Reading Anne Lamott

When I can’t think of what to write, I sometimes write about writing.

Math teacher Mr. Mirobito – named “Bito Bug” by my fellow sixth graders at Trinity School in Manhattan in 1975 – would punish his student transgressors (Loud Talkers, The Disobedient, Homework Shirkers) by requiring them to write a 500-word essay about the inside of a ping pong ball.  This was supposed to be excruciating, but there were some, of course, who found it quite fanciful.

032431craigpj.jpgNow, looking back, I think it could potentially be an interesting exercise, not that I would want to go against Bito Bug and incur his wrath with this assignment.  Bito Bug, by the way, was also the name we gave to the creations we made of plastic drink cups at lunch, tearing up their lips and bending the slats frontwards and backwards, making fascinating looking insects that crawled across the 8-foot folding tables of the lunchroom.  As a further aside, when you Google “Bito Bug,” you’ll find only the pedigree for a thoroughbred with this moniker in his name.

But, back to the subject, which you perhaps so innocently happened upon when you came to this blog, surfing tags on pearl snap shirts, Phoebe Cates, All Souls Unitarian Church, Point O’ Woods, or Puglia Restaurant’s very own – and quite awesome – Jorge Buccio.  I am quite intrigued by the inside of the ping pong ball proposition.  Only as a momentary mental exercise, mind you.  Lest you think that I will launch into an expose on same, I will remind you that I went to Trinity with soon-to-become professional wordsmiths who went on to write jokes for Arsenio Hall and movies for Pixar.  For these luminaries, the punishment became Golden Globe-winning screenplays.  I’ll leave the task to them.

OK.

Here’s a writing topic:  J.K. Rowling.  The first billionaire author, and one of five self-made female billionaires.  That’s a lot more interesting than the inside of a ping pong ball.  Carter wants me to start reading the Harry Potter series so we can discuss them, and I will of course acquiesce, because anything to encourage his literary interests, I will do.  But I can’t say that this series is top of my list.

I am finishing Anne Lamott’s “Grace (Eventually),” which I am enjoying very much, though I do not agree at turns with her politics or stances on social issues, and though I find her snipes occasionally to be gratuitous.  But I saw her at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago as part of her tour for the book’s release in paperback.  It was pouring rain, the kind of rain that takes out the crease from your newly pressed grey slacks in the course of one street crossing and makes you pi#*ed off that you don’t travel door to door by car anymore as the more civilized if less-well-read suburbanites do.  And I barely got a seat with three hundred of my closest friends on the fourth floor of B&N’s Union Square store.  But there mounted the stage Anne Lamott, my hero (“heroine”?) – my writing hero, anyway – who proceeded to be as candid and funny and winsome and inviting as I have heard a speaker before.  As I stood in the line waiting for a quick hello and signature, I watched the couple in front of me gripe at Ann Coulter‘s book to their right, stacked five wide in the Current Events section.  The woman fingered the title, “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republicans,” and tsk‘ed at her lover.  Can you believe this crap? she practically screamed at her boyfriend, whose eyes lingered at the book’s cover.  And yet, she had no rejoinder to the blonde in the slinky black dress, silently taunting them from eye level.

Of course, I didn’t buy Lamott’s new book that night.  I am too cheap, and I had brought with me the copy that Karen gave me for Valentine’s Day.  But I wished I had brought also my copy of “Bird by Bird,” which the Lovely K had bought for me two summers ago.  I wanted to thank her more.  I wanted to encourage her more, which I hope I did, by saying, “I hope you keep on writing and writing.”  What I really wanted to say was, “Keep on telling the truth.”

For even when her politics tick me off, even when Ann Coulter has the hair thing going on and Anne Lamott does not, I am grateful that Lamott is telling the truth:  about her perspective, about her struggles, about her joy, about her faith.

photo:  CraigPJ

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"Telling the truth"

Yesterday in Pittsburgh International Airport I was steps away from one of my heroes. A true celebrity in my book. You’ll say “who?!” when I tell you her name.

Now, you need to know that I’ve been kissing distance from Sharon Stone, Tom Hanks, Muhammad Ali, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates – and was really within kissing distance to Cates (please see Young for Your Age) – Donald Trump (multiple times), Bette Midler, Bill Gates, P-Diddy, Senators, Congressmen, Susan Sarandon, Larry King, Matt Lauer, Barry Manilow, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Tony Randall, Andie McDowell (twice) and others. Cindy Crawford once stared at me from across the street while she was eating lunch at Isabella’s on 77th and Columbus. I am dropping all those names – and hopefully you were impressed – only to underscore the relative obscurity of Annie Lamott.

My writing hero.

Next to Victor Hugo, who is pretty much my all-time writing hero…or maybe Cervantes is…Annie Lamott stands out as the writer who has most influenced my writing and even led to my decision to publish a bunch of Lamottian-like essays in the form of Lullabye.

I was waiting for the plane back to Boston, and off the jetway came walking quite unnoticed to all the oblivious people around me…Annie Lamott. I was unsure at first, but then it was unmistakable. Shortish white woman with dirty blonde dreadlocks, crows feet around the eyes from a soul filled with laughter, baggy clothes. Knew it was her. And I was on the phone at the time with the Lovely K – who has neither dreadlocks nor crows feet yet has a soul filled with laughter – and I said, “Hold on a minute, honey, I think I see Annie Lamott.” She knows about Lamott, because she bought me a used copy of Bird by Bird last summer from Hastings in Kerrville, and reading it changed the way I write. “Good writing,” she says, “is about telling the truth.” All those movie stars were sort of cool to see up close for the curiosity factor, and it was kind of nifty to see the richest man in the world, but I was like shaking when I realized I had gotten that close to the writer who was so meaningful to me during the last eleven months. Still talking to K, I can’t think straight, and I get jittery.

I am star-struck.

So I kind of paused and ummed my way through the next few moments wondering aloud whether I should go after her, as she passed me by, and ask, “Are you Annie Lamott?” or, as I suggested to K, “Is your name Annie Lamott?” because if it wasn’t her, then the second question would make a whole lot more sense to a stranger and, after all, I don’t want to make a total a#$ of myself. (Of course, this is already a fait accompli on the other end of the line.) But as I was pondering and ruminating and umming and thinking way too much about it, Lamott disappeared down the corridor of B Concourse toward the people mover walkways and baggage claim. I told K, “Hey, let me hang up and go find her. I want to meet her.” So I shuffled off down the corridor, looking for her dreadlocks and baggy jeans and, finding none, I hovered around the outside of the ladies room about fifty feet from the gate, because the restroom is usually where I go first after deplaning, and I pretended to read my email on my PDA and study the departure board on the wall, very regularly peering up suspiciously at the doorway of the…ahem, ladies restroom. (TSA had probably trained their security cameras on me at that point.) But after a few minutes it was apparent that Annie Lamott had disappeared somewhere else or was doing business in there after which she would be in no mood to be accosted by a preppie, non-dread-ed Fan.

Dejected, I walked back to the gate, called back K, and while boarding some ten minutes later, I ask the agent, “Where did this plane come from?”

“San Francisco.” Where Lamott lives. So it was her.

I am kicking myself.

I look over toward the seats to my right and, I’ll be darned, there’s John Sununu slouching back in a blue suit and red striped tie loosened at the collar. I’m sure it’s him, and he looks tired and ready to get back to New England.

It’s a big letdown, seeing Sununu after Lamott. Because after all, it’s just John Sununu.

And how in the world did I get in a higher zone than Sununu?

photo: Mark Richards