New Fickleness for a New Year!

Hey, all you Fickle Readers out there! Happy New…er…February! A couple of days early!

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to see what new features my blog has to offer for 2015. Or maybe you were waiting to see if I was going to do anything coherent at all, besides posting random crap about Shakespeare, writing, current events, web stuff, and seemingly anything else that passes before my eyes.

Well, wait no longer! I, Miss Fickle Reader, am proud to announce that I have officially changed the name of my blog! Yes, indeed–careful readers will now note that the title is no longer the eponymous “Miss Fickle Reader” but the more descriptive “Miss Fickle Reader’s Commonplace Blog.” This new moniker is not a concession to anyone who things my blog is ordinary, dull, or easy to overlook (although it may be all three of those things). In fact, what I’m referencing here is the idea of the Renaissance commonplace book, a blank book in which literate men and women (mostly men) would jot down a collection of ideas, quotes, and information in one big jumble that they could take with them and share with friends. Sort of like Pinterest on paper. For a while now, I’ve been wondering how I could re-shape this blog into something a wee bit more focused. Finally, I realized the problem was with concept and not content. I love gathering ideas in jumbles. I love finding associations in things I wouldn’t have guessed were related. Hence the new name and new freedom to jot down things on instinct rather than to a plan. (That rarely works for me. I’m an absolute adolescent when it comes to doing stuff I feel like have to do.)

In a related note, I’m going to try to write smaller, more meditative posts on a more regular basis. I’m determined to do this because my good friend and fellow poet and essay writer (also former poetry editor of Mid-American Review) Karen Craigo has a new blog, Better View of the Moon, on which she posts every day, despite anything else that’s going on in her life. Her work is gorgeous, and the project inspiring. I want to try to be as dedicated–not to mention as flat-out great–as Karen. So I’m going to try harder to overcome my short attention span and wordlessness (those moments when I don’t have the energy or the focus to put words together) to get more out on the page.

The third thing–and, yes, this has been a slight distraction in my life recently–is that I’ve started doing book reviews! I now officially have a Goodreads page as well as a new, experimental site I like to call Miss Fickle Reader’s Roster of Unfinished Books.  In accordance with the Precious Seconds Rule (which, in case you need a refresher, is discussed here and here), I intend to write accounts of what happened that made me stop reading a book. These are NOT meant as reasons not to read the book (at least not necessarily). Much of the impulse to keep reading or stop reading has to do with the reader herself. The idea behind the roster is, instead, to see what takes readers out of a story, what sorts of issues trigger reader stoppage, etc. The whole thing may turn out only to be a tool for writers who are revising longer works. Hopefully, it won’t turn into a vehicle for raining author anger on my head.

So that’s the news from here in Fickleland. Now I have to go tend to Little Fickle, who came home sick from school. (He’s not terribly sick–naturally, he has enough energy to watch TV and play video games.) Cheers for now!

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Jan Hooks: A Guest Perspective

Believe it or not, the vast majority of people who stumble across this blog from outside the WordPress site and my own circle of friends and followers are people looking for information on Jan Hooks, the SNL alum who died last October. I’m guessing that readers who came to the site were searching for more details about Hooks’s cause of death and the changes in her appearance that first showed up in photos from around 2004. As far as I can tell, there is still no official word from family members on Hooks’s cause of death. On October 10, 2014, the Daily Mail reported that Hooks died of cancer, but sources for the article seem shaky: the only person named as a source is “the head of her building’s co-op board”; the rest are unspecified “friends” or “neighbors.” The next day, the New York Daily News posted a story in which two family members (Hooks’s brother, Tom, and Susan Morgan Brown, a cousin) declined to comment on Hooks’s illness. Later, there was an announcement that Hooks would be buried in a private service in Cedartown, Georgia. No more reliable news beyond this has surfaced–believe me, I’ve checked.

Since I’m still getting hits from readers who want to hear more or possibly discuss more about Hooks and her life, I’ve decided to re-post some excellent commentary on one of my former posts. Here, Brady presents some little-known details from Hooks’s life, explores some possibilities about what these details might mean but draws no firm conclusions. What I really love about Brady’s discussion comes at the very end: his thoughts on Hooks’s appearance express my own feelings far more succinctly and effectively than my own ramblings ever could. Thanks for the contribution, Brady! A virtual shot of tequila for you!

Jan Hooks has been laid to rest in Cedartown, Georgia. She lies in a plot between both her mother and aunt (who was also a kind of mother figure for Jan after the death of Jan’s mother.) In a span of 20 years, Jan lost four of the closest people in her life far too soon: her mother, her father, Phil Hartman, and her aunt.

Jan is survived by two brothers. One of them bought and set her up with her first laptop computer and cell phone around 2000 or so. She lived in New York City until the events of September 11, 2001 impelled her to seek a second home in Woodstock, NY.

Thanks to their work together on Saturday Night Live, she is often associated with Phil Hartman. Both were great friends and shared an incredible work ethic.

According to Mike Thomas’ autobiography of Phil Hartman, Phil lived and worked around southern California until his gig with SNL called him to NYC. From what I’ve been able to gather from internet searches, Jan traveled much further in pursuit of her career: Florida, Texas, Georgia, and California, before finally being noticed by SNL.

Phil bloomed late: most of his professional work as an actor and writer was doing radio voice-overs and assisting Paul Rubens while with the Groundlings. He was 38 when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. By comparison, in her twenties, Jan enjoyed a fair amount of television exposure through the Bill Tush Show, Not Necessarily the News, and bit roles in the comedies Wildcats and Pee-Wee’s Big adventure. Her memorable catchphrase, “There’s no basement in the Alamo!” is still used on occasion to express bemused patience with the clueless. She was 29 when she caught the big break with Saturday Night.

Being an actress and comedian was Jan’s first, best occupation. I don’t know if she ever did anything else from the time she left college. Phil was doing many things before stardom hit. Jan pursued acting foremost to the exclusion of all else. While he lived, Phil lost two wives through divorce and a father who lived a long life. He still had six other siblings to commiserate with. Jan lost more (close and direct relatives—and Phil), though she still had two older brothers she remained close to.

After five years with Saturday Night, Jan enjoyed two seasons on Designing Women,. But it was over too soon—much like her lament about the cancellation of the Bill Tush show after one season. 3rd Rock from the Sun seemed to be the sort of show she was made for, but Phil’s death, ironically, came at the very end of a story arc in the show and seemed to herald a steady decline in her career. I have no idea if she turned down work, or folks stopped calling her, or a combination of both. All I know is that Jan’s career after 1998 (the year Phil was killed) ground to nearly a halt. Her time with Martin Short (on his show Jiminy Glick, in the role of his wife, Dixie) was her last effort as a recurring character in a sitcom.

In the few interviews I’ve been able to find on the internet, Jan seemed fairly content with life after SNL. She was able to live independently, though perhaps modestly in comparison to other SNL stars. I believe she could have found more acting work if she wanted to. She was still able to support herself without it. She did have small roles on several shows in her final years. I’m guessing, but I’d say Jan didn’t find professional work as rewarding after the death of her mother, her father, and Phil. Every big project she was involved with either ended too soon or, worse, was accompanied by tragedy. With no close family or close friends to share her successes (that I’m aware of, other than perhaps Nora Dunn), acting lost its appeal and she could take it or leave it.

And if she pursued something else, again, whom to share the successes and the joys with? Other than Kevin Nealon in the mid-eighties, I have no real knowledge of any other relationships she was in. I’ve read rumors that she and Phil were somehow together (I’d almost bet Phil’s wife, Brynn, thought as much) but have seen no definitive proof. But if Mike Thomas’ biogrpahy of Phil is any guide, an affair between them wouldn’t surprise me.

As to her illness, I’ve already mentioned that she smoked. At least, I think she did. She might have quit. One internet website has recorded 14 on-camera instances of Jan with cigarettes and cigars. Another website reported that she smoked to get the right tone for the voice of Angelyne for an episode of Futurama. At the very least, smoking cigarettes was not something she would shy from if the role called for it. She was familiar with the habit for that alone.

Some people have remarked on her weight gain and looks in her final years. Knowing nothing about her health during that time, I would say that it is at least common for people to gain weight as they age. People will often gain weight when they quit smoking, too, if they do not replace the habit with healthy ones. By comparison, we accept skinny-Elvis and fat-Elvis. Even skinny-Shatner and fat-Shatner! I’m willing to accept both skinny-Jan and “fat”-Jan and stand in star-struck admiration of her talent until the end—as Tina Fey did.

I have no idea what “happened” to Jan Hooks. I just hope that she knew how much a world of her fans admired and loved her—unconditionally.

Brady
Austin, TX

Good Quotes That Come from Bad Characters

If any of you Fickle Readers out there follow me on Twitter (@msficklereader in case you’re wondering!), you know that I love retweeting quotes from the various Shakespeares I follow. Here’s a tweet that came up today:

I am able to endure much.

I looked at that and thought, Oh, baby, that’s me. When you have a chronic illness especially, you endure a hell of a lot. Achy muscles and joints. Painfully cold hands and feet. A brain that doesn’t want to function. Then, because one of my big issues with Shakespeare is how his words get pulled away from their contexts, I decided to look up where this particular Shakespeare found this little tidbit of wisdom. Sure enough, it came from a much less noble source: Jack Cade, the batshit-crazy and ultimately incompetent revolutionary depicted in Henry VI, Part 2. Have a look at Cade’s self-absorbed pomposity in the scene where the quote comes from. All the characters are being mocked through their own actions, and the guy who’s the biggest target is Cade. Minor characters Bevis and Holland poke holes in his grandiose demeanor in a Stephen Colbert-esque way: the men agree with Cade, but they’re also idiots, and everything they say in support of Cade makes him seem more delusional and pathetic than his overblown speech already does. Of course, there’s nothing about the speech, the words Cade says, that cues you into his lunacy. But Shakespeare’s audience would have known about Cade’s failed worker’s revolt against King Henry VI and so would have realized what an anarchist asshole he was being made out to be.

So, the quote above isn’t really championing those who suffer and survive. In context, Shakespeare’s saying something more along the lines of, “You, endure much? Yeah, whatever.”

Another fun fact: this is also the scene where Shakespeare’s famous quip, “let’s kill all the lawyers,” comes from. Again, this isn’t meant to be taken at face value. Even though people back in Shakespeare’s day had as many Lawyers Suck! jokes as we do now, Shakespeare also seems to be saying, dudes, you of all people are going to need lawyers after this whole debacle is over.

My Life on Lupus: When Winter Comes…

Today I felt less foggy than usual. The sun was shining. That always helps, plus the knowledge that we’ve gotten over the holidays and (more importantly) the Winter Solstice. The season is on the upswing. The days are getting longer. Warm weather is just around the bend.

Today I saw four or five fat robins flitting around our backyard. They kept leaping up and pecking some invisible seed or bud off the naked branches of an unruly bush. My mother always thinks the first sighting of a robin is the first sign of spring. I don’t know that the robins ever leave us now, what with global warming and all. Last week when it snowed, I saw a little group–probably the same birds–across the street in a neighbor’s yard. They were scratching at the frozen ground, looking dazed.

The world feels a little happier now that the robins are leaping for their meals.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: Mid-Life Crisis Edition

Okay, normally I try to be nice. I know that’s hard to believe, but really, truly, I try not to call out everyday working writers on awful, awful mistakes, judgments, and opinions and instead try to focus on writing that inspires me. I’d rather save the bitterness of my little existence for comic self-flagellation and find work to share that makes me see the world in a new way.

But really, Pamela Druckerman of the New York Times, I can’t let your article pass without speaking out.

Granted, I love listicles, especially Great Wisdom Listicles. I love listicles that are little essays unto themselves, that have a little meat to them and aren’t just the entertaining little fluff pieces most of them were meant to be (that is, lists of anecdotes with no evidence backing them up). And I further love listicles that are relevant to me. So I was all set to settle in and find out What I Would Learn in my 40s, according to a New York Times-affiliated writer, a writer who’s living out her 40s in freaking PARIS, no less, which is absolutely one of the outcomes I would have chosen for myself and my family had I the option of giving the Fates my list of Dream Destinies. (Inspector Spacetime is becoming an excellent chef, and Little Fickle and I love eating and relaxed lifestyles. I’m sure we Fickle-Spacetimes would have done great.)

So I start reading your article. It’s late at night. Things are going great. Then I get to this passage:

The existing literature treats the 40s as transitional. Victor Hugo supposedly called 40 “the old age of youth.” In Paris, it’s when waiters start calling you “Madame” without an ironic wink. The conventional wisdom is that you’re still reasonably young, but that everything is declining: health, fertility, the certainty that you will one day read “Hamlet” and know how to cook leeks.

Excuse me, Ms. Druckerman? Did you just say that, out of ALL the books that exist on the planet today, out of ALL the books that people are expected to read in their years of education and being well-read adults, you could actually picture a world in which your example New York Times reader who has made it to her 40s has never read Hamlet????!!!!

HAMLET??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

No, seriously, this was just a lapse, right? You were probably drowsy from your long day of consuming fine wine and coffee and cream-laden foods, and just meant to say “the certainty that you will one day read Anna Karenina,” isn’t that right? Because as a New York Times-affiliated writer, you surely know that the entire text for Hamlet only takes up about 350 pages of a paperback–which is about as long as the first two Harry Potter books, far less long than Game of Thrones (817 pages), and even less long than Gone Girl (422 pages). You surely know, too, that, since many of the lines of Hamlet are written in verse, the text is far less dense than a novel, and that even with the difficulties involved with understanding Elizabethan English, the average 18-year-old could likely read Hamlet in less than a week. You know that Hamlet has been the most esteemed book written by the most revered writer in the English language for at least 200 years, that bits of Hamlet have been included in English schoolbooks since the 18th century (check the contents of William Enfield’s The Speaker, published in 1774, that was meant to help students learn elocution, if you don’t believe me), that some of us readers of the New York Times have also read Hamlet far too many times to count. You know that the average citizen of the Western world often can’t go a day without bumping into some line or passage from Hamlet. (Hell, “To be or not to be” and its iterations alone must pop up in some god-awful huge percentage of modern advertising.) That said average citizen probably reads or hears a couple of pages of Hamlet every year based on chance encounters with pop culture.

You know all of these things, Ms. Druckerman, right?

Right???

And you really think that somewhere out there, there’s a New York Times reader who has somehow avoided reading Hamlet?

Dear God…

you’re not really saying, are you, that, as a New York Times-affiliated writer, you’ve

NEVER

read

Hamlet?

 

I…I’m not sure of anything anymore.

 

 

Memories of Purple

“We’re all stories in the end.”

“Doctor Who,” new series, season 5, episode 13

Went to my husband’s stepmother’s mother’s funeral today. I don’t know what that makes me to her. I think the only time I ever saw her in person was at my wedding almost ten years ago. But I did hear a lot of stories about her, mostly from the Inspector’s stepmother, Daisy, who fretted a lot about her mother’s living arrangements, her failing physical and mental health, and (in a refrain of resentment all too familiar) her constant disapproval of everything Daisy ever did for her. Even as she was dying, Daisy told me last weekend, her mom was lucid enough to berate her for all the pain she was in. “Now, you have to do something about this, Daisy,” mimicked the daughter in a voice that bristled with the scorn that Daisy’s mother always seemed to relay. “I want to get up. Reverend, you do something. My daughter’s no good.”

Of course, there was no way Mom could possibly get up. She was dying, and although Daisy thought she was much more together, mentally speaking, than she had been of late, it sounded to me like the only awareness Mom had was that she wanted something her daughter wasn’t springing up and providing. Same as always, except that was the last time Daisy spoke to her mother. To the end, mother and daughter sparred, and while I tried to say something consoling to Daisy about how the mind with dementia works in mysterious ways (i.e., trying to soften the blow of how Daisy’s last interaction with her mother was full of the same negativity they always had toward each other), I feel like I missed what Daisy was trying to tell me, some sobering bit of knowledge that you only come to at the end of a loved one’s life. The day after our conversation, Daisy’s mom was gone.

So today I went to Daisy’s mom’s funeral. I didn’t quite know how to prepare for this moment. I found my wedding lipstick–yes, I still have lipstick tubes from ten years ago–and so I wore lipstick for the first time in God knows how long. The Inspector and I drove to the funeral, which was at a nearby Catholic church where the priest seemed controlling and dismissive. (Not the family priest, I soon found out.) Then we went to the reception, where suddenly all these stories came pouring out about Daisy’s mother and what a class act she was, how she had a wonderful sense of humor, how she never went to college but gave herself a good education by reading books and newspapers, how her best friend from grade school became a cloistered nun and how she kept up the friendship for decades by going to visit every week and chatting with her best friend through a barred window (oh, there’s some hefty symbolism in that image, for sure), and how Daisy’s mother’s favorite color was purple.

I had a friend who worked at my college library when I was a work-study student there. She was a full-time employee, middle aged, married, always smiling, making the best of things. I worked for a little while in the area after I graduated. Right before I went off to graduate school, this friend was diagnosed with colon cancer and had an operation to remove the tumor in the hospital down the street from where I was living. (I was renting a room from a rather loony live-in landlord, who would one day paint her house purple. But I didn’t know that at the time.) Because the hospital was down the street, I got up the courage to go see my friend from the library. I brought her a card, because that’s what you did for people who were sick. On the cover was a field of lavender growing in a forest, under a cloudy sky. I wish I knew where that picture was now, because Jeanine loved it. She said that, coincidentally, she really loved that color combination, the purple and green together. And that was the kind of person Jeanine was. At one point, she looked up and gave her husband the sweetest little smile. They seemed happy, and at that point in my life I knew very few married couples who were happy.

I hope they held on to that happiness for as long as it lasted. The oncologist couldn’t remove all the cancer, apparently. Later I learned that Jeanine died almost six months exactly after she was diagnosed, just as the doctor predicted.

I’m not telling this story or the story of Daisy’s mom (now, on my blog, her name will be Lavender) to be morbid. Actually, I really liked that Daisy’s family took time out during the reception to publicly tell stories about Lavender. There’s really so little of us that sticks around after we die. The amount shrinks as time pushes you further back in history. So the stories are important, you see. Even letting go of the bad ones and indulging in a little revisionist history is okay, especially when your parents are involved. You’re re-fashioning the story so that everyone can keep going. You’re letting the dead survive. You’re helping yourself move on.

(And who knew Steven Moffat was a believer in the God of Stories? I’m totally getting that epigram engraved on a bracelet.)

 

The Goddamned Writing Life: A Question of Time

This year, I can honestly say I have never been happier that the holidays are over. That’s no mean feat, either. When I was in grad school, especially when I was teaching, I never really got to enjoy that thing called the Holiday Season. I was always trying desperately to get all my grades in before zero hour at whatever college or university I was working at. Once grades were done, I usually had somewhere between two and four days to shop and wrap and prepare to leave to visit family, usually my parents. Now, though, I’m a mom and not a teacher. Moms are required to come up with special memories for their kids: making lists for Santa Claus and decorating Christmas trees and baking cookies and whatnot. I didn’t get the cookie-baking done this year, but we did manage to get a Christmas tree together and play some festive music. For a few minutes, at least, the first floor of our house managed not to look like a closet.

Now, it’s time to put the holidays away in the Fickle-Spacetime household. We should have our tree up for a few days more. That’s always nice. I have a hard time letting go of things, and our tree is especially pretty this year, with its new string of jewel-tone lights and all the cute retro ornaments. Once again, our dining room table looks like it belongs in the post office. Once again, there are heaps and heaps of boxes and toys everywhere. But hey, there’s always crap to clean. Now, thank God, there’s finally time to write!

Right?

Yeah, that’s the thing about writing. Even when you have time, there’s never enough time to do what you want to do, finish what you want to finish. That’s the way it’s always been for me. When there’s no time, I grumble about how many projects I want to start, how many books I want to read, how much research I could get done. When there is any little amount of time, the pressure to use those free moments, that half a day, that couple of hours together late at night, increases exponentially. One story isn’t enough–no, I have to draft five story ideas, or maybe I should be looking into that poetry contest I saw when I was dicking around on Twitter (because I’m too nervous to do any writing). Which path should I follow? Why am I so freaking slow?

Somebody, for the love of God, TELL ME WHAT I SHOULD BE DOING WITH MY TIME!!!!

In a perfect universe, we’d have some sort of button we could press that would stop the universe while we completed every project we felt the urge to complete. But then that probably would mean all writers would simply disappear from existence, because we’d all be sitting in our chronos-immune chambers frantically scribbling and pacing and bitching to one another via ansible that there’s just not enough non-time in our time-suspended states to really get anything done. And then we’d poke around until we could find an old version of Minesweeper and fritter away our lives until we forgot what brilliant works we were supposed to be creating.

Yeah, I think it’s time to do some serious frittering right about now. Goodnight, Internet world!