldn’t play it.

For many years I’d had a pretentious ambition to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Yes, I am better for having read it, but that book will whack the pretentiousness right out of you. Pirsig writes that the time to do good thinking is not later, when you have the perfect tools in front of you; it’s right now—on the road, as it were—or wherever you happen to find yourself, in whatever state of self-loathing or poverty of mind. Resign yourself to your limitations and act on those, instead of failing to act altogether.  As Tim Ferriss writes, “Boredom is the enemy, not some abstract failure.”  (Gee, what would happen if those two could somehow meet up across the space-time continuum?)

The worst case scenario was not that the strings would all be broken or unplayable or wound backward. It’s only wood and wire, after all. The real tragedy would have been missing this opportunity to be so humbled by an inanimate object that I got a good song out of it. I didn’t miss it. I got my ass to the public library, checked out a guitar repair guide, followed the instructions to the letter, and guess what? Within an hour I had six working strings.

Pirsig says that if you look for the machine, you will never find it. Where is it? In the tappets? The spark plugs? The chrome in between? It’s a cycle called yourself.

Don't Wait 'Til Sunday (Song for Robert Pirsig)

I set about changing my worn out guitar strings, seeking the solace that physical work brings
It proved much, much harder than I had expected: the wood and the wire, my efforts rejected
Someday I’ll be famous with mansions and things
Do Joni and Dar have to change their own strings?

I thought it beyond me, so I’d just take it in and I’d ask the guitar guy to lessen my burden
But amidst all my crying and whining and curses, I found myself thinking about Robert Pirsig
Well, I’ll introduce him ‘cause it’s been a while since he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
He drove ‘cross the country with his teen son in tow; they had many, many, many miles and more miles to go
Someday I’ll be famous and I’ll wear gold rings
And I wonder, does Loudon have to change his own strings?

Pirsig said if you think well just one day per week your tappets will rust and your engine will leak
Instead you should try to be one with the tuning; if not, you might find that your ego’s ballooning
He said that a great man would not wait ‘til Sunday or pine away hoping for riches, for “one day”
Think well right now, do the hard work yourself, don’t count on your servants, don’t lean on your wealth

And don’t wait ‘til Sunday, don’t wait ‘til Sunday

The strings  were all bent and my eyes were all cried out when I noticed the bridge holes were a little bit dried out
I put on some music and I did the repair for what seemed like hours to the sound of Liz Phair

Don’t wait ‘til Sunday, don’t wait ‘til Sunday

“Elvis, be good to me,” Liz Phair sings, and I wonder if Liz has to change her own strings
“Elvis, be good to me,” Liz Phair sings, and I wonder, did Elvis ever change his own strings?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dropping Library Books in the Tub

I dropped a library book in the tub. Or, I should say, in the bath—because it’s not as if the tub was empty at the time. I had prepared my ritual Sunday night bath and was trying to finish Rescuing Patty Hearst by Virginia Holman, which was due on Monday. I had renewed it as many times as the library would allow but still had about 100 pages to go as I drew the bath, lamenting the fact that I had no bubbles or fancy salts to add. I compensated by filling the tub way too full and adding a few too many drops of essential lavender.

Early in the book the narrator tells a childhood story of how she once damaged a library book beyond repair. She was so embarrassed that she told the librarian she had lost the book. She paid a hefty fine and secretly kept the book, but its pages had warped and pasted together, rendering it unopenable, much less readable. I was well past this passage by the time I was dipping into my bath and feeling more submerged than usual. As I sunk in and heard the excess water trickle out the release drain, I held the book up uncomfortably high and painstakingly turned the pages of this sad story, told in the voice of a young girl held captive by her mother’s Schizophrenia.

In a bubble bath, a book’s corners may graze the bubbles, producing a light crunching sound that subconsciously tells the bather she is holding her book a bit too close to the water’s surface. This sound is more pronounced with library books, meticulously wrapped in plastic sheeting by well-trained technical services librarians. I once had a copy of Sarah Vowell’s Take the Cannoli as my bath book. It was my own paperback copy, chosen from a Borders “3 for the Price of 2” sale table before they went out of business. With your own paperback copy, the risk of wetting the edges is greater without the plastic-on-bubble warning signal, but much less dangerous. Take the Cannoli bowed and curled throughout the weeks I was reading one essay per Sunday night bath.

Determined to finish Rescuing Patty Hearst before its due date, and with the bath overfilled, I plunged ahead through the story. In it, Virginia and her sister move with their delusional mother, Molly, to a cabin in the woods where Molly pledges to fight a “secret war” and enlists the help of her two young daughters. Weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and Virginia ends up spending the better part of her adolescence in this rural community where she develops unlikely friendships by avoiding the secret war at home. One thing led to another and before I knew it, my wet, lavender-oiled hands slipped and Virginia, dropped down into the tub. While the book did not fall completely under water, the outer edges were soaked through from cover to cover.

Letting something fall when it is already on its way is one of the easiest ways to experience what Buddhists call Zen. Even a heavy dinner plate, when extracted from the dishwasher at a precarious angle with slippery hands, can be let go of peacefully. Once you resign yourself to the momentum, the imminent crash and clang as the porcelain breaks apart on the kitchen floor, and the resulting inventory change in your home furnishings, it might even provide some sense of relief to let the thing go. For a moment, and only one, you are caught in the inevitability of what is transpiring, a feeling both empty and full, and one that is easy not to fight. It rivals the experience of forgetting something, the tiny space between knowing you’ve forgotten, and being upset about it. Songwriter John Darnielle expresses it thus: “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me.”

I emerged from the tub, donned my bathrobe, and took the book downstairs to devise a strategy. I boiled some water and let steep a cup of Pomegranate Pizzazz tea, knowing that my customary Sunday night Sleepytime brew would be no match for the task before me. As the tea bag released its essence into the hot water, I turned the pages of the book all the way from the copyright information to the note on typeface—244 plus pages—once, and again, and again to try to keep them from sticking together. I contemplated whether archivists have a special tool for spreading the pages of books after floods and construction-related water damage, and I regretted having skipped all those courses in library school.

With my tea steamy and magenta, I grabbed our small Rubbermaid stool from the kitchen and ascended the stairs. In my bedroom closet my hairdryer hangs on the lower clothes bar, wedged on a hooked contraption that makes me feel like a clever beauty shop designer every time I use it. This self-congratulatory feeling quickly dissipated when I sat down with the book in my lap and wondered aloud how I had managed to do this awful thing: to drop a library book in the tub. Breathing deeply, I set about my task and remembered something the Buddha said:  “You cannot break the law; you can only break yourself against the law.”


Rescuing a library book that has been dropped in the tub is a process of drying and flattening. As I sat on the low plastic stool and began drying the pages, I thought of all the heavy books around that I could use for weights to produce a good-as-new library return the next day. But as I turned and blew dry, starting with the synopsis on the inside flap and working my way through to my bookmark on page 151 and beyond, I realized that any moisture left in this book overnight—and then put under pressure—would ensure a pasty and stuck-shut book in the morning. Up the edge from the page number to the header and then turn, and again, and again.

When I got to the author bio on the back flap, the cellophane fluttered in the hot, blowing air. I flipped the book backward and upside down, hair dryer still blaring, and started the process over, holding the dryer at exactly the right angle to blast each page up and down the edge, but careful not to blow all the pages back and forth. Up the edge from the bottom corner, which was now the top, all the way to the inverted page number, falling into a rhythm that allowed me to give each page individual attention but not to dwell in any one place or distract from my primary goal: to keep the pages moving.

After a few rounds of this I became aware of a layer of sweat developing under my thighs, and soon between my bathrobe and the plastic stool. I was hunched over the book and the dryer had been running for a good ten minutes. I switched the setting to low, but the dryer itself is plastic and would soon give out from the constant whirring heat I had demanded of it. I shut it off, replaced it on the closet hook mechanism, and sat in silence for a moment, seeing the pages of the book flare out like wind-blown hair. In my lap the cover art showing a woman dragging another woman by her scarf pointed up at me from a funny angle. Although the book was closed, the pages had curled so much in the drying that the closed book now formed a defiant wedge tipping left toward the spine and spilling the title sideways.

I got in bed with the book and turned every page from the title to my bookmark and read from there. The plastic coating was still hot to the touch at page 160, and into the 170s. At each chapter break I sipped my tea and then closed the book, went back to the beginning, and turned each page until I got to my bookmark, making sure they were fully dry and not sticking together. I turned the baseboard heater to its highest setting, and turned my ceiling fan on high—knowing my tea would settle somewhere in between, but trying to keep the air circulating as much as possible. Around page 195 my eyes started to droop. Despite the Pomegranate Pizzazz, I couldn’t finish.

I opened the book until the front and back covers touched and bound them together with a black elastic headband, imagining that the library might actually prefer a wet book to one bent out of shape, but continuing in my quest to make the volume as presentable as possible. With a smaller hair tie looped through the headband, I hooked the foreign-looking object to a clothes hanger, which I then hung as close to the baseboard heater as I could without risking letting it fall and start a fire. Before I turned out the light I made sure that each page was its own little lavender-scented entity, and not clinging to any others.

On Monday morning I finished the book, again turning from the beginning to my bookmark, and by the end feeling satisfied that all the moisture had evaporated and the crunchy pages, wild as they were, were not going to form sticky conglomerates in the library book drop. I put the elastic headband around the open edge of the book to contain the unruly mass, and set it to rest for a few hours under the combined weight of The Random House Unabridged Dictionaryand an enormous photography book, Diane Arbus’ Revelations—14.6 pounds of smooth paper smothering the yellowed Holman book whose weight, when dry, did not even register on my bathroom scale.


That afternoon I walked right up to the book deposit and dropped my ruffled copy of Rescuing Patty Hearst into the dark depths of the library’s return system. Then I went inside and checked out several more books, took them home, and made sure to keep them away from the tub.

On Thursday I collected the mail and found an ecru, textured envelope (the kind my History of the Book professor would call “chain-lined paper”) with the blue insignia of Prince George’s County Memorial Library System emblazoned in the upper left: a generic book open on its spine with individual pages radiating in all directions. My name was carefully printed in black ink in the center of the envelope, and the postmark was one day old. The letter had traveled more miles than necessary—from the library ten blocks away, to the central mail facility, in a truck along my postal carrier’s daily route, and finally to my house—all in the space of two or three days.

As I reached for a letter opener, I already knew: I had failed to rescue Patty Hearst, and this communiqué would outline my penance. I slit the envelope flap swiftly and sheepishly, standing alone in my kitchen with the consequences of my actions. Inside was a single sheet, with the same logo on top, but in black and white, hovering over the words “Notice of Damaged Material.” All caps. Underlined. Bold. It was a filled-in form, more than a letter, and I wondered which format carried greater shame. Clearly, I was not the first citizen of Prince George’s County to damage library property. The form even had a section labeled Type of Damage, and “Water Stain” was the first choice. I was just an average library book damager, falling into the most common type of destruction, with not even a hand-written footnote or asterisk in the margin to describe the shape of my transgression in a unique way. The bottom of the form contained a section titledLocation of Damage, and I earned two checkmarks in that area—one for “Inside” and another for “Entire Item.” I made a mental note not to point out this redundancy when I went in to pay my fine.

I went on Friday. I approached the circulation desk with my checkbook and summoned my most cheerful voice. “I need to pay for a damaged item,” I said quietly, removing the stark white form from its warm and creamy chain paper envelope. The librarian took a look and said, “Okay, I will have to look for the item. Just a minute…” As I waited, I considered the policy: The extent of the damage was such that the item(s) are no longer usable in the Library’s collection. That’s fair. If I were taking Rescuing Patty Hearst off the shelf today and it unfurled into a curly mess just by being released from two adjacent books, I would probably scoff and reshelve it. The material will be held for one year at the branch library, during which time you may inspect the item(s) to confirm damage. That would not be necessary. As the librarian emerged from the back office I recognized the wedge-shaped item with its edge flaring open like a mouth with too much to say. Once paid, you can take and keep the material should you wish. She laid it on the counter and I got to contemplate it for a few minutes while my account was being updated and some amount of data showing that I had signed a check for $23.00 was typed into the system.

The book was in no-man’s-land at this point. It still had a record in the catalog, a bar code on the back plastic, even a line of ink stamps dating back to 2007 when it was last checked out as part of an analog universe. I imagined it coming home to roost next to my Terry Gross book and my copy of Ellen Burstyn’s autobiography, its tiny typewritten “BIO HOLMAN” sticker on the spine betraying the book’s origins as municipal property. Even before my check cleared,Rescuing Patty Hearst would officially be mine.

I was issued two receipts: an electronic one for “Damaged Item” that resembled the Date Due reminders I routinely print at the self-checkout station, and a small purple-on-white cash register receipt time-stamped and announcing “Fines” in the left-hand column. The librarian stapled the receipts together and then, with a single adept stroke of a Sharpie, sliced through the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System bar code on the back of the book: item 31268087944365 had been permanently removed from circulation.


Twenty-three dollars is a lot to pay for the luxury of reading in the tub. I paid less than half that for the Sarah Vowell book. Will I reread the damaged book—this time, perhaps, focusing on its subtitle, “Memories from a Decade Gone Mad”? Will I reorder its passages and read the story chronologically? Will I loan it to friends and urge them to keep it as long they need to, secretly hoping to never see it again? Will I write to Virginia Holman and confess my deed, adding something cheesy about how I “couldn’t have dropped a better book in the tub”?

 I suppose I can do any of these things with the book, at any time. I own it now.