russian tea time

 (1 june 2011)

i was sitting with my married friends in the corner of the russian teahouse in the early days of the deep dark winter of 2010.

i’d never met mr. married’s wife and i was seeing him for the first time in eight years. in his memories of me from college, i was reading books in corners at parties. in all of mine, he was wearing plaid pajama pants.

we talked about where we’d been living and what we’d been doing and everyone we’d ever known and then he asked what my dream job was.

i ordered an entree off the children’s menu, leaned over the vodka flights and said the first thing that came to mind: biographical researcher writing a biography on the side.

i’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

it was the first time i’d ever put it into words.

running v. standing still

(31 may 2011)

there’s a jackie relative who’s willing to talk to me. when we spoke on the phone last august, he said, well, you know, jackie loved parades and, as well as i think i know her, i did not know that.

i’ve not met with this man for a million reasons. because i didn’t have the money, i didn’t have the technology, i didn’t have any questions and i didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to arrange for a rental car in a city whose website explicitly warns that there is no available parking and it is stupid to drive.

but mostly i have not met with this man because there’s a fool voice in the back of my head that says that meeting with him would somehow expose the severity of my limitations. this is the same voice that says my work should unfold in a neat and tidy way, that all risks are inadvisable and standing still is by far for the best.

i’m fairly certain that voice is a vile bitch.

because neat and tidy isn’t the answer. quite often you have to make a big old mess.

if you know exactly what you’re doing, where you’re headed and how, you will likely get there, but you might also miss out. because it’s by taking the risks and the paths you never planned to go down that you wind up doing the really really interesting things. the things beyond what you can dream.

there’s a jackie relative who’s willing to talk to me. i’m likely imperilling his life by admitting it, but, all these months later, i am finally ready for him.

page one

a friend said it has been hard to keep up with what i’m doing and asked what, precisely, i am working on now.

which is funny because i have no idea.

i went to washington to network with other people who love dead people and determined to sell myself as a biographical editor/researcher/assistant/anything for the very practical reason that if i’m going to keep doing this beyond august, then i’m in dire need of another revenue stream.

that was the plan. i was going to focus on getting money and worry about jackie when i got home.

when i saw her at breakfast, stacy schiff (of whose memory i am now in awe) asked, is it still all jackie all the time? and i shrugged my shoulders and said, eh, because it really wasn’t.

but then people asked who my subject was and when i said jackie they kind of rolled their eyes and started to walk away and there was nothing to do but put on my full jackie: the tabloid years regalia and stop them and say, wait. you really don’t even know.

and their eyes would widen and, by conversation’s end, i’d have them nodding away and riddled with envy over the awesomeness of my research materials.

i went to washington to make money and returned ready to ready to kill the first 150 pages of the book i wrote five years ago and begin at the beginning. with that paragraph i put down on paper in january 2004 for the first assignment in tracey weiner’s “writing biography” class.

at the time, i thought it was the first paragraph of the twelfth chapter of a book i’d not yet written, but i was wrong. it’s page one.

seeing the dolphin

(25 may 2011)

in the mid-90s there were these posters. i’m sure they had a name, but i don’t know it. regardless, there were these posters and you were supposed to stand and stare and squint at just the right angle and then suddenly, from among 800 thumbnails of al gore or whatever, the image of a dolphin would emerge.

once you’d seen the dolphin, there was no not seeing the dolphin.

and if you didn’t see the dolphin, those posters just really pissed you off.

writing is like those posters. in the sense that once you’ve glimpsed the possibility, you can’t ever not see it. nor can you really show it to someone else.

my vision of precisely what it is i’m trying to do is blurred at best, but occasionally it comes into crystalline focus. and, as though the sun has slipped out from under a cloud, there are these moments where everything is entirely possible and the path is perfectly clear.

the trouble with these moments is that they do not last. and they are few and far between. to date, i’ve had two.

one in new york in march as i walked down 6th avenue in the rain listening to “down in the valley” on repeat. the other this past weekend in washington, when a two mile hike to the lincoln memorial done in ill-advised flats felt like nothing because i was walking on air.

i’m not an expert, i’m barely a writer and i’ve no clue what i’m doing beyond the fact that i’m, at present, not writing at least four different things. but the one thing i do know is that there are these moments and they are the key.

they must be felt to the fullest. lived. savored. sunk into like a hot bath at a long day’s end.

because, on most days, the only thing that rings true is that i will wind up abandoned, incontinent and riddled with mouth cancer. yet, in the midst of that black pit of impossibles, there are still these moments, and they are enough.

once you’ve glimpsed the possibility, you can’t ever not see it. once you’ve seen the dolphin, it is always there.

biography = deprivation

(24 may 2011)

biographers don’t eat. at their conferences the food is placed strategically just beyond the bar, which is surrounded by such a crush of people that one can never break through.

in my many futile attempts to reach the mountains of canapés i could see on the other side of the room, i spent a significant portion of this weekend’s conference in lines leading to bars, which is where this question always seemed to be making the rounds: how much sleep do you get?

biographers don’t sleep. the hourly average among them was four. people looked at me with wide-eyed wonder and blatant envy upon the admission that i’d been clocking in at five and a half. my smugness was short-lived.

before leaving for DC i’d resolved that the summer belonged to jackie and that she was going to get an hour every morning.

i’m back from DC. jackie’s getting her hour. last night i got four hours of sleep. it has aged me a bare minimum of 800 years, but there is a silver lining: i’m a biogapher at last.