Three years ago last month, I stood in a recording studio in Baltimore, reading generally upbeat personal essays from my first-ever collection. Do you remember early March 2020? Almost no one was masking yet. Some of us were bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, then joking about how paranoid we were. It was, to put it mildly, a strange time that was about to get a lot stranger.
It also was a time when only my closest friends were privy to the information that my life was experiencing a seismic shift. Again, strange, and about to get stranger.
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I had never recorded an audiobook before, but, not to brag — although, really, what’s so bad about bragging — I was pretty much a prodigy. My publisher had booked three days of studio time; I finished halfway through the second day. The weather was unusually mild; I walked home, a distance of 3+ miles, talking-crying on the phone with my oldest friend about the challenges facing me. My marriage, which had taken up half of my adulthood, was ending. My marriage was not my life, my life was not my marriage, but it was hard to face the unknown when everything was about to be the unknown.
My kid made this for me in spring 2020; it’s still up in my bathroom.
On March 14, 2023, I returned to the same studio to record a 13,000-word essay about what happened to me in the summer of 2022, an essay that will be released in May by Scribd. (I know, I know — 13,000 words! But the looooooooooong format is Scribd’s idea.) Obviously, I’m a very different person than I was three years ago. I assume we all are? At any rate, it was an opportunity to take stock.
tl;dr: I’m good! But I hope people will opt to read the longer version when Scribd publishes “The Summer of Fall.” I’m proud of the essay, which wrangles with a big topic, what I’ve been calling the age of decline.
I was relatively new to personal essays when My Life as a Villainess was published in summer 2020. While the title piece was written (but not published) in 2001, I had focused almost exclusively on fiction after leaving my newspaper job that year. When I told my family I didn’t think I would ever write a memoir, my sister said: “Can I get that in writing?”
Yet after my kid was born in 2010, I found myself flirting with the form more and more. An invitation to write about a beloved bar led to a rumination on how I “stole” my father’s favorite watering hole. When my friend Ann Hood asked me for a piece about knitting, I ended up using a Christmas stocking to explain my journey to atheism.
But it was only when I pitched an essay on older motherhood to Sari Boton, then at Longreads, that my life as an essayist really began. Thanks to Sari’s support and enthusiasm, I wrote about late-in-life parenting, leaving the cult of dieting, and my spotty track record as a friend. Those essays led to a book deal, with seven new pieces commissioned by my editor of long-standing, Carrie Feron at William Morrow. The final essay was called “Men Explain The Wire to Me.” It was an affectionate and singular story about what it’s like to watch someone close to you create a cultural phenomenon. I can still see myself in Nobu in summer 2019, pitching that idea to my editor and agent, laughing at the man on social media who had patiently tried to tell me, over and over again, about this great television show that everyone needed to watch.
By March 2020, I could not imagine ever writing a personal essay again. On the precipice of my second divorce, I felt like such a failure, just not in an interesting way. And while I have never believed that I owed the world every detail about my life, I did feel that the personal essay format required a kind of authenticity I could no longer muster. So when Laura Hohnhold, an editor at Scribd, popped up in my email that spring and asked if I wanted to write something for the site, I said: No, not now, maybe one day.
Inevitably — I have a terrible memory — the offer was forgotten. I continued to avoid the personal essay form, although I did write two short pandemic-related pieces where my relationship status wasn’t particularly relevant; you can find them here and here.Then, in the summer of 2022, a good friend asked in a group chat, Is anyone familiar with Scribd? I dug out my original email correspondence with Laura H. To her credit, she had kept circling back to me for two years, even as I kept insisting I had no ideas.
But — I had fallen down a flight of steps in June 2022, injuring my rotator cuff. Two months later, my mother fell down a flight of steps, fracturing her pelvis. I was pitching Laura H. an essay about falling, in every sense of the word, within four days of my mother’s accident. I’m not proud of this, but I’m also not not proud of this. Monetize your pain, people. Right now, I am trying to figure out if I can sell a piece about my beef with Baltimore’s parking enforcement officers, who gave me a ticket for expired tags AND THE VERY CITATION THEY ISSUED SHOWED I HAD CURRENT TAGS.
Yes, I’m a petty bitch who will take an hour out of my day to fight a $32 ticket when I totally deserved a $40 ticket.
As it sometimes happens with my personal essays, I needed to live a big chunk of the “falling” idea after I proposed it. The piece I filed in November 2022 was a snapshot of my life from May into October. In fact, it’s going to include actual snapshots when it’s published — selfies, photos, screenshots of DMs and emails.
I am on the record as a huge fan of the criminally forgotten A Novel Called Heritage, by Margaret Dukore Smith. Its young would-be novelist is advised by her mother to take advantage of every bad thing that happens to her. “Use it, Annie, use it” is a motif throughout the book, published a year before Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. Ephron famously said everything is copy, but I don’t agree, not completely. I have tried to be respectful of the people who, through no fault of their own, ended up as “characters” in my life — my kid, my mom, my sister, my friends, my trainer, my ex. (Kid and ex were both given a chance to read “The Summer of Fall” in advance.) I think I did a pretty good job, but I’m not going to lie: It’s a great comfort to me that my mother and sister have no idea how to use a subscription service such as Scribd.
Like approximately kajillion people, I listen to the podcast “We Can Do Hard Things.” There is an invaluable episode in which the hosts dissect the Christian/patriarchal underpinnings of the so-called Five Love Languages. They asked their kajillion listeners to share their singular love languages. One woman said: “My love language is being home alone, all day, maybe the dog can stay, but an empty-ass house.” I totally identify, I used to yearn to be alone in my house for a day or two. Now, since my marriage ended, this happens to me on the regular and, go figure — I LOVE IT. My kid gives my life shape, purpose, and existential meaning, not to mention unending joy, but I do not mind the occasional night off.
On a recent solo evening, I walked to a neighborhood joint, drank a martini at the bar while reading a book, then ordered the vegetarian pizza, adding pepperoni. (It’s cheaper to add pepperoni to the all-vegetable pizza than to create a pepperoni-and-vegetable pizza a la carte.) As I got up to leave, two young women at the bar said to me: “I hope you don’t mind if we tell you that you are GOALS with your martini and your book and your beautiful clothes.” (I was wearing a pretty cool outfit, most of it used, although I had topped it off with killer Celine sunglasses, my one big splurge on a recent Paris trip.) I didn’t mind at all. I laughed and said: “Are you sure? Are you sure this is what you want 64 to look like?” They told me they were about to leave for a seven-week trip through Southeast Asia, so their lives looked pretty good to me, too.
Later, I mused about their comments. There is a fear as one ages of being infantilized, rendered cute by one’s mere existence. (Thinking about the Rapping Granny, all those adorably lascivious 80-somethings in movies and TV shows.) (Yes, “Rapping Granny” alone ages me.) What was it about me that said GOALS? Was it my comfort at being alone? The martini? My (used) Prada pumps? My tendency to treat myself to spanking new hardcovers?
Frankly, I think it was the fact that I ate half a pizza by myself.
God, I’m healthy. Or not.
Read/Reading: Flight, Lynn Steger Strong; Pineapple Street, Jenny Jackson; Musical Tables, Billy Collins; How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell; Real Tigers, Mick Herron; Everybody Rise, Stephanie Clifford; Ozark Dogs, Eli Cantor.
Re-Reading: Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke; Eight is Enough, Tom Braden. (The death of Adam Rich sent me down the Tubi rabbit hole of Eight is Enough re-runs; the book is an interesting artifact on many levels, a time capsule of a kind of paterfamilias column that is no longer written, which is probably for the best.)
Typed (this is a new daily practice): 35 poems, some old, some new to me.
Me, me, me: Please pre-order Prom Mom. And if you want to read my essay, Scribd has a free 30-day trial, so you can bop over there on May 1 or thereabouts. But it’s a pretty good value for $11.99 per month. I’d say “Joe Bob says check it out,” but I don’t want to explain the reference.
Also, haven’t you heard? I am GOALS. Here’s what I was wearing the night in the bar, sources delineated below.
Lew Magram “vintage” 90s skirt via Poshmark via Maggie Lanham’s EXCELLENT Substack; Elizabeth and James turtleneck from thredUP; Nordstrom’s Halogen label duster from 2016; Prada pumps from Vestiaire; Bakelite bracelet from Etsy.
Interesting to read these pieces three years later. Also, it still makes me laugh that The Guardian misspelled my surname.
I was found “Not Guilty,” but no sympathy for this devil. I was, in fact, illegally parked, but the parking enforcement officer used the wrong code, flagging me for expired tags. I swear the judge was miffed that, unlike most people who plead “Not Guilty” in parking court, I prevailed and didn’t have to pay court costs despite being guilty AF. (They had a photo of my car.) Plus, I had an oddly great time. When one parking miscreant blamed the paucity of signage on her parking mistake, the judge said: “Is the city raggedy? Yes it is.” It may be raggedy, but I love it so.
Looking forward to Prom Queen. Will order from our local bookstore downtown.
Your photos of outfits made the crazy of lockdown and beyond bearable, along with September 2020 acquisition of Izzy the traumatized accidental mom of three kittens. She is here. They all have good homes a hundred miles away.
Deeply admire your Domino sign saga. Suspected the major life change. Appreciate that you chose to keep sharing other pieces of your life online. Thank you.
Older than you by some years. Decided to approach last year’s birthday by finding out just how much silver my head carries. Miss the never natural auburn sometimes, but not enough to go back to it.
To quote Steve Rogers (re Joe Bob) “I understood that reference!” Does that make me old???
And just speaking for myself, you are GOALS for everyone. I have been a fan for 2 decades and you just keep getting better and better.