we real cool

(1 november 2010)

the pile of important papers that i keep less than six inches away from the liter box is the organizational equivalent of my physical response to being a biographer.

a friend pointed this out the other day. look at you, trying to play it cool, she said.

i’m pretty sure it’s a bad act. i’m pretty sure she could see. i was totally busting out on the inside.

the problem is that while i know that what i’m trying to do is cool, and while most everyone i know who knows what i’m doing knows it’s cool, i don’t want everyone else knowing i know, because then they’ll know and i’d rather they not know in case it doesn’t pan out. if only i know i know how cool it is, only i will know how badly it blew up. you know?

you may have noticed how cool i was up there. in my use of the intransitive verb. my stubborn refusal to admit that i’m actually already doing this thing i say i’m trying to do.

it’s hard. being this cool.

way back in the early spring, when i was working for a fellow biographer, i went strolling down dearborn with a friend. i told him about her excitement. about how she was so enthusiastic about this project. about how she said i had to do it. NOW. when he eagerly assented, i recoiled as though he’d turned the cupcakes in my hand to snakes. much to my horror (and slight amusement), months later this is still my first response.

for the last eight years i’ve wrestled with the notion of how one becomes a biographer. now i’ve reconciled myself to the idea that maybe that’s what i should be- really, what i’ve been all along- i’m having the damnedest time owning it. and i’m discovering that my unwillingness to take myself seriously has an ocular manifestation involving, quite possibly, the most devastating eye-roll of all time.

an eye-roll so spectacular that it undercuts 15 years of study, a thesis, a $64,000 education, an archive of 379 magazines plus a 242 page book to make me look like an ungracious teen.

awesome.

i do not know why i do this. i do not know why i can’t stop. maybe because i am not a proper adult or because i’m a silly girl. maybe because sincerity is fearsome and failure is worse. maybe because i cannot take risks without first elegantly draping them in the fiercest possible sarcasm. or maybe i’m just being ridiculous. it could well be that simple. i really don’t know.

in the meantime, i play it cool. i keep moving forward. i try to exert facial control.

and, as though letters from the daughters of iconic american women came rolling into my house every day, i toss everything onto the pile on the floor, approximately six inches from the liter box. the pile that the cat has taken to sitting on as though it weren’t a book in the making but, rather, a throne.

2 words, 15 letters, 6 vowels

(21 october 2010)

mail from famous people is impossibly scary to open. the simple fact that it might have been caressed by famous hands or licked by famous lips (or more likely the hands and lips of those in their employ) lends such missives a distinctive fragility. as though they were highly bruiseable, like an infant or a thin-skinned fruit.

as the recent recipient of celebrated correspondence, i’ve observed that, when given the opportunity, people exhibit an extraordinary reluctance to handle said correspondence themselves.

i should be more clear. the correspondence they will handle. it is the envelop they fear.

thus, time and again as i’ve handed a letter over for perusal, it comes sailing back to me just as quick, with a brusque no, no, you do it- as though i am somehow more adept at these matters.

i’m trying to maintain a balance here, dancing on the fine line of being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of what i’m doing and underwhelmed by its actually happening. to this end, i’ve taken to storing the really really important things in a pile of papers on the floor located approximately six inches from the litter box.

so when a friend asks to see, i shove the cat from the paper pile by her bathroom and fish out the letter that has been requested. blowing off the litter dust that has lent it an antique aspect rarely found in mail less than three days old, i anticipate the no, no, you do it and slip the letter from its sheath.

i find i can only feel this- the excitement, the immediacy, the sense that things are really happening- through other people. i do not know what to make of the fact that there is so little wonder in it for me now.

and so i toss the thing to her as though it were a month-old us weekly and smile as her cupped hands catch it like a semi-precious gem.

and i watch her fingers run gently, reverently over the 15 letter name written in 11 pt., bookman old style, pantone 287 at the top.

no, no, you do it. yes, yes, i will.

the very great biographical importance of campaign finance reform

(17 october 2010)

let’s talk about campaign finance reform. because campaign finance reform is a very important biographical issue. personally, i heart campaign finance reform because i do not know how there was biography before campaign finance reform. i do not know how anyone ever found anyone- much less wrote and sent grandiose pleas to their homes- before campaign finance reform.

you see, in the interest of transparency, campaign finance reform has done this amazing thing. it has led to the creation of a database listing anyone who has ever contributed to any campaign. a database that includes addresses. thus, anyone who has made a sizable contribution since the 1970s is there in their full benevolent glory. and these addresses are now out there and they’re fair game.

privacy-wise, this is maybe not so great for those people, but biographically speaking, O.M.G.

and yes, i realize this is meant to be stamping out corruption and greed and whatnot and that really is great and all, but seriously, arrianna huffington, thank you from the bottom of my biographical heart.

process

(13 october 2010)

it’s amazing how easily people can be found. it’s easier than you’d probably ever imagine.

there is a biographer whom i need to ask a very important question. a rather famousy biographer whom i’ve admired since my mother wouldn’t let me read his marilyn monroe book because there was a nearly naked lady on the cover. thus, i had to buy it at walden’s during an unsupervised shopping trip at the cool springs galleria and read it secretly at school.

i have a very important question for this biographer but i have no idea where he is. thanks to wikipedia, i quickly establish that he is living with his husband in a small village an hour outside of copenhagen. by googling the hell out of his name coupled with danish villages i recalled from the regionstog, within 10 minutes i have not located the biographer but i have found the biographer’s husband’s work email address.

i promptly send the biographer’s husband a humble missive along the lines of “if you happen to know this biographer i am trying to reach could you please let me know how he might be contacted.” the unstated sentiment being: “dude, i know you’re married to him so come on and help me out.” 3 hours later, the biographer responds.

finding people is easier than you’d ever imagine. i now know this biographer’s hometown, wedding date, publication history, volunteer activities, sexual orientation, his stance on the death penalty and his husband’s work extension. which is funny because the biographer’s email address is his first name and his last name.

all that digging and all i needed was his names. which i had already.

family time

(14 September 2010)

 

I returned from a vacation in Denmark with a million dirty clothes, a heap of right-wing British political magazines, the world’s largest lollipop, and a slew of Jackie-related voice messages.

Three of them do not count as they were from my father, who deployed the family Caroline Kennedy voice in a series of comical weeeeeeeeeeelcooooooooomes and plaudits for my dediiiiiiiiicaaaaaaaaaaaaatioooooon and sprawling pleas that I meet him in the liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiibraaaaaaaaaaaaary.

(Yes, we have a family Caroline Kennedy voice and the family Caroline Kennedy voice is based solely on a speech Caroline Kennedy gave in 1979 welcoming people to the dedication of the JFK Library wherein the only thing she said was, Welcome to the dedication of this Library. Thus, the family Caroline Kennedy voice is strictly limited to topics surrounding libraries, dedications and welcomes- topics that, when one’s family has a family Caroline Kennedy voice, come up with surprisingly greater frequency than one would ever imagine.)

The remaining messages, however, were from actual Jackie-related people. Impeccably mannered with such sprawling WASPy vowels that every time this happens, every time I hear them, I almost want to cry. Because people talk like that no longer. Those voices, these accents, they are a dying breed.

The manners are of a different age as well. Even when they are unwilling to speak to me, still they call, their messages acknowledging receipt of my letters and asking that iI, kindly, leave them alone. A display of such politesse that it has on more than one occasion prompted my grandmother, a life-long republican, to commend the grand etiquette of “those dread Kennedy people.”

What we learn from these messages is that most people are, apparently, willing to speak to me. People who actually knew Jackie. People for whom she was not a tabloid construct or a character played by Roma Touched By An Angel Downey in a made-for-tv movie in 1992.

I assume they think I’m about 54. I imagine my youth will surprise them and that I will need to go easy on the eyeliner when we meet.

Because, by this point, I’m pretty sure we are destined to meet. So, you can see, it’s absolutely ideal that at this same point- thanks to an infelicitous rereading of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman– the prospect of talking to these people would suddenly be totally revolting to me.

I should be more clear. It’s not so much the prospect of talking to them, as I’ve done that several times without a hitch so far. It’s more the prospect of groveling at their feet, begging for scraps of information. Above all, it is the prospect of hurting their feelings.

Admittedly, in the face of Janet Malcolm’s distaste for any biographical endeavor that prizes an investigation of the dead over the emotions of the living, it would be challenging for anyone with an inquiring mind and a soul and a desire to wrench the family treasures from Jackie’s loved one’s hands not to feel a world-weary sense of moral decay. But still.

It’s a terrible time to develop a biographical conscience.

My friends who are historians all have their people, but their people are all old. They are all safely dead and their friends are too. There is no need for approval. No relatives to rise up with pitchforks, incensed. No lingering sensation of impending familial fury, as though each and every sentence put on the page were a step forward into literary leprosy, a future forever constricted by kennedy condemnation.

There is no one with whom I can discuss this. The delicacy of not pissing off Jackie’s college roommate. The least offensive means of approaching Caroline Kennedy and abasing myself for the family treasures. I know no one who knows how to do this, and so I bumble along. And so I will keep bumbling along until it’s done and done well.

Because it is Jackie. Because there has always been Jackie. And because, I know, for whatever reason- the feelings of everyone else be damned- I must not disappoint this dead woman I never knew.

oh mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones

(19 may 2010)

Like millions of former English majors working in borderline abusive secretarial jobs, I have written a book. It has not been published, which is pretty much the same as having not written anything at all.

There’s this book I’m meant to write. I’ve known it since before the other. And yet it is hard to ratchet up whatever it is that it’s going to take to write what’s next.

It is challenging to write a follow-up to something that has never been read.

That makes it sound far more important than it really is. It’s not the gospel or an epic or, heaven help me, Fiction. It’s just biography and it’s just Jackie- a subject that is the biographical equivalent to the beauty pageant answer “world peace.”

So in the large scheme of things like God and Franzen, it is relatively unimportant that there’s this Jackie book I’m meant to write. And it’s fairly inconsequential that this is THE Jackie book and that I really really don’t want to write it because it is an inferno of impossibles.

Because biography done well is a whole hard world of difficult and I’m not ready to fling myself in the abyss just yet.

These are all things I should have considered before mentioning this Jackie book to a fellow biographer; before casually tossing it out over the humus plate in the simple hope of garnering that amorphous credibility that comes from the respect writers have for one another’s as-yet-unexecuted Great Ideas.

It is a great idea so I was stupid not to have foreseen the explosion of enthusiasm its revelation would trigger. I should have anticipated the overpowering gung-ho.

There are three reasons why this project, this Jackie book- otherwise perfect- appalls me to no end:

1. It involves a language I do not speak.
2. It involves money I do not have.
3. It involves sources that do not exist.

Never mind that the few sources that do exist appear to be systematically dying as I approach them.

There’s an Elvis song entitled “It’s Impossible.” The actual opening lyric is “It’s impossible to tell the sun to leave the sky.” My family bastardized this line into the distinctly different yet equally truthy observation that “it’s impossible to stick a piano up your nose,” the sentiment that perhaps most accurately captures my feelings towards this project.

This Jackie book? It is a piano up my nose.

I do not say any of this to the fellow biographer when, three months later, she returns to the subject of the dreaded Jackie book. I do not tell her it’s a piano up my nose. Instead I nod and smile as she says Jackie book’s time has come. That it is a story that MUST be told. NOW.

It could be a documentary! A mini-series! A Sophia Coppola-directed feature film!

The fellow biographer tells me this and only then does she avert her gaze toward her falafel and drop the bomb for which I have been waiting all this time.

That it would be better were I an academic or an older, previously published white man (sadly, I am neither), Because there is no funding for girls like us.

A sentence that, just hearing it spoken, I know is going to be hell on earth to repeat to my parents.

When I do, a full week and a half later, my mother says- her voice fraught with the hope that her daughter is the reasonable, financially cautious young woman she was raised to be and an inkling that she probably isn’t-Well, maybe someday you can really do it, but the timing’s just all bad right now, right?

And I couldn’t help but laugh. Because though I’m a woman of few philosophies, the one I’ve held most dear is that one must imagine somewhat more boldly than may be socially acceptable and that when things are at their most inconvenient and impossible, that’s when they’d really best be done.

Which is essentially what the biographer meant when she said, We’re story-tellers and, really, nothing else matters when you’ve a story to tell.

So maybe this is it. Maybe Jackie’s time has come and it will be the year that- without French or funding and with sources dying right and left- I finally try to tell this story that all the older, previously published white men have inexplicably overlooked. This story that— I am quite sure— was left behind just for me.