The Reason For Neutral Corners

Greek mythology has always been my favorite body of stories. As a kid, I obsessively read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and I could not get enough of those ancient babes and beasties amusing themselves at the expense of mortals. I love the endless bargaining, the jockeying for advantage, the punishments and retributions and the petty pranks. My favorite stories, though, are the ones about Zeus and Hera. Hera, the goddess of marriage and home, and Zeus, the god of the sky and thunder, are the rulers of Mount Olympus, the dysfunctional, bickering parents in the divine Greek family tree. (They are also siblings. I mention this so we can all have a collective “UGH YUCK” and move on.)
Hera: so I’m in charge of literally every meaningful human relationship
Zeus: yup
Hera: and you’re basically in charge of making loud noise
Zeus: yup
Hera: seems fair

I could not help but think about Zeus and Hera’s lively married life as I read the amazing Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015). I can’t be the first person to tell you to read Fates and Furies – it’s SO good- but I am probably the nerdiest about Greek mythology. Mathilde and Lotto meet in college and marry within weeks after setting eyes on each other for the first time.  The scope of their married life is big, Greek tragedy big, with the story structured across and filtered through the mythologic ideas of the Fates, divine beings who ruled that which is given and gifted in life, and the Furies, righteous goddesses tasked with finding sinners and delivering justice. Their marriage is earthy and elemental, a series of seismic events that incrementally fuse these two individuals into one landscape.  As perfectly as this grand structure serves the story, it’s the voyeuristic honesty scaled to the quiet, intimate moments between Mathilde and Lotto that are so shattering.  It is utterly absorbing watching these characters claw out a unique space to inhabit together and find that shared identity that is particular within commitment. Groff understands that in learning to be together, you have to learn to someone’s emotional vocabulary. You have to sometimes learn to find regard where you only feel contempt. But in the most revered of the Mount Olympus traditions, you also have to learn to fight. Hard. Let’s bring in our experts.

Drama is relative. Your version of normal might be another person’s version of unbearable tension, an idea that Groff examines with passion and precision in Fates and Furies. That is, unless you are dealing with the inhabitants of Mount Olympus. That neighborhood is all drama, all the time, by anyone’s standard. But even in a crowd that routinely turned people into trees or cursed them with snakes for hair, Zeus and Hera set the bar for fighting. Zeus and Hera are that boundaries-free couple nobody wants to be in public with because of all the screaming and name-calling. I guess they might be forgiven a bit for their histrionics when you consider that they’ve been married for thousands of years. If your idea of a great marriage is tons of infidelity, death, and transforming into animals, then this is the couple for you.


Prom pic.

You Can’t Hide Your Lying Eyes Apparently, the easiest way to score with ancient Greek chicks was to turn yourself into an animal. This was Zeus’ go-to move anyway. Every time Hera turned her back, he was transforming into a swan or a bull or an eagle so he could cheat on his wife with the latest object of his affection. It’s more than a little creepy but it’s not like he could transform himself into someone more handsome or successful. He was ZEUS. That is the top of any social ladder. Still, you’d think word would get around that if a bull showed up in your room and tried to make out with you, it was probably Zeus. Then there was the reverse animal trick, when Zeus turned his crush Io into a heifer to protect her from Hera. Because, when Zeus panics, he panics dumb.
Zeus: hey cutie
Io: no thanks lightning boy
Zeus: crap! my wife! i’ll turn you into a heifer to hide you
Io: because cows are invisible?!? idiot
Taylor Swift: i am so writing a song about this

Always Go To Bed Mad Hera has a 7th degree black belt in grudge holding. If Zeus liked you, and she found out about it, your life as you knew it was over. Hera was all about punishing Zeus’ crushes, but never punishing Zeus. I question this weird passive-aggressive strategy, because her shenanigans never kept Zeus from picking out his next wildlife disguise, but I have to applaud her creativity. In Io’s case-because it wasn’t sucky enough to be capriciously transformed into a cow-Hera decides to give Io her own personal biting horsefly.
Hera: sorry you got turned into a heifer
Io: uh-huh
Hera: nbd but now i am going to have this fly bite you a lot
Io: well this day can’t get any worse
Taylor Swift: squad goals!

Pick Your Battles Hera knew how to go big or go home, so when she got tired of the one-offs of sending bothersome insects after enchanted livestock, she started the Trojan War over losing a golden apple she wanted to Aphrodite. Because the best way to express your disappointment at not getting that golden apple you had your heart set on is to start a war.  Also, make sure it lasts about ten years, so that your husband knows you are completely serious when you tell him you wanted that damn golden apple for your damn self, and he better think twice next time when he takes the golden apple you wanted and lets that hussy Aphrodite waltz off with it. THAT WAS YOUR SHINY APPLE.
Zeus: couldn’t you just send another fly
Hera: i can’t hear you over the sound of not having my apple
Taylor Swift: the song I wrote is already #1!
Zeus: someone turn her into a heifer
Hera: i’m on it
Action Items
I need a nap because I wore myself out not spoiling all the good stuff in Fates and Furies. This was my first Lauren Groff book, and I’ve added all her earlier works to my TBR list.


The Reason To Look The Other Way

If there is a universal truth that unites anything and everything on earth, it is the fact that aging is inevitable. The cycle is everywhere you look. There are ways upon ways that nature marks the passage of time. The concentric rings in trees. The layers of strata visible in a canyon wall. A 16-point set of antlers on a mature red deer. And of course, the most accepted, scientifically sound way of determining age in humans: measuring reactions to the plot points in The Boxcar Children.

It’s hard to get much more classic-American-children’s-book than The Boxcar Children. Originally published in 1924, it was written by Gertrude Chandler Warner, a first grade teacher who first entered a classroom as part of the need for teachers during World War I. The story of four intrepid orphaned siblings who take their chances living independently in an abandoned boxcar rather than moving in with a grandparent who is a stranger, The Boxcar Children is one of those books that often ends up as a new reader’s first chapter book. As Warner wrote the book, she read it aloud to her classes, essentially workshopping it with the audience that would make it famous. I feel like this method would have been valuable to the brothers Grimm. If you are writing a children’s story about orphans who are having to make their own way in the woods, you are probably 100% less likely to include deliberate abandonment, cannibalism, and death by roasting if you are vetting it with actual children.
Grimms: thanks for attending our Work In Progress seminar
Children: no problem
Grimms: so any feedback on Hansel & Gretel
Children: we feel terrified, was that your objective
Grimms: omg NO like it’s supposed to be whimsical
Children: maybe dial back all the attempted murders


Mysterious cottage. Make yourself at home. What could possibly go wrong?

Adulthood ruins a lot of stuff, and it’s so unfair that the first thing it is likely to ruin is anything that entertained you as a child. It’s because of critical thinking. Critical thinking is helpful, because it probably keeps you from doing stupid things like buying magic beans or ordering chili on your onion rings, but it also straight up sucks joy air out of your joy balloon. Critical thinking demands that you reconcile inconsistencies and points out gaps and it’s basically the reason I can’t enjoy action movies made before 2003 because the special effects are so primitive (I’m looking at you, all Roger Moore as James Bond movies). It also makes it difficult to revisit a lot of beloved children’s books, because once your inner adult voice starts talking, it’s really hard to get it to shut up.

Origin Story In the opening pages of The Boxcar Children, we meet the four orphaned Alden children as they stand in front of a bakery, debating but ultimately wisely deciding to purchase bread instead of cake for their dinner. In exchange for a place to sleep in the bakery, the children agree to work for the baker and his wife, but have to run away when they overhear the baker’s plan to take the youngest of the siblings to the Children’s Home the next day. It’s an action-and-exposition packed first chapter that utterly fails to explain how these kids were orphaned. It just doesn’t come up, ever, anywhere in the book. Because why would it? It’s totally not relevant to Young Me AND NOT KNOWING ISN’T DRIVING OLD ME CRAZY OR ANYTHING.
Young Me: I would want cake too!
Old Me: so they just wandered away from a double funeral?
Young Me: Always ask an adult for help!
Old Me: WTF these people didn’t call 911 to report 4 unsupervised kids
Grimms: the baker wants to eat the kids right

Love It Or List It After sneaking away from the baker, the four children hide in the woods where they come upon an abandoned boxcar which they immediately identify as a perfect dwelling (as well as the ideal marketing and branding opportunity). It’s warm, dry, and move-in ready. Young Me was relieved and happy that the orphans found shelter and managed to stay together against odds. Old Me can’t even with wondering if everyone is up to date on their tetanus shots as they start crawling through what is clearly a rusty deathtrap.
Young Me: hideouts are cool
Old Me: is that a nest of black widows in the corner
Grimms: the witch lives here?
Young Me: no Grimms it’s not an enchanted boxcar
Old Me: it’s either a pile of spiders or a badger either way get out

Dinner Bell Once they’ve commandeered the boxcar, the Alden kids meet the challenge of establishing their meal supply chain head on. A quick walk to town for some groceries, a quick forage in the woods for some berries, and dinner is on. Due to convenient topographical features, there is a small stream running right in front of the boxcar which provides drinking water, facilitates cleanliness, and in a clever little detail, allows for refrigeration when the children store the glass bottles of milk they buy in town in the cold running water. I always loved that element of how the kids play house in the woods, although personally, I don’t really like milk when I am camping. My favorite camping food is brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts.
Young Me: I like cold milk too
Old Me: those bottles are probably coated in giardia
Young Me: let’s all have a picnic!
Grimms: so does everyone turn into geese or what
Old Me: damn, Grimms, chill out

Okay, Old Me. You just need to stand down. Not everything needs to make sense. In fact, the Alden siblings might be on to the tip of a whole lifestyle iceberg. I think there is a market for a chain of Boxcar Children-themed health spas and retreats, featuring Reject Authority Power Yoga, Decorate Your Small Space classes, and Hunt And Gather juice cleanses. Get Healthy The Boxcar Way! (Meet me at my room later. I snuck in a whole case of Pop-Tarts.)

Action Items
You probably are wondering if there is a list that ranks Pop-Tart flavors. Yes, there is.

The Reason To Make A Racket

It’s kind of startling how much Andre Agassi and I have in common. Andre Agassi is a world-class athlete, a tennis player who dominated the courts in the 1990s with a powerful serve and a powerful personality.  An eight-time Grand Slam champion, he was the first male player to win four Australian Opens, and in his spare time won an Olympic Gold Medal in tennis. He retired in 2006 and published his autobiography Open in 2009. I read the book and I am writing this thing about tennis so we’re practically twins, obvs. The resemblance is uncanny.

Open is a completely unsentimental recounting of what it cost Andre Agassi to become Andre Agassi. It’s riveting. Andre Agassi practiced and perfected his game in a brutal fishbowl, where mistakes were not tolerated and judgment was harsh. It’s not easy to grasp how truly difficult it is to become as good at anything as Andre Agassi is at tennis. You have to live and breathe it. You have to have a network around you that is as dedicated to your goal as you are. It’s relentless, grinding sacrifice. Andre Agassi’s story is one of success in elite athletic circles, but it’s also the larger story of finding out how to be who you are when stripped of the only thing you have ever done. Its humanity, vulnerability, and startling honesty puts Open it in a different class than standard glossy celebrity memoir.

As a sports fan, I am functionally enthusiastic. I don’t keep season tickets to anything, but I can hold my own when I go to a game. I know to never punt on first down and I fully understand the infield fly rule. If I’m watching a sport I’m not familiar with, I figure out how to enjoy what I am watching because I can figure out the basic scoring rules. I don’t get all the rules or nuance of play, but in most cases, there’s a kind of mathiness that makes itself evident and voila! Scoring!
And then…there’s tennis.

At first glance, there is nothing to suggest that tennis scoring is an unfathomable black hole devoid of logic and hope. It’s two people, sometimes four, a ball, a net, some rectangles. How complicated can it be? Well, I’d like to answer that without breaking down into frustrated gargling noises, but I can’t. I just don’t get tennis. I have tried. I really have, but like a greased pig at the county fair, the concepts evade me. I mean, I get the “people are hitting a ball back and forth” part. Past that, I have no idea what is happening. Tennis scoring is like, mermaids count backwards to Pi in an isolation tank with electrodes attached to their knuckles. Then, put on a Pilgrim costume, use invisible ink to write the answer down in Sanskrit, then set the paper on fire. Tennis is not that linear, though.

Tennis people, I know what you are thinking: “I can so explain tennis so you can understand it!” I appreciate your effort but I just have to stop you right there. My mental block is solid. It’s like trying to explain how to meow to an alligator. You can bring a flow chart laying out the correct vocal technique. You can play a recording to offer audio support. You can meow yourself to demonstrate. And when you are all done with all that, the alligator is just going to bite your arm off because it’s a fucking alligator. Then you have an alligator that doesn’t meow and you’re missing an arm. What I’m really saying here is, I don’t understand tennis, and I’m scared of alligators.


This is a metaphor.

I was excited about reading Open because I was sure I was finally going to overcome my netblindness. Andre Agassi would help me solve my tennis problem the way I solve all my problems: with books. I mean, with Andre Agassi as my coach, how could I miss?  There was no way I could read a whole book about this particular sport written by someone who knows the game in his very bones and not come out the other side with an understanding of how to tennis. Right?!?

Love Is The Loneliest Number You know how a lot of times in competitive sports, scores are predicated on accepted concepts of basic addition using whole numbers?  Then there’s tennis, where you can score “love”. Because tennis uses that other kind of addition where numbers are random words that have no actual connection to numbers?  To compound the fun, “love” is actually zero points. So it’s a word representing a score that actually means somebody didn’t score. As Euclid said, “That is some insane fuckery.”
Me: whatcha watching
You: football
Me: what’s the score
You: it’s lugnut-ponytail in the 4th quarter
Me: oooh close game

Deuce Morals In a tennis game, a score tied at 3 points each is called a deuce. This is a special rule in abstract wordmath, which is a real field of mathematics that I just made up. This special abstract wordmath rule states “scores tied at three are communicated by representing three with a number word that is actually related to the real number two. This is cool because we never use the number three anyway, we say FORTY to mean three, but don’t tell anyone that forty actually means three because it’s really funny watching people try to figure out what the hell the score is.”  This is more commonly known as the “Who’s On First” Paradox.
Me: is it still lugnut-ponytail?
You: no it’s tied at baker’s dozen
Me: 21-21, wow
Euclid: none of this is okay

Light A Match Tennis is made up of sets, which make up games, which make up a match. If you win the most sets, you win the most games, so you win the match. Except, of course, when you win the most sets and games and don’t win the match, which is a real thing in tennis and omg I give up.
Me: game over?
You: yeah, final score was Packers 28-Vikings 21
Euclid: Packers won, cool
Me: what? HAHAHAHA Oilers, duh
Euclid: i hate it here

I counted on you, Andre-Ag Kenobi. You were my only hope. Tennis is not the sport I was looking for. The double-fault is entirely mine. It’s time to take my alligator and go.

Action Items
J.R. Moehringer collaborated with Andre Agassi on Open. Moehringer’s own memoir, The Tender Bar, is a gorgeous book.

The Reason For A Team Meeting

I am not exactly a model of discipline or moderation or even a consistent laundry schedule, so the standard ‘Time To Make A Resolution’ does not hold a lot of appeal. It’s just not realistic. For starters, making resolutions involves making a list, and then keeping resolutions involves finding the damn list after immediately misplacing it, so we can all agree this is a system that is riddled with opportunities for failure. Besides, when focusing on my shortcomings, mere resolutions don’t begin to address what needs addressing. I need the kind of motivation that involves someone blowing a whistle in my face at 5AM and calling me a maggot. I am absolutely not going to let anyone do that, because anyone who does that is getting punched, and that judge told me the next time I punch someone I “risk incarceration”. I need solutions that don’t involve having to locate lost objects or put innocent drill sergeants in harm’s way.

I really do dream of getting my shit together, though, and what with resolutions being boring and/or violent, I need alternative inspiration avenues. When it comes time to make life improvements, it’s a better idea to look around to find people who are good at life. Why reinvent the wheel when you can mimic the best? I want iconic trendsetters, people who know how to get it done with style and panache. Like all my problems, I am solving this with books, and with those criteria, it was pretty easy to come up with a short list of candidates and choose my life coaches. Noël Coward and Shonda Rhimes, congratulations. You can start immediately.
You: two feels like overkill
Me: one to coach me
You: ok
Me: and one to look for my lost resolutions list

Noël Coward (1899-1973) was a brilliant playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, and cabaret performer. You know, because well-rounded. His sly wit and deft wordplay largely defined British theater in the period between the world wars. Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, Design For Living-Coward’s plays are about grownups doing provocative things. In his personal life, Coward was was an enthusiastic and prolific letter writer and The Letters Of Noël Coward, edited by Barry Day, captures Coward’s correspondence in all its intimate, bitchy, blisteringly smart style. His letters are endlessly entertaining, gossipy, and loaded with Coward’s razor-sharp humor, and they give the impression that Coward was always on his way from having a great time on his way to have another great time.  In fact, he is such a good salesman that after reading this book I have a longing to be British in the 1920s. As a runner up, I would take being British in the 1890s too, but I would not want to be British in the 1980s because my hair never would have done that Princess-Diana-Simon-LeBon bang swoop that was so critical to social success.
Me: I would like to be British
England: Qualifications?
Me: I can pronounce Worchestershire sauce
England: Anything else?
Me: I’ve been drunk at Heathrow
England: pass

Shonda Rhimes creates, writes, and produces some of the most compelling television you’re probably watching. Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Private Practice—at some point listing all her shows out loud in one sentence became too exhausting for everyone so now her creative genius is collectively referred to as ShondaLand. In the middle of kicking ass all over Thursday night network TV, she published Year of Yes: How To Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person (2015). Wildly successful in her writing and show development, Rhimes found herself retreating by inches to hide behind her work, essentially disappearing from her own life. Year of Yes describes her epiphany about her invisibility and recounts how she methodically overcomes her inhibitions. Using the word yes as her password, she completely renegotiates how she interacts with the world. The book’s rapid-fire, staccato style captures Rhimes’ joy as she opens up and finds her place in the sun. I want to be Rhimesish almost as much as I want to be British.
Me: I would like to be Rhimesish
Shondaland: Qualifications?
Me: I know how to spell anatomy
ShondaLand: Anything else?
Me: my favorite color is grey
ShondaLand: pass


The bang game is strong.

When I get right down to it, I have gravity problems. That’s right-my issues are scientific. I will dig a rut, fall into it, and whine myself into a state of slug-izontal. Random resolutions don’t have enough in the tractor beam to break me out of my self-induced inertia. My big ideas begin with figuring out how I can sleep late and end with figuring out how I can justify cheese fries for lunch. Giving myself a pep talk doesn’t get results because I can easily buy myself off with more cheese fries. What really fires my rockets?  Cadging someone else’s gumption. It’s ultimately a question of perspective. Imagining trying to justify my slothy ass to Team Coward-Rhimes, cheese fries suddenly lose their luster.
Cheese fries: was it something I said
Me: it’s not you, it’s me
Cheese fries: I can add chili
Me: I hope we can be friends

My favorite Noël Coward play is Private Lives (1930). Private Lives is a comedy of manners about Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase, a divorced couple married to new people and struggling with infidelity. Well, the kind of infidelity that occurs when you find yourself on your honeymoon with your new spouse in a suite next door to your old spouse who is with HIS new spouse and then you realize you really still want your old spouse so you ditch the new spouses and pull a spouseappearing act. The characters are British hot messes who suffer through their collective crises impeccably dressed and with perfect comic timing.  Amanda Prynne knows there will be fallout when she re-elopes with her first hushand on her second honeymoon, but she’s going for it. Shonda Rhimes chronicles the same philosophy (non-fiction version with 100% fewer extra spouses) in Year of Yes. You don’t get an option to stop the clock, so you might as well get off the couch, fling on a classy outfit and enjoy the ride. OOOOH and speak in a British accent while you are at it.
England: NO
Me: just a little one?
England: accent appropriation not approved
Me: English alliteration is excellent

I’m not making a list of resolutions, but I am resolute. I’ll try new stuff and try to be better at my old stuff, and when I need a good shove I’ll look to my Dream Role Model Team. I’ll read Noel Coward’s letters detailing how he worked as a British intelligence agent during WWII. (Yeah—in addition to all the other stuff, he took up intelligence work. WELL-ROUNDED). When I’m working up my nerve to do something that’s a little scary, I’ll conjure my best Shonda Rhimes-making-a-speech attitude, and suddenly I’ll start tossing my hair and screaming ‘BRING IT ON’. It’s not that I want to be my role models–I just need to borrow their brilliance every once in while. I promise to return it in original pristine condition.

Action Items
Here is a round-up of all things Noël Coward, including a link to a performance of Private Lives
Here is a round-up of all the ways you can read Year of Yes