Thursday, October 2, 2008

Paris to the Upper East Side

When I began blogging three years or so ago, I fretted initially about what the blog was supposed to be, what I was supposed to write about or how I ought to present it. I had kept a private journal for a decade, but almost none of that content seemed really suited to public dissemination. Out of the blue, I wrote to the now-vanished Derek Stubbs--someone I did not know, but whose fabulous blog I found after following some links and comments on other blogs--and asked my very general, half-formed questions. He was gracious enough to answer me in detail. And he encouraged me to just jump in and see what happened.

Over time I learned there are no particular rules which one need pay attention to--one of blogging's great banes and charms--especially if one weren't terribly concerned to garner a big audience. I did run across some "rules of effective blogging," virtually all of which I was, and still am, breaking: stick to a single topic, keep posts short, post regularly, etc.

Maybe it's because of so many years of diarizing, but I just don't have short & pithy in me (in case that weren't obvious). I tend to start in on a topic and before I'm done I have five pages. I guess I think of myself (or my style, or whatever) as more of an essayist than someone throwing out little bits on pop culture.

On my last couple drives to and from work I've been listening to Adam Gopnik's 2006 book Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York. It's a collection of essays, most previously published in the New Yorker, about Gopnik's return to New York with his wife and two children after five years in Paris. Gopnik was sent to Paris in 1995 by the New Yorker to send dispatches from there. Those essays were also collected into a book, Paris to the Moon.

The book makes painfully plain that HE is an essayist. THIS is what essays look like. He has a fabulous eye for the richness of life that lies beneath the visible surface and he finds connections between things that, to me, are not obviously related. One imagines him only half paying attention in any given circumstance as he furiously processes all the subtexts. Much of his writing focuses on his young children, and on how growing up in New York City affects how they see the world and themselves. His son was born in Paris, and his daughter too or just after their return to New York, and his impressions of Paris are still fresh in his mind. It makes for a great combination of a detached eye as he ponders the extremity and wonder of New York, yet he also brings the familiarity of someone who has lived in New York for many years and knows the city well. (It helps that most of what he relates about the city hits home with me; for my brother, the non-city-dweller, the book would have few charms.)

Most of the essays make reference to details in the previous essays, and he finds a depth and resonance in everyday things that makes me think that life is passing me by unawares. He writes about finding an apartment in New York, about the events of 9/11, of finding a school for his children, of a friend who is dying of cancer, of baseball and travel and restaurants and getting around the city. That his previous book covers many of these same subjects from the perspective of an American living in Paris gives these recent essays a deeper perspective. But it's the richness of life that surprises us; he finds a deep vein of material even in things where I fear, without help, I would mostly see mundanity.

When I was a drummer, I used to watch the late, great Buddy Rich with his band. His talent--really almost a freakish super-human-ness--made me feel hopeless and depressed at how good a person could be, at how many orders of magnitude better he was than I would ever be. And so it goes in all walks of life. There's a reason that Gopnik is on the New Yorker's payroll (among others), that he has books published. He's just really, brilliantly good.

If you love writing for its own sake--and especially if you love New York City (and Paris!)--I expect this book will resonate for you as it does for me.

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